Monday, October 20, 2014

The last note. “King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for – R O’H Burke”

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a hero is: “A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealised for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities”.

Throughout history some heroes stand the test of time, others wax or wane to reflect society’s changing ideals and attitudes.
Beside the Yarra blog

At the corner of Swanston and Collins Street in the city of Melbourne is a grandiose and towering statue of two men, Burke and Wills, who are famous to all Australians as the leaders of the first expedition to cross the continent from south to north. They failed in the attempt and died from starvation.

The one man who survived has no statue.

This very comprehensive website tells the reader anything and everything they might wish to know about the famous expedition, and also a little of that only survivor, John King

So why isn’t King celebrated with a grand statue in Melbourne or elsewhere? 

It all goes back to the bigoted and class-ridden era in which the events took place when a “common” Irish soldier was considered unsuitable material for a hero or that he couldn’t possibly be found to be more competent than the “gentlemen” who commanded him. 

King, in fact, was far more practical and knew that the only way to survive the harshness of the Outback was to learn from the Aboriginal people. Burke, in his arrogance, refused to have anything to do with them and perished as a result. * 

In recent times, there have been attempts to restore John King to his rightful place in history, although it has been a slow process.

John King, copyright State of Library of Victoria
This book John King - Ireland's Forgotten Explorer - Australia's First Hero - by Irish author, Eric Villiers, is not readily available in bookshops or most public libraries in Australia, while the publishing arm of the Australian Government’s scientific body CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) also produced this work  - The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills, Forgotten Narratives - which is a more academic study of the Aboriginal cultural aspects, but it is unlikely to be the sort of book that will come to the notice of the general reading public.

King’s short life, on the other hand, has numerous ingredients for an historical novel. He lived through the Great Irish Famine, spent seven years at the Royal Hibernian military college in Dublin, joined the 70th Regiment of Foot and fought in the Indian Mutiny. He was also a teacher, linguist, musician, sharpshooter, as well as being a crack horseman and camel handler.

Burke's Soldier is a novel by Alan Attwood that was published in 2003, but with the recent revelation that John King had a child, later known as Yellow Alice, or Annie, with an Aboriginal woman Turinyi of thYandruwandha people who had looked after King, there is a new poignant angle to add to the saga.  And then there is a family connection to a British Lord, no less! 

Read about that momentous encounter in 2013 between two quite disparate men, Aaron Paterson and Lord John Alderdice, here and here.

Some of the history and background to Annie King's life can be read here.

Lord John's own blog entry about his ancestor in which he describes actually handling and reading the last ever note written by Burke:
“King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for – R O’H Burke” 

Aaron Paterson at John King's grave, Melbourne General Cemetery
Copyright: Ecos Magazine


Yet even as recently as 2008, the myth that King couldn’t possibly have been a respectable sort of hero still hangs around as can be seen in this article.


I recall once reading a letter written by the African explorer, David Livingstone, in which he praised King as the only one of the party with any sense.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chinese Labour Corps and Sons of Africa

Until now, there has been little attention paid to the Chinese Labour Corps that consisted of thousands of labourers in the trenches of the First World War and it is gratifying to see that at last something is being done to remember their contribution to the war effort.

This article from The Guardian leads to a website called Ensuring We Remember that is dedicated to providing a lasting memorial to these forgotten Chinese men who did so much yet have been sidelined by history.

When one reads of how shamefully they were treated, it is even more important that their work and sacrifice is given publicity. Many of these men were simple peasants, and they endured often disgraceful conditions - as per this extract from The Guardian article:
Recruitment of the Chinese began in 1916 as ever escalating casualties meant labourers became disastrously scarce. Many came from such remote farms that when they reached the tall buildings and busy waterfront of Shanghai, they thought they had arrived in Europe. In fact it was only the start of an appalling journey on which many died – by ship across the Pacific, six days crossing Canada in sealed trains to avoid paying landing taxes, on by ship to Liverpool, by train again to Folkestone, and on to France and Belgium, where they lived in labour camps and worked digging trenches, unloading ships and trains, laying tracks and building roads, and repairing tanks. 
Book on the subject. Click here
Some who died on the voyage are buried in Liverpool, and 2,000 more lie in Commonwealth war graves, but some sources believe 20,000 died. They worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, and had three holidays including Chinese New Year. When the war ended and other men went home, they worked on until 1920, clearing live ordnance and exhuming bodies from battlefield burials and moving them to the new war cemeteries.
and
... when Britain distributed 6 million commemorative medals to all who took part in the war, those received by the Chinese bore only their numbers, not their names, and were bronze, not silver. Painfully symbolically, the Chinese were also painted out of a giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war. It was believed to be the largest painting in the world, and showed a victorious France surrounded by her allies. It was begun in 1914, but had to be changed in 1917 to include the arrival of the United States – the space was found by painting over the Chinese workers.
It is also important to note that the Chinese weren't the only labourers, that thousands of non-combatant men came from other parts of the world like the West Indies, Africa and India and laboured for both British and German forces and they too are largely forgotten. 

In this connection, it is worth recalling the loss of the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight in 1917 when up to 650 men, mainly South African labourers, perished. After the war, none of the black men on board SS Mendi received any recognition, not even a war medal, although their white officers were decorated. These wrongs have been progressively righted and the South African government recently instituted the Mendi Medal for Bravery.

The story of the chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, addressing the men and leading a Death Dance as the ship sank, has become a South African legend ...
'Be quiet and calm, my countrymen ... 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. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.
... and the men took off their boots and stamped out the dance as they went to their deaths. 

One can hardly imagine the extraordinary scene, it is every bit as powerful as the orchestra continuing to play as Titanic slipped beneath the waves.

Memorial to the men of SS Mendi. Copyright Janet Szabo

More details can be read here and here.










Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fertilisers for Turnips and the great British backbone

While there is currently much distress around the world over the difficult repatriation of innocent human remains from a war zone, it is worth remembering in centuries past very few of those who died in conflicts – civilians as well as soldiers - were accorded much dignity or respect at all and often did not even have any proper burial. Not only would their belongings be looted, but their useful body parts would be appropriated, such as the famous “Waterloo Teeth

In a book about Sister Janet Wells that mentioned the terrible conditions during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, this brief statement surprised me and I wondered how true it was:

Thirty years later a ship docked at Bristol carrying thirty tons of human bones from Plevna, the cargo was ground and used as bone meal to enrich England’s parks and gardens.”


It is somewhat difficult to find an authoritative account on the use of human bones in fertilisers, but reading through archival newspapers online there are many references to the practice, often completely at odds with one another. 

The Battle of Plevna took place during 1877-78. Thirty years later suggests the ship would have docked in 1907 but that must be incorrect as there are a number of newspaper reports discussing the alleged importation of bones around three years later, such as this paragraph in The Edinburgh Evening News, 10 October 1881, that says it makes little business sense.




The statement in the book can be found around the Internet in blogs, bulletin boards and especially in military chats. One of the sources switches the tonnage from thirty to thirty-thousand! These sources discuss the use of battlefield bones quite casually, stating that it goes back a long way - that in the 1820s and 1830s most of the bones came from the big battlefields such as Waterloo, Leipzig, Austerlitz and were being dug up and sent to Yorkshire or East Anglia or Scotland to be ground into fertiliser and that quite a number of companies were involved. 

Who were these companies? Who were the gatherers and the shippers? Has any historian given this unusual topic serious academic scrutiny? Were any laws passed to ban the practice, if in fact it was taking place?

There are many letters to be found in the old newspapers decrying the practice, such as this one in the Portsmouth Evening News in 1881, when a correspondent asks:

 “... whether such outrages on decency cannot be prevented by law. Could not any application of human remains to such purposes as were contemplated by the importers of the cargo in question, be forbidden by Act of Parliament?




Bones for Morayshire, Western Times, 7 November 1829

Bones for Hull, Westmorland Gazette,16 November 1822
What is even more astonishing is that many books on the science and history of fertilisers, plus recent university treatises, dissertations and articles, all mention the founding father of the fertiliser industry, Justus von Liebig, and include his inflammatory hyperbole, which smacks of some underlying personal sour grapes or other issue that he had with England.
England is robbing all other countries of their fertility. Already in her eagerness for bones she has turned up the battlefields of Leipsic and Waterloo and of the Crimea; already from the catacombs of Sicily she has carried away the skeletons of many successive generations. Like a vampire she hangs upon the neck of Europe, nay, of the whole world and sucks the heart blood from nations without a thought of justice towards them; without a shadow of lasting advantage to herself.
Is it his ironic way of saying that much of Europe or the Crimea was now [mid 19th century] wasteland because its war dead were ground up to keep English turnips growing, instead of German cabbages, Italian tomatoes or Russian buckwheat?

It seems a ludicrous statement to be perpetuated in our modern age, that England had sole monopoly on this trade. Von Liebig died over 140 years ago and to keep quoting it without investigating its real basis in fact reflects a certain amount of complacency or laziness in research methodology. All sorts of countries could be just as guilty of exploiting their own battlegrounds. Somebody had to be engaged in the trade of digging and exporting them. As recently as 1924, the French authorities were having to investigate a report and deny that bones from the Battle of Verdun and Mort-Homme were being used for this purpose.

There is probably no doubt that all kind of bones – men, horses, oxen - from Waterloo, Plevna and numerous other 19th Century battles could have been mixed up and sent to countries around the world ... and let’s not ever forget what the Nazis also did with bones since then. Our veneer of civilisation is very thin and, as we have seen in recent events in the Ukraine, we are still frighteningly close to the barbarities that have riddled history.

On a less sombre note, this report from the Preston Chronicle dating back to June, 1870 has a few (now politically incorrect) things to say about how the Egyptians exploited their mummies for the same purposes. (The war referred to is most likely the Crimean.)

And it is worth reading to the end for its amusing suggestions about turnips, British backbones and what might befall those who lie in the vaults of the cathedrals.




Finally - another image to think about. This poster from World War I. Bones to make munitions to kill men and make more bones .... all just a form of recycling.


Museum of London




Monday, June 16, 2014

The Halifax Explosion

Ask most people what famous maritime disaster is linked to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the answer will no doubt be, “Titanic, of course,” - being the port where many bodies and some wreckage ended up after that great tragedy of 1912.

But because the carnage of the Great War overshadowed everything else at the time, an event that took place just five years after Titanic may not be as well known. It resulted in the deaths of around 2,000 people, injury to another 9,000 as well as the demolition of much of Halifax itself.

It was caused by an explosion, the greatest ever man-made prior to the invention of the atomic bomb, and was the result of a collision between two ships in the harbour, between the empty Norwegian vessel Imo, and the French vessel, Mont-Blanc, which was loaded down with explosive supplies intended for the war in Europe.


Houses left like piles of matchsticks

This info sheet produced by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic gives a good summary of exactly what happened on that fateful day, 6 December, 1917.

And the even more comprehensive“In the blink of an eye” website is excellent and is totally dedicated to the explosion and its aftermath.

The long list of names in the Nova Scotia Remembrance Book can make for sober reading with so many children listed, including those who had just arrived to begin the school day and those in an orphanage.

One wonders at how many individuals living safely in Canada were grieving or deeply concerned for their loved ones fighting overseas, never for one moment imagining that the horrific tools of war would end their own lives.

Frozen in time, the moment of detonation (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

The last few nonagenarian survivors of the great explosion all died quite recently, among them Verna Jeffries and Mary Murphy

In 2005, a film was made of event, “The Shattered City”


Never forgotten. The Fort Needham Bell Tower where every year a memorial service is held
Dennis Jarvis © All Rights Reserved



Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Kingston Incident

When major natural disasters strike in the world today, uneasy political relationships are often put aside as many nations reach out to help with the injured or homeless and such offers are usually eagerly accepted by the afflicted country.

But it was one such disaster that led to an international event that is now largely forgotten and was known as either the “Jamaica” or “Kingston Incident”. What is remarkable is that it wasn’t a clash between countries known to be uneasy with one another, but it was the good friendship between Britain and the United States that was put in jeopardy.

One of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded up until that time hit Kingston, Jamaica, on 14 January 1907. Up to 1,000 people were killed, many thousands made homeless and 85% of the buildings in the capital were damaged or destroyed. An extensive photographic record of the event can be seen here on Flickr.

Overseeing the rescue and recovery process was the Governor of the island, Sir James Alexander Swettenham, an experienced British administrator who’d had gubernatorial roles in the Straits Settlement and British Guiana prior to his appointment in Jamaica. (The role his wife played is described on my History Bucket blog.)

Much detail is available in online newspaper archives about the incident. In a nutshell - when the American Rear-Admiral Charles H. Davis Jr organised a rescue and sent in the Marines in the torpedo boat Whipple from Guantanamo Bay followed by the battleships Indiana and Missouri carrying medicines and supplies, he received short shrift from Swettenham who rejected the help offered by the Americans and demanded that they decamp.


This led to outrage in America and some red faces at Whitehall which was quick to send an apology to Washington. Worldwide, there was much chatter about the pros and cons of America’s actions and Swettenham did have some surprising supporters. France saw it as officiousness and thought the United States had used the disaster as an excuse to grandstand in the West Indies.

The Washington Evening Star’s glaring headline of January 21 1907 best sums up American feelings:

ALL SCORE HIM FOR NOT LETTING DAVIS GIVE HELP

Action of Gov. Swettenham of Jamaica is Universally Condemned in London

NO EXCUSE FOR LETTER

Officials of the Foreign Office Do Not Attempt to Pardon His "Unaccountable Sarcasm."

MAY HAVE LOST HIS HEAD

That is the Only Fashion in Which the English Officials Can Condone Offense -
Americans Begged That Admiral Might Stay

And a browse of the many other newspaper headlines in Chronicling America are similar:

American Marines are Asked to Leave Kingston” (The Marion Daily Mirror)

Aid is Withdrawn From Kingston After Insult” (Rock Island Argus)

Somebody has Blundered” (Albuquerque Evening Citizen)

They’re sweating Gov. Swettenham. Jamaicans want him recalled” (The Yakima Herald)

British Press Deplores Action of Arrogant Swettenham” (San Francisco Call)

etc. etc. etc.

But this was not the worst of it!

In the days following, reports of a morally damning nature emerged from Kingston about the attitude of the ruling British elite resident in Jamaica, referencing another man, Sir Alfred Jones. This inflammatory article from The San Francisco Call shows them in an appalling light according to a couple who had just arrived back from Kingston. 
CAROUSE ON DEATH SHIP 
Sir Alfred and Ladies Drink Wine as Dying Shriek About Them
New YORK. Jan. 21. — Mr. and Mrs. Chambers M. Craig arrived here today from Kingston. 
"We know Sir James Alexander Swettenham very well," said Mrs. Craig. "He is nervous, irascible, stubborn and prone to fly off on a tangent. Socially he is delightful. But I think that his action was influenced by the desire to stand well with Sir Alfred Jones, who dominates Kingston.
"The night before the earthquake we were present at a dinner to Sir Alfred Jones' party of thirty in the Constant Springs Hotel. On Monday afternoon relief parties were carrying the wounded aboard the Port Kingston on which the English party had taken refuge. There the ship's surgeon enlisted a couple of young Englishmen and set them to work sawing off limbs. The anesthetics gave out before the work was half finished, so that the amputations had to go on while the poor wretches were perfectly conscious. Their shrieks were heartrending.
"Through it all Sir Alfred and his fine ladies and gentlemen drank champagne and dined and made merry. The high-bred ladies tripped across the bloody decks, regardless of the dreadful scenes about them. That night the surgeon and his amateur assistants worked ever minute.In the morning some of the ladies complained to Sir Alfred that, the shrieks and groans of the sufferers disturbed their rest.
"To please them. Sir Alfred ordered every stranger, well or injured, removed from the vessel. None of Sir Alfred's party lifted a hand to aid these sufferers. Not a sympathetic or kindly or generous deed can be ascribed to them. The Americans were generosity itself. The Jamaicans blessed them."

Was it really true? Or a media beat-up? Or did the Craigs have sour grapes of a personal nature they wanted to get off their chests?

Other snide and nasty reports flew thick and fast. Go here and here to read other examples of similar stories about “British Brutality” towards American refugees. Then, on the other hand, there is this report, by Dr Arthur J. Evans who was there doing the amputations and who puts a very different spin on things with the high society ladies rolling up their sleeves and helping him without complaint.

Who to believe? From all of this, it seems clear there were not just personal animosities at play but possibly some latent political antagonism between the British and Americans in Jamaica that blew up as a result of the disaster.  Sir Alfred Jones was a prominent and influential ship-owner who no doubt made enemies. On his return to England, he furiously denied the reports and also roundly condemned the gung-ho attitude of the Americans to land their Marines without first going through the normal formalities with the resident Governor even though the action had received the approval of the President, Theodore Roosevelt.

(As a curious aside to all of this, two years later Chambers M. Craig committed suicide, apparently having lost his money. This poses questions as to possible underlying motivations for speaking about Sir Alfred and his guests in such a disparaging light.)

Sir Alexander Swettenham’s career was of course ruined. He had no choice but to resign, and slip out of the public eye. He seems to have remained a low-key figure for the rest of his life until he died in Switzerland in 1933, leaving just a few hundred pounds to his wife. It is somewhat telling as to the disgrace he continued to suffer in that the Oxford Dictionary of Biography fails to give him even a modest few lines while his brother, Sir Frank Swettenham, has extensive coverage.

Was Sir Alexander on the brink of a nervous breakdown and not really aware of what he is doing when he rebuffed the Americans in such a public way? Was he really trying to please the influential Sir Arthur Jones as was suggested? Government House had been badly damaged and like everyone else his living conditions must have been reduced. These days such behaviour by any prominent individual could be excused by psychological stress and no doubt he would be treated more sympathetically, but in Swettenham’s button-lip era that was riddled with protocol and pomposity and the hiding of true feelings, there was no such thinking. The Governor had blundered as a diplomat and so he had to pay the inevitable price.


In August of that same year, the Americans were still chewing over the incident. This article in the New York Times alleges murky details under the dubious heading “Double Dealing of Swettenham”. It tells of the state Kingston was in post-earthquake with prison riots, but also implies a dismissive attitude towards the capabilities of residents and the negro police force. The article also reproduces (and denies) all of Sir Frank’s written defence of his brother’s behaviour with his strict adherence to the rules relating to armed landings.

And here is Sir Alexander’s infamous letter to the Rear-Admiral which is fairly innocuous and hardly worth all the fuss. It displays a degree of formal sang-froid but perhaps it was the savage observation in the last paragraph that did the damage, British irony often being lost on Americans!



With its contrasting cast of characters showing what can happen to important people in the wake of a disaster or having their noses put out of joint, this whole episode could be the basis for a great book or even a film.

As a footnote to this story, it is noted that another eminent British administrator died in the Kingston earthquake. He was Sir James Fergusson, and had served as Governor of South Australia, of New Zealand and of Bombay.  Even he warrants a Wikipedia entry that the hapless Sir Alexander Swettenham does not.





Sunday, March 16, 2014

The curious tale of the Humanity Islands

With the current crisis in the Ukraine and the Crimea, one is reminded that history is full of stories of secession, of unhappy people who want autonomy and who break away from their homelands, or join up with others, but that all too often this results in wars and even wholesale slaughters.

But other acts of secession are on the individual level and often the work of just one man - and these can make for both astonishing and amusing reading.

Wikipedia has a list of recent or current “micro-nations” and although the instigators were, or still are, deadly serious about their actions, no government has accepted them or their demands.

Australia and New Zealand have a fair share of these renegades, the most famous being Prince Leonard of the Hutt River Principality of Western Australia, which is famous of its own flag, coinage, stamps and passports and is a popular tourist destination. Its matriarch, Princess Shirley passed away just last year.

But as my interest is in older history, one micro-nation that caught my eye on the list is that of the Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads, allegedly founded in the 1870s by a “British captain James George Meads”.

This is in the Spratly Islands group, now the focus of considerable international unrest between the surrounding nations, particularly as the area is believed to rich in resources. Read here.




What information there is available on Meads is vague and conflicting. The only website with a fair amount of information is this old Angelfire site that doesn’t appear to have been updated for 14 years and is full of quirky and dubious facts. A biographical book reviewed on the site can’t be found anywhere. This is what it has to say about the origins of the Republic:
In 1877, Captain James George Meads, Master of the ship "Modeste" discovered the islands that now constitute the Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads and claimed the archipelago on behalf of the world's downtrodden and persecuted. 
Captain Meads named the island group the "Kingdom of Humanity" and the sea that surrounded it, the "Humanity Sea" and, upon proclamation as King James I in 1878, formed a colony on the islands dedicated to a peaceful existence far removed from the hostilities that vexed the nineteenth century world. 
From the outset, the Kingdom of Humanity attracted a vast array of people from around the globe who wished to escape persecution and intolerance in their native country. King James I welcomed these refugees with open arms, claiming he had a sovereign duty to care for the world's poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Then there is other strange information as well from the Philippine version of Wiki which states the Republic of M-S-M was established by a man called Christopher Schneider in 1959. He intended to replace the Kingdom of Humanity and was described as Chief of State and Morton F. Mead, the former King, was proposed to be ambassador to the United Nations.  This version also states that in 1972, Schneider and all of his cabinet drowned when their ship sank in a typhoon near Mindoro Island, and the current status of the micro-nation is unclear but that there have been isolated efforts to re-establish it. (Presumably by whoever prepared the Angelfire website.)

Some basic research into the genealogical records available for James George Mead (not Meads) shows that he was born in Weymouth, Dorset, on 4 March 1834. He joined the Royal Navy and gained the rank of Lieutenant in 1855, followed by Commander ten years later, becoming a Captain in 1872. By 1889 he was a Rear-Admiral and on 9 December 1894, he was a Retired Vice-Admiral. In 1867 he had served as second in command of Rattlesnake, at Cape of Good Hope and the west coast of Africa. Between 16 January 1878 and 30 September 1881 he was “Captain in Modeste (until paying off at Sheerness) commanded by William Montagu Dowell, China”.

Photograph of HMS Diamond,  a similar corvette of the Amethyst class as HMS Modeste

The Angelfire site states that “King James” died in 1888, but investigations show that Vice-Admiral Mead was very much alive and had retired to Bournemouth about 1894.  At the time of the 1911 Census, he and his wife had had 3 children (one deceased) and the two living children were still at home. The ages of James and Mary Mead his wife are given as 77 and 60 respectively and this suggests they had their children somewhat later than usual - George Gaskell being aged 27 and his sister Grace 23. There are several servants listed, but none with exotic names from Asia.

George Gaskell Mead had been born in Dorset in 1883 and served in the Army Service Corps during World War I – his mailing address on his medal card given as a garage in Bournemouth. He must have reached the rank of Captain as he is known by this in many subsequent electoral registers for Dorset. In 1929 he appears with his wife Gladys on a passenger list going to Tangier (hardly the South China Sea!) He seems to have spent his last years in a modest flat in Bournemouth and died in a nursing home there in 1966, leaving an estate of only £427 to a spinster lady.

So the real “King James I” - ie James George Mead - died in Bournemouth on 18 March 1913 and left effects of just under £12,000 and there is no way that his son, George Gaskell, could have been “King George I”. 

So whoever the “royal family” of Songhrati is, they are certainly not legal descendants of the Admiral and the whole thing sounds a bit of a “cargo cult” that involves the creation of a mythic ancestry.

It would be interesting to know if the real James or his son George ever knew how highly they were esteemed by people that James had most likely simply met as part of his exploring duties in the Royal Navy, but on whom he must have made quite an indelible impression to be immortalised in such a way. Perhaps he did indeed give the area the names of Humanity Islands and Humanity Sea and that in itself reflected his own opinion of the people who lived there.

One of the Spratly Islands currently the subject of a diplomatic row between neighbouring states
AP/Scanpix




Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Pistol Packin' Empress

Throughout history, most Russian rulers have been pretty adept at scaring the pants off their subjects, but for her eccentricity, excesses and sheer unattractiveness, there can be few to rival the Empress Anna Ivanova, one several Romanov dynastic tsarinas during the 18th Century.
Anna, image The Hermitage
She was born in Moscow in 1693, a daughter of the lacklustre Tsar Ivan V who suffered from some mental and physical difficulties (producing several children wasn't one of them) and who went by the unfortunate nickname of Ivan the Ignorant. For seven years, Ivan had reigned as co-tsar with his much smarter younger half-brother, Peter – later to be known as the Great – who eventually sent Ivan into retirement and took complete control of the Romanov family business.

Anna and her many sisters grew up quietly in a village outside Moscow and although she studied all the required refinements of the aristocracy, she never advanced beyond the bare essentials of literacy, and grew into a frowsy and uncouth woman with a superstitious, vindictive and capricious character. She was huge with it, a real Amazon, and she towered over everyone in the court. Her fat cheeks were famous and the British author Thomas Carlyle once compared her looks to that of a 'Westphalian ham'.

Frederick William
In 1710, Peter ordered Anna to marry Frederick William, Duke of CourlandNeither party had a say in the matter and one can only wonder at the poor Duke’s reaction at being condemned to holy matrimony with this Russian colossus. Not only that, he had to suffer the humiliation of sharing his wedding celebrations with more than seventy dwarves. They had been invited by Tsar Peter to a second wedding that he had arranged at the same time between two of the court’s dwarves (he had ideas of breeding a race of small people). This was followed by days of drinking that became the biggest vodka binge involving dwarves in history. When one looks at the portrait of the hapless Duke of Courland and sees that he was a most delicate young man, it is quite understandable to learn that he drank himself to death while still on his honeymoon.

The wedding

Some years later, Peter despatched the widowed Anna to her late husband's Latvian dukedom to look after the business there. But Peter knew her limitations so he ordered one of his senior diplomats, Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin to accompany her and attend to the 
Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin
practical side of things which included the unpaid post of gigolo, or more politely, 'gentleman of the bedchamber', to Anna. You did not argue with Peter the Great, and no doubt Ryumin did exactly as he was told in all respects. His portrait shows a man of much more sturdy construction than the Duke and he probably managed his duties with aplomb.

Ernest Johan von Biron
Peter the Great died in 1725 and Ryumin was recalled to Moscow, leaving Anna at a loss in the bedchamber and thus ripe to fall madly in love with Ernst Johan von Biron, an impoverished local nobleman with an eye on the main chance. He had just escaped from prison in Konigsberg where he had been jailed for killing a soldier in a duel and he clearly saw his opportunity with Anna. As he also looked like a Westphalian ham, there is no doubt he must have been Anna's idea of a match made in heaven. According to some sources Anna had a son with him but the boy was said to have been raised by Biron's wife. Her relationship with Biron was to last the rest of her life.

It was largely by accident that Anna ascended the Russian throne. The fourteen-year old Tsar Peter II died the day before his wedding and less than three years into his rule. Smallpox was alleged to be the culprit this time but it was probably the cure that killed him and no doubt included bleeding by leeches and other 18th century quackery aided by that inevitable anaesthetic vodka.

One bonus was that with Moscow packed for the royal wedding, all of Russia's dignitaries and political elite were assembled in one place and the succession crisis went into conclave over who should take over the Romanov family firm. With a potential for factional infighting, and in sheer desperation, the privy council offered the job to Anna. Everybody knew she wasn't the best choice, so it was on the strict proviso that she would be a figurehead tsarina and subject to tight restrictions on what she could and couldn't do as supreme ruler of all the Russias.

She was handed a long list of 'conditions'. She could not marry, nor appoint her own successor and she was told she could not declare war (nor make peace), she was not to impose taxes, not to confer ranks, not spend government money, not sign death sentences and not distribute or confiscate property or honours without permission of the privy council. As all of this is what tsars had done willy-nilly for centuries, it almost smacks of a reformist constitutional monarchy, but there was an uproar among the imperial guards and the nobility as it was having none of these ludicrous semi-democratic ideas and demanded that Anna reject the conditions and reign autocratically as all tsars were expected to do. A group of Anna's friends promptly ganged up and overthrew the privy council and Anna dramatically tore up the conditions in full public view. And of course you can guess at what happened to the members of the privy council. Death involving some sort of stretching and dismemberment procedure, or the frozen wastes of Siberia for life if you were lucky.

On April 28, 1730, Anna Ivanova was crowned Empress of Russia in the Kremlin, becoming the second crowned female ruler of Russia after Catherine I (not to be confused with the more famous Catherine II who came along later as Catherine the Great).

One of Anna's first acts to consolidate her power was to reinstate the most excellently titled Secret Search Chancellery (the 18th Century forerunner of the Cheka, NKVD and the KGB). Those good old Russian traditions of torture, death and exile were rightfully back on the agenda with Anna's lover Biron taking charge. Anybody foolish enough to protest was swiftly eliminated.
Pytor Yeropkin

Anna could be surprisingly contradictory and she must have had a civilized side as she supported French and Italian opera and comedies and even established Russia’s first ballet school. She also continued the vision of Peter the Great and made noticeable improvements in the layout of St Petersburg - although her most prominent architect Peter Yeropkin came to a sticky end when he foolishly involved himself with someone who had fallen out of favour with Biron, and he ended up being staked out and broken over a wheel and then beheaded. Anna also enthusiastically reinstated the death penalty for blasphemy and woe betide anyone who said anything against the Orthodox church.

While Anna grudgingly allowed a form of privy council to be restored, she didn't trust the old political elite and the guards who had served under them, so she created several new guards regiments comprising mostly foreigners as well as a new nobility. She gave them increasing benefits while at the same time she reinforced serfdom and enslaved other sections of the population. In 1736 she decreed that all factory workers were the property of their owners.

Anna's court was a mix of the archaic Russian and the new European styles as introduced by Peter the Great. Visitors were astonished at the splendour and her passion for luxuries. Biron ran most of the affairs of state, while Anna spent much of her time with card games and idle entertainments including cruel jokes at the expense of the old nobility, making them crawl like animals or squawk like birds. She gathered around herself jesters, gypsy fortune-tellers and dark-skinned slaves plus all kinds of other people considered to be freaks with more of those dwarves as well as cripples, and she particularly liked forcing them into wrestling matches between each other.

But what Anna became most notorious for was her craze for artillery and guns of all sorts, pistols and rifles. Large numbers of wild animals were imported into Russia, stocked and released into the grounds of Peterhof Palace just to satisfy her lust for hunting. Loaded weapons stood ready and available in all palace rooms so that Anna could shoot at anything that went past the window that took her fancy and every year she killed several hundred animals and untold numbers of birds - and no doubt a few luckless guards, gardeners and estate peasants in the process!



One of the most memorable and bizarre events of Anna’s reign occurred near the end of her life in the bitter winter of 1739-40 when she ordered that a palace be built in St Petersburg to celebrate Russia's victory over the Ottomans, but that it be made completely of ice. She had the doomed Yeropkin design the building before he was sent to the rack. It was about 20 metres tall and 50 metres wide and built of solid blocks of ice. The building's ice sculptures included artillery pieces, trees, birds and dolphins and an elephant that some sources say spouted a substance that did not freeze, possibly naptha. The interior furnishings were likewise all made of ice, right down to an ice four-poster bed with ice mattress and pillows.

Around this time an elderly prince of the house of Galitzine (or Golitysn) had offended Anna by marrying an Italian Catholic woman rather than a good Russian Orthodox one and although his wife had died, he was still punished by Anna and made to become one of her court jesters. She then searched throughout her staff for the oldest, most unattractive maidservant she could find and forced the prince to marry her. Anna displayed the newly-weds dressed as clowns and made them ride on an elephant at the head of a procession of Anna's freaks with farm animals bringing up the rear.

The newly-weds were taken into the ice bedroom of the ice palace, stripped completely naked and then locked up under guard. The legend is that the couple only survived the night of around minus 40 degrees because the bride traded her necklace with one of the guards for a sheepskin coat. What happened to them after that is unknown but Anna probably decided they cheated with the coat and packed them off to Siberia as per usual.

Wedding at the House of Ice, Valery Jacobi, 1878

The ice palace was reconstructed in St Petersburg in 2006.

Anna passed away from kidney failure in 1740. Just before she died, and without children of her own, she rushed to organise her succession, choosing her baby grand nephew as her heir with the wily Biron to be his regent. But after Anna's death, Biron's control was short-lived and he was seized in his bedroom by one of his rivals and immediately condemned to death by quartering, although he somehow managed to sweet-talk his way out of it and get his sentence reduced to banishment to Siberia for twenty years.

The baby grand-nephew Tsar Ivan VI reigned less than two years before being deposed in turn by the next Empress on the scene, Elizabeth, the legitimate daughter of Peter the Great, and Ivan VI and his family were locked up for life. Tsarina Elizabeth proved to be one of the better examples of Russian rulers in that she refused to ever sign a death penalty and so not a single person was executed during her reign. But the foxy Biron certainly was a survivor and he came back into favour many years later under the reign of Catherine the Great.

This modern image, created by George S. Stuart of the Empress is my favourite!

Anna from the George S. Stuart collection

Here is my own fun take on the Pistol Packin’ Empress (With apologies to Al Dexter)


Oh, drinkin' vodka with the dwarves
Was I havin’ fun!
Until one night she caught me right
And now I'm on the run.
Oh, lay that pistol down, babe
Lay that pistol down
Pistol packin' Anna
Lay that pistol down

Oh, she kicked me out the palace
And she hit me on the head
She cussed and cried and said I lied
And she planned to have me dead

Oh, lay that pistol down, etc.

We're all tough gals us Romanovs
From far out Moscow way
We got no pals coz
They don't like the way we play
We're rootin tootin tsarinas ...
But the best of us is Anna
She's a terror make no error
But there ain't no nicer terror
Here's what we tell her:

Oh lay that pistol down, etc.


Follow these links for more images on the rebuilding of Anna’s ice palace:



Other links and sources on Anna can vary as to the reliability of their information, but the Russian ones tend to be more comprehensive and here a few already in translation.