Absorbing, humorous and written with a soft, almost confidential, way, the story of a Navy Officer’s quest to increase the knowledge about the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew is essential lockdown reading.
Right now all of us are in need of strong voices, that talk confidently of mental and physical fortitude, which guide us in how we can achieve our goals. Ernest Coleman’s book which details his four remarkable expeditions to uncover the truth behind some of the Franklin expedition’s biggest myths can help us get into that necessary expeditionary mindset and at the same time brigs and authentic light to this historical maritime disaster.
In tackling much debated explanations such as death by lead poisoning and cannibalism, Coleman is frank and straightforward rather than scholarly in his approach. This imbues the reader with a confidence in his common sense and capability (and rigorous testing of the written evidence) to present and interpret his findings.
Half travelogue, half history, half exploration log, No Earthly Pole is replete with its own sense of adventure and struggle. Before the book is half over Coleman half kills himself clinging on to a ATV trailer and becomes his own worst enemy during an isolated march across King William Island, where he ended up existing on hot chocolate and fisherman’s friends for ten days while he awaited rescue.
Getting followed by a film crew intent on making him sing at every possibility was another singular achievement. But that aside, there is also the endless cycle of expedition, followed by lecture tours, followed by fundraising, which is the tempo of this book. It is a realistic facet of all such memoirs of expeditions; that those who undertake them are necessarily locked into this pattern in order to forward their projects, the latter two being often more challenging than the actual expedition.
Not every expedition was a blinding success, and none could be considered outright failures, but most importantly, none were finished up without benefit. And that is an important queue for us to follow. The truth of all expeditions of a historical and archaeological nature is that very often a great deal of work goes into saying, ‘well, we know it’s not here at least.’
But Coleman’s hardships are borne with a true spirit of enterprise, for as Shackleton said, a man must shift his objectives, as soon as the last one disappears. It is how we move on. Yet sometimes peril and isolation can seem overwhelming. In one particularly striking moment, which can be used to exemplify the highs, lows, dangers and humour of this book, the author, alone and exhausted heard his own voice lulling him to lie down and drift into restful oblivion.
He fought this siren song off by debating the merits of, what was at the time a hot button issue for the Church of England; the acceptance of female ministers. Through rigorous debate he kept himself from harm, and his demons were put to flight, but he ended up deciding that he was against co-educational bible college curriculums. When, afterwards, he told a churchman of his inner struggle and how he overcame it, Coleman was told that to the mind of his correspondent, God seemed to have accepted that change was the best way, to which Coleman replied; ‘and who do you think I was talking to?’
I am writing this to tie into what would have been the 251st Birthday of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, on 1st May 1769.
A Disputed Birth
The birth of the future Duke of Wellington, in itself has some interesting nuances in that some facts are still disputed. It is widely accepted that the 1st May is his birthday, his own father and mother wrote that it was the 1st May and Arthur himself celebrated it on this day. However; the baptismal register of the Parish of St Peter, Dublin records Arthur’s christening on 30th April 2 days before his birth. One possible explanation for this was that, sadly 2 of the Earl and Lady Mornington’s children had died in infancy, including a Arthur Wesley (the family name was changed later to Wellesley in order to Anglicise it), who dies in 1768 aged 6 or 7. As such there may have been some haste to baptise their second Arthur (the future Duke of Wellington) with some haste, in case he should die without having received such a blessing. There was already a surviving eldest son, Richard Wellesley and a second son William. In the baptismal register it is possible, albeit less likely, that the parish officials did not know what the date was. There is at least a little likelihood that these records have been falsified, either intentionally or otherwise. The entry above is dated 23rd April and the entry following is dated 24th May; all are in the same handwriting.
There is also a dispute ongoing about the place of birth, Mornington House, Dublin, or Dangan Castle, County Meath, the two family homes, town and country respectively. It is almost certain that the baby Arthur was born in Dublin as this is widely agreed upon, however some sources exist about whether the family were actually in residence there at that time, because the house may have been in the process of renovation until the summer of 1769, which would put Dangan Castle, the family seat, as a strong contender, it was also where the 2 eldest brothers were born, which is often proposed by local historians and the tourist trade. Dangan Castle is now, sadly a “romantic” ruin. Other sources have provided over 9 different locations in which Lady Mornington may have been in May 1769 and given birth to the infant Arthur, but the family (including the 9th Duke) maintain now, that it was in Dublin.
“Food for powder”
It’s fair to say, that Arthur was not a natural student. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he was sent to Eton, but unlike them, he did not settle in naturally and was thought to have learnt relatively little. This young Arthur stood out from his brothers, who were already progressing in their careers, Richard was sent to Christ Church, Oxford and excelled as a scholar, William entered a career in the Royal navy as an officer. Young Arthur did have his father’s passion for music, Lord Mornington is thought to have composed some pieces (a dance survives in his name, though it could be dedicated to him). Arthur we know played the violin, like his father and grandfather before them and had hopes to be a musician of sorts.
It was Arthur’s inability to excel academically and fit into his surrounding that caused his mother to lament: “I vow to God I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur. He is food for powder and nothing more.” Powder referring to gunpowder, Anne, his mother thought his fate was to join the army and probably die in some obscure battle. She was at least half right. Shortly after starting Eton, Garret Wesley, the Earl of Mornington died, giving the family some financial worries, along with the title passing to Richard as eldest son. They decided to send Arthur at first to a school in Brussels, where he picked up French quickly, apparently speaking the language with a slight Belgian accent for the rest of his life. From there, a military career apparently chosen for him, he was sent on to France. It was in the French, Angier Military School that this young Arthur learnt the basics needed to become a Army officer.
By this point, with Richard having assumed the title of Lord Mornington and sitting in Parliament, William was commissioned in the Royal Navy and a elected Member of Parliament, younger brothers, Gerald Valerian was destined for the clergy with the youngest, Henry still at Eton, Arthur now found his natural habitat. The course at Angers proved not too difficult for Arthur Wesley, it consisted of, fencing, riding, dancing, French grammar, mathematics and the science of military fortifications. Arthur did well at dancing, fencing and riding, important skills for a young gentleman, he relaxed into the life, playing cards and walking his dog, a white terrier called Vick around the medieval town.
By the time he returned home in 1786, aged just 17, with the skills to equip him in a military life (along with being fluent in French), he agreed with his mothers derisory advice and embarked on a career in the army. He offered a commission in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment but the family used influence, to transfer him to the 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment with a promotion to Lieutenant and then a transfer to the 41st Regiment so he could take up duties in Ireland as the Lord-Lieutenant’s aide-de-camp based in Dublin castle.
It is from here the man that would be, Wellington, a Lieutenant of now only 18 years old began a life in the army full of bureaucracy and administration, which would lead to a political career and fast advancement which would see a brilliant journey as commander in the filed in Flanders, then India, before the now famous Battles of the Napoleonic wars.
A young boy, with little talent outside of languages, riding and music who would become, arguably the greatest military talent of the age, if not the greatest ever in Europe.
The Wesley family originally hailed from Rutland, England and moved (as the Colley or Cowley family in around 1500) they are described as Anglo-Irish, to label them as “Irish” would be anachronistic and unhelpful. With this Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington never did utter the quote “Though a man maybe born in a stable, that does not make him a horse” or words to that effect. This was probably said by Daniel O’Connell (‘The Emancipator’) or one of O’Connells close relations.
Wellington: A Personal History: Hibbert, C.
The Great Duke: Bryant, A.
Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814: Muir, R.
Wellington: the Place and Day of his Birth Ascertained and Demonstrated. Murray, J. (1852)
A difficult topic, but one that is often ‘dismissed’ by Francophile historians as too common, was the French Army’s behaviour towards the civilian population when it invaded a country. Here the focus is on Spain & Portugal, though there were cases in many other invasions, Napoleon had already encouraged his troops to loot and kill after sieges in Italy and after the siege of Jaffa he ordered thousands of captive civilians killed at bayonet point (in order to save ammunition) For examples in Russia see: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v31/n23/geoffrey-hosking/peasants-in-arms)
This is not to say that the British Army behaved angelically, though allied and invited to liberate Portugal & Spain from Napoleon’s aggressive expansionism. The retreat to Corunna in 1809 ‘remains a dark chapter in the history of the British army’ (Charles Esdaile), and the sacking of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian were abysmal incidents, which caused Wellington to fly into a rage and order the hanging of perpetrators on the spot. The differential factor is that the French were ordered to use the murder (and worse) and fear as a weapon as well as individual crimes and on the whole the British Army at least tried to convict those caught and Wellington was clear on harsh punishments for any crimes committed on their allies.
In the Autumn of 1807 Napoleon ordered General Jean-Andoche Junot along with over 24,000 men to invade the neutral nation of Portugal, to end it’s trade with Britain, which it refused to cease (this was an alliance with Britain which dated back to the the 14th Century). No military resistance was offered (The only resistance was offered by the governor of Valenca, who refused to open his gates to the northern column. He only caved in when he found that Lisbon had fallen and the Royal family had already fled to Brazil)
Junot was instructed to seize the property of the 15,000 persons who had fled to Brazil and to levy a 100 million Franc fine on the nation. As it happened, the refugees had carried off almost half of the specie in Portugal and the French were barely able to raise enough money to maintain the occupation army. Nevertheless, the harsh taxes caused bitter resentment among the population. By January 1808 there were open executions of civilians who resisted the heavy handed demands of the French. Meanwhile in Spain, King Charles IV, France’s supposed ally, was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, all of whom were held captive in Bayonne. The remaining children of the royal family were then forcibly ordered to join their parents in France. This led to a spontaneous uprising in Madrid; The Dos de Mayo. What followed was street fighting in different areas of Madrid as the poorly armed population confronted the occupying French troops. There were only a few Spanish military leaders involved, most of whom had been planning a campaign away from the capital and were caught unawares. The uprising was brutally put down by French Troops, street by street, famously having to storm a Spanish artillery barracks which was bravely defended.
The repression following the crushing of the initial rebellion was harsh. A special military commission was created on the evening of 2 May to be presided over by General Grouchy. This commission issued death sentences to all of those captured who were bearing weapons of any kind. In a statement issued that day Murat said: “The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.”
These initial executions against cooperation, as in Portugal, or reprisal killings, as in Spain formed a pattern for the French behaviour during the Peninsular War that followed.
As the Spanish uprisings became open revolt against their invaders and evolved into successful Guerrilla War, elements to liberate their nation, the French Army used murder and fear as a weapon, under orders and spontaneously alike.
There is far less detail given in French memoirs, on how they carried out orders to sack villages and spare no one (sometimes enthusiastically as the loot provided a chance for the soldiers to gain great valuables). Joseph de Naylies, a French officer (who later because a Captain in the Eclaireurs of the Imperial Guard) wrote, “we entered the town… which was immediately pillaged and reduced to ash… We burnt [it down] and killed everyone we found there”
Maurice de Tascher, another French officer, but who was related to the Empress Josephine wrote a more harrowing account of the sacking of Cordoba; 30th June 1808:
“The Cathedral and the sacred lives within were not spared, which made the Spanish look upon us in horror, saying out loud that they would prefer we violated their women than their churches. We did both. The convents had to suffer all that debauchery has invented and the outrages of the soldier given up to himself”
The Duke of Wellington wrote of the murder, thefts and worse: “The British people, I’m certain, wouldn’t believe the indecent behaviours of the French after their retreat. I have never seen, nor heard, nor read of such behaviour and am convinced their actions have no equal in world history. You will hear several shocking recounts which should be told to the world at large. They killed all the countryfolk they found. Every day, we found the bodies of women, young and old, who were either stabbed, or shot. Since we were near Condexia, they regularly sent patrols to fetch all girls over the age of 10 to the camp to satisfy the soldiery… Every child we met was in tears, mourning the death of a parent. The houses were systematically burned … They dug up and looted the graves. Two days ago, one of our patrols entered a village where they found 36 corpses, most of whom were in their beds…”
It’s worth noting that the British public and Parliament were already well motivated against Napoleon as a threat towards Britain. The fear of invasion was tangible, especially in London and along the South coast. Wellington was not prone to exaggeration, nor did he often write graphic descriptions of the war he witnessed (for example the aftermath of Waterloo so deeply upset him, that he refused to talk about it), so we can presume his writing is factual.
To the Romans, Jesus, known to them as Christus/Christos, was a troublemaker, and his followers were by turns anathema, evil and mischievous.
For it seemed to them a dark form of mischief making to try and reverse the shame of crucifixion, which was in itself also a promotion of Roman power over enemies of the state, and spin it into something to glorify and celebrate.
As the earliest non-Christian accounts of the followers of Jesus attest, Christianity was seen as only slightly less abhorrent than outright rebellion and a slap in the face to the ultimate power of the Roman state.
The first century AD historian, Tacitus minced no words when he wrote that Christians were evil. He felt that the execution of a man that was to him a complete nobody; a man less than an idea, had been necessary to temporarily quash what he termed a dangerous superstition.
‘Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,’
[Tacitus, Annales XV].
Many today who would agree, like Tacitus, that belief in Jesus is dangerous superstition, forget that Tacitus too believed in an unseen realm, controlled by forces beyond the reach of man.
Why then did the likes of Tacitus, declare the beliefs of Christians to be dangerous, evil and despised? Well I think, Tom Holland is correct in his hypothesis in Dominion that to the Romans, crucifixion represented not only the death of a rebel; painful and excruciating and a shameful way to die, but it was essentially to turn the condemned person into a pawn of the state, a temporarily live exhibition of Roman power.
Thus to glory in a crucifixion was to them incomprehensible, and to deify one who had undergone the most shameful and degrading of public deaths was to spit at Roman power and authority.
Disdain for Christianity’s apparent devotion to the crucified Christos was not restricted to historians like Tacitus, but also to statesmen and lawyers like Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113 AD.
It fell to Pliny to suppress Christianity in his province and wrote a famous letter to the emperor Trajan asking if his procedures for trying denounced as Christians were acceptable.
The majority of people could simply avoid punishment for defiance of the edict banning Christian worship by swearing to the gods of Rome, the deified emperor and offering wine to his image etc, however Pliny felt he had to question further some who said they had stopped being Christians after the promulgation of the edict.
‘Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition … the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.’
The ordinary people, especially in Rome, so it seems, were no less disdainful of the apparent absurdity of revering not only the victim of crucifixion but the cross itself as if it was the throne of a king.
A graffito found on the Palatine Hill in Rome, of uncertain date, (with estimates ranging from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD,) mockingly caricatured a figure gesturing at cross that bears a man with the head of an ass, with the words scratched in Greek reading: ‘Alexamenos respects god.’
The words of the 1st Century AD Historian Suetonius in his lives of the Caesars are firm on the matter of the legislation enacted under Nero, for amongst the many laws he says the emperor created was that:
‘Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition,’
Suetonius, Life of Nero.
and in his book on Claudius, he informed his readers that the emperor, hearing that:
‘the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [presumed to be a mishearing of Christos], he expelled them from Rome.’
Suetonius, Life of Claudius.
To return to Tacitus, (reporting that Nero had blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome,) who like Suetonius found the Christian ’superstition’ in Jesus to be ‘mischievous’ but also an abomination, continued that after the death of Christ, the movement:
‘thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.’
Notwithstanding a short break (what’s a millennia and a half between friends ay?), the Olympics has been a part of humanity’s story for the last 2800 years – ish. The start of the Ancient Olympics is usually attributed to the year 776 BC -that’s when the first Olympic Games took place in the town of Olympia; situated somewhere between the city-states of Elis and Sparta on the west coast of the Peloponnese. The first Games consisted of only one event, the Stade race, in which runners had to run 280 meters (or a Stadion, the word we derive ‘stadium’ from). The race was unremarkable, should 20 competitors decide run a Stade race today it would be remarkably similar to a modern sprint – other than the fact that male competitors would all be naked of course. Which would certainly make for some unflattering media coverage, or perhaps a 21st century resurgence of the Stade race would make the Olympics more popular than ever?
There are many other ways that the Ancient Olympics differ to our modern Olympics but this list represents by far the weirdest.
Only Men Could Compete
The Ancient Olympics was both primarily a religious event and also a strictly man only affair. That’s not to say that women couldn’t take part in their own sporting events – they could compete in the Heraean Games, though many of the finder details of this event have been lost to the mists of time – but they were forbidden from entering the Olympics. In fact, if you were a married woman you were prevented from even watching the Olympics. The punishment for ogling the jiggling glutes of the male competitors for a wed woman was severe, if you were caught you’d be thrown off a mountain.
That’s not to say that a woman never won the Olympic Games however. Who achieved this seemingly impossible feat? That would be a Spartan woman called Kyniska, daughter of the Archidamos. Rather oddly, the winner of a chariot race was not the rider, rather it was the owner of the horses who received the glory – enabling Kyniska to win the event, without actually being there. The rider – despite being in command of a rickety chariot pulled by four muscle bound horses over some 12 laps and 14,000 metres – received a grand total of zilch for their efforts.
They Were Stinky. Very Stinky
Today, a country fortunate enough to hold the Olympics must invest millions into creating custom built stadiums. Not only are they perfectly constructed in every conceivable way, providing the ideal environment for the athletes competing within them, they also offer comprehensive comfort for the spectators. Offering food, drink, seating and – most importantly – lots and lots of toilets.
The spectators of the Ancient Olympics had no such luxury, Every four years (that’s an Olympiad) over 50,000 people descended on the ordinarily virtually uninhabited Olympia (a few priests kept things ticking over but that was about it). 50,000 people sat in the hot sun with only a river to poop in. Just imagine the stench. Add to that the fact that 100 oxen would be sacrificed and burnt on the Alter of Zeus in the middle of the festival. There’s one thing for certain, no candle manufacturer will ever be making an overpriced candle infused with the scent of the Ancient Olympics.
A Dead Person Won the Olympics
The Ancient Olympics were a brutal affair, boxing and wrestling were much more violent than the modern versionwe are used to seeing on our televisions today. Though both these blood soaked spectacles paled in gore levels compared to Pankration – the mixed martial arts of the Ancient world.Pankration had only two rules, no biting and no poking out anyone’s eye. Other than that, anything went!
One remarkable account details the final fight of Arrhichionof Phigalia. Arrhichion was trapped in the vice like grip of his formidable opponent. Arms like steely vein covered greasy oil coated pythons were wrapped around his neck, and try as he might Arrhichion could not free himself. As his vision began to fade Arrhichion stamped as hard as he could on his opponent’s foot. The pain was so intense that this unknown fighter released Arrhichion and submitted. The crowd went wild, Arrhichion had overcame the odds and won. But while the crowd went bananas Arrhichion remained unmoving on the sand and dirt. He was dead.
That didn’t dampen the celebration however. Despite being very deceased, Arrhichion was crowned the victor and returned to Phigalia a hero.
More Gore than Ever Before
Arrhichion’s final victory was not the goriest event to take place in the Ancient Olympics, instead that honour would fall to the boxing match between Damoxenos and Creugas. In Ancient Boxing there were no weight classes and the matches were randomly picked. So you could end up with a bout in which one fighter had a significant size and weight advantage over the other. Which reportedly was the case when these Damoxenos and Creugas, two undefeated champions, went up against each other.
Damoxenos was a massive slab of humanity, whilst Creugaswas smaller but incredibly nimble. And a good thing too, with no boxing gloves fighters instead just wrapped their fists in leather; one punch from the giant Damoxenos would have levelled Creugas, and with no rules stating otherwise, the bigger man could keep on punching Creugas in the head – regardless of whether or not if he could defend himself. Either way power vs agility had led to a draw, meaning a ‘klimax’ was enforced. Here each man takes it in turns to hit the other with full force; this is an unprotected blow taking at their liberty. Like some sort of blood soaked penalty shootout the fight ends when only one man is left standing.
Creugas went first, he punched the bigger man in the head as hard as he could. But to little avail, Damoxenos just shrugged off the assault. Then it was Damoxenos’ turn, Creugus braced himself as this terrifying beast punched him with full force with straight fingers into the bread basket. Damoxenos clearly needed a manicure as his sharp nails ripped at Creugas’ skin. Damoxenos then ripped his fingers once more along Creugas’ abdomen, gutting the fighter like a pig and causing his innards to come tumbling out like meat and potato from a freshly bitten pie.
It was all over, Creugus had won. That’s right, Creugus. Damoxenos had been disqualified as the rules of the ‘Klimax’ state one punch at a time only. Sure, Creugas’ guts were getting a sun tan but it was all worth it for that laurel wreath.
The World’s Greatest
These days, in every Olympic event, multiple world records are smashed. Athletes are lucky to hold on to their world record for a decade but it would be unheard of for a competitor to hold a record for fifty years, let alone a hundred. Yet there was one ancient athlete who held his record for over two thousand years. Yes, TWO THOASAND YEARS. This phenomenal specimen of a Homo Sapien was Leonidas of Rhodes.
He first competed in the Olympic Games of the 154th Olympiad in 164 BCE, where Leonidas captured the laurel wreath in three different races; the stadion, the diaulos (a foot face of (400 metres) and the hoplitodromos (a diaulos where the runners wear armour – talk about exhausting!). He then went on to win these three events over the next three consecutive Olympiads. Bear in mind that in the Ancient Olympics there was no second of third place, you were either a winner… or a massive loser.
This astonishing act, of winning twelve individual Olympic victories, was unmatched until 2016; when Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, one his 13th Olympic Gold.
Adrian is a co-owner of Imagining History workshops. Imagining History provides educational history workshops for primary schools that captivate and entertain.
Their interactive sessions combine role-play, storytelling, demonstrations and drama and performance to bring history to life for students.
Malinche was no traitor! Moctezuma was a cynic! The Spanish couldn’t have won alone! These are just three of the storylines that you’ll encounter in the epic graphic novel, Aztec Empire.
Historyland fired off seven questions to one of the creative team, Paul Guinan, and this is what they fired back. Highlighting some of the process that goes into visual storytelling and the key elements of this larger than life adventure.
Q1: Out of such a huge story that is mostly written down, what goes into choosing the best most narratively communicable scenes, the scenes that transform words into pictures?
Many of the cues are provided by dramatic moments that were recorded as history by both sides—those are obviously key scenes. For some other scenes that aren’t as well documented, I have to extrapolate more, based on researching each culture and consulting multiple sources. I also look for ways to show scenes and historical facts from a different perspective than other visual narratives have done. For example, our story opens in Tenochtitlan with the Aztec military leaders, which is a visually splendid scene, instead of starting with the Spanish perspective.
On a more humanistic level, even though the Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures are so different, the people we’re depicting share some aspects of a universal human experience. There are emotional dynamics that we can still relate to 500 years later. Those can be key character moments that help bring the story alive.
Q2: Currently you have 5 episodes on the website, what do you think the end extent of the series will be?
It is planned as a 50-episode story, each episode being 10 pages—so around 500 pages, plus endnotes. It’s an epic story! We’re posting it free online to get the story out there and build an audience. Eventually it’ll be published in print. And there will absolutely be a Spanish edition!
Q3: In terms of scholarship the story can be interpreted in a few ways, obviously you are going with an relatively original and up to date interpretation to tell the story. Can you give us an example of how your interpretation will differ from one of the better known parts of the story?
Recent research and scholarship has changed our whole understanding of this story. As just a few examples: In our series, Moctezuma does not think Cortes is a prophesized return of the divine Quetzalcoatl, and the Aztecs don’t think the Spaniards are gods. Malinche (aka Marina), who was Cortes’ main translator, does not “betray her people.” The Spanish didn’t win out because of superior technology, but because of local alliances. There’s a lot of mythology to be deconstructed.
Q4: In researching these characters, was there anything about them that surprised you or that you realised you had taken for granted?
Yes, I found characters who have been completely ignored by history. Hugh Thomas wrote the “gold standard” book on this historical event in the 1990s, Conquest, and yet he doesn’t mention Moctezuma’s Council of Four. One of the Council was married to Moctezuma’s daughter! Thomas’ tome is extensive and authoritative, but it still took the prevailing Spanish-centric perspective. He gives detailed information about Cortes’ captains, but nothing about Moctezuma’s closest advisory group. In Aztec Empire, by contrast, we meet them in the very first scene.
Q5: Have you encountered any negativity so far resulting from long held stereotypes of ‘Noble Savages’ and ‘Black Legends?’
As you might expect, there have been a couple of hot takes about this series on social media, from people who didn’t understand the level of research that’s going into this project. Negativity has been blessedly rare, though. Anyone who takes a close look at the work, including my bibliography and extensive illustrated endnotes, will see I’m trying to be as fair-minded and inclusive as possible.
Q6: Is this novel being illustrated digitally or traditionally? And how did you decide which medium to use.
I draw tiny “thumbnail” sketches of each page to structure the plot, done with a good old-fashioned #2 pencil on plain paper. I then do layouts, also in pencil, which I turn over to my co-artist David Hahn. He does most of his penciling traditionally, but does some of the architectural drawing using digital tools. He inks most of the pages physically or “on the boards.” After that, art corrections, lettering, and coloring are done digitally. We enjoy old-school techniques, but we use digital tools for expediency.
Q7: If you could choose a moment of your novel to see in the flesh which would it be. Actually, I’ll be kind and ask for your top three moments to see in the flesh and we’ll wrap up the questioning.
The three most significant events in this story have an epic tableau involving thousands of people, any of which I’d pay to see in person:
1- The first meeting of Moctezuma and Cortés in the kaleidoscopic city of Tenochtitlan. A massive procession on each side, all resplendent in their finest outfits. Tens of thousands of spectators surrounded the spectacle, most in decorative boats, since the Aztec capital was an island city.
2- The Spaniards’ frantic escape from Tenochtitlan, known by the Spanish as the “Sad Night” and by the locals as the “Night of Victory.” When the Aztecs finally rose up against the invaders, Cortés and his men tried to flee with as much gold as they could carry. Around a thousand Spaniards fought their way out of the city in the rainy night, under constant attack. Many of them were killed, and nearly all the gold was lost.
3- The Battle of Otumba: The final chance for the Aztecs to defeat the Spaniards. Tens of thousands participated in this battle, which turned the tide for the Spaniards. After this success, they were free to lay siege to the Aztec capital. The end had begun.
History and illustration go hand in hand, they are indispensable to each other. Among the ancient kingdoms of Central America, the tradition of visual storytelling was strong. The murals and carvings, annotated by speech markings and writing, form some of the most important aspects of Mesoamerican archeology and muralist art is central to Mexican culture to this day. This offers a pleasingly symbiotic dynamic to the decision to tell this epic Mexican saga in a graphic way.
Aztec Empire is a graphic novel of grand proportions. Unlike other treatments of the Conquest of Mexico it does not create a fictitious character. Instead the creators have chosen the difficult task of popularising the actual story.
Actually, Mayan, ‘Incan’ and ‘Aztec’ subject’s have always been popular amongst cartoonists due to the beguiling blend of real and lost history, allowing artists and storytellers to create worlds and cultures and that few people have imagined but also draw on historical and archaeological evidence. None however have told the story like Aztec Empire.
In itself the Conquest of Mexico serves as a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Especially since it has been refined and simplified down to a well oiled narrative package, full of drama, romance and legend over the last 500 years.
Apart from following the fortunes of a wide cast of characters, whose lives are to be found in records rather than the imagination; (spread over three years of some of the most important complicated political and military events in the 16th century,) a clear, exciting & nuanced story has to be delivered.
The difficultly lies in the attachment people have to the accepted story, (those legends I mentioned earlier,) and the empty spaces, and unexplained events that are to be found in the records that even rigorous scholarship fails to agree on.
The popular conception of the Conquest of Mexico is one of greedy and bloodthirsty Spaniards emerging from the murk of the old world, bursting onto the glittering wonders of the new world to conquer the tragic but ‘barbaric’ Aztecs who thought they were gods, until their civilisation was destroyed and Spanish rule established.
Aztec Empire attempts to tell the story that has been extracted from these levels of myth, propaganda, hearsay and folklore over the last hundred years. Utilising a commendable level of scholarly discipline, the creators are ever eager to tell the tale of their journey and share sources. This version challenges long held beliefs and prejudices. In so doing the creators are bringing a new face to this epic tale that has not been popularly seen before.
Episode one moves quickly in order to get the reader into the story. As such a great deal of cultural ‘backstory’ is referenced and it has the feel of a prologue. Indeed I get the sense that this term might be used for the bulk of the episodes now available.
Though some might be disspointed that interesting characters like the Spanish castaways and their lives amidst the Mayan people of the Yucatan had to be quickly summed up, we must recall what this story is actually about. In that sense the buildup handles the speed well, and the scenes have been equally well chosen, delivering texture, easily believable history, and good exciting atmosphere.
Nothing enthrals like a battle, and the early fight against the Mayans of Tabasco in episodes 2 and 3 offers the creators an excellent opportunity to flex their storytelling muscles. The action is handled well, the images and text communicate easily to the imagination. This is helped by the impressive detail the team has gone to, in selecting heroic, absurd, significant and brutal scenes to portray, drawing the reader in and demonstrating that when the series locks a specific episode to a central theme it delivers.
There is no doubt that the series begins on a fairly tough note. A battle followed by the repercussions for the women of the defeated side. Because despite the winning artistic style this is essentially a pretty grim story.
From what has been hitherto released you have a grand chunk given over to a gritty battle and another episode which at its end involves a HBO style exploitation scene.
Then there is a smooth transitional episode which eases you into the patreon pay wall. The free portion ends on 21 June 1519 with Cortez sailing up to the island of San Juan de Ulua and Mexica emissaries preparing to investigate the appearance of the foreigners. More than enough of a buildup to wet the appetite for the rest of the story.
Unquestionably Aztec Empire is a rigorously researched project, undertaken by talented artists and writers, who care deeply about the subject. It has a strong and compelling sense of story, time, and character. Much more than that cannot be said at this stage, the work is ongoing and the progress can be followed on the website. What is obvious from the episodes that have so far been posted is that this graphic novel is packed with promise. If it continues at this level, Aztec Empire is sure to become a classic.
One of the best rooms in the British Museum, London, is what I like to call the Room of Turquoise and Stone. A capsule of pre-Columbian Mexican History. Here are some of it’s highlights.
Guardians of the East Stairs.
One of the many mid century fusions of diplomat, explorer and writer was a man by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was among the first to write detailed English descriptions of the Mayan sites during the 1840’s and his companion in adventure, a British artist and architect named Frederick Catherwood was the first to visually record them on paper:
‘It is thirteen feet in height, four feet in front, and three deep, sculpted on all four of its sides from the base to the top, and oe of the richest and most elaborate specimens in the whole extent of the ruins. Originally it was painted, the marks of red colour being still distinctly visible.’
John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. v I.. 1841.
Despite his detailed descriptions, which inspired later explorations of the sites, Stephens admitted that it was annoyingly difficult to find out any verifiable history regarding them.
The question, who built them?, never by any accident crossed their minds. The great name of Montezuma, which had gone beyond them to the Indians of Honduras, had never reached their ears, and to all our questions we received the same dull answer which first met us at Copan, “Que sabe?”‘
John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. v I. 1843.
Que Sabe would remain the question until modern scholars cracked the Mayan writing system but the lure of ‘lost’ cities proved irresistible and in the decades that followed.
Years later the explorer, and archaeological pioneer, Alfred Maudesley became known in the scientific world because of a five volume treatise called Biologia Cantrali-Americana. Published in 1902 it described many of the most important Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and represents the fruit of his life’s work.
When Stephens and Catherwood made their explorations they relied on detailed drawings and written descriptions but, Maudesley could rely on the use of camera technology to document his findings.
He also made detailed casts of the extraordinary sculptures he surveyed, made by expert plaster modeler, Lorenzo Giuntini. These were carefully packed and crated to be shipped off to museums in Europe and North America.
Two of Giuntini’s grey plaster Stelae from Copan confront you at the foot of the British Museum’s East Stairs. Their labyrinthine intricacy is offset by the simple intensity of the noble faces of the rulers, staring down at visitors with solemn imperturbability from either side of a wide doorway, barred to all except staff.
Room 27: The Mayans.
As far as the galleries of the British Museum go, room 27, housing the Mexican exhibits and accessed by a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, (they themselves being decorated with Mayan stelae) is an intimate space.
It’s dark, illuminated by the spotlights that reveal the objects on display. The selection showcases the sophistication of the early civilisations of Mexico, ending with fabulous mosaic items from the Mexica empire.
But first we return to the Maya. The writings of the Mayan civilisation have taken 150 years to read. It is only recently that scholars have been able to decipher the tantalisingly neat pictograms blocked into plaques and wall paintings.
A great aid scholars used in breaking the Maya code was the painfully rare codex’s, a tracing of the ‘Dresden codex’ which document’s the remarkable astronomical sophistication of this civilization.
Works of art as well as vital historical documents, the linguistic legacy of the Mayan civilization stands as one of it’s greatest achievements and is as equally inspiring and complex as the most graceful European calligraphy or Egyptian equivalents.
Not even the Mexica (anachronistically known as the Aztec) people, who came to rule central Mexico, knew who the builders of Teotihuacan were. The name means simply, ‘place of the gods.’
Sitting in the company of multiple ceramics and precious objects this fragment of a Nebaj style jade plaque must have been made for a very important individual. It draws the eye at once, as if the speech sign emanating from the Lord’s mouth was calling to you directly.
Along the far wall, under the geometric ceiling, which gives the impression of a portico, late Classic Mayan door lintels from a royal structure in Yaxichilan, Chiapas, hang for visitors to observe.
Rated without exaggeration as amongst the finest works of high Mayan art, it is hard not to be moved by the power exuding from the succeeding cut stone images. Among the most understandable is Bird Jaguar IV dominating a prisoner, holding him in thrall as much by his ferocious stare as his spear.
In another lintel (not pictured) Shield Jaguar the Great looks on as his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, threads a thorned rope through the tip of her tongue in a bloodletting ceremony. Try thinking about doing that without flinching.
Although it must be admitted that the British Museum’s Mexican Collection is tiny beside that of Egypt and accumulated by private means and by early archeologists rather than soldiers and tourists, the methods by which some of the items were gathered leaves something to be desired.
Addressing the Royal Geographic Society in 1883, Maudesley displayed one of the lintels now hanging in room 27 and described how he came by it:
’The other difference [to Tikal] is an important one, namely the employment of stone instead of wood for lintels. Many of the these lintels are carved on under the surface and I have succeeded in bringing to England one of the best preserved of these carved stones. I took it from a half-ruined house, where it had fallen from its place, but was luckily resting with the carved side against the wall, and had thus been protected from the weather. The stone, when I first saw it, weighed about half a ton, but by keeping the men constantly at work on it with the point of a pickaxe and some chisels which I had luckily brought with me, at the end of the week we had chipped it down to half it’s original thickness and cut off the two ends. Afterwards … we cut it down to it’s present size with hand-saws.’
Explorations in Guatemala, and Examination of the Newly-Discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta A. P. Maudslay. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1883), pp. 185-204 (26 pages) JSTOR.
Though all of the cities that formed the classic Mayan civilisation ceased to be a meaningful political entities by the time of the 15th century, a great Nahuatl speaking power grew in their stead in the valley of Mexico.
Room 27: The Mexica.
The heart of the British Museum’s Mexica Collection are the Turquoise Mosaics. A selection of nine intriguing and sometimes disturbing works of religious, royal and historical significance, there being only 25 Mexican mosaics in Europe.
Famously the Mexica placed great importance on ceremonial masks. This one, with its studded turquoise face, and frozen grimace stares out from a darkened glass case.
It depicts the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and probably something out of your more vivid nightmares. This particular mask might even have played a part in some of the great moments of Mexica history as high quality masks like this would most certainly have been worn by the Tlatoani on the occasion of his investiture.
Safely locked behind glass under watery lights that play softly on their subjects, the turquoise fractals gleam with otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, quiet menace.
Not far away, the tarnished design on a shield-like object, never meant for war but for ceremony, suggests the four quadrants of the Mexica world in almost unimaginable detail.
Beside the disc is a finely made atlatl, or spear thrower, a small device a hunter or warrior could use to project his weapon great distances towards his target. Such weapons were commonly included in religious and royal iconography and this one appears to be uncommonly well made.
Highly significant but at the same time quite reluctant to offer any definitive clue as to it’s significance, the painstakingly inlaid double headed serpent represents the pride of the nine Mexica Mosaics in the British Museum.
The skill and craftsmanship involved in making and detailing this object is breathtaking to think about and due to it’s uniqueness it might be considered one of the most important pieces in the museum’s entire collection.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.
Gabriele Esposito takes a brief look into the armies of the Boshin War and Satsuma Rebellion in Osprey’s latest Men-at-Arms title.
The author is nothing if not flexible in his subjects, Esposito has covered topics as varied as roman legions, South American proto-Armies and now he has moved to japan.
The necessary overview of the years following the Perry expedition is fairly by the numbers and too simplistic regarding a massively complicated political situation to be terribly diverting.
That being said, except for making the faux pas of acknowledging bushido on a number of occasions as the ancient martial code of Japan before Inazo Nitobe invented the concept, he is only guilty only of being a tad derivative.
Nevertheless we must remember that the book is small and strictly military and the subject is ten times more vast, especially to an author who is inexperienced in the field of late Edo period Japanese history.
That is probably the main letdown of this book; it tries to cover the armies of two wars. This is often possible with MaA titles but with this one it’s difficult.
For instance, it is quite possible to do a small Osprey book about the Boer Wars (as has been done) because by and large it’s easy to keep track of the basic organisation and look of the armies.
But the Boshin war alone you are dealing with at least five main military groups (not counting the armies of lesser domains and ronin groups) with attendant ‘regular/disciplined corps,’ old fashioned feudal militias, rebels, and police units, artillery, some cavalry and naval forces.
All of whom differed from the other in some way or another in size, organisation, equipment and uniform, if they wore one. By the time of the Satsuma Rebellion, a measure of simplification had entered the picture, but not enough to simplify the matter.
As a result this title probably should have been made into two titles, Japanese Armies of the 19th century (1) The Boshin War, etc.
The sections dealing with the armies are interesting for the brief but often useful surveys of various armies, as all MaA’s are, while at the same time being slightly irritating because of the necessary brevity.
Usually one would go to the bibliography to see if these gaps could be filled in yourself. Here we can see that the author has offered a ‘select’ list.
The list, select as it is, can be observed as numbering quite enough material to write this entire book from, and speaking from experience I must cautiously ponder if the author has suggested all the pertinent and necessary books one needs to understand the socio-political-military events at hand.
It does nevertheless include a handful of works that are necessary to study early modern Japanese armies, and which due to their scarcity command crippling prices for hobbyists and non-scholarly writers is another attraction of this book, being an affordable reference to people looking for a window into the military side of these wars.
Men-at-Arms titles have traditionally been focused on brief surveys of the conflicts at hand, followed by hefty plate commentary. In the early days half of the book could be taken up by the description of the artwork. Today about 4 pages at the end comprise this element.
This book tries to balance two fairly broad and lengthier sections of background history and then further tries to summarise the organisation of some of the main factions. In former times larger books, from the Warrior and Elite series’ would be the ones that focused on organisation, leaving Men-at-Arms to focus on uniforms and weapons of a specific war.
In terms of the plates there is little to be complained about, Giuseppe Rava has painted some highly skilful pictures, filled with his usual eye for moment, atmosphere and action, with a good splash of his trademark weapon towards the viewer dynamism.
Interestingly at least 90% of the images reproduced here come from ‘public domain/Wikipedia.’ These easily viewable pictures are of course fascinating, but they are equally intriguing because I wasn’t aware that publishers like Osprey encouraged authors to utilise Wikipedia as an image source.
The commentary fills in a few of the gaps left in the main text, but I don’t doubt that many will raise eyebrows at the picture of a Rebel Satsuma samurai in full armour when despite some paintings at the time, armour had more or less become uncommon on the battlefield.
Not only that but I suspect that the subject is wearing a form of 12th century Ō-yoroi harness, common during the Gempei War, at a time when the armour of the Sengoko Jidai (the last period in which battle armour was widely worn for combat) would have been considered heirlooms.
Another thought that crossed my mind was that although the commentary tells us a little information about the forces of Aidzu, there is no representation of them, nor of Tosa. It also could have been a missed opportunity to depict officers of Tosa and Chōsū wearing the distinctive Shaguma headdress rather than giving it to a member of the Shinsengumi only.
This period was a formative time for the Japanese army. It was indeed it’s birth, a look at the roster of general officers from the Boshin War to the First World War will reveal a great number of them with connections to the southern clans who’s modernised armies formed the bedrock of the imperial faction.
As a reference book, this will be a handy and engaging one to have, but with the knowledge that it is necessarily limited in it’s level of detail and may not have a great deal to offer for a reader that is already well versed in the early military history of Japan.