When Britain Almost Invaded México.

The Mexican Expedition of 1861.

Charles Lennox Wyke, British Representative In Mexico.

The long war of Mexican independence had left the country in a greatly fragile state. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, with a large army to pay, her once lucrative trade revenues dropped dramatically in the years that followed the expulsion of the Spanish. Sinking into an economic depression, rife with faction, alone and vulnerable with no allies to ensure her independence, Mexico decided to attempt to gain European interest by applying to one of the great powers for a loan. They, in response, were pleased to open the account.

Unfortunately, this did not take into account Mexico’s instability. The country had no taxation system to speak of and despite successive regimes promising reparation, continual strife meant that what money could be gathered got spent on internal matters. Mexico’s debts rose and foreign merchants and Mexican Citizens lost property and money as opposing forces sought cash to pay their troops. It got so bad that repayment of the Mexican debt proved to be a political topic of great discussion in Britain, France and Spain during 1861.

British representatives in Mexico had been working hard to try and achieve some kind of workable plan with multiple treaties being signed between 1842 and 1851 but to no avail. Mexico was consistently unable to raise the money. Calls for troops to be deployed to intervene in Mexico’s domestic problems and restore order were ignored. Although the British government was interested in the welfare of the country and wanted to see a stable government implemented, which was in the best interests of everyone. No one in parliament wished to make Mexico a protectorate or fight a costly war of intervention.

President Benito Juarez.

Britain’s Western relations were tense in the 1860s. There had been two war scares with the United States between 1859 and 1861. Once during a boundary dispute on the Canadian border, known as the “Pig War” and another when the U.S. Navy illegally seized Confederate diplomats sailing on RMS Trent. Both times cool heads had prevailed but on the wider stage Whitehall was disinterested in further large scale colonial adventures. Britain had only just got out of a conflict in China, and there were similar calls to protect British interests in Japan and New Zealand. A war without a firm goal in a country as destabilised as Mexico was not on the cards. 

Between the loss of Texas and the year 1850 the Mexican nation went through a period of violent turmoil and anarchy. A series of revolutions and counter revolutions had wrecked the already fragile economy. Then in 1846 the disastrous American war, which ended in 1848, saw a chunk of territory comparable to the size of Western Europe, including gold-rich California, lost to the United States. Not unsurprisingly a civil war then followed, between Liberal Republicans and the Church conservatives, known as the “Guerra Reforma”. 

On 1 January 1861, (the Liberal side having won the war) Benito Juarez, a 54 year old country bred Zapotec lawyer from Oaxaca became president of Mexico. After removing his enemies from positions of power, including sending the Spanish ambassador packing, his response to the debt crisis was to call a moratorium. The pending payments, now amounted to some $80 Million, parcelled out between Swiss banking houses, Spain, France and Britain. Britain making up the main injured party with unpaid bonds and damages valued in excess of £69 Million.

General Juan Prim of Spain.

In September Spain suspended diplomatirelations in response to the ejection of her representative & urged France and Britain to do likewise. Infuriated Anglo-French representatives, Saligny and Wyck wrote angry letters to Juarez warning that if the moratorium wasn’t lifted then they would break off relations with Mexico. The Spanish went so far as to press Britain to form a coalition that would invade Mexico to obtain redress.

In the United States, President Lincoln, was unsurprisingly jumpy about the idea of European powers messing around South of the border with large armies and fleets. American ambassadors in Mexico City and London were empowered to take action. Thomas Corwin told the Mexicans that the USA would take responsibility for the debt, via a large loan, with the understanding that if reparation was not made in 6 years, all public and mineral lands in Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora and Sinaloa would be forfeit to the United Stares. In London, ambassador Francis Adams informed Prime Minister Earl Russell that if European powers got embroiled in the Americas, the United States would likewise freely embroil itself in Europe. The British tacitly agreed that an intervention was necessary but also played for time, they told the Spanish to wait and see what the French would do. 

Admiral Graviere of France

The French question was soon to resolve itself. As leader of one of the three principle nations tied up in 
Mexico, Napoleon III was watching events closely. The emperor was an adventurer, and all too happy to go galloping off in search of windmills to joust, especially if they furthered his imperial fantasies. After Juarez suspended the debt payment, Napoleon was eager to get involved in Mexico, not just for the money but to create a Mexican monarchy with a French puppet, Saligny wrote encouragingly that 4-5,000 European troops could take the whole country. Napoleon however felt politically insecure without British involvement, as the nation with the largest grievances. 

On 31 October 1861 representatives from the three powers signed the London Convention which laid out their intentions to obtain redress from Mexico but firmly asserted that they would not try to take territory or usurp the government. The plan was to occupy Vera Cruz and from there coerce Juarez to pay up, although a coordinated effort was desired, the Spanish sailed from their nearby bases and took the port on January 17 1862. Spanish troops held it alone with 6,500 men, until the other allies arrived. The Mexican army withdrew from the coast at the arrival of the Europeans, who now in total numbered about 12,200 men.

The British force was small compared to her allies. 4 ships of Dunlop’s Squadron, two armed with heavy Armstrong guns and with between 400 and 700 Marines specially selected from the Plymouth Division aboard, backed up by double that number of sailors, who would form large Naval Brigade battalions if necessary. Dunlop’s numbers swelled briefly once they reached the West Indies in January 1862, and then receded back to their starting number. The navy, as the empire’s main trouble shooters in matters of this sort, had been chosen to undertake the operation alone. Once at Vera Cruz the three powers went about seizing the customs house and threatening to invade the interior of the country. The snag was that Dunlop, in conversation with the French admiral Graviere at Havana, had become aware that they were there on different missions.

Both the Spanish under General Prim and the British wanted to reopen negotiations with the Mexicans as quickly as possible. However Graviere insisted that the first objective was to assist the people of Mexico in forming a monarchy. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had been aware of Napoleon’s crackpot idea to foist the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexicans, and had warned his representatives to take no part in the scheme unless the Mexican people wished it, and even then to not advance inland unless specifically ordered.

The French were under the opinion that there was a large monarchical party in Mexico and entertained Conservative party members, even though the British were arresting them, causing tension to rise in the European camp. After meeting with the secretary of war, General Zaragoza, and with no clear idea of how to proceed in one accord, the three powers sent their demands on to Mexico City, but yet again the excessive demands of the French derailed the scheme. Mr. Wyke correctly observing to Lord Russell that they were calculated to render acceptance by the Mexican government unacceptable. France was spoiling for a fight. Juarez tried to plead his country’s woeful financial state, and asked that the three powers return their troops to their ships.

There was however a pressing problem due to the buildup of troops and the advancing season. The climate would soon become unhealthy for the Europeans stuck in Vera Cruz, and negations were opened to allow them to move out to higher ground to avoid being decimated by the diseases that would find them on the low lying coastal plain.

In February the Soledad convention agreed on the various towns in which the Europeans could enter, and the limit to which they could advance. The British were still adamant in not advancing inland, while 3,000 French reinforcements drifted in to augment the 5,000 already there and so outnumber the Spanish. The Mexican flag was raised over Vera Cruz and the customs house handed back over. If negations were to break down the Europeans should “return to Go” at Vera Cruz, and 100 men from each nation were to garrison the city. The British contingent likely stationed at the fort of San Juan de Ulloa. It was hoped that the extraneous forces would be sent back to Europe.

However the treaty of Soledad was more an agreement between the three powers than one between them and Mexico and the problem still remained; how to obtain the money from an almost bankrupt nation without provoking a war. The way forward was marred by France’s belligerence and separate agenda. In an attempt to rein them in, Spain and Britain threatened to pull out if the French did not stop fraternising with the conservatives, as it was contrary to the convention of Soledad. They did not stop.

When exiled conservative Minister General Almonte arrived and proclaimed a monarchy. The bemused Wyke and Prim asked what government he was representing in declaring this. Almonte replied that he had the confidence of France, and the last straw broke.

France broke off negotiations with Juarez, Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Doblaño warned the French that a move to overthrow the Republic and impose a monarchy would be strongly resisted, and invited the British and Spanish to discuss matters. Unwilling to back down, on April 16 France declared war on Mexico and urged its citizens to rally to the French tricolour in order to form a stable government.

General Prim and Admiral Dunlop condemned the action most strongly, much to Doblaño’s satisfaction and applause. With France in open violation of the treaty of London and the a Convention of Soledad, Britain and Spain could not justify their presence in Mexico any longer and withdrew. British representative Mr. Wyke however had finally found a temporary solution to the debt problem that had kept 700 marines cooped up for 4 months at Vera Cruz.

He simply managed to get the Mexican Government to agree to sign a convention that promised to begin paying their debt out of the illusionary loan of $11 million offered by the United States. As a result it would be years before the subject of repayment could be once again revisited.

The entire expedition was predicated on the idea that Mexico could pay the debt, or would promise to do so, and would not continue to resist an in the face of an armed intervention. When both of these assumptions proved false the entire thing went belly up, not aided by the less than inspired plan to impose an Austrian archduke, promoted by exiles like Santa Anna, as a resumption of the house of Moctezuma, on a hastily constructed throne propped up by French bayonets. 

With the exit of Spain and Britain, Mexico declared war on France. The red trousered French regulars marched into the interior to begin “The Mexican adventure”. A conflict that would see, the early Republican victory at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo 1862, the last stand of the French Foreign Legion at Camerón, Mexico becoming a short lived protectorate of France, and the tragic execution of the reluctant emperor, Maximilian I. But it is nonetheless fascinating to think that in 1861 Britain, of all places, skirted close to an invasion of Mexico.

This post first appeared on the Britannia Magazine Facebook page in 2016.

Relations between Great Britain and Mexico 1820-1870: Yusuf Abdulrahman Nzibo.
Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War: Mark Wasserman.
Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico: M. M. McAllen
Hansard Archives, Mexican Affairs. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/…/jul/15/papers-moved-for
Times and NY Times excerpts retrieved from Victorian Wars Forum thread http://www.victorianwars.com/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=8113

Guest Post: Who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome?

By Adrian Burrows.

Illustration of two empresses, courtesy of the British Library Flickr Page. We associate Rome with power but who actually held the most power in Ancient Rome?

Who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome?

How do you define power? That’s a difficult question to answer, certainly within the confines of this short article. So, for my purposes, power is being able to exert your will and have the maximum amount of people follow your instructions. In Ancient Rome then, there are a great many contenders for the title of ‘Most Powerful’. 

At its peak, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire was vast, covering a jaw-dropping five-million square kilometres. https://allthatsinteresting.com/height-roman-empire-map Just to put that in perspective; the Roman Empire was the equivalent of 1.4 Billion football pitches. They’d have certainly needed a very well inflated pig’s bladder and a team compromising of giants in order to set up a quick game of five a side. What is so impressive is this empire was ruled with a communication structure no more advanced than a lot of straight, flat roads.

The ruler of the Empire at its peak was the Emperor – in this case Trajan, soon to be handing over to Hadrian on account of a severe case of premature death* – who was responsible for some sixty five million people. https://www.unrv.com/empire/roman-population.php So, The Emperor had near incomputable and incomparable power. His will could, quite literally, change the course of history. Yet, did anyone have power over the Emperor? You could arguethat both the people and the senate had a degree of influence over the Emperor. After all, an Emperor is still only human and a great many of them received their comeuppance for miffing off the wrong people.** They also spent a fortune keeping the people entertained – and pliant – with Gladiatorial contests and other sporting events. However, I would argue that the group of people who had the most influence over the Emperor were the vestal virgins.

The Vestal Virgins were a group of six hand-picked women who were responsible for the maintaining of the perpetual sacred flame kept in the temple of Vesta. This was an incredibly important duty as it was believed that should the flame be snuffed out then Rome would fall. These sacred maidens had an unparalleled position of power amongst women at this point in history; this did not have to marry, they were not the ‘property’ of any man, and their position enabled them to wield significant religious and political influence. They could also, according to Alexandra Turney of Through Eternity Tours (https://www.througheternity.com/en/blog/history/vestal-virgins-in-ancient-rome.html), “own property, vote, and write a will. They had the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves. A condemned man on his way to his execution only had to catch a glimpse of a Vestal Virgin to be freed.”

The extent of their responsibility and influence can be seen by their punishment if something went wrong in Ancient Rome.We can see an example of this in the BBC article ‘Ancient Rome’s Maidens: who were the Vestal Virgins?’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/18490233

“Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on a failure to maintain Vesta’s fire.”

Yet, I would argue, that an opposite case could be made. If the failure of a failed military campaign was the fault of the Vestal Virgins, then conversely a military success was due to their divine influence. To go a step further, if the Vestal Virgins were to decree that a military campaign was destined to fail, then could anyone, even an Emperor, disagree? Let’s take a look at a few examples of this. Pliny the Elder – the Roman naturalist, author and philosopher – wrote in Book 28 of his Natural History:

“At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.”

The Vestal Virgins had the power to convene with the gods and, even more impressively, the gods would listen to and be influenced by their words. More importantly, the people of Rome believed that they had this divine gift. This isn’t just regular Emperor power, this is super hero level power. If Gegania, one of the first Vestals, were to crop up as an Avenger in the next Marvel film then absolutely no-one should be surprised. The vestals had a power to wield such influence as to change the political landscape. To think that the Vestals wouldn’t take the regular opportunity to put this power to practise would be naïve.

For example, the Vestals interceded and saved Julius Caesar from Sulla’s proscriptions. Sulla was, at the time, the ‘dictator’ of Rome and the most powerful man in the city. He had a list of enemies of the state who, through his proscriptions, would be killed or banished. Julius Caesar’s name was on this list – his demise was certain. That was until the Vestal’s stepped up and saw that he was granted pardon. The Vestals had stood up to the most powerful person in Rome, in the midst of his punishing and pretty psychopathic political pruning, and been victorious. 

That’s is not to say the Vestal’s were untouchable however, they, like anyone, could be toppled. This was often done through the aforementioned scapegoating or through besmirching of their character. The punishments for Vestas put into this position were severe. Rules prevented Vesta’s from being killed or harmed but these restrictions were averted by effectively burying them alive.*** 

Yet, what power comes without severe risk? And what power the Vestal Virgins had. Who else could bend an Emperor, and by proxy 65 million Romans, to their will?


*It really was a severe case of premature death. Trajan died of a suspected stroke in the city of Selinus. His adopted son Hadrian took on the mantle of Emperor who, along with his father, is considered one of the ‘good’ Emperors.

**Emperor Caracalla had it pretty bad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards whilst having a widdle at the side of the road. Worst bodyguard ever.

*** In 114 BC the Vestal Mercia was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb – not a good way to go. Though in the historical records the frequency of such a heinous punishment was rare, most Vestals retired after a thirty year service and enjoyed a rather generous pension.

About Adrian Burrows:

Adrian is the co-owner of Imagining History School Workshops – an organisation dedicated to bringing the very best history workshops to primary schools across the UK. You can find out more at www.imagininghistory.co.uk or follow them on twitter at @imagininghist

Book Review. Killing Napoleon by Jonathan North.

Although I don’t agree anyone can read about the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars without being aware of the royalist opposition to both, I do admit that there is a widespread delusion that Napoleon was a beloved and cherished leader.

Fanatical loyalty to the emperor did indeed exist, but an equally fanatical element opposed him and everything that had occurred since the overthrow of the monarchy.

This is best exemplified in the attempted assassination of Napoleon in 1800, the subject of this book by Jonathan North. The first Consul, as he was then, was nearly the victim of an indiscriminate explosion that was detonated as his carriage drove by.

Fate intervened to spare Napoleon a martyr’s death and the Napoleonic Wars were destined to play out in all their collective horror. North’s book is about recreating this dramatic event that almost changed history, and examining the effect it had.

North does a good job of retelling the story in the vein of a thriller novel, loading a relatively short book with detail. Sketching out the characters, their motivations, the political and cultural scene right down to the place the ‘Infernal Machine’ was laid.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed the book in many respects, and found it on the whole very interesting and detailed, I was unable to get past the author’s opinion or spin that this was an early example of a terror attack.

Many people interpret ‘terror attack’ and ‘terrorist’ differently. To my mind these are modern terms and have no real equivalent in the early 19th century. My interpretation of terrorist is an individual of a political group that is intent on bringing about a certain political result through violence against the public. 

It is a fine point, for the elements of this event bear strong resemblances to modern terrorist attacks. However the would be assassins, though uncaring about who died in the explosion, were really after one target, Napoleon, they were not out to terrify the public. 

There was also never a concerted, conscious campaign of violence directed against the citizens of France exterior to course of conflict in western France, which was a civil war between royalists and Republicans not relatable in practice to modern terrorist activities.

The attempted assassination of Napoleon was similar to a terrorist attack, but in spirit quite unlike one. That aside I thought that ‘Killing Napoleon’ was an interesting and entertaining read that sheds light on an important moment in the history of Napoleonic France.

Until the next time, Believe me: Josh,

Book Review: Richard the Lionheart by W.B. Bartlett.

I very much enjoyed Bartlett’s book on King Cnut. It was a very incisive work that offered a different view of medieval England. However in starting his new biography of Richard the Lionheart I was set very quickly on my guard.

To begin with Bartlett is a writer attempting to create readable and engaging history, which involves giving snappy, sharp opinion and lively narrative, but in so doing he is faced with the issue of conveying alien concepts that were once seen as normal to a readership over 800 years removed, without the taint of personal opinion.

 In the prelude, Bartlett is constantly striving, or advertising, the need to view the life of Richard I in a 12th century context. I will be honest and say that this is becoming an increasingly overused trope, necessary as it is to employ. 

It is so easy to publicise a book as different because it apparently looks at things as they were, yet miss the delicate point at the heart of this argument. This has caused an oversaturation of self righteous rhetoric where, ‘we cannot judge the past by our standards’ is also code for ‘you are wrong, I am much better informed.’ It is becoming close to drowning the legitimate point with facile argument.

It however signifies little except to reassure us that the author has this in mind. Nevertheless it also brings with it the vague and unspecified charge of out-of-context study against practically everyone else’s work. A brave inflection when one considers that John Gillingham is still alive. I doubt Bartlett truly means to accuse medieval scholarship of failing to make allowances for dead culture, but the inference is nonetheless there, and if not aimed at other scholars it is certainly aimed at his readership.

With that said it is undoubtedly true that the history of the life of Richard I is a labyrinth of personal prejudice. Proving how practically difficult it is to truly stay aloof from the trap of looking at things from a modern perspective. Bartlett further expounds on the sources, using the once more over-used cynicism that contemporary writers are usually prejudiced. 

In itself this begs the question, if in 100 years people are still studying the subject in question, will they not bring modern schoalrship into question for its own possible prejudice, and indeed distance from the subject? That is not to say that, once again, the grain of truth comes from fertile ground. Some medieval chrinichles are humorous in their hagiographic approach, it is nevertheless old news and when you begin to write a book about Richard I, the last thing you want is to give the reader the impression you are rounding the bases.

References to the ‘controversial king’ who ‘divides opinion’ is also dangerously close to stock-phrasing as it does not adequately address who is divided and by which controversy, and if any of the divided people are divided due to a controversy that did not exist in the 12th century then the author has fallen into a dungeon of his own making. Even within the framework of scholarly investigation there are, here and there, anomalies such as the admission of a quote pertaining to the existence of ‘chivalry’, which was apparently in danger of being wiped out before it was even popularised. Indeed any biography of Richard should discuss 12th century chivalry much more than this does.

The author seems painfully aware of his modern audience. On several occasions in the second chapter archly noting, with a sense of righteousness only a 21st century mind can muster, the ‘misogyny’ and ‘gender bias’ of the 12th century. All modern terms to parallel what the author is similarly pleased to call the ‘context of the times’. The book itself is marketed as a Richard ‘for the twenty first century,’ so to say the least, I was in some confusion from the outset. 

I further must say that the prose in this work is somewhat laboured when the author tries to paint a picture, as if he is trying too hard. I know from whence I speak, as I too get carried away and am often guilty of over-writing. I was unable to avoid observing that this could easily have been sharper and lighter.

The author’s high ground is best utilised when combatting the criticisms of others levelled against Richard. Many of the things he was and is accused of were part and parcel of the Middle Ages. Bartlett sticks mostly to the conclusions of Gillingham as regards Richard’s personal life, but nevertheless strays to the opposite, more sensational and melodramatic camp in certain small cases. Bartlett asserts that no leonine appellation was appended to Richard within his lifetime, instead he quotes the humorous nickname dreamt up by a troubadour, but for a much less logical reason than that explained by Gillingham. 

One detects an almost arbitrary habit of choosing whatever would be the opposite explanation for any event. William Marshal hurried back to England not because he was excited to marry his young, rich, fiancée, but only because he was eager to get at her money, declares the author, filling in the gaps. Richard is the pawn in King Phillip’s Hand, yet it could equally be the other way around. Bartlett’s love of a good, emotional story cannot help but dwell on the aspect of Henry II’s tragic family life. 

Bartlett is on much stronger ground when he leaves the subject of Angevin/Capetian politics and focuses on the 3rd Crusade. But the author is no great friend to his subject and the book is full of a marked patronising superiority of a present day writer of ‘our secular age’ to a long dead world.

Despite the claim that Bartlett is viewing Richard’s life within a 12th century context. Layers of 21st century significance are very often overplayed, perhaps at the behest of a sales oriented editor, but which at any rate confuses the issue. 

No effort is made to recreate the world in which Richard lived, nor to understand it very well and the narrative is very much uncertain as to his character, and is generally at the mercy of whoever had the most arch opinion at the time, (and sadly, sometimes even these opinions are swallowed without or with forced context).

Rounding up, this book does nothing that Gillingham and other biographies have not done better. In that sense it does no harm, and is engaging and fluid enough, an easy read to be certain, but not without its flaws.

As a basic summary of an important life, this book does yeoman service. It is diverting and easy to get into, but contained one too many niggling annoyances for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Until the next Adventure in Historyland, I remain: Josh.

Book Review: Kulikovo 1380 by Mark Galeotti.

The history of medieval Russia is one of the most interesting portions of medieval studies. However it is chronically understudied in English and those books that are not in Russian are almost as inaccessible

Osprey itself has something of a history of trying to make this subject easier to approach. Older studies on the battle of Lake Peipus, and various Men at Arms books on Russian medieval armies were written by David Nicole and illustrated by the great Angus McBride.

It is a great pity that most of us are left with online sources in order to read about pre Romanov Russia. But thankfully Osprey continues to champion difficult to reach Military history and has done so with their new title of Kulikovo, written by Mark Galeotti.

As every campaign title should, Kulikovo allows a reader to gain a basic appreciation of warfare in a specific time period through a single battle. The author has consulted the medieval Russian odes, and histories to not only reconstruct a pivotal battle in medieval history but to make us aware of a founding moment in Russia’s popular mindset.

All through her history, wether Tsars or Comissars, Russian history has always been able to be moulded to the times that needs it. No orthodox Tsar or metropolitan wanted to admit that Russian nobles had colluded with the mongols and fought against them during the convoluted era known as ‘the mongol yoke’.

Indeed the Romanovs tended to set Russian history aside in favour of the study of Europeanism. Yet the grand princes of Muscovy were lionised into popular hero’s in folk tradition, that carried down through to soviet times. 

You’d wouldn’t think the communists would be terribly proud of the feudal legacy left to them by their highly religious medieval past. However the pseudo democratic states of medieval Russia and their aggressive campaigns against invaders of differing ideologies, served as a perfect canvass to paint an inspiring portrait of the timeless virtues of the Russian people.

Though we are mostly familiar with the argument that Russia saved Europe from domination twice, first in 1812 and then in WW2, there was an earlier event in 1380 which Russia can assert as the origin of their claim to be the ‘shield of Europe.’

As the Mongol Yoke began to slacken, the great princes of Russia began to assert themselves. Grand Prince Dmitry of Moscow took his opportunity of apparent Mongol weakness to refuse to pay tribute to, Mamai, leader of the Golden Horde. 

The Mongols responded by marching to crush Moscow. Dmitry gathered an army of disparate princes and boldly opposed Mamai. It was no mere bravado however, Dmitry was a skilled organiser and an adept tactician. His strategy in the battle of Kulikovo, seen within the times, was a mixture of defence in depth and envelopment. 

Fought on 7 September 1380 the fight marks Prince Dmitry as one of the most talented medieval generals in history. It is seen today as the birth of Russia as a distinct power. Mark Galeotti cuts through the legendary devices of prose, legend and poem to reconstruct this pivotal 14th century battle.

With concise, fascinating detail the armies are surveyed, and the images have been well selected. The maps are clear and though it might be said that this book has been written more with an eye to explaining modern Russia than medieval Russia, it is an excellent retelling of a military campaign.

The full colour artwork is provided by Darren Tan. His scenes show, without need for elaboration why this period of history is so rich and inspiring to students, scholars and wargamers. The best being the cover art of the main battle where the ‘phoney Dimitry’ is killed during the crisis of the battle. But I won’t give too much away.

It is easily one of my favourite Osprey’s this year. Josh.

Atahualpa’s Rook.

Chess and Murder during the Conquest of Peru.
‘No Captain, the Rook.’ Sapa Inca Atahualpa’s sideline advice to Hernando De Soto reconstructed by the author. Atahualpa wears his famous bat-skin cloak over a richly embroidered tunic based loosely on the All-T’oqapu Tunic. The Llawt’u and Maskapaycha are based on the contemporary description by Pedro Pizarro. Did this event seal Atahualpa’s fate?

The story of Atahualpa’s Rook is one of the many stories told about the imprisonment of the Sapa Inca Atahualpa. Chess, with it’s ancient ideals of nobility, is the game for which there is the most evidence of Atahualpa playing during his captivity, along with dice and cards. These stories quickly became common currency in Spanish America, told, retold and embellished into folktales within ten years of the real events.

Daughters of the Sun.

After the terrible massacre in the plaza at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532 the lord of Tawantinsuyu was taken to the local Temple of the Sun on the outskirts of the the town and placed under guard. [1]

The heavily built, olive skinned strangers with their strange clothes, shining armour and hairy faces, came with their terrible snorting animals, dragging the Sapa Inca with them. They secured the temple quickly, ranging through it, issuing streams of commands in a flowing, sharp, unfamiliar language.

Previous to his arrival the devastating news of the disaster of 16 November would have come to the House of the Sun in sounds and survivor’s tales. The strange noises of gunpowder weapons echoed like the crack of heavy stones against a wall, the Castilian falconets like the thump of distant thunder and the neighing of horse’s like demonic laughter. Very few would have guessed that it was the sounds of the world being turned upside down, the dreaded Pachacuti itself.

When the prisoner was brought in, the inhabitants would have dropped their eyes or prostrated themselves as soon as they caught sight of the Llawt’u and Maskapaycha on Atahualpa’s head.

Atahualpa was in a way being held captive in his own house, for the semi divine Sapa Incas were descendants of Inti, the sun, and both were worshiped in this precinct. It is interesting that one Spanish account described the place being inhabited by royal virgins who spent their time spinning and weaving fine cloth. [2] 

This indicates that ‘the house of the sun’ at Cajamarca was or included an abode for ‘chosen women’, or ‘maidens of the sun.’ An acllahuasi.

The chosen women began their lives at the age of ten, when an administrator from the provincial capital visited their village and selected the most perfectly formed and brightest children for entrance to the provincial house.

Class was not a barrier and when they entered the acllahuasi the girls became wards of the state and expected to remain chaste for life or until an appointed time.

These places were clearing-houses for girls destined to go into the higher echelons of Inca society. Here their destinies were decided, and they were instructed in skills such as weaving, sewing, brewing, cooking and taught the mysteries of the Inca religion. 

Some would be sent to marry into the nobility, the finest of the crop would become wives or concubines of the Sapa Inca. Others would remain in the house making clothes for the state. In Tawantinsuyu any labour or skill was a form of tax. Smaller numbers of girls would rise to be priestesses, and others might be called upon to give their lives in sacrifice. [3]

Their presence is significant because where it not for a particularly interesting woman this story would not have caught my eye at all.

In the course of his work the 19th century folklorist and head of the Biblioteca National de Peru, Ricardo Palma came across a document  written by Juan de Betanzos.

Betanzos was a Conquistador and Spanish chronicler who wrote a history of the Inca empire from the perspective of his wife’s people. Betanzos interviewed many Peruvians and drew also on the singular advantage of being married to one of Atahualpa’s (and Pizarro’s) widows, Doña Angelina Yupanqui who was able to furnish him with a great deal of personal information.

Doña Angelina had been in Cajamarca in 1532 as the drama continued, but she was not called Angelina then. She was born in 1522, and was a niece of Huayna Capac, a previous Sapa Inca, who apparently named her personally, Cuxirimay Ocllo, ‘Lady who speaks good fortune.’ 

As a descendant of Manco Capac, a founder of the empire, any children she bore, boy or girl, would instantly achieve the highest status in the kingdom.

Even if a boy should be born by a different wife of inferior lineage, a girl born to a Capac woman would still be ranked higher. That being said there had never been a female Sapa Inca, nor would there ever be one.

More dubiously, due to the importance of keeping the line of Capac pure, Curiximay was also related to Atahualpa. Both their mother’s were sisters. In an ‘ideal world’ only those of Capac’s line could produce the next Sapa Inca and Huayna Capac had announced at Cuxirimay’s birth that his niece would marry his son, Atahualpa.

Cuxirimay’s family unsurprisingly sided with the Cusco faction loyal to her future husband during the great fratricidal civil war that was fought immediately before the Spanish conquest. 

In 1532, after defeating his brother, Huáscar’s army in Ecuador, the 30 year old Atahualpa sent for his 10 year old Capac bride to meet him as he marched south to claim his kingdom.It was important to him and his newly won place as Sapa Inca that he solidified a line of succession. Atahualpa also intended to have his captured brother paraded before him in servile disgrace to cement his legitimacy.

They two were married soon after she was brought to him, but due to her youth and the arrival of the Spaniards, all but one year later, it didn’t go much past the perfunctory ceremony which was little more than a verbal affirmation that she would be his principle spouse, she was a wife in name only. [4]

Atahualpa and the Conquistadors.

It is a well known part of the tragedy of Atahualpa that he promised Francisco Pizarro to fill a room of the complex with gold and silver. During the agonising wait for the porters to begin arriving with the loot, tension rose for the Spanish, who felt increasingly isolated as time passed. Some began to wonder who was the prisoner, Atahualpa or Pizarro.

The Spanish held all the cards but due to a lack of troops, intelligence and allies, they were unable to make their next move. They were constantly on the alert for trouble and unable to let their guards down, fretting for their life-changing loot.

It would be easy for arguments to break out in the tense atmosphere but diversions came where they could be found: in cups of dice, packs of cards or improvised boardgames.

The majority of the men serving under Pizarro were in their twenties, and most seem to have been between 20-25. A random selection of 13 men in Lockhart’s Men From Cajamarca reflected this, and of that group only one was in his thirties. 

The Conquistadors also defy modern identification. They were both soldiers, settlers and civilians all wrapped into one. Neither application suffices to describe them properly. In 16th century Spain a man would be expected to know the use of arms, and if they were from peasant stock, work in a trade or profession, but professional soldiers, or those who bore arms as their trade, were rare in the Americas. [5]

This is revealed when one chronicler specifically mentioned that there were those in Peru who had seen armies in the field, implying this to be a special trait.

A glimpse of the kind of man that had slaughtered the Incas in the square at Cajamarca can be gained from a letter written by a ‘footman’ in the Pizarro expedition.

Gaspar Gárate (he also called himself Marquina to identify his Basque origins) was in his early twenties, an illegitimate son who was nonetheless recognised and educated. Practically the only distinguishing thing about him was that he could read and write more than his own name.

He had however not used his education to seek work as a merchant or notary but gone out to America. The only reason young men did this was because they wanted to get rich quick and return home, or else be granted an estate with slaves and move on to plunder somewhere else. However the reality was tough.

Gaspar came out to Peru with some fellow Basques. possibly under the command of Hernando de Soto. He had heard that ‘Governor Francisco Pizarro was coming to be governor of this kingdom in New Castile.’

The young man had previously been adventuring in Nicaragua, and all of his military experience stemmed from service in the Americas. Suddenly out of work and penniless he was taken on as a page to Francisco Pizarro.

Which brought him, through sweat and toil to the blood and terror of the square in Cajamarca. ‘We attacked them’ he wrote of ‘the best people that have been seen in the whole of the Indies’, and ‘seized the lord and killed many.’ [6]

When the ransom came, Gaspar was to receive a 3/4 share in gold, a life changing sum worth 3,330 pesos. Gaspar was a nobody, who had made it big overnight before his 25th birthday.

Yet he would be killed almost exactly year later during the great Inca rebellion and is remembered only because of a single letter he wrote to his family from Cajamarca in 1533. This was the short, inglorious, brutal life of a typical Conquistador. 

While they waited, those in charge of Atahualpa got to know him. The Inca had been allowed to gather his household and make himself comfortable. A clique of royal women appeared, apparently in addition to the women of the temple and they saw to his every need. 

Everything from his wardrobe, to his routines and habits became a source of fascination to the Spanish. His richly embroidered tunics of alpaca and cotton were almost as dazzling as his jewellery.

When he appeared wearing a dark brown cloak one day, the Spaniards were awed by its softer than velvet texture. In answer to their curiosity Atahualpa told them it was made out of the skins of bats.

Atahualpa was well made, though small he had a typically well developed Andean chest. Pedro Pizarro remembered that he was a ‘well disposed’ man, ‘beautiful of face and grave in his fierce eyes’.

He seemed more athletic looking than many of his subjects, though his large head and bloodshot eyes lent him the unnerving expression mentioned by Pedro. 

With his subjects and even senior lords and administrators he was clipped, formal and severe. Few people dared look him in the face, and he rarely raised his eyes to anyone. He communicated to his handmaidens with unspoken glances which they interpreted effortlessly.

This formality was not evident with the Spaniards however, indeed he ‘showed himself affable, sometimes even indulging in sallies of mirth’ wrote Pizarro’s Secretary. [7]

Much more down to earth with the Spaniards than his own people it is tempting to explore the idea that the god-king, found a refreshing comradeship with the swaggering Christian’s who naturally saw him first as a man than a deity. Indeed Hernando Pizarro and Hernando de Soto, plus a few other Spanish captains grew very fond of him. 

This was in part due to his great wisdom, intelligence and refined, princely manners which the feudal soldiers of rural Castile’s impoverished noble houses responded to instinctively. He was described by Alonso de Guzman as ‘being so intelligent that in twenty days he understood Spanish and learnt to play chess and cards …’ [8]

Atahualpa’s Rook.

Until a few days before his infamous trial, Atahualpa and several Spanish captains would regularly gather in one of the rooms of the temple and divert themselves with games of chess, dice and cards.

The chess boards had been made by the Spanish at Cajamarca and were apparently pretty rough, the pieces were made out of local clay.

At first Atahualpa did not play, and showed no sign that he understood what was going on, sitting on a low seat in customary silence until one game, when Hernando de Soto was at the critical moment of a match with Pizarro’s treasurer Riquelme.

It is significant to the story, principally retold by Ricardo Palma, who found a vague document in the archives by Betanzos, that these two Spaniards were playing the game.

Atahualpa had done his best to ensure he had some protectors in the enemy camp. He knew that some would think nothing of killing him when his usefulness wore out, one of these was the corpulent Riquelme, who seems to have despised the ‘Indian’ leader. [9]

As the game progressed, De Soto picked up a knight intending to play the piece, (unless atahualpa was a mindreader, De Soto must have at least touched it) but before he could commit himself, Atahualpa gestured and spoke to him in a low voice, ‘no captain the rook’, he said.

What was more stunning than the breach of protocol (it being bad form to coach chess players as a bystander, though it might be assumed that the Inca was copying how the Spanish both played and watched the game) was the foresight of the Inca’s observation, for de Soto reconsidered his move and played the rook, leading to an inevitable checkmate. [10]

Atahualpa had not only grasped the rules, but the strategy of one of the most complicated and culturally significant games played by the European and indeed eastern nobility. Atahualpa got so into chess that he even gave it a Quechua name, ‘taptana’, surprise attack. 

One wonders if he saw some parallel into his own situation when he thought up that name. But he did more than coach and invent names. Gaspar de Espinosa, another chronicler and Conquistador who came in the wake of the initial conquest was told that he played the game ‘very well’ and was both wise and insatiably curious.  [11]


The murder of Atahualpa reads like a big coverup in some TV mystery series where group of people conspire to get someone out of the way and, mostly ashamed of it, try to brush it under the rug. Binding each other to strict secrecy, and as each of the culprits are killed or pass away, the truth becomes more and more difficult to reveal. 

The official story is that the Sapa Inca was put on trial for apparently encouraging military action against the Spanish. He was then charged with the murder of his brother and idol worship, and found guilty by his accusers.

Atahualpa had feared for his life when Hernando Pizarro left Cajamarca to bring the King’s share of the ransom back to Spain, moodily observing that if Hernando went away Riquelme would have him killed. 

Another key objector to the trial, De Soto, was sent on a scouting expedition to find the mythical Inca army of liberation, dreamt up by the regicides. He would return too late to help his doomed chess partner. 

In Palma’s retelling, Riquelme was so angry that Atahualpa had caused his embarrassment he argued all the more forcibly for the Inca’s death during his unconscionable ‘trial’ in the summer of 1533.

Indeed he goes so far as to suggest that Atahualpa’s days were numbered as a direct result of his interference. Critically, both Atahualpa’s protectors had left Cajamarca and while they were away, he was murdered.

At the time, the action was shocking. Unlike Cortés and Moctezuma, Pizarro could not plead an accident, the trial and the garrotte are irrefutable elements of Spanish judicial execution. Pizarro and the others shielded themselves behind the pretence of law. 

Yet Hernando De Soto, observed it would have been far better to send Atahualpa to Panama, or even back to Castile. Ruefully he told Pizarro that would have taken him personally.

Even the governor of Panama, (admittedly an enemy of Pizarroj), agreed that Pizarro had crossed a line twice over, and wrote angrily to the King. King Charles V, who was lover of proper procedure and a defender of the rights of kings, listened.

Charles V censured Pizarro in tones of dignified distaste for killing Atahualpa. Curiously, as a mournful Pizarro squirmed before the forthright de Soto, he blamed none other than Father Valverde and Treasurer Riquelme for inciting the deed. [12] 

Surely the greatest crime committed during the conquest of Peru wasn’t because of a lost chess game, or was it? 


  • 1: Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru, Folio Society, p88. MacQuarrie. K, Last Days of the Incas., p106.
  • 2: Zarate., p88.
  • 3: Bruhns, K.O., Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America., University of Oklahoma Press, pp150-51.
  • 4: Brooks, Jennifer, “Marriage, Legitimacy, and Intersectional Identities in the Sixteenth-Century Spanish Empire”. History Honors Projects. Paper 21. http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/history_honors/21, pp73-78. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  • 5: Lockhart. J, Men from Cajamarca., pp18 20
  • 6: Lockhart. J. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies: Sixteenth Century., p5.
  • 7: Prescott. Conquest of Peru p258., citing Xerez vol iii p203. 8: Wood. M, Conquistadors., p141.
  • 9: MacQuarrie, p126.
  • 10: Palma. R, Peruvian traditions., pp247-248.
  • 11: MacQuarrie., p106.
  • 12: Markham. C., Reports on the Discovery of Peru Footnote 3., pp102-103.

Abbreviated Sources.

  • Wood. M. Conquistadors.
  • Brooks, J., Marriage, Legitimacy.
  • Bruhns, K.O. Stothert, K. E., Women in Ancient America.
  • Lockhart J. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies.
  • Lockhart. J. Men from Cajamarca.
  • Markham. C. Reports on the Discovery of Peru.
  • MacQuarrie. K. Last Days of the Incas.
  • Palma. R. Peruvian Traditions. 
  • Prescott. Conquest of Peru.
  • Pizarro. P. (Ainsworth, Trans). Relation of the Discovery and Conquest of the Kingdoms of Peru. 
  • Zarate. Discovery and Conquest of Peru
  • Hemming. Conquest of the Incas.

See you again for another Asventured in Historyland. Josh.

Book Review. The Scandal of George III’s Court. By Catherine Curzon.

In 1820 crowds and reformers clamoured in the streets demanding that Queen Caroline, the popular wife of the unpopular George IV’s, be granted her rights. The unfaithful husband wished to divorce her on grounds of infidelity, but she was determined to be queen. 

The events that followed were farcical, as the royal family’s dirty linen was put on full display and many thought the ongoing crisis might lead to a constitutional disaster. Petitioners, espousing the cause of the queen barred the Duke of Wellington’s way while he was out riding. They demanded he give a cheer for the queen. 

The private lives of the monarchs were no secret, everyone knew what the King and Queen had been up to, as if it had been a weekly soap opera. The Duke raised his hat and obliged, but added ‘May all your wives be like her’ as he rode on.

You honestly cannot invent more high profile scandal than what is contained in the history of the Georgian monarchy. The court itself was hardly a place of refined pageantry, it was a place of passions and intrigues, both petty and great. The court was a scandal.

This book is a slim, good quality hardback with a single image section filled with black and white portraits of the major players, captioned with simple identifying tags. There is an index, a bibliography and a notes section.

Not as dramatic or romantic as the Stuart’s, nor as institutional as the Saxe Coburgs the House of Hanover represent an ideal of monarchy that is both recognisably opulent and scandalous.

The appeal of any monarchy revolves around the daily life of its court. The rich and powerful have a reputation for excess and insanity that is more than borne out by this book.

You can have no better tour guide to the subject. Catherine Curzon’s sense of humour and eye for detail is eminently suited to opening a window of the court of the house of Hanover and peeking in.

(She is something of a whiz at the ins and outs of the Georgian Royalty you know) We of the online court know her better as the great brain behind the Madame Gilfurt blog and an all round good egg.

Her descriptions of important members of the royal family, their attendants, friends and retainers and the associated goings on offer a glittering, extravagant contrast to the typical Austin view of the Georgian and regency eras.

In this book she delivers on her promise to get to the bottom … I mean lift the petticoats … I mean tailcoats … untangle … She investigates allot of the most famous scandals associated with the various George’s and their queen’s.

Dangerous husbands, philanderers, and that surprising instance of the King’s son, the Duke of York (who went right up to the top of the hill and back down again), CinC of the army getting into hot water over his mistress and the dodgy sale of army commissions.

So have some snuff and a reviving gulp of brandy handy as the author takes those naughty caricatures from Gillray and Rowlandson and tells the story’s behind them. By the end you will wonder how any of the royal family managed to keep a shred of reputation.


Book Review: The Pharaoh’s Treasure by John Gaudet.

  • Amberly Publishing.
  • ISBN 9781445689944
  • Paperback
  • 15 Jan 2019
  • 40 Images.

In the 1991 movie Black Robe, Ernest Schellenberg plays an Algonquin leader escorting a Jesuit missionary. One of the best scenes is when the priest demonstrates how writing works.

In 1532, when the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa was awaiting his fate, he would ask that words be written down for him so that he could learn Spanish. Not least so he, a man who knew nothing of writing could observe how the work of a scribe was performed.

Where would we be without paper? He asks typing on a touch sensitive screen, ordering pixelated keys to generate letters that will never be printed.

Like all good true stories The Pharaoh’s Treasure focuses on a something simple and uses it to expose greater truth.

Behind every royal library were scribes, and behind them were the people who made the materials that allowed the library to exist at all.

When so much is a trick of the eye, untouchable, generated and at the same time more accessible than ever the value of paper is all at once enhanced and diminished.

A handwritten note shows you care. It’s also a demonstration of class. What was once a commonplace gesture now speaks in volumes.

Already we think about paper much differently to what we did 70 years ago. Might we conceivably return one day in the distant future to looking at it as prized commodity?

When did it become so time consuming to write something with our own hand? He said ruefully staring at the image on his screen.

Waxing lyrical, or poetic about the timeless qualities of communication has already been done efficiently enough in this book for me to add anything.

Gaudet’s book is well written and full of fascinating detail. Not your average history book and very original. It is primarily concerned with the history of Papyrus. The Pharaoh’s Treasure.

A 4,000 year old history that can be written because of the medium it studies. That is special. It is what Papyrus has done best for longer than parchment & pulp paper put together.

The Pharaoh’s Treasure shows us why Papyrus was so special. It is a mundane but key note. It’s durability, sustainability & simplicity  was it’s success. 

Because of these key facets of its manufacture and use, Papyrus became a time capsule for the collected knowledge of the centuries.

Previous to its widespread use, information had to be imparted on clay & stone. Though Papyrus was more susceptible to fire it was easier to store in large quantities, so much of what we know is thanks to this treasured paper. 

All of the above make up a central point of John Gaudet’s book. This ancient story is at the heart of everything we think, and want to remember. 

Think about the last time your laptop crashed, or your phone went dead on you. Sometimes … indeed most of the time, the answer to our problems can be solved by a piece of paper.

Suddenly technology doesn’t seem as friendly as that notebook. Suddenly that long history of paper becomes very relevant. And this is why you’ll enjoy this book.


Book Review: Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough.

In reading this book I have learnt a super car game for long journeys, (spot the Viking place/name). And that Tolkein was hopping mad with Hitler for appropriating history.

Professor Tolkein wrote that ‘I have in this War a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolph Hitler… ruining, perverting, misapplying, & making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit… which I have ever loved, & tried to present in its true light.’ Beyond the Northlands shaped up well.

The author, Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough is light and engaging. And good at rhyming as well! Her choice of subject matter matches the tone. Who indeed doesn’t like to read the marginal scribbles of scribes who have been working too long? 

It strives to understand what Tolkien called ‘that noble northern spirit.’ Creating a readable and understandable work of history that is at the same time uncompromising in its depth.

To do this the author has gone to the sagas and searched them for clues and messages that rebuild the world of the ‘Vikings.’

Understanding the old Norse (and Norwegian rather than other Scandinavian/Viking Countries is the focus here), sagas and voyages within their historical and cultural context is difficult.

With the great enthusiasm across the world for all things Viking and fantastic, this book is an extremely helpful guide to a very complicated and bewildering subject, that is at the same time deeply engrossing and mysterious.

Wonderfully illustrated and authentic to place and time, the author has written perhaps one of the ultimate works for those wishing a deeper insight, as well as those new to the study of medieval Scandinavia.


The Free Traders.

This is the story of Samuel White and the men who tried to oppose the EIC’s monopoly on trade in the East during the 17th century.

By Josh Provan.

Servant of the Company.

The Capital of Siam.

Samuel White came to Siam by way of Madras as a pilot working for the East India Company (EIC) in 1676. He had left the West Country (where he was likely to have been born in 1650), to chance his fortune. Six years before, his elder brother ,George had traveled east with his business partner a Greek named Constantine Phaulkon and had become “Free Traders” in the Kingdom of Siam. 

The White’s were a family deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation, they disagreed with the EIC’s royally endorsed monopoly over trade in the east. Private enterprise was what they believed in and they weren’t afraid to challenge the Honourable Company to achieve their ends. 

To that end Phaulkon and George somehow managed to insinuate themselves into King Narai’s court at Ayudhya, largely due to Phaulkon’s previous experience in the EIC.

Here they could be covered from illegally poaching EIC trade routes by working under the flag of Siam, however for his part Phaulkon had other ideas. At that time Siam was the link between Japan and India, a vital mercantile clearing house for luxury goods and firearms. George White and Phaulkon saw “The Siam Trade” as a perfect opportunity to make good.

The only problem was that the commercial interests of Siam were largely controlled by the Islamic merchants, most of whom had ties to the Kingdom of Golconda, which controlled the island of Masulipatam and the port of Mergui.

A strategic spot that pretty much controlled the principal trade routes and thus the area. At the same time Siam was being courted by the French, yet Phaulkon promised to deliver the “Siam Trade” to the EIC and Samuel White would be vital in his plan to oust Golconda from the area.

By 1679, despite a pessimistic outlook from the EIC, things were looking hopeful. Phaulkon had manoeuvred his way into a position of influence in Siam, while Samuel worked hard to increase the EIC’s interest in the area. Then things turned foul.

Unsurprisingly Golconda’s governor in Tenesserim objected to the intrusion and actively tried to thwart and sabotage Samuel’s efforts. The hostility between White and Golconda now grew and would cause unforeseen results in the future.

After several mishaps and a fire that burned down a warehouse (possibly to cover up mismanagement) the EIC began to distance themselves from the project, they were already expanding in India and dangerously overextended.

In 1683 Phaulkon, who could see a vacuum effect starting, sold out the EIC by successfully getting the King to oust Golconda’s Muslim traders from Siam and replacing them with mostly European agents loyal to him.

Phaulkon was made a mandarin and put in control of foreign trade. George had since left for England but Samuel White was made Customs Official (Shahbunder) of the port of Mergui, and the EIC’s ex factor in Siam, Richard Burnaby was made governor of the town.

A move that surprised many Siamese unused to seeing foreigners in power. White dutifully resigned his post with the EIC, automatically forfeiting his stake in the companh by doing so, but he wasn’t too worried as he had bigger plans.  

The EIC now looked with even more suspicion on Phaulkon and his associates. Despite their cordial congratulations to White, the deliberate posting of ex EIC workers to high commercial posts started ringing alarm bells in Madras.

Yet they were not inclined to write off White just yet and hoped to cultivate him in the future. Unfortunately for the EIC and Phaulkon Samuel White was about to show his true colours.

The Pirate King.

The Cunnjng Phaulkon.

Fast forward to 1685 and a dramatic transformation has occurred in Samuel White. Showing extreme ruthlessness, guile and vengefulness, White had first gained permission to force stubborn Golconda to trade with Siam. To that end he “enlisted” two of the many freelance captains hanging around the Indian Ocean hoping to make their fortune into the Siamese navy. Yes, he hired some pirates.

The plan to get revenge on the governor of Masulipatam, Ali Beague, turned sour after his permission was revoked. Yet he set out on a convoluted scheme to fraudulently order and then steal some ships from Beague anyway.

The plan ended up with his hired guns, Captain Coates and Captain Cropley, enlisting a third captain named Leslie and blockading the port and in addition to pillaging rice boats, they also looted two ships, one of which belonged to an Armenian merchant from Madras under EIC protection.

Though Coates was forced to give back the stolen goods (less £4,000 of rubies that he conveniently couldn’t find) and Samuel having to palm off Phaulkon with some excuses, his pirates seized a rich cargo lying off Mergui when they returned.

White now embarked on a campaign of organised piracy to extort the merchants of the Indian Ocean. By March 1686 White’s flotilla of 4 ships which had taken 7 prizes and their cargos.

The routine was simple; seize a wealthy ship and if necessary imprison its officers in a warehouse in the town without food or water until they promised to sign a paper that cleared “The Shahbunder” of any wrongdoing.

This plan was effective, though he is only known to have resorted to it once, extorting £3,063 in total, it is likely he used it a few times. Samuel seemed to know he couldn’t keep up these activities forever and was putting a defence together for a rainy day. It was wise that he did so, as his latest swindle was against yet more merchants from Madras.

The Great Escape.

Fort St George, Madras.

Before he founded the College, Elihu Yale was Governor of Fort St George at Madras. It was he who received the emissaries from Samuel White’s latest deprivation.

An angry letter was sent off to Mergui demanding restitution, but it went unanswered and as it was despite his anger Yale could do little more, for events were already proceeding that would resolve the issue one way or the other.

In a preposterous attempt to coerce the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb, the head of the EIC board Josiah Childs sent the largest military expedition yet to the east.

Its target was Chittagong, Bengal, 10 ships and 6,000 men duly went off on a disastrous campaign that ended in 1690 with EIC peace commissioners begging Aurangzeb on their knees for peace.

Had this expedition been successful its next goal was to punish Siam for her supposed crimes against the company. White heard about this as he was on his way to Ayudhya to explain his piracy to Phaulkon.

He misread the intention of the company and feared a descent upon the nearby island of Negrais preparatory to an attack on Mergui. 

A small force was sent to Negrais to claim it officially for Siam, and was just as hurriedly recalled by a perplexed Phaulkon early in 1687 who was increasingly losing his grip on power.

A recent revolt by the exiled Makassar’s, sheltering in the kingdom had destabilised things, Captain Coates had even been killed putting the rebellion down and the Islamic merchants were putting pressure on the king to remove Phaulkon and his cronies.

White saw the writing o the wall and began consolidating his holdings and distributing them in places of safety. Further to this he obtained a letter from the provincial council that he was working under orders, the paper was backdated 1685. 

Despite becoming embroiled with the Mughal’s the EIC also saw fit to make preparations for the coming war against Siam.

They procured a writ from King James II that ordered all English subjects to leave Siamese territory and demanded £65,000 in damages be paid by Phaulkon. In June 1687 two frigates arrived at Mergui to see that it was carried out. 

Things had been going bad for White recently, he had lost one of his ships in the Bay of Bengal and he had been drinking heavily.

He had told his reluctant American Secretary, James Davenport that he intended to cut everyone loose and escape as soon as possible. This option was now removed as Captain Weltden’s ships arrived and blockaded the port.

Luckily for him Weltden would prove a gullible and indeed rather crooked sort, and one that tended to press too hard. He apparently so offended the Siamese officials that they opened fire on him and sank one of his frigates.

On a tip from Davenport he then sized White’s largest ship to prevent his escape which prompted White to overreact and try to destroy his house.

The situation was resolved by the Siamese. The people of Mergui became terrified that the Europeans would bombard the port and rioted with the intention of killing all the English.

Captain Weltden only just escaped with his life, Mr. Burnaby was killed along with over 50 other English people and White fled to the Company ship for protection.

White’s run of luck then resumed. Mysteriously he was able to trick or get Weltden to let him sail off in his ship, and surprise surprise he sailed right home to England, with a fortune perhaps in excess of £30-40,000.

It then turned out that his large cache of coerced affidavits effectively blocked the EIC’s levelled charges when he challenged the Company’s hegemony in the east.

Samuel died on 7 April 1689, the case was taken up by his brother in the name of Samuel’s nieces, and due to the great unpopularity of all things associated with the Stuart’s after the Glorious Revolution, it was won in 1694.

Ironically in the year of the revolution, 1688, another upheaval rocked Siam which cost the plotting Phaulkon his life. Though without a doubt Samuel’s activities in Mergui were deeply questionable.

When it comes down to it he acted no worse than the EIC did in its own dealings in India, which begs the question was Samuel White, the Free Trading Pirate, really the villain? You decide.

See you again for another adventure in Historyland.


The English Gentleman Merchant at Work, Madras and London 1660-1740, Søren Mentz.

The Cambridge History of India, vol III.

Early English Intercourse with Burma, 1587-1743, David George and Edward Hall.

English Intercourse with Siam in the 17th Century, John Anderson.

Accounts of the Makassar Revolt, 1686, Michael Smithies.

A History of British India vols I-II Sir William Wilson

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