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  • A Gross of Pirates by Terry Breverton

    From Alfhild the Shield Maiden to Afweyne the Big Mouth

    Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. (A Gross of Pirates, Amberley Publishing)

    Why write twelve books about pirates and privateers? It simply stems from writing about famous Welshmen. I knew about the privateer Admiral Sir Henry Morgan, but by chance discovered Black Bart Roberts, hardly known in Britain, but by far the most successful ‘pirate of the Caribbean’, taking more than 400 ships, and known across the Americas. From the career of the teetotal Roberts, who dressed from head to foot in scarlet (the origin of le joli rouge, the Jolly Roger), I learned of the greatest pirate trial of all time…

    Men flocked to join him from surrendered ships – I did not know that forcible impressment and cruelty was endemic upon merchant ships as well as the Royal Navy – to escape their miserable lives. The average lifespan of a sailor in the slave trade was 18 months. Life as a pirate, in an elected democracy with agreed rules aboard ship, better food and freedom, was far more attractive. In Black Bart’s words, ‘a short life and a merry one shall be my motto.’ Pringle calls Roberts ‘possibly the most daring pirate who ever lived’, and upon the death of ‘the Black Pyrate’, there was the greatest pirate trial of all time, with 273 men captured, including 72 black pirates who had the same conditions, share of booty and freedom as their white counterparts.

    Bart’s is a magnificent story, well documented like those of Morgan, who successfully led six expeditions against ‘impregnable’ targets belonging to Spain and altered the course of the history of North America. Every maritime country has its story of privateers like Morgan, who were, of course, pirates to England’s major enemy.

    Blackbeard. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, A Gross of Pirates, Amberley Publishing)

    A review of the book reads: ‘It's no use pretending that these criminals do not evoke admiration - even envy. Part of the appeal is the democratic nature of their activities, characterised as far back as the fourteenth century by Klaus Stortebeker thieving in the Baltic - his crew were called the “Likedeelers”, the equal sharers. Author Terry Breverton has brought together the extraordinary stories of 144 pirates throughout history. They include Norman privateers, Barbary Corsairs, Elizabethan adventurers, Chinese pirates, “'the Brethren of the coast” - and of course the pirates of the Caribbean.’

    It was enjoyable writing the book, to research other pirates over the centuries. Some were brave gentlemen who led by example, like Henry Morgan; others experienced sailors who were voted into office like Roberts; some too kindly for their crews, like Edward England; and many simply unhinged and cruel, like l’Ollonais and Montbars the Destroyer. One of the early pirates, Eustace the Monk, may have been the model for Robin Hood, and the privateer Didrik Pining may have been the first to discover America. Some were female, such as Alfhild, ‘the bloody Lioness’ Jeanne de Clisson, Sayyida and Madame Ching. The latter, incidentally, had her pirate husband murdered and married his lover, their adopted bisexual son.

    Some readers may know that the character and tale of the renegade Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was inspired by the film Aguire – Wrath of God. Both stories were inspired by Lope de Aguirre (8 November 1510 – 27 October 1561), also known as the ‘Limping Conquistador’, ‘Keeper of the Dead’, ‘El Loco’ (The Madman), who styled himself ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, Prince of Peru, and King of Tierra Firme’. And of course, he’s in the book!

    Terry Breverton's new book A Gross of Pirates is available for purchase now.

  • North Korea in 100 Facts by Ruth Ann Monti

    What’s next for Kim Jong-un?

    As I write this on New Year’s Night 2019, firecrackers are exploding uncomfortably close to my home near Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix isn’t all that far from Los Angeles, which I understand is now within reach of North Korea’s intercontinental missiles.

    It’s a little comforting that it’s less certain if such a missile weighed down by an actual warhead can actually reach LA, much less Phoenix.

    Earlier yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared in his New Year’s speech that international sanctions must be lifted before he gives up his arsenal. For now, North Korea can still scare the crap out of Angelinos by attaching a bunch of Roman candles to a missile.

    What happened to the Trump-Kim love fest?

     Last year, Kim and US President Donald Trump met in an historic, if vague, summit to pledge mutual cooperation in averting nuclear war. I say vague because while both sides stated what they want, neither indicated what he would actually do to achieve “denuclearization.”

    Kim flattered the old man with courtesies like being the first to arrive at the summit and stressing his love and concern for his countrymen—even as he imprisons about one percent of them, including descendants of political prisoners, as I discuss in Fact # 66 in my book North Korea in 100 Facts. Trump openly admired the adulation Kim enjoys from his people, failing to recognize—or simply ignoring—the consequences North Koreans face if they refuse to venerate the Supreme Leader.

    Kim did take encouraging steps after the summit. He returned the remains of several US soldiers killed in the Korean War. He dismantled at least part of the country’s nuclear testing facility, as I point out in Fact #100. But since I wrote that last fact, there have been reports that the decommissioned site was merely too old to be of much use to test newer warfare technologies.

    More concerning are satellite images that show an awful lot of construction in another remote region in North Korea that could well be a new testing site. We just don’t know, and the summit certainly did not list specific steps for North Korea to follow. But it has been well over a year since North Korea tested any nuclear device or delivery warhead.

    Kim’s 2019 New Years address left out the silly propaganda about hitting the US with a “nuclear sword of justice” or turning Seoul into “a sea of fire” as The New York Times reported on 1 January 2019. And since meeting Kim, Trump has ceased calling him names like “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to deliver “fire and fury” to North Korea.

    As I completed the book five months ago, I realized the reasonably short timeframe between submitting my manuscript and its publication would be eons in the world in which President Trump presides. The major foreign policy advisors at his side during the summit are gone, replaced by a former Fox news presenter and Iraq war hawks.

    Between his short attention span and the distracting investigations into his 2016 campaign, Trump simply stopped minding the situation. His new advisors have different ideas, and new points of view that he may or may not understand or follow, regardless of what he tweets out. Some things just can’t be broken down into a baseball cap slogan.

    In the meantime, he hasn’t noticed that Kim is showing signs that he wants to break up with him.

    Will Kim and Trump get back together?

    There’s no question that there will be another Trump-Kim summit in 2019. Trump needs another one to take public attention off of the myriad investigations, which I summarized during their relative infancy in my 2018 book Donald Trump in 100 Facts.

    What Trump will say/demand is difficult to predict. John Bolton, the current National Security Advisor and Iraq war draftsman has historically attacked Presidents, including those under whom he served, for compromising on demands for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear stockpile. Political negotiation and compromise aren’t in his vocabulary. If he has Trump’s ear the day of the next summit, the stalemate will simply continue.

    Bolton calls for the so-called “Libya model,” in which the leader turned over his nuclear arsenal. Not surprisingly, the rest of the world remembers of the US attack on Qaddafi’s residences and the dictator’s subsequent assassination by political enemies. No doubt Kim recalls this, too.

    Bolton claims Kim hasn’t lived up to the Singapore deal. But how does one live up to a deliberately opaque deal? Kim can, rightly, point to closing his existing test site and returning soldiers’ remains. In the meantime, sanctions remain on North Korea, which infuriates him. It doesn’t take much cleverness for Kim to position himself as the party that did something, anything, since the summit.

    When Kim and Trump do meet again, Kim will probably be better prepared. He doesn’t seem to have problems paying attention to details, he’s consistent, and he’s steadfastly kept the same four basic demands:

    1. End the US-South Korean military exercises (something Trump has said he wants to do anyway)
    2. Get the US dismantle its long-range missile capabilities
    3. End sanctions against North Korea
    4. Finalize the treaty to end the Korean War

    North Korea will not begin denuclearization until these demands are met.

    The US won’t agree to the third point until North Korea dismantles its entire nuclear stockpile.

    Kim says he’s ready to meet Trump anywhere, anytime. Trump tweeted out the same, adding he “looks forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!” He should be careful. Kim has the advantage of being backed by a subservient, near-powerless populace (many are starving as I discuss in Fact # 41), while Trump’s democracy is reasserting itself. Kim is determined; Trump is distracted. At this moment, it seems Kim has the upper hand.

    Ruth Ann Monti's new book North Korea in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • The Chinese in Britain by Barclay Price

    A History of Visitors & Settlers

    The Chinese Magicians, Drury Lane, 1854. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the earliest Chinese to travel to Britain were Chinese Jugglers. Although described as jugglers, their acts also included acrobatics and magic. The first recorded troupe arrived in 1816 and were well received; ‘The Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, are most respectfully informed that The Chinese Jugglers continue to exhibit their wonderful performances every day, and to attract numerous spectators; many of whom do not tire of repeatedly witnessing the astonishing feats of these foreigners.’

    In 1818, the troupe had an unusual booking in London when they performed in the nude at a Royal Academy lecture on the naked figure. ‘Some have been so illiberal as to censure such exhibitions at the Royal Academy, but this extraordinary display of the muscles in forms and uses never before beheld, was a circumstance of the utmost service to Artists; it was a display that might never again appear in Europe; the actions of an African, at the Academy, had surprised them, those of the Indian Jugglers had astonished them, but the present ones surpassed all belief or power of description. The Chinese Jugglers then, performed their positions, and the distortions of their extremities surpassed everything that could have been conceived of them. The room was immensely crowded; the applause at the conclusion was general.’

    In 1853, another troupe included Tuck Guy whose knife-throwing trick was a standout of the show; ‘Placing his daughter, a prepossessing girl of about thirteen years of age, at one end of the stage, and causing her to stand with her back against some soft wood, her hands expanded and her fingers separated, he retires to distance. A parcel of very large knives are produced, he picks them up one after another, and, apparently without taking aim, or occupying any time in preparation, slings them recklessly at the child. With wonder amounting to amazement the spectator perceives that every knife has been aimed in the most accurate manner, and that they have been planted one between each of the girl’s fingers, one on each side of her cheek, and others close around her neck, but that not one has grazed her skin, though all have entered deeply into the wall behind her. This unique and unrivalled specimen of sharp practice—if it may be so termed—was well deserving of the applause which was elicited.’

    James Legge and the three students who attended Duchess of Gordon’s school in Huntly in 1846, engraving by J. Cochran after painting by Henry Room. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Victorians also delighted in exhibitions of human ‘freaks’ and in 1864 James ‘Marquis’ Chisholm, a Scottish musician, was touring in China and noticed Chang Yu Sing. Chang was not a man easy to miss as he was at least 7 foot 8 inches in height and Chisholm saw a money-making opportunity.  He convinced Chang to travel with him to Britain, along with a dwarf, Chung-Mow. Chang the Giant and Chung-Mow were exhibited to great success at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly accompanied by Chisholm playing his specially composed The Great Chang Polka. Chang swiftly gained star status. He was invited to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House and at the request of the royal children, wrote his name in Chinese characters on the wall at a height of ten feet from the ground. He later toured to America and Australia, as well as within Britain, and he settled in Bournemouth, where he and his wife, Kitty, ran a tearoom and an 'Oriental Bazaar' selling Chinese curios.

    The Chinese in Britain offers a fascinating portrayal of these and the many other Chinese travellers to Britain since the first in 1687, including seamen, students, cooks, brides, diplomats, servants, sportsmen, bureaucrats and writers. As China becomes a pre-eminent world power again in the twenty-first century, this book uncovers our long relationship with the country and its people.

    Barclay Price's new book The Chinese in Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West by Gordon Napier

    Politics and Witchcraft

    The Burney Relief, an ancient Babylonian artefact in the Britsh Museum featuring a femlae deity, often identified as Lilith. Lilith was remembered in medieval Jewish lore as a demon who prayed on sleeping men who caused epilepsy in children. She is flanked by owls, creatures with a long association with witchcraft. (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

    A story with overtones of Satanism and witchcraft made the news late in 2016, possibly influencing the result of that year’s US presidential election. The email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, was hacked, and 58,660 of his emails were published on Wikileaks. In one of these, Podesta was forwarded one Marina Abramavić’s invitation to a ‘Spirit Cooking Dinner’, by his lobbyist brother Tony. Abramović, a performance artist who cultivates a witch-like persona, has previously posed covered in snakes or holding a severed goat’s head, and has scratched pentagrams into her belly as part of earlier works. (The goat is evocative of Baphomet, the ‘sabbatic’ idol envisaged by 19th century occultist Eliphas Levi, which also bears a pentagram on its brow). ‘Spirit Cooking’ originally referred to Abramović’s 1990s performance pieces involving the slopping of blood around a chamber and over anthropoid figurines, as well as the writing of messages and painting of symbols onto walls. One such message in blood invited the observer to take a sharp knife and ‘cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain’. In one photo, an inverted pentagram and ‘666’ (the biblical number of the beast) feature. In a 2013 Reddit AMA, when asked about the place of the occult in contemporary art, Abramović said: ‘If you are doing the occult magic in the context of art, or in an art gallery, then it is art. If you are doing it in a different context, in spiritual circles or in a private house... then it is not art.’

    Cats were often identified as witches' familiars, and were the subject of various superstitions. (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

    Interest in magic endures, in the West, and there is at least an ironical pretence of belief in the supernatural. Performance art evocative of macabre ritualism still provokes disquiet (even though the artist in question denies being a Satanist). The Podesta revelations potentially damaged the credibility of the Democrat campaign, opening it to attacks from opponents. Partisans of the Republican candidate, meanwhile, half-jokingly claimed to have used internet ‘meme magic’ to secure Trump’s victory. The cartoon frog character Pepe had been co-opted by right-wing meme-makers, and the more esoteric-minded noticed correlations with the obscure Egyptian frog god kek, who became their totem. Modern witches of Leftist leaning, loath to accept the electoral outcome, have in turn sought to cast co-ordinated spells, including an appeal to infernal demons, ‘to bind Trump and all who abet him’.

    In times when magic was taken seriously by governments, such activity as #MagicalResistance would have been treated as treasonous. In antiquity and into the Tudor era it was regarded as criminal even to cast horoscopes to determine how long a ruler might live. Since ancient times plotters have turned to magicians to aid their political causes. Magical doings were part of the harem conspiracy against the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III; spells being cast to incapacitate the harem guards, and to render the intended target more vulnerable. The plot succeeded in killing Ramesses (d. 1155 BC), but not in installing the son of the secondary wife who had been at the heart of the conspiracy. The convicted plotters duly faced gruesome deaths.

    Witches dancing with demons, illustration from the Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual by Francesco Maria Guazzo (1608). (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

    During the reign of Henry VI of England, the Duchess of Gloucester and her associate, Margery Jourdeymayne, known as the Witch of Eye, were among those convicted of a similarly sorcerous plot against the king’s life. The Witch of Eye, in 1441, became one of few convicted witches to be burned at the stake in England. (Most English witches were hanged, and that mostly in a later period. The element of treason determined the sentence in this case). In 1590, James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) oversaw a hunt for witches who were said to meet with the devil at the churchyard in North Berwick, plotting and casting spells against James’ life. James’ cousin the Earl of Bothwell came to be linked to the plot. The witches were said to have conjured storms in an attempt to sink James’s ship while he was sailing abroad, and also to have sought to get hold of intimate items of the king’s clothing to use in harmful enchantments. That James survived indicated his favoured state, for if the ‘detestable slaves of the devil’ were plotting against the life of a sovereign then it could only enhance the target’s pious reputation. James himself interrogated some of the suspected witches. The king took such an interest in witchcraft that he added his own ‘Demonologie’ to the genre of witch hunting manuals. This inspired Shakespeare to write the play ‘Macbeth’, wherein the eponymous warlord consults with witches who prophecy (equivocatingly) that he will become king of Scotland, prompting Macbeth to usurp the throne. The theme of a ruler or warrior consulting witches about his fate is familiar both from classical literature and the Bible, echoing Sextus Pompey’s meeting with Erichtho, and Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. These witches offered illicit- but irresistible- supernatural insight regarding political and military affairs.

    Illustration accompanying a pamphlet titled 'Newes from Scotland' (15910), describing the Berwick witches and their supposed plot against King James VI. The witches are here shown listening to a sermon given by the devil, and a shipwreck caused by their black magic is also shown. (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

    Most historical cases of witchcraft were not tied to the world of politics. Allegations of witchcraft were, however, sometimes used to remove political undesirables, and to discredit factions associated with them. Royal ladies to come under such suspicion included Jaquetta of Luxembourg and Anne Boleyn. They also included Agnes Bernauer, whose real crime seems to have been marrying above her station into the ruling house of Bavaria. Her father-in-law, during her husband’s absence, had her seized, convicted, and drowned in the Danube. In France, supposed treasonous plots involving sorcery were uncovered, from time to time, throughout the Middle-Ages and beyond. Allegations of unholy worship helped King Philip IV to demonise and destroy the Knights Templar. Some of these accusations helped to formulate the notion of the witches’ Sabbath. During the Affaire des Poisons, a later scandal, during the reign of Louis XIV, the royal mistress the Marquise de Montespin, was suspected of using poison to remove a rival for the king’s affections, and was also found to be associating with La Voisin, a society fortune-teller and notorious poisoner, who presided at black masses. The authorities lost interest in prosecuting witchcraft as the eighteenth century dawned. The ‘age of reason’, however, also saw such societies as the Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood, which may have involved mock occultism in dark places. Major political players were involved in such societies, which provided an opportunity for networking and possibly blackmail.

    Modern witchcraft, or Wicca, emerged in the mid 20th century. It is not a clandestine cult involving the great and powerful, but rather a nature religion focussed on worship of its principle deities, the horned god and the mother goddess. It owes much to the writings of the likes of Jules Michelet and Margaret Murray, who saw historical witchcraft as the survival of an ancient fertility cult. ‘The Old Religion’ was supposed to stand against the Christian/patriarchal order that prevailed by the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when historical witch hunting reached its peak. Various branches of modern witchcraft were politicised in the 1970s, when causes such as feminism and environmentalism were pushed by activists. The legacy of this politicization is indicated by the spell-casting campaign targeting President Trump- who ironically had already been turned into the frog by his own fans.

    Gordon Napier's book Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West is available for purchase now.

  • Donald Trump in 100 Facts by Ruth Ann Monti

    100 Non-Alternative Facts About Donald Trump

    Here’s a bittersweet irony: my book Donald Trump in 100 Facts was released in the UK on January 15, the day the US honors the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is the only black American to be so honored—the other two are Presidents Washington and Lincoln, and they have to share a day for their birthday observations!

    Just days ago, Trump was reported to have used one or another similar insults to describe Haiti and African nations in general. Rest assured, this made many Americans shudder, including more than a few who voted for him.

    My book on Trump, written somewhat tongue-in-cheek in line with the rest of the 100 Facts series, was an attempt on my part to identify actual facts about the man. I didn’t research rumors or suppositions that had yet to be proven. Rather, I looked for items that I hoped would provide more solid insights into the man outside of his tweets and reported outbursts from within the walls of the Oval Office. After all, we were advised throughout 2017 that we shouldn’t take what Trump tweets or says too seriously.

    That left out words from Trump’s own mouth although I did look at a few of his books to note where he seemed to go out of his way to mislead. The most egregious, I think, comes from his first book (and I might add, a “yoog” best-seller) The Art of the Deal, in which he repeated the family fabrication created by Fred Trump Sr. during the Second World War that the Trumps, who hail from Germany, were Swedes. (Fred worried how his Jewish tenants would react if they were to learn of his father’s German roots, as I discuss in Fact #19.)

    Later, Donald participated in a documentary of his father’s hometown, Kings of Kallstadt (discussed in Fact #16), which introduces viewers to a cousin who serves as the family historian. By then, of course, Trump was no longer hiding his ancestry and his daughter had converted to Judaism upon her marriage to billionaire boy Jared Kushner.

    Is Trump a racist? I honestly believe that he is. That said, I also believe that most people harbor some racism inside, whether it’s racial, ethnic, even geographic. I certainly know I struggle with this and I was not raised in a particularly racist environment. I’ve worked my entire adult life to catch myself when I realize I saw, heard, or read something that set off internal alarms. I believe most of us, including most Americans, conscientiously work to correct these near-instincts. I say “near,” because racism is learned: at school, at home, on the job, while looking for a job.

    Certainly there are circles of “deplorables” who encourage racism and insist it is an instinct, even a protective one. I reject that notion. If we are indeed the creation of a God, higher power, or cosmic conception, we are meant to be better than this. We are meant to evolve intellectually as well as physically.

    Donald Trump has not done so. He explicitly rejects any attempt at self-improvement, believing he is already as close to perfect as one can get. (He may even believe he is perfect!) There is no off switch on The Donald, or an internal editorial board. He “tells it like it is,” people said early in the Presidential campaign. Which we learned, means he ignored whatever self-restraint he once had and let loose the demons most Americans were working to contain.

    The more I researched and uncovered, the more alarmed I became and I was already pretty high-strung over the concept of President Trump. I even made a conscientious attempt to identify a certain number of “positive” facts and fell short of my goal. There just aren’t many such instances to report on the man. For example, I recalled hearing back in the 1980s that Trump had paid for medical treatment for a young AIDS patient, Ryan White. Upon researching this, I found several interviews with White’s mother denying this and a concurring rumour that Trump also offered his private jet to speed White to whatever treatment center he needed to access (Fact #54). I ended up writing about how Trump was sympathetic to AIDS patients at a time when much of the nation was thrown into hysterics—certainly a positive fact—but I wonder how open-hearted he would be today if HIV/AIDS had emerged in, say, 2015. In 2014, he tweeted this gem:

    How unlike Dr King he is, who traveled far and wide to lead marches, speak out, and risk arrest (and he was arrested many times). It’s OK to do the right thing but be prepared to suffer the consequences. I, for one, am thankful for King’s sacrifice, along with countless others like Medgar Evers, Rev. George Lee, Herbert Lee, Rev. Bruce Klunder, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and far too many more.

    I am truly worried for my country. I can only hope as President Lincoln for the day that “fellow-countrymen…when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

    Ruth Ann Monti's new book Donald Trump in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

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