Sunday, January 20, 2019

Review: Viking Warlord - A Saga of Thorkell the Great by David Mullaly

Some stories are meant to be both savoured and devoured - this is one of them.

42142226The late Anglo-Saxon period of English history which saw the rise of the - for want of a better word - Danish invasions, was a period I was fascinated in, with my own library containing a number of tomes on the subject matter.     Like David, I too was fascinated by Thorkell the Tall (the Great, the High), being inclined as I am to the more obscure historical characters, and those with a less than pristine reputation - the supporting cast.  To put him in context, he is the Danish William Marshall.  Indeed, this is another example of where the facts are far more interesting.

The tale takes place in both the 10th and 11th centuries, when England was under the rule of Aethelred II (also known as the Unready) and paying what is known as the Danegeld to keep the maruading Danish host, first under Harold Bluetooth and then his son Sweyn Forkbeard, at bay.  From Skane (part of the then Danish empire), came Thorkell, who proved himself as a warrior in such a way that he became one of the leaders of the Danes on their raids.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (hereafter ASC) records the arrival at Sandwich 1st  August 1009 of an "immense hostile host", one manuscript specifying "to which we gave the name of Thurkil´s host", which invaded Kent, the Isle of Wight, Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire, before returning to Kent to take up "winter-quarters on the Thames" and the following year invading East Anglia and other parts of England, culminating in the kidnap and murder of Ælfheah Archbishop of Canterbury.

Florence of Worcester records that "Danicus comes Turkillus" invaded England with a fleet, dated to 1009 from the context, and that other fleets led by "duces Hemingus et Eglafus" landed in August at "Tenedland" [Thanet] after which the invaders joined forces to devastate Kent, the Isle of Wight, Sussex and Southampton, and establish themselves in the Thames valley for the winter.

William of Malmesbury says that "Turkill the Dane, who had been the chief cause of the archbishop´s murder, had settled in England and held the East Angles under subjection" and that he "sent messengers to Suane [Sweyn Forkbeard] king of Denmark inviting him to come to England".

As the contemporary chronicles record, Thorkell spent three years successfully raiding with his brother Hemming, until they were eventually "bought off" for the considerable amount of £48,000 (1012). In the end, this army were hired as mercenaries by Aethelred II to protect him from an impending invasion. Joining him in the defence of London was another character - Olaf Haraldsson (later St Olaf of Norway). Many of these larger than life characters that wander across the pages were in fact real.
Related image
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the invasion of England led by Sweyn King of Denmark in 1013, stating that the invaders "went east to London" where "the citizens would not submit…because King Æthelred was inside and Thurkil with him".

When Sweyn invades, Aethelred is forced to flee to Normandy; but Sweyn's victory is shortlived as he dies "... a death with no honour ..." Following this period we see Thorkell rejoin the retinue of Cnut. How and why this occurred is open to speculation but having been Cnut's foster father and also a valuable warrior, Cnut may have been content (for the moment) to welcome Thorkell back into the fold.  How and why aside, Thorkell defected back to join Cnut's invasion fleet in August 1015 and fought with the Danes at Ashington [Assandun] in October 1016.

William of Malmesbury records that Cnut King of England divided the kingdom into four parts "he himself took the West Saxons, Edric [Streona] the Mercians, Turkill the East Angles, Iric [Erik Haakonsson] the Northumbrians". Simeon of Durham records that King Cnut granted East Anglia to "earl Turkill" in 1017 whilst the ASC (1017) records that when dividing the kingdom, "East Anglia for Thurkyll".

It is only after Cnut takes power that his true character is revealled - his cruelty grows - "... gaining a kingdom can change a man .  And he wasn't finished ..." - it was not just with the family of his predecessor that Cnut turned his attentions but to his own supporters " ...for it is dangerous for a leader to owe someone more than he can give ...." (we now know where Henry VIII took his playbook from). As the body count rises, Thorkell's comrade Eric Haakonsson is reflective " .... conflicting loyalties can bleed us dry ...".

It is probable that the king appointed Thorkell regent of England in 1019, during his absence in Denmark, he was afterall, the most prominent of Cnut's magnates and his name featured prominently on charters of the period; however, there was an obvious falling out as William of Malmesbury wries that "in process of time…Turkill and Iric were driven out of the kingdom and sought their native land" - the ASC (1021) "This year, King Knute, at Martinmas, outlawed Earl Thurkyll.." Florence of Worcester records that King Canute expelled "Turkillum…comitem cum uxore sua Edgitha" from England 11th November, dated to 1021.  

All we really know is that Eadric was executed within a year of Cnut's accession (According to the Encomium Emmae, Cnut ordered Eric to "pay this man what we owe him" and he chopped off his head with his axe); Thorkell was outlawed and returns to Skane (c.1021), and that Erik fades from the pages, presumed dead, though his lands don't pass to his successor till 1033. According to the Norse sources Erik died of a hemorrhage after having a medieval medicine either just before or just after a pilgrimage to Rome (no sources mention exile). Could it be a purging of the old guard, could Cnut have perceived Thorkell as a real threat - a rival - for power in England, and as such removed him.

Related imageThe ASC  adds in a later passage that the Thorkell and Cnut entered a pact of reconciliation (1023) under which Thorkell would govern Denmark, keeping each other's sons as hostages: ".. He committed Denmark and his son to the care of Thurkyll ...".  Thorkell remained regent for about three years, being replaced by Ulf, Knud's brother-in-law.  So what happens next after c. 1025 / 1026 - we can only presume he returned to Skane; however there is this interesting passage in the ASC for the year 1039:  "... The Welsh slew Edwin, brother of Leofric, and Thurkil and Elfget, and many good men with them..." - if this were the case, Thorkell would have been in his 60s - if this is our Thorkell at all ..... and the question remains, what was he doing in the Mercian army attacking Rhyd y Groes (near Welshpool).

What David has done is gathered together a plethora of resources from which to craft a compelling and invigorating story of Thorkell in the skaldic tradition. In Scandinavia a skald was " ... a composer and reciter of poems honouring heroes and their deeds .." Their oft-times lengthy verses commemorated kings and others, and celebrated their many deeds of daring-do; and over time, their position at court become more prominent as they became the oral recorders of their own history.

And so Thorkell's story unravels in front of a renown skald, Eyolf (composor the Bandadrápa - the deeds of Eiríkr Hákonarson), whom he has summoned to appear before him so that he might recount his story and have it re-told far and wide - for Thorkell is now an aged warrior, battle-hardened, who has witnessed (and done) much. He now fears that if his story is not told, he will be forgotten by all but his own kin.

As the chapters progress, Thorkell's story is spun and teased out before a captive audience - his family, neighbours, and we the reader. As always, each night's telling is left with the proverbial cliff-hanger, a dispersal of wisdom, or running commentary (a bit akin to today's modern television serials). David neatly wraps up Thorkell's story so that we are given a possible outcome to his final years.

What I found most refreshing was that unlike some historical novels, this one was not loaded up with local vernacular and colloquisms and period dialect used by numerous authors of historical fiction to add authenticity, but which so often encumbers and destroys a story unnecessarily. I get that characters come from different areas, but I want to spend my time enjoying a novel not trying work out what they are saying. Thankfully not an issue here - the structure flowed seamlessly.

As Thorkell himself says: " ... most of our lives are what happens between one fight and the next ..."

I am looking forward to reading Eadric and the Wolves - the story of Eadric of Mercia, who features in Thorkell's story.
Seen as a villain by many during his lifetime and after, he is surrounded by people who casually employ treachery, and institutions that consistently act in bad faith. In this thoroughly researched novel, David Mullaly tells a story that challenges the traditional narrative about Eadric.  Appearances can be profoundly deceiving. Loyalty in the defense of evil is no virtue, and what may look like betrayal could be the only good option for a brave leader.

There was no standardised spelling of names and places names; scribes tended to write phonetically, and hence there names recorded in the various chronicles of the times can look completely different (ie: Knud Kvud, Cnut, Canute).

There was more than one copy of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle - and once copied and dispersed, each was independently updated (hence some inconsistencies with dates / names / events).

Further reading:
The Saga of the Jomsvikings trans Lee M. Hollander
An Onslaught of Spears: The Danish Conquest of England by Jeffrey James
The Saga of the Jomsvikings trans NF Blake

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The New Book That Will Change How We Understand The Crusades

From Forbes:

Jay Rubenstein is a MacArthur Fellow (2007) and currently Riggsby Director of the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Alvin and Sally Beaman Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His new book, Nebuchadnezzar's Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History, argues that the Crusades really need to be understood from within, that medievals themselves began seriously thinking about what this all meant in the wake of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 CE. This shocked their system and so sought meaning in what was most familiar to them, the Christian Bible - more specifically still the dream of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2.

read more here @ Forbes which features an interview with article author, Matthew Gabriele

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Reviews: Bodies of Art Mysteries by Ritter Ames

Enter the world of the shady art transactions and the recovery of lost, looted, stolen or misappropriated treasures. Agents work with some of the world’s finest art historians and provenance researchers to investigate the history of an object to support, or refute a claim. The work involves the repatriation of artwork and antiquities on behalf of governments and private citizens, and can take the agent across continents, whilst recovered works can total in the millions of dollars. Often, recovery agencies may find themselves in (sometimes, deadly) competition .....

Counterfeit Conspiracies
Laurel Beacham, premier art recovery specialist with a penchant for lycra, narrates our story:
As the foundation's leading art recover expert my life was pretty much a series of different hotel rooms every week. Tonight's event was one of a series of smaller jobs directing me to the person who held an art object I needed to return to the person or institution that had true ownership.
Counterfeit Conspiracies (Bodies of Art, #1)After a successful mission, Laurel trades her "catwoman" outfit for something a little more classier; however, this next mission finds Laurel in less than ideal circumstances when her efforts to recover a priceless icon go pear-shaped. 
There was no mistaking him. Propped on the john was the man from the photo who I was supposed to meet. Half of his handlebar moustache was jaggedly slashed and discarded on the floor, while blood from a gash at his throat spilled down his round belly and onto the cushioned turquoise seat.
And then there is the permeating question of Jack Hawkes, a shadowy figure that keeps popping up:
I tried to figure which camp he fit into, but got nada. With so many players in the art game, it was hard to keep everyone straight, both above and below ground. But a new American would have stayed in my memory, especially a tall male one with a deep Southern accent. Was it simple egoism, or did he work for someone plotting against me? My money lay on the latter. 
This is a fast paced game of cat and mouse, with plenty of plot twists and red herrings to keep the reader suitably intrigued. Think James Bond crossed with Lara Croft.

Marked Masters
28226631Laurel, now head of the London branch of the Beacham Foundation, and Jack Hawkes return for another adventure, involving yet another art theft:
If I couldn't bring back the painting, perhaps this book could be used as an alternate method to stop the blackmail. 
This starts where book one finishes and sets up book three nicely. Who is who, and what are their true motives, will keep you guessing till the end. 

Abstract Aliases
Abstract clues lead to new questions. New leads turn to “dead” ends. A heist plot ties to forgeries. Adversaries resurface twisting an already complicated case. And art recovery expert Laurel Beacham must not only outwit criminals, but keep her wits around Jack Hawkes’s cheeky ego.

Fatal Forgeries
When art recovery expert Laurel Beacham’s personal and professional worlds collide, she learns no good theft goes unpunished. Incomplete intel and a missing source compel her to make a huge mistake, and she’s left with a divided team. Every retrieved masterpiece has a price—and the cost of forgeries can be deadly. This time Laurel could lose not only her best lead, but also her most trusted ally. 

Bronzed Betrayals
A masterpiece swapped for a forgery, a murder victim left behind, and a relentless game of hide and seek keeps Laurel Beacham and Jack Hawkes on the run. They are racing to find answers despite roadblocks at every turn. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Review: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth Series by LJM owen

Canberra author LJM Owen says that after an itinerant childhood, 
She attended university in Canberra, then went on to work in several public service departments before landing a job as a librarian with the National Library of Australia. It was in the map room at the library Owen imagined the Dr Elizabeth Pimms character.

Owen discusses her books and her heroine, Dr Elizabeth Pimms in the Canberra Times:
The hero of Owen's Intermillennial Sleuth novels is Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a skilled archaeologist, knowledgeable Egyptologist and reluctant librarian at Canberra's fictional Mahony Griffin Library. Elizabeth's best friend describes her as curious, intellectual, tenacious and secretive.

From the age of four Elizabeth dedicated herself to the discovery of lost civilisations and ancient treasures. Young and a touch naïve, Elizabeth is aided in her investigations by the machinations of her phrenic library - and a growing sense that something is awry in the world.

Asked to reference the Dr Pimms series, Owen suggests it is a hybrid of Bones, the US TV crime procedural based on Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan novels, and the rural potboiler Midsomer Murders

"My PhD involved comparing the genetics of past human populations through the examination of dental remains. This expertise fed directly into my first novel, Olmec Obituary. The forensic science in all three Dr Pimms novels is based on firsthand experience or significant research."

Brief synopsis of the series so far:
Part one of the planned nine-book series is Olmec Obituary ...... is set in Canberra where Dr Elizabeth Pimms works while she unpicks the cause of mysterious deaths in ancient civilisations, and more contemporary crimes. The second book, Mayan Mendacity, sees Dr Pimms exploring the ancient world of Mayan politics, scribes and female rulers. Part three, Egyptian Enigma sees Dr Pimms on the hunt for the identity of a cache of mummies hidden in a Golden Tomb. There are female pharaohs, ancient grave robbers, modern cannibals, loads of skeletons, cats and cups of tea, she says.

So to my thoughts on each of the books in turn.

The Olmec Obituary
Olmec Obituary (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #1)This is where it all begins - Elizabeth is forced to return home from an archaeological dig in Egypt due to a family crisis - and to say she's not happy about that would be an understatement. Here is where we get more of a sense of the character of Elizabeth - indulged, spoilt, emotional, petulant, sulky. Forced to take a job in a library (courtesy of family connections) does not help - she really wants to be out in the field. Then ... a chance to return to archaeology when the skeletal remains form a newly discovered Olmec burial are brought to Canberra. 

I liked the narrative between modern day Elizabeth and the Olmec Kingdom. I admit to knowing next to nothing about Olmec Civilization - and for readers like myself, here is a brief synopsis:
The mysterious Olmec civilization, located in ancient Mexico, prospered in Pre-Classical (Formative) Mesoamerica from c. 1200 BCE to c. 400 BCE and is generally considered the forerunner of all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures including the Maya and Aztecs. 

But one thing really stood out for me - I found it curious that Elizabeth, a self confessed Egyptologist, should be requested to work on Mesoamerican remains. I guess I naively assumed that most archaeologists would have a specialty field - and thus someone with more than a passing interest (and more qualified) would have been brought in. Anyway, Elizabeth soon comes into conflict with those around her.

Mayan Mendacity
Mayan Mendacity (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth #2)The sub-setting for this mystery is the Mayan Empire during what is called the "classical period" 250-950 CE. This period was the height of the Maya civilization in which they perfected mathematics, astronomy, architecture and the visual arts and also refined and perfected the calendar. In Mayan belief, however, one did not die and go to a `heaven’ or a `hell’ but, rather, embarked on a journey toward Tamoanchan. This journey began in the dark and treacherous underworld of Xibalba and if one could navigate through Xibalba, then one could then find the way to ascend through the nine levels of the underworld, and the thirteen levels of the higher world, to paradise. The only ways in which a soul could by-pass Xibalba and travel instantly to Tamoanchan were through death in childbirth, as a sacrificial victim, in warfare, on the ball court, or by suicide.

Elizabeth is approached to do some research on the newly discovered skeletal remains from a newly discovered Mayan site in Guatemala by her boyfriend Luke, whom she has seen (in person) for nearly two years. Hang on a minute - what's he doing in Guatemala when he was supposed to be in Mexico, and why is he interviewing for jobs in America and not here closer to home? But that's not the only mystery that will confront Elizabeth - long hidden family secrets are about to be revealed (publicly).

I still find Elizabeth annoying with her constant need for approval and validation for everything she does; other than that, I am enjoying the mysteries.

Egyptian Enigma
On holiday in Cairo with New York chum Henry, Elizabeth is robbed of the journal she has been keeping of their visit - what possible value could it be to anyone?

Egyptian Enigma (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #3)Then we head back to Egypt of the 19th Dynasty, during the reign of Seti II and his Queen Twosret (Tausret), whose story is of one woman's struggle too hold the throne of Egypt. Her short reign ended in a civil war, which is documented in the Elephantine stela of her successor Setnakhte, founder of the Twentieth dynasty. It is not known if she was overthrown by Setnakhte or whether she died peacefully in her own reign. Joyce Tyldesley's "Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt" notes "A mummy found in KV35 and known as Unknown Woman D has been identified by some scholars as possibly belonging to Twosret, but there is no other evidence for this other than the correct Nineteenth Dynasty period of mummification."

This then would appear to be the back drop of Egyptian Enigma, the curious remains of an Egyptian Prince of the Golden Tomb, which finds Elizabeth and her group of friends doing their own investigations in an attempt to solve the mystery, whilst preparing her papers on her Olmec and Mayan investigations.

Mongolian Mayhem is believed to be the next book in the series - I would be very interested to see how the next six books pan out, and if Elizabeth manages to grow up!

Review: In the Shadow of the Enemy by Tanya Bayard

In the Shadow of the Enemy (Christine De Pizan Mystery #2)
Book 2 in the Christine de Pizan mysteries - following directly on from "In the Presence of Evil".

"... Brother Michel will record what everyone believes .."

This series, set in France in the 1390s during the reign of mad King Charles VI, features recently widowed Christine de Pizan who is employed as a scribe for the French Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria. The French Court in this period was a hot-bed of political and sexual intrigue, with the various factions fighting for control of both the government and the King (think Wars of the Roses).   For those unfamiliar with the period, Christine de Pizan was actually a court writer during the reign of Charles VI, and was indeed patronised by both the Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, and the king's brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans. 

Christine's father Thomas worked as a physician, court astrologer and councillor of the Republic of Venice. Thomas de Pizan accepted an appointment to the court of Charles V of France as the king's astrologer and moved to Paris (1368). Christine de Pizan married the notary and royal secretary Etienne du Castel (c.1379). Pizan's husband died of the plague (1389), her father had died the year before. Pizan was left to support her mother and her children. When she tried to collect money from her husband's estate, she faced complicated lawsuits regarding the recovery of salary due her husband. In order to support herself and her family Christine turned to writing - hence her duties for the French court. 

The Shadow of the Enemy directly follows on from In The Presence of Evil - in fact, for the characters, the events are imprinted on their memories so much so this forms one of the main plots. Christine is asked by Queen Isabeau to investigate the incident that would become known as the Bal des Ardents ("Ball of the Burning Men") as she feels that the threat to Charles is to be found closer than she would like. 

This famous incident in French history occurred on 29th January 1393.  A masked ball had been organized by the Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, to celebrate the wedding of one of her ladies-in-waiting at the Hôtel Saint-Pol. At the suggestion of Huguet de Guisay, the king and four other lords dressed up as wild men and danced about. They were dressed "in costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy & hairy from head to foot". At the suggestion of one Yvain de Foix, the king commanded that the torch-bearers were to stand at the side of the room. Nonetheless, the king's brother Louis I, Duke of Orléans, who had arrived late, approached with a lighted torch in order to discover the identity of the masqueraders, and he set one of them on fire. There was panic as the fire spread. The Duchess of Berry threw the train of her gown over the king. Several knights who tried to put out the flames were severely burned. Four of the wild men perished: Charles de Poitiers, son of the Count of Valentinois; Huguet de Guisay; Yvain de Foix; and the Count of Joigny. Another – Jean, son of the Lord of Nantouillet – saved himself by jumping into a dishwater tub. 

Add to this another subplot based upon previous events in both French history and in Charles' life - the battle of the Golden Spurs - and its horrific aftermath. The Battle of the Golden Spurs (also known as the Battle of Courtrai), was fought between the Kingdom of France and the County of Flanders at Courtrai (Kortrijk ) on 11th July 1302. The Flemish were in rebellion against the French and massacred the French of the city of Bruges. The King of France at the time, Philip IV, organised an enormous army to march against the Flemish and seek retribution. The result was a rout of the French nobles, who suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Flemish. The battle soon became known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs after the 500 pairs of spurs that were captured in the battle and offered at the nearby Church of Our Lady. After the Battle of Roosebeke (27th November 1382), the spurs were taken back by the French and Courtai (Kortrijk) was viciously sacked by Charles VI in retaliation. As this event is featured at the start of the novel, we are left wondering how it will be linked to Christine.

Image result for the book of moral and practical advice for a young wifeThroughout In The Shadow of the Enemy we get more of a feel for Christine's work as a writer at the royal court which is really just starting for the purposes of the novel. Christine wrote a number of books of advice to princesses, princes and knights remained in print until the 16th century. And our story is littered with references to this. In fact, this may be a homage to The Good Wife's Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book. Written in the late 14th C by an anonymous French writer, the book is addressed to a fifteen-year-old bride, narrated in the voice of her husband, a wealthy, aging Parisian. The book was designed to teach this young wife the moral attributes, duties, and conduct befitting a woman of her station in society, in the almost certain event of her widowhood and subsequent remarriage. The work also provides a rich assembly of practical materials for the wife's use and for her household, including treatises on gardening and shopping, tips on choosing servants, directions on the medical care of horses and the training of hawks, plus menus for elaborate feasts, and more than 380 recipes. I like how author Tanya Bayard as attributed this to Christine and leaves us wondering how this book is linked to Christine's search for Martin de Bois, the missing husband of Klara, a young bride taken in by Christine's mother. 

Christine, who grew up at the Court but is now not of the court, uses her skills and connections as well as relying on others outside of the court, to solve the mysteries at hand. I like the characters of both Marion (the prostitute) and Alips (the Queen's dwarf) and the roles assigned to both, and how the characters, including Henri Le Picart, are a little more developed. This is a much more rounded story - we get a definite feel for the political machinations of the time when not only the king's uncles, but his wife and his  brother are all vying for power and control, and those in positions of power struggle to retain what they consider theirs by right. It is not until we near the end that we get just the merest hint of the shadow in question that is being cast across the king and court, and yet we are never quite sure who is involved.

An enjoyable read - and I love the fact that this series is set at the French Court rather than the English. Another historical mystery solved with a new twist added ... can't wait for the next in the series.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Review: Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo

Dancing the Death Drill by [Khumalo, Fred]
France 1958 - mild-mannered waiter Jean-Jacques Henri kills two people in full view of other patrons. He doesn't run but stays to await his fate. Journalist Thierry Bousquet thinks there is more to the story, especially when he tracks down the artist Jerry Moloto - who claims there may be extenuating circumstances to consider. What is revealed is that Jean-Jacques Henri is really, one Pitso Motaung, a South African, with a story to tell.

Author Fred Khumalo recounts our fictional character's life as a youth of mixed-race growing up in South African at the turn of the century. His father is off fighting against the British in the Anglo-Boer War, whilst his mother, the granddaughter of a local chieftain, died when he was but a child of 10, leaving him to literally fend for himself. Only when aged 16yo, and more to escape the conflicting cultural aspects of his childhood, did Pitso join the war effort when he enlisted in the 5th Battalion (South African Native Labour Corps) in Cape Town. 

Khumalo writes:
The First World War broke out in 1914. By 1916 it had reached a stalemate. The Allies were desperate for more manpower. Thus the Imperial government sent out a clarion call to its subjects in all colonies, which included the Union of South Africa, still a colony and its citizens subjects of King George V.
When the call reached South African shores, many black men stood up and said they were ready to serve. But white South Africans suddenly complained that arming blacks to fight against whites would set a bad precedent. There was a growing fear that this would break down what was then called the “colour bar”. The recruitment of people of colour (which also included Indians) would embolden the black man to demand true equality with the white man in South Africa once the war was over, a thought too ghastly to contemplate.
It was then agreed that the blacks would not be armed. They would be part of a labour contingent supplying services such as: wood-collecting, water-carrying, laundry, the loading and cleaning of mechanical transport, camp sanitation and cleaning. Thus was the South African Native Labour Contingent born.  (Source: New African Magazine)

This is then was the world of Pitso Motaung - and how he found himself aboard the SS Mendi.  Khumalo continues: 
The men on the ship came from a wide range of social backgrounds – some of them were peasants, yet others were traditional chiefs, men of the cloth, and educated men, graduates of the famous Lovedale College, which, in later life, would produce the likes of Nelson Mandela and other illustrious African leaders. 

Tragedy of the SS Mendi: 
On 16 February 1917, after its last night in Cape Town, the SS Mendi sailed towards the port of Le Havre, in France via Plymouth, England. Onboard were 33 crew members and a contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), composed of 805 black soldiers, 5 white officers, and 17 petty officers. They were heading to France to contribute to the Allies World War I efforts. In the early morning of 21 February 1917, while crossing the English Channel, the SS Mendi was hit by a merchant vessel, the Darro, south of Isle of Wight. The SS Mendi sank in only 20 minutes. The Darro was sailing at full speed in dense fog without any light signals. Six-hundred-and-sixteen people died. Among them, 607 black soldiers. Only some of the bodies were found, those that were recovered were buried where they were found.  The larger ship initially did not stop to help the SS Mendi and its beleaguered, drowning passengers and crew. They would ultimately be rescued by their escort, the British destroyer H.M.S. Brisk, which provided protection from German U-boats and mines.

So now to the title of the book: dancing the death drill. This phrase how now entered the annals of legend. Khumalo continues:
According to oral accounts from the survivors, as the ship was sinking, their chaplain Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha ordered the men, many of whom were frightened to jump overboard, to stand in formation as they had been taught on joining the army. He raised his arms aloft and cried out in a loud voice:
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…. Swazis, Pondos, Basotho, so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal. Our voices are left with our bodies.”
And so the men stamped their feet on the floor as they twisted and gyrated in a macabre Death Dance as it was Christened by oral historians. 
In a moment of defiance, maybe of death itself, these men were said to have marched as one, showing their willingness to die as warriors, proud of their African heritage. 

Back to our story. Pitso Motaung is one of the few survivors to be rescued, taken to France and deployed to the native labour camp. There is an inquest.  On August 8, 1917, a British court found Darro’s master, Henry W Stump, guilty of having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals. Stump must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when his licence was suspended for a only year.  History has since recorded that Stump did receive a report that he had collided with the ship which was transporting native troops aboard, and that it was sinking, but he chose sail full steam ahead.

In our story, whilst the captain of the SS Darro is held to account, another escapes justice ..... What happens next is Pitso flees after a violent altercation, and ultimately finds refuge in Paris (1918), marries, fathers a son, get a job as a waiter, meets the artist Jerry Moloto, and ultimately - and fatefully - encounters two enemies from his past.

As for the actual survivors of the disaster, for the most part, they were treated ingloriously. In the months before the Mendi left port, South Africa’s black leaders had actively supported the government’s recruitment campaign; many had signed up for the labor contingent themselves, hoping that their participation would help them argue for equal rights once the war was over. Instead, when they returned, their work was barely acknowledged, much less rewarded. Not one member of the contingent, not even survivors of the Mendi, got so much as a ribbon or a medal. They weren’t paid pensions, nor did they receive promised grants of land or cattle. 

While the Mendi was not the only labour corps transport to be lost at sea, in the total of South Africa's war dead of 9 500, the disaster was the second worst single loss after the attrition of Delville Wood six months earlier.

There is no evidence from survivors' accounts of the death drill, or of Dyobha's speech. In fact one eye-witness, boilermaker Jacob Malti said:
“As it sank it made a great hollow and many men were not far from it,” he later wrote. “By the time the water covered that empty space, many had gone down with it.” 
And yet Dyobha's speech has become central to understanding the indelible meaning of the tragedy – the fraternal bond, the willing sacrifice, the claim to history.

The Mythos
One of Karl Marx’s most repeated quotes is that history repeats itself “the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce”. Like history, the interpretation of history also gets repeated, first as myth – and then in service of the political agenda of those in power.  According to Albert Grundlingh, professor in history at Stellenbosch University, in his book, War and Society: Participation and Remembrance – South African black and coloured troops in the First World War, 1914-1918:
“Until the 1980s, the sinking of the SS Mendi was commemorated regularly,” said Grundlingh in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. “But then black participation in the war was regarded with suspicion. Those black people who had participated were seen as sellouts. However, in the 1990s the ANC rediscovered the Mendi with a vengeance. And it became a symbol of heroism for the ANC. 
Grundlingh also emphatically states that mythologising is a common occurrence in all wars and in all countries. (Source Mail & Guardian)

This is a fascinating lost episode of history, thankfully not told from a European point of view. Whilst the book itself is not solely about the tragedy of the SS Mendi, it is used as part of the backstory of the main character of Pitso Motaung. However, having said that, it could quite easily have been so. If you condensed the first fourteen chapters, what you would have would make for a plausible historical mystery. 

On a final note, for me, this story has somewhat eerily similar overtones to that of the RMS Titanic - a ship in distress, a captain who did nothing, a lack of lifeboats, a tragic loss of life.

read more here 

Review: The Queen's Prophet by Dawn Patitucci

Set in the reign of King Philip IV of Spain, this is a tale of the Spanish Court as seen through the eyes of one of the Queen's entourage - her dwarf, Maribarbola. 

Dwarves were a common sight at the royal court in the 17th Century - Philip IV of Spain was reputed to have over 100 - they were considered rare attractions, bought and sold, owned and traded, or simply delivered as gifts throughout Europe. More often than not, their role was mostly for the entertainment and companionship of royal children. These unfortunates, sometimes crippled and weak-minded but sometimes wise, often served as court jesters, where they had to endure the rude remarks and practical jokes of the courtiers, their feelings as human beings were generally ignored. They were decked with finery, adorned with jewellery and gold, and shown off at ceremonies of state, or on festive occasions, revealing the voyeurism with which the royal rulers made these people the objects of their shameless whimsy, caprice and power. They were often depicted in painting with their royal patron, their small stature and / or deformity reinforcing the idea of perfection and superiority of the ruling dynasty. 

They were maintained by the King according to a tradition extending back well into the Middle Ages. The tradition was motivated by charity, but many 'fools' came to be appreciated for their wit, arousing great affection and sometimes achieving great fame. Because they were not taken seriously, they were licenced to parody or flout the etiquette with which courtiers and royalty had to conform, which seems to have been especially appreciated at the rigid court of Philip IV.

And it is from a portrait by the artist Velazquez of the Spanish Infanta Margaret Theresa entitled Las Meninas, featuring two of the court's dwarves, that author Dawn Patitucci has taken as inspiration for her story. Pictured, just to the right are the dwarves Maribarbola (Maria Barbara or Maria Barbola) and Nicholas (Nicolasico) Pertusato.

The story follows the early years of Maria Barbola in private service (1626 - 1654), and then upon the death of her mistress, Mari (as she will henceforth be known), embarks on a new course. She meets up with Udo the magician in a marketplace and travels with him to France under the guise of a seer. Dwarves were often thought to have the power of second sight and were often employed as seers or prophets. As mentioned above, their feelings were often ignored, as Mari soon finds out when Udo sells her to the agent of the Queen of Spain, Mariana of Austria (1634 - 1696), and she finds herself amidst the turbulence of the Spanish royal court (1651).

Here Patitucci deftly weaves her tale. The Spanish court was, at this time, a hot-bed of political intrigue and rivalry, and religious ferver (the Inquisition was still a significant force but its influence would start to wane). Philip IV had a system of employing favourites - "validos" - which created an undercurrent of one-up-manship among the many nobles jockeying for position. Mari's rival (or nemesis), the dwarf Nicholas, was attached to the court of the King, and appears to be pre-eminent among Philip's many dwarves. The marriage between uncle and niece (Philip and Mariana) was not an entirely happy one, with the ever present question of the production of a living male heir - only two of her five children would survive, a daughter, Margaret Theresa, and later, a son - Charles "the bewitched" (c. 1661). As Mariana found herself often excluded from power and her husband, she often relied on those around her to provide both comfort and information.  This is the role of Mari - confidant and spy.

Following the death of Philip (1665), Mariana found herself as regent for her three year old son, Charles (Carlos). It was a troubling time: Mariana continued to follow the custom of relying on favourites, which only magnified the petty jealousies and rivalries of the nobility, resulting in internal feuding between those who would rule in Charles' name. We must remember, Charles himself was hardly in the best of health; he suffered a number of physical disabilities, which were attributed to sorcery, though they had long been thought to be as a result of the constant in-breeding of the Habsburgs. Even once he achieved his majority (1675) and due to his illnesses, Mariana continued to rule as regent in his name and a bitter power struggle ensued for control of both the King and the government. She saw her only surviving daughter married (1666) to her uncle, Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor - a prestigious marriage to be sure, but one that would have unforeseen consequences.

External factors also contributed to tension at court. Decades of war with France drained the Spanish coffers - in fact the country had been declared bankrupt a numbers of times, and Spain's position of supremacy within a European context was being questioned (especially with the loss of Portugal). However, an unpopular and uneasy peace with France, a war for control in the Spanish Netherlands, an ailing economy, saw a palace coup being lead by Don Juan, Philip IV's illegitimate son, and power wrested from the hands of the Queen Regent. Don Juan's regency was short-lived - he died the following year (many whispered poison). Mariana resumed her regency; however the arrival of a newcomer in the form of Charles II's bride, Marie Louise of Orleans saw her influence diminish (1679) - though briefly as Marie Louise herself succumbed (again poison is whispered). It is only through the use of German auxillieries that Mariana manages to retain control, long enough for Charles to marry a second time (1690).

And where was Mari in all of this - at the heart of it all - providing a different perspective to these events as they unfolded. And we are instantly drawn to her as the heroine - we are empathetic and feel strongly the slights she herself must have felt. As events played out across the pages, I was sorely tempted to research how things ended before I had finished - but I held off - the story kept me captivated - who would prevail? Mari or Nicholas? What I appreciated were the author's notes at the end that gave an insight into events of the day, very useful for those for whom this period is not their forte.

Mariana died in 1696 - she did not live to see her only son die young (1700) - a death which sparked off what is known today as the Spanish Wars of Succession - a battle for the Spanish throne between the Spanish Habsburgs (heirs of Philip IV by his second wife led by Charles' sister Margaret Theresa) and their relatives, the French Bourbons (heirs of Philip IV by his first wife and led by Charles' half-sister, Maria Theresa).  This war would ultimately see Charles' grand-nephew (and chosen heir), Philip of Anjou succeed as Philip V of Spain.  On a side note, it would be Philip V who, when he reorganised the court offices, would abolish the role of fools and dwarves.

What happened to Mari following the death of the Queen Regent Mariana - it was said she returned to her native Austria where she died (quite possibly that same year).

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Review: The Falcon Confession by John V. Norris

The Falcon Confession
What he saw shocked him to the core. Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, the Subregulus of England, the commander of the royal army, and the man who rescued Aidan from certain death, shook like a Devil-possessed child. His chest raised and lowered in disjointed breathes and his blue eyes searched everywhere and nowhere at once.

If you are reading or have read this book it is due to the fact you have an interest in the history leading up to and including the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Events here are taking place in the years before - Harold is not yet King but a powerful earl, the Normans are still on the other side of the Channel, plotting and planning.

So simply, the story of the invasion is told in alternating narrative: Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother to Duke William, and who comes across as truly odious; Aidan, a novice at Bosham (co-incidently the principal residence of Harold); Edith Swanneck, Harold's hand-fast wife and mother of a number of his offspring; and lastly, that of Harold himself, a man tormented, whose narrative is in the form of recollection or confession, as is dictated to Aidan in the presence of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester.

And it is this shocking confession that is at the heart of the story - the Falcon Confession - what secret is slowly being revealed by Harold and what ruin will it bring. It is for Aidan and Edith to protect and at costs, not allow it to fall into the clutches of Bishop Odo..

The various alternating narratives given an overall picture of what was happening in both Normandy and England at the times from both the Norman and Anglo-Saxon perspectives. One character that was notable due to his absence was King Edward the Confessor - a man surely at the heart of the succession crisis that lead to the Conquest.

It is a complex and fascinating period of history, and this fictional tome will add another dimension.