Author: Richard Darch

Dante: A bone to pick

I’ve often make my feelings about Dante Alighieri known. After being forced to study the Devine Comedy …. repeatedly I have no great love for the man. Its not just the post-traumatic stress that having my classics teacher bellow “but what did he REALLY mean” a hundred times a lecture for two years has induced. I genuinely found the trilogy extremely politically driven, with name dropping enemies of the current power and describing at length the punishment for their sins. Whilst this almost certainly gives us an insight into the author and the social and political environment in which he was writing. I don’t see how it qualifies as the “the most important work of medieval literature”. I found La Vita Nuova, another work by Alighieri, to have far more depth and tone. The themes feel more sincere and as an exploration of courtly love it feels far more personal.

However giving me a reason to amateurishly critique his epic poetry wasn’t the only thing Dante did with his life. He was a statesman in what, for the time period, is my favourite city(-state) on earth, Florence. There were conflicts between ruling houses, as well as ideological divides between those supporting the pope and those who wanted religious independence from Rome. This was two hundred years before Henry VIII was even born. Florence was described as a “festering pit, removed from the light of God and run by bankers”. However what we can see with hindsight is, walking those streets at roughly the same time were Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de Medici, Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci, so it clearly had something going on. The Mediterranean’s greatest minds converged in one place and flourished, likely due to its “hedonistic” liberalism. You could do pretty much anything you liked with anyone you like as long as you paid your taxes. In a Europe getting deeper and deeper into control by the medieval catholic church this concept was huge and liberating.

That being said, as a politician in a city run by bankers, our boy Dante appears to have misappropriated some public funds and was sentenced to exile, should he return before paying off an impossible fine then they would be using him for a bonfire. This on top of all of his assets in Florence being seized.

Side Note: This seems like a really good way of managing tax dodgers. Rather than the current system of “we will issue a fine that is only a fraction of the tax you’ve neglected to pay and call it quits”. I like the idea of take all their assets and then issue a fine on top of that which they will have to pay(along with tax) on any future earnings.

So Dante heads to spend the remainder of his exile, and ultimately his life in Ravenna. This is where he starts writing, extraordinarily industriously. In only eleven years he wrote at least four works that are still considered masterpieces (by everyone except me), over seven hundred years later. He developed a fair amount of fame for these works during his life but just like the renaissance-era Kurt Cobain that he had consistently proven to be, his popularity exploded after his death.

This is where my interest in Dantes story begins…. not just because hes dead although it doesn’t considerably improve my disposition towards him. The great poets work was written in a time when most people couldn’t read. This was pretty universal in Europe. However in England this just meant that the majority of published works were written by the church, priests had a secondary role as notaries and scribes given literacy was a necessary part of their role. However in Italy during the renaissance anyone who could afford to be literate was expected to be. This meant that Dante had a very wealthy fanbase. Dantes hometown of Florence suddenly became very interested in where he should be interred.

I have heard a lot of differing stories on what happened next. What I am relaying here has no more or less chance of being the true story as any other that I have heard as it is backed up with some contemporary accounts.

Florence petitioned Ravenna, which it should be noted was a papal state, for the return of Dantes remains so that he could be properly interred in the city he loved. After many requests the Pope himself agreed to the return of Dantes remains to Florence and a sealed casket was delivered. Now it is REALLY bad form to open a casket however a number of Florentine officials were suspicious of the sudden ease with which their request was granted, so they cracked open the box to find a couple of bags of sand. They couldn’t accuse Ravenna of cheating them because that would mean admitting they had opened the casket. At which point one of the more practical minded of Florence’s leaders pointed out something like “we have the Popes guarantee what is in this box is Dante, we could bury it in a nice shiny tomb with that assurance and still get the profit from housing the remains of the great poet, the monks who cheated us will never tell anyone because that would tell the world the pope lied”. At which point, grinning from ear to ear, they buried the box of sand in Dantes tomb in Florence, whilst his remains appear to have been secreted into a false wall in a monastery in Ravenna.

In reading around this I became aware that the City of Florence, in 2008, formally apologised for exiling Dante. This gave me a headache. They obviously didn’t pardon or exonerate him …. because that would likely mean some descendant of Dantes is getting those seized assets back, with interest. But it does feed into the very twenty-first century mentality that its ok to fiddle your taxes as long as you are famous.

I have slammed Dante pretty hard here…. and in every conversation about him for the full thirty-four years of my life. This is unlikely to change however I should probably describe at least my issues with the divine comedy here. I’m only going to describe Inferno here because all of the themes are pretty constant throughout the rest of the comedy.

As described above Dante got kicked out of his hometown and in my opinion the Divine Comedy is just him whining about that. He places himself at the centre of the narrative with one of his heroes, Virgil. If he had written this today we would call it fan fiction. Virgil then takes him on a tour of hell to show him how all the people who were ever mean to him are suffering. This reads like some angsty teenage misery porn. He does name drop a few dozen famous figures from history throughout the three books all of whom are awed to be in the presence of Dante.

Before they get too far they bump into some of histories most famous poets. Titans of the oral and poetic traditions like Homer and Ovid, all of whom know Dante and they spend some time hanging out and talking about how cool Dante is.

I also have no idea what the fuck Dantes issue was with the Greeks but it turns out every Classical Greek hero has been consigned to hell. He has also co-opted a lot of their Chthonic geography. Please bare in mind that Dante is painting himself as the most pious of Catholics he exchanges banter with the stygian ferryman (who is ferrying souls over the Acheron and neglects his fundamental duty given that he gives passage to Dante who is very much not dead. Don’t worry the styx does make an appearance later. However the Greek God Plutus is occupying a comparatively menial position of passport control administrator in the fourth circle.

Later in the seventh circle a load of demons are being mean to Dante so an angel appears to make them stop because Dante is wise and noble and handsome. Again burying the first book in this work in a fan-fiction vibe.

Before leaving the Inferno and into the second book I should stress for a poem called “Inferno” very little we see is on fire. In fact its mostly ice and rain. I am unsure if this is Dantes attempt at irony, if it is then I don’t get it.

Side Note: If it hasn’t been obvious from my complete irreverence I am not a particularly religious person however theology, particularly comparative theology has always fascinated me. In particular the transition from the image of hell being a cold desolate place “bereft of Gods love” to the fire and brimstone image we are all familiar with today. I wonder now how much Dante may have had to do with solidifying the newer flamey construct of hell.

I appreciate this was meant to be a post about how Dantes bones got used as political poker chips post-mortem however I have found airing my issues with what apparently is one of histories greatest works extremely cathartic.

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Witches: By the pricking of my thumbs.

Halloween may be over for another year however I thought I would wrap up my spooky and folklore themed posts with some witch related information that I found interesting.

Matthew Hopkins

During a period referred to as the “English Civil War” one man was driving the search for, and execution of witches in England. During two years he was personally responsible for the execution of more “witches” than had been executed in the previous hundred years. He claimed to be England’s Witchfinder General a title he gave himself as it was not a role that existed before or after him and it was not approved or ratified by any authority. It should be noted that half of England was incredibly puritanical at the time, this was one of the factors in the civil war. Hopkins capitalised on the increase in religious fervour and fear masterfully.

Side Note: I struggle with the term “The English Civil War” as England had divided itself in conflict several times prior to this. The Anarchy that saw King Stephen and Empress Maud contending for the English throne not only divided the country but also households. Although arguably there was some foreign influence in that war. The Wars of the Roses also split the country.

Side Note: Hopkins actually just gave himself the title of Witchfinder General and managed to draw pay from the government. I would love to know how that conversation went and how it ended so successfully for him.

Hopkins ended up writing a book The Discovery of Witches in which he outlined tricks and tips for identifying and protecting yourself from Malefactors such as witches. Signs included women dancing, singing, drinking and eating too much. Which sounds an awful lot like Cardiff after an England – Wales game at the Millennium Stadium. Once suspected Hopkins would work on extracting a confession. Torture was technically unlawful in England at the time. However the line between torture and interrogation appears to be extremely subjective as Hopkins routinely used sleep deprivation, needles and what is now called “water boarding” to extract confessions from his prisoners.

Eventually the people of East Anglia got bored of Hopkins pageantry and he was called to answer for his methods at the Norfolk Assizes, however before the end of the enquiry Hopkins decided to retire so no further action was taken. He died some years later, still wealthy from his witch hunting.

Christian Caldwell / John Dickson

Shortly after Hopkins attempt to depopulate East Anglia a promising young Witch Pricker emerged in Scotland. Witch Pricking was a highly lucrative endeavour in Scotland. A village would provide housing and six shillings per day in exchange for the Pricker finding witches in the village.

Side Note: Just for comparison, a very good Master Thatcher in a wealthy town would earn about four shillings per day and our of that he would have to pay a thatchers mate and any apprentice or journeymen thatchers.

Witch Pricking was only an occupation for men at the time but Christian really wanted to prick some witches. So she donned the garb of a chap and adopted the name John Dickson.

Side Note: No one seemed to require references or a DBS check in late medieval Scotland. I choose to imaging she got the job with the effective use of a particularly aggressive looking codpiece.

Witch Prickers performed their task by taking a suspected witch, shaving her head to toe and sticking pins in her. The idea being witches are reputed to have areas of skin that can feel no pain. If the woman was found to have such an area she was condemned to die.

Side Note: I am all for a good kink but I draw the line at ending the night with an execution.

To be fair Cauldwell did condemn men for witchcraft as well. Which it turns out was her undoing. She ended up accusing an influential court employee who had just happened to piss her off the day before. He demanded her arrest and whilst under interrogation for torture, eliciting false confession and causing the death of innocent people, her gender was identified. In true judicial fashion of “this is going to be more trouble than its worth”, Cauldwell was banished to Barbados.

Granny Boswell

Ann Boswell lived in Cornwall from about 1820 having moved from Ireland with her husband Ephraim. Both Ann and Ephraim were from a Romani culture and Ephraim was known as the “King of the Gypsies”. Given attitudes towards to traveller communities in Cornwall at the time I do not know if this was intended as an slur, a compliment or simply a fact.

Ann made a living by providing very basic first aid, ranging from ointments for aches and pains, to support as an informal midwife to pregnant women. In particular she was believed to have an almost miraculous ability to cure sick cows and sheep of almost any ailment. Later after the death of her husband and the imprisonment of at least one of her sons, Granny Boswell became a hawker. I had to look this up –

Deinition: A hawker is someone who sells goods informally in the street.

At the time you needed a license from any particular parish to Hawk in their area. Granny was picked up by the police a huge amount between 1880 and 1890 for being drunk and disorderly and hawking with a license for another parish. Ultimately she went to a workhouse due to unpaid debts and had a request for a new pair of boots declined at the age of 92. She died a pauper at the age of 94 having saved lives and incomes through her support and advice.

Side Note: This really reminds me of a character described in Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. It may even have been one of his inspirations. An old lady who was just a bit weird was described with a inferences that she had either mental health or cognitive problems and as a result was branded a witch and shunned by her society. I think she may even have been killed by her community. This will not be the last time I recommend a book by Sir Terry.

Conclusion

Its little to draw much else from these stories beyond – if you are a witch hunter you are likely to die rich. If you try to help people you are likely to die young and at a gallows or old and penniless.

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War on Nature

Humans are driven towards conflict. We as a species are like Mick, the drunk Glaswegian staggering around the streets on a friday night, picking fights with lamp posts. However there are times we get bored fighting other humans as we declare open war on the animal kingdom with mixed success.

Side Note: Mick, you know who you are. I hope the hand gets better soon.

Mao – War on Sparrows

In 1958 as preparation for Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” China announced state mandated culling of four animals. Rodents, mosquitoes and flies which were believed to be responsible for the spread of pestilence. The fourth animal was the sparrow which were believed to be eating grain from the fields.

In May 1959 China mobilised her immense army equipped with guns and soft soled shoes. Men, women and children too to the streets to bring death undo the sparrow. Substantial rewards were offered for people handing dead sparrows in to guard stations. Some reports say that over three million non-military personnel participated in this culling. National newspapers under the instruction of Mao himself reported “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won,”. One report I read suggested that sparrows flocked to extraterritorial locations, like the various embassies where they found refuge. This genuinely almost led to some “diplomatic incidents” when the Polish embassy wouldn’t let the Chinese army in to remove the resident sparrows.

Side Note: Ecological science was totally a thing by the 1950s. Mao wanted to replicate the massive leaps Russia took under Stalin and for that he needed food for the people, Food that he was sure was being eaten by the sparrows. The guy was not alright.

Its difficult to get a proper feel for what actually happened and how seriously the Chinese people took this given that the only sources I can find are in English, mostly American and they had invested in a less than positive attitude towards communist China. Mao had already controlled the national media to a point that the people in China were just as unlikely to know what was really going on as any foreign nations.

Famously Mao enthusiastically read the works of Charles Darwin in his youth and so you have to presume he had at least some awareness of how ecological balances work. The near total eradication of sparrows resulted in what I can justifiably refer to as an ecological disaster. Whilst the sparrows only ate a small amount of grain they did eat a huge amount of locusts. Without their natural predator the locust population exploded and stripped the grain and paddyfields of crop resulting in what we now call The Great China Famine.

Nature: 1
Humans: 0

Edgar’s War on Wolves

Edgar the Peaceable was a Saxon King of England who ruled from 953 AD to 979 AD. Despite what you might think he did not get the epithet The Peaceable because he was a passive, retiring sort of chap. He was a mad, murdering bastard, and by far my favourite ruler in world history. During his rule crime was at an all time low, mainly because his punishments for the first offence entirely eliminated the possibility for a second. He went for a quiet walk with men who had pissed him off and they both encountered fatal accidents. He also had a bit of a thing for nuns. There was no rebellion or insurrection during his reign because everyone was too scared of him. There were no foreign threats to the country because everyone was too scared of him (are you sensing a theme?).

About halfway through his reign people were complaining that wolves were becoming a bit of an issue. Historically wolves in Britain have been quite famous for their industrious breeding rates and the fact they don’t experience island dwarfism. However Edgar decided to ease up on his approach to crime and punishment, he determined that certain crimes could be cleared if the perpetrator were to provide his officials an appropriate number of wolves heads. So for murder, you could choose either execution or provide three wolves heads to the kings representative. Frankly the odds are you would get killed by the wolves anyway. In addition to this if villages were unable to keep up their taxes, rather than his predecessors approach of burning the village to the ground he would ask for wolves heads to cover the difference.

Wolves were native to Britain until the fifteenth century when they were eventually driven to extinction however they weren’t really a problem for people after the reign of Edgar the Peaceable.

Nature: 1
Humans: 1

Australia – The Great Emu War

In 1932, fed up with the devastation growing emu populations were reeking on crops, the people of Campion in Western Australia requested support from the department of defence.

In October 1932 Major Meredith of the Royal Australia Artillery, led Sargeant McMurray and Gunner O’Halloran with two Lewis Guns into the area.

Analysis: A Lewis Gun was an early 1900s machine gun. Now Emus are notoriously fast but very large. I will let you decide if a couple of fuck off machine guns were the right tools for this kind of work. Given these chaps were from the Royal Artillery I guess we should be grateful they weren’t using mortars. I am just glad this was a time before nuclear weapons.

On the Second of November they “Engaged the Enemy” (I swear to God that’s what the report says). Between fifty and seventy-five Emu were sighted. With the help of farmers the birds were herded into an “Ambush”. The feathery body count varies depending on which source you read, the newspaper triumphantly proclaims more than half of the sighted birds were killed. Statements from the farmers who were there said they only managed to kill about ten Emu.

A couple of days later the men had set up a highly elaborate “ambush” which several hundred Emu were heading towards, they waited until the birds were close before opening fire ….. and the gun jammed. Only ten birds were killed. It was at this point that the soldiers reported a psychological analysis of their enemy stating that every pack had a leader. A large male who kept watch and warned the rest of the approach of a threat. They decided to move to another area where the birds were reportedly “more docile”.

Meredith ordered that one of the lewis guns should be mounted on a truck. Their strategy now was to drive straight at the birds, shooting wildly. One thing that everyone knows about Emu is that they are fast, very fast. On the rough terrain the truck was unable to catch them and thankfully Gunner O’Halloran, not being a complete fucking moron realised how stupid and dangerous opening fire on a bouncing truck going full whack over rough terrain was. So far during this “campaign” (yes that is what they reported it as) we are looking at about 3000 rounds of ammunition spent over ten days, with three senior, trained and experienced military men, the estimated body count was forty. At this point Major Meredith’s report stated that his “men have suffered no injuries”. Due to overwhelmingly negative press coverage and the fact the entire nation found this absolutely hilarious, the national government withdrew Major Meredith and his men on 8th November 1932.

Side Note: I think its fair to say this situation marred the reputation of the Australian Military. The Australian Military had an outstanding reputation prior to this with demonstrations of significant naval prowess throughout World War One and the noted and incredible heroic action of Australian forces at Galipoli. Its understandable the Australian government didn’t want to be seen losing a military action against birds.

Shortly after the military withdrew, farms in Campion reported being over run by Emu. This had such a devastating impact on the crop and projected yields that the Prime Minister ordered Major Meredith and his men back to deal with the situation. This is where they experienced their first success of the campaign, given there were so many Emu it was just a case of aiming in the right direction and blindly firing. By December when the team were recalled they claimed about 100 Emu killed per week. Averaging ten rounds of ammunition per confirmed kill.

In the face of this costly and frankly humiliating exercise the Department of Defence referred the case to the Department of Agriculture who found a 100% effective strategy – they put fences up around the farms. Despite the ediculous and unnecessary body count I am chalking this one up to nature as the army withdrew without success and the Emu succeeded in making Humans look profoundly incompetent. This two month engagement with two machine guns, experienced personel and over ten thousand rounds of ammunition barely put a dent in the Emu population in the area.

Nature: 2
Humans: 1

Analysis

There are hundreds of cases like this. I chose these three because they are examples of nations legislating against nature. Trying to extract morals or learning from these examples beyond the jokes, I would say “don’t fuck with nature” is a good moral. Also “states shouldn’t legislate for pest control without consulting someone with at least a GCSE level understanding of basic ecology”. I am not even going to explore the fact that in Australia plan A is a machine gun, plan B is a fence.

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Korrigan: White Deer

Humans have always tried to explain away what they do not know with a supernatural answer. We are a species that are tied to each other and to the land through our oral tradition. Exploring our myths and legends can tell us a lot about a culture and sometime offer us a connection through them that transcends millennia. Its critical not to dismiss the myths and legends as “just stories”, these were stories that one generations would use to teach the next. They serve as the core to a culture from which it can grow.

The peoples of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland share a connection with Brittany in mainland europe. They are peoples with a shared origin and even well after the Norman invasion which did a pretty solid job of homogenising the majority of Britain, the people of Cornwall had more in common culturally with Brittany than with the English. This is strongly reflected in the myths, legends and folklore of these peoples. I have heard many versions of this story over the years, including the one my very cornish grandmother used to teach me when I was a small child. The details of these legends often change with every retelling but the central moral remains. I will go through the version from Brittany. As far as I can tell this is the earliest written down however Cornwall and Wales have their own distinct take on this myth.

Seigneur of Nann and the White Deer

Robert was the lord of a small village in Brittany, A year after this marriage to Sabine, his true love, she bore him two children. A boy and a girl, both healthy which was a blessing for the time. Robert was overjoyed, as he sat at Sabine’s bedside, weeping tears of joy he asked if there was anything she desired. All she had to do was say and he would make it so.

Sabine asked him for some venison from the deer in the forest near the town of her birth. Robert immediately promised her this and within the hour he was riding out the gates of his town. The journey to the forest was uneventful and by dawn the next day he had spotted the most magnificent deer of pure shimmering white. He set for it and it disappeared into the forest. Robert gave chase but eventually lost sight of the Deer. Tired and thirsty he found himself near a clear pool and noticed a fair lady with skin of alabaster white sat on a rock there brushing her hair. He asked to take a drink from the pool however did not wait for a response. As he dipped his hands into the water the maid screeched, he looked up to find he at not noticed the beautiful maid had eyes of blood red.

Side Note: He didn’t notice something as remarkable as blood red eyes? what part of her was he looking at to determine how pretty she was? Also in some variations of this story she was naked. Women particularly Fae Women in these legends tend to be unimaginably powerful but naked. frankly I have no idea what to make of that. I also think death should be the consequence of more social faux pas.

She hissed at him that he had defiled her pool and that a death curse lay upon him. She would only lift the curse if he would marry her this very night. Shocked he said that he would not as he already had a wife and the very day before she had given birth to his two children, even if that were not so, he said he knew what she was and he would not marry a Korrigan. He ran for his horse and rode home.

As he approached the gates of his town he was greeted by his mother whom he told of the meeting with the Korrigan and that in three nights he would be in his grave. He bade her to tell his wife nothing of this.

Three days later Sabine heard the bells of the town ringing and asked her mother in law what it meant. She said that Sabine should not worry herself, a minor tradesman of the town had died in the night and the bells rang out his funeral. She asked after her husband and the lady told her that Robert had gone to a neighbouring town trading and would return to her soon. Sabine accepted this and asked what colour dress she should wear as she wanted to go to church to offer thanks for the birth of her children. The lady advised her today, was a day to wear black.

Side Note: The ringing of bells appears a lot in Brythonic folklore and very rarely indicates anything good.

As they made their way to the church Sabine saw the door to her husbands crypt open and turned to her mother in law asking what was happening. The lady informed her that Robert had fallen foul of a Korrigan and died. Sabine was so grief stricken before the sun set on that day she too was dead and lay in the tomb.

Side Note: I would fucking love to see Disney spin this one into a song and dance number. Tim Burton could probably pull it off though. Also if my mother is that cool after I die please check her alibi.

The last line of the legend goes –  “And the peasant folk say that from that tomb arose two saplings, the branches of which intertwined more closely as they grew.” This feels like an overt allegory for eternal love and frankly whilst it feels there is probably something deeper there I have utterly failed to draw much meaning from this line.

In most of the legends I know the Korrigan are usually fairly mischievous, sometimes ill tempered but rarely this intensely malicious. I am taking it as read that “defiling her pool” wasn’t an euphemism, although that would explain why she insisted on marriage and got so pissed when he left. If he did shag the fairy it would totally destroy the attempt at symbolism we are left with in the entwining trees. The pools and fountains of the Korrigan are always referred to as sacred so perhaps the waters mean more to her than we can appreciated.

My grandmother used to tell me a similar tale about a white hare dancing in the forest which turned into a beautiful woman and stole the soul of young men who cast their eyes upon her. Seth Lakeman sings a song about this legend with a great video, I recommend checking it out. Folksong is genuinely the most reliable source for many of these stories as it stems from the original oral tradition. In regards to the white hare I am unsure if they are variations of the same legend or part of a broader theme. Perhaps this will become clearer as I work through more Brythonic myths and legends.

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Alexander The Great: A night on the town

I was going through some files a couple of weeks ago and found an essay I wrote for A-Level Classical Civilisations. I half-arsed the living crap out of this thing. It was about Alexander the Great and what factors I felt led to his success in expanding an empire. Honestly I think I wrote it the night before the deadline, using whatever resources I had immediately to hand as a sixteen year old in 2002. I am surprised I even bothered to hand it in, I am amazed I bothered to keep it and I am utterly speechless about the fact I got a really decent mark for it. In my first revision I found I had written in the corner “?Alexander drank himself to death”. Now I don’t remember reading that anywhere and it certainly seemed like new information to me, however it was written in the margin in my own handwriting. So I did some googling and then some reading, and had some conversations with friends who took their classics education far more seriously than I had. The outcome of all this work is – It is possible but extremely unlikely that Alexanders death had anything to do with alcohol. Which is extremely anticlimactic, however this was not reading done in vain my friends because Alex the Great did a lot of stuff whilst drunk that is going to keep me in writing material for months.

In 331 BCE Alexander on his unstoppable imperial march took the Persian Capital of Persepolis. Throughout history empire expansion has always been a messy business however for the most part the Macedonian expansion did a lot to preserve the culture and infrastructure of the captured towns. This is pretty sound practice, Alexander was very good at expanding the borders and had no intention of stopping. If he left a lot of pissed off dispossessed people behind him his army would have to deal with that rather than taking a stroll east with him. Alexander was also reported to be a great lover of art, science and culture so wasn’t massively into torching great works.

However after a long day forcing the occupation of a hostile city he decided to unwind in the local pub. Where he and his crew got to the task of drinking, hard. I suspect Alexander experienced a “hold my beer and watch this” moment because what is reported to have happened next was our boy Alex burning Persepolis to the ground whilst being egged on by an absolutely hammered prostitute.

Side Note: I can imagine the scene. Alexander, bronze skin and godlike physique flat in the dirt, his golden breastplate shimmering against the dull mud. He groans and slowly lifts a hand to his temple, he opens and closes his mouth a couple of times just to see if it still works. The intense smell of smoke, and the sound of crackling embers draws him closer to consciousness. With great effort and a further groan he forces one eye open. Seeing nothing but embers and ash, First confusion, and then panic. “What the fuck did I do last night?”.

As fun as the narrative in my head is, the sources recording the night drinking were written decades or centuries after the fall of Persepolis and reportedly based on contemporary sources “now lost to us” which I always find deeply suspicious, especially given the histories were later written by less than sympathetic Roman “historians”. What is more likely is that Alexander and his army after years of war, took the capital of their sworn adversary, the people who had fought and persecuted Macedon for generations. With all the adrenaline and testosterone of battle flying through their veins they experienced a sudden massive loss of discipline and a growing desire to put to fire the wrongs of the past.

Side Note: Who hasn’t from time to time considered venting some frustration or stress with a near apocalyptic case of arson? Also when my boss asks for a general status update at work I often reply “well nothings on fire”, the lack of fire is my bare minimum criteria for success in most situations (but not all).

This isn’t based on any records of the event however it is an extremely common theme throughout the history of our species. Rivalry, Warfare and Revenge are the core aspects of the human psyche that we don’t like to recognise very often. A millenia and a half later the same would be true of the great Catholic-Protestant conflicts of Europe. Whilst the spark was religious ideology, what drove the slaughter was rivalry, warfare and revenge.

Side Note: My favourite author, David Gemmell wrote a character in two books who obtained the epithet “The Damned” for leading a massacre following the fall of a city called Perapolis. I have had to restrain myself from writing posts exploring the characters and the world he created in his Drenai saga, however this was his most on-the-nose parallel with reality which warranted a mention.

I should stress that I have referred to the “Persian Empire” here purely because when I give it its proper name of The Achaemenid Empire people tend to glaze over when I am talking to them. Persia was only a small part of a massive empire but modern popular culture has made it wrongly synonymous with Achaemenid.

Most versions of these events appear to have been written by the Romans. Particularly the drunk prostitute egging an even more drunk Alexander on version. This was written by Quintus Curtius Rufus, who was VERY Roman. I still don’t have a clear idea of what the Romans had against their Hellenistic predecessors. If you read the more famous works of Virgil and Dante they are little mor than Anti-Greek propaganda. The most plausible explanation I have heard is they didn’t go in for the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” concept. They wanted people to think they were all there is and all there had ever been.

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Pwyll of Dyved: Legend One

I’m slowly working my way back through the Mabinogion, because who doesn’t love medieval Welsh literature? I actually found myself chuckling at this light hearted tale of sexual exploitation, violent extortion and the total deception of two nations.

Pwyll was the Prince of Dyved, one day he decided to go for a hunt so he rode out of his palace at Narbeth for his favourite hunting grounds in Glyn Cuch. When he gets there he immediately loses all of his friends and hears some hounds that are not his own nearby. He goes to take a look and finds several dogs with shimmering white coats and blood red ears attacking a stag. He wanted the stag for himself and shouted the terrifying ghost dogs off before setting his own hounds on the already half dead stag.

Analysis: Who in their right mind, whilst lost and alone would piss off some clearly supernatural beasts in order to get access to a bit of venison? Is Pwyll really brave, suicidally stupid or insane?

Enter the owner of the terrifying ghost dogs, a tall, well dressed stranger who was more than a little pissed off that his quarry had been effectively stolen by Pwyll. They exchange words during which Pwyll is nothing but contrite, conciliatory and frankly quite slimy. The stranger, who claims to know who Pwyll is, talks with absolute contempt. Pwyll says he would do anything to make it up to the stranger who he suspects from the attitude to be very important. The stranger says he is Arawn one of the Kings of Annwyvn.

Analysis: It turns out Annwyvn is a sort of well known magical realm. Pwyll has pissed off a fairy king. This does not feel like a longevity enhancing move.

Arawn says that if Pwyll disguises himself as Anawn for a year and fights a duel in his place everything will be cool between them. To help him with this Arawn will place a spell on Pwyll so that no one from Annwyvn will know it is not him. He will also give Pwyll free reign over his wife for the year. He guarantees that Pwyll has never seen anyone more attractive than his wife. The condition is that he must try to beat his opponent without striking him twice, as the rival king would instantly recover if struck by a second blow. Arawn said he would give Pwyll some fairy magic to ensure that only one strike was needed.

Analysis: I’m pretty sure this would have been fairly rapey even at the time of writing. Bare in mind the crime is stealing Arawn’s hunt. Anawn is powerful enough to 100% convincingly disguise Pwyll so effectively that even his wife doesn’t notice the difference, and also give him the magic to win a duel. Why cant he just fight the duel himself? it would be far less hassle.

Pwyll is very much up for this and they head off for Annwyvn. When at the edge of the domain Anawn places the glamour over Pwyll and says that he will intuitively understand the customs of his court. They agree to meet there again in a years time. At which point Arawn strolls off whistling. Pwyll is taken aback by the majesty of the buildings and when he enters the throne room servants change him into robes of silk and gold and hand him a golden, jewelled goblet of fine wine. Pwyll looks up and the Queen, who is the most breathtakingly beautiful woman he has ever seen greets him very warmly.

Side Note: The version I read didn’t explicitly state Pwyll and the Queen did anything particularly intimate however it does spend a long time describing how lovely she is. The whole vibe is extremely rapey …. and she doesn’t even know! I have read a version of this story that was made child friendly in which it was explicitly stated Pwyll did not take “lay with the Queen” during this year but that was a twentieth century revision of the tale.

So Pwyll disguised as Arawn spent a year eating, drinking, hunting and generally having a laugh with the Queen and all his new courtly friends, until the day of the duel. Pwyll approached the agreed site for the duel with his knights and met with King Havgan who gives a lovely speech about how this is a matter between kings and the knights should step away, which they duly do. Pwyll steps forward, slashing his sword which instantly breaks Havgan’s shield and armour in two, leaving him on the floor bloodied and beaten. Havgan urges the victorious Pwyll to finish him off, to which Pwyll replies “nah”. Havgan’s domain is signed over to Pwyll and the kingdom of Annwyvn is united.

Analysis: If Arawn had the god-mode cheat for this fight why didn’t he just use it himself?!? I would say its totally unfair but then so is Havgan’s total-healing trick. Also I am ashamed to admit when reading Havgan was beaten and begging to be killed I did say allowed “Finish Him!” which led to a very complicated conversation with my four year old son.

The next morning, one year to the day after they first met, Pwyll and Arawn stand, talking in a wood. Arawn is overjoyed that Pwyll, in his name, has united his kingdom. He says that Pwyll will be equally happy because in the year that he has been gone, Arawn disguised as Pwyll has caused his land to prosper beyond imagining.

Side Note: Originally I thought I had missed something so I reread this tale a few times, and then checked in another edition. Its possible this is just a fault in the two versions I have now read but at no point prior to this did it state that Anawn was going to disguise himself as Pwyll. Don’t worry Pwyll wasn’t married.

Pwyll gets back to his court and asks his courtiers how the last year has been. They say he has been the wisest, kindest, most amazing king they have ever known in the last year. Pwyll says that he should not get the credit for that and explains the events of the last year to them.

That’s where this particular story ends and honestly I have some very complicated feelings about it. The character of Pwyll could use a really good therapist, in order to gain the friendship of someone he has just met he agrees to drop his life for a year and fight a duel without any hesitation. I have to admit however I love the almost total lack of exposition in this story, it just gets straight to it. Unfortunately “it” appears to be rape by deception, fraud, alcoholism and debauchery on a borderline industrial level and grievous bodily harm.

The concept of using magic to hook up with another mans wife whilst disguised as their husband isn’t without precedent. The names change a lot but several of the legends about the birth of King Arthur involve his father doing this. Arguably its a way of preserving the fair ladys virtue. Eleventh century Britain had some very specific feelings about adultery with various gruesome punishments (usually only for the woman). Perhaps the use of illusion was a way of making the infidelity more palatable.

I also noted in both editions of the story I read, whilst every possible unpronounceable name was provided for the places and men, the only woman in the story was merely given as “The Queen”. The whole thing screams of misogyny but honestly that wasn’t particularly uncommon in twelfth century Britain.

Another interesting mechanic is the trait of Havgan who appears to heal entirely when fatally wounded. I am sure I have heard a mechanic like this before however I cant readily find a reference. Its possible this is thematic in Brythonic mythology or may reflect a societal integration with Christianity as there are some similar concepts in the bible.

As a final note Pwyll appears to have no issues revealing the truth to his courtiers when he returns to Narbeth but there is no suggestion that Arawn tells anyone he hasn’t been around for a year. I’m not sure if I am just looking at this through a modern moral lens or if these are indicators that Arawn was a far more sinister character when he was originally written eight hundred years ago. Its also impossible to know how well established Arawn was in oral tradition and folklore prior to the codification of the Mabinogion.

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Boudica: Sing O Goddess…

Looking at the last few posts and the realisations I have come to through the research I had undertaken to write them, it has become increasingly clear that even in a free western society we are taught to look at our national past through a very specific and forgiving lens. Even when approaching cases like Saragarhi or Boudica with as open a mind as possible reviewing the subjects I was taught at school from a new unbiased perspective can be shocking.

Boudica is one of the most recognisable names in the history of Britain. She enters history around 60 AD as the wife of the chief of the Iceni tribe. Her husband was the most mediocre man in Celtic Britain. The Romans rocked up and Prasutagus just wanted to keep his head down and get on with being chief. Britain at the time was a collection of tribes who maintained a chaotic peace out of necessity, they required each other for trade but you’d be hard pressed to get them to agree that water was wet. Historian Doctor Emma Southon stated that They (The Celtic Tribes) “hated each other a lot, they hated each other in a way that only people who have a lot in common can hate each other”. When the Romans came along with their organised armies and an empires worth of resources Prasutagus knew trouble when he saw it riding towards him on the back of an elephant.

Side Note: Can you imagine living on an island where the largest animal anyone has ever seen is a horse and suddenly an army is marching in your direction with elephants. Its unclear to me how effective elephants actually were in battle with the obvious exception being the Battle of Pelennor Fields. However given successful use of shock and awe is half the battle I would imagine they were incredibly effective at demoralising even the stoutest of fighting forces. Not dissimilar to the use of rockets by the British in the early Napoleonic Wars; you couldn’t hit a bard if you set one off inside it but they scared the living hell out of anyone in their general path.

The Iceni under Prasutagus become supplicant to Rome, they swear fealty, offer tribute and the Romans leave them alone. Its believed that Prasutagus was placed as chief by the Romans as his predecessor was less compliant. Prasutagus dies, its not obvious that it’s anything other than natural. However the inheritance which should go to his daughters is claimed by the Romans, when the Iceni resist Boudica (their queen) is stripped and beaten, and her daughters are raped. I have spent years working with victims of rape and almost universally the intent hasn’t been about sexual drive but about power and domination. I can only presume that is the case here, the Romans publicly rape the princesses and humiliate the queen showing their dominance over the Iceni and the peoples of Britain in general.

The narrative for what happens next that is taught by the British school system is that Boudica picks herself up and decides to liberate Britain from these foreign oppressors. The narrative that I have come to believe is that she had been beaten, stripped of her dignity and forced to watch her daughters raped. She lost her fucking shit. I am far more inclined to believe that these events changed her and she was not going to stop until Britain was washed red with the blood of every Roman she could find, freedom and sovereign rights are unlikely to have had much to do with it. This is just speculation but I will try and defend it, this is not meant to in any way diminish her accomplishments but speaking as a father I totally support her motives here.

The Iceni, like all Celtic Tribes were required by the Romans to disarm. Boudica’s first act was to arm her warriors. She then rallies local tribes known for their anti-roman sentiment and arms them. Under her leadership they march on Colchester.

Side Note: Initially I was surprised that in 60 AD a woman held the standing to lead, however the majority of historians seem to agree that gender inequality wasn’t really a thing in Celtic Britain. Particularly for the smaller tribes.

Colchester was THE Roman city in Britain. It was mostly occupied by a romanised celtic tribe called the Trinobartes. When word reached them that a large celtic army was on the march in their direction they requested support from the regional Roman Governor. Given he considered it impossible for this mass of celts to want a fight (as far as he was aware they had no weapons and would be insane to want to mess with Rome), he sent 200 unarmed men to police Colchester. This was a mistake on a laughable scale. Boudica was armed to the tits and looking for blood. The torching of Colchester was so extensive that you can find evidence of it by digging almost anywhere in the city today.

This was a massive militaristic victory but much more importantly it got the message out to the tribes. The Romans are mortal and we can make them bleed. Despite my belief in Boudica’s motives the burning of Colchester was the clarion call that had the tribes fighting for freedom from Roman occupation. Next stop, London.

It doesn’t take long for Giaus Seutonius Paulinus to hear about the burning of Colchester. As the Governor of Britannia its his job to deal with this. He is also a highly experienced career military tactician. Unfortunately he was off in Wales with two legions beating up some druids when all this is kicking off. He starts the march to England’s South East to deal with the rebels. By the time he gets to London its already been torched.

Its about now that Boudica and her army bump into the Ninth Legion… hard. The Celts fuck the legion up in a way that hadn’t been done since Brennus took on Romes earliest legions over three centuries earlier. The legions and in particular the Ninth had cultivated a well deserved reputation for frank immortality. The destruction of a legion sent ripples through the empire that were even felt in Rome. Realistically its likely the Ninth fell as much to their own hubris as to celtic iron. They hadn’t taken the threat Boudica’s army posed seriously and saw them as a band of savages led by a woman. Regardless the destruction of this legion would inspire insurrection across the empire for the remainder of Romes existence.

Side Note: The Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) aren’t just known for their crushing defeat at the battle of Camulodunum. They have inspired legend and folklore across the British Isle for famously “disappearing”. They were reformed after the defeat at the hands of the Celts and maintained extensive records of their work across Britain until 120 AD, when the Romans started their long withdraw from Britain the Ninth Legion just disappear from record. They don’t appear to have been defeated or disbanded. In the city of York their ghosts are said to be seen marching south on midwinter nights. Others believe that they naturalised with the native Celts using their training and knowledge to defend Britain against the Saxons, giving eventual rise to the legend of King Arthur. Its unlikely we will ever know what happened to them however it is odd the records just stop. The reason many historians love studying Rome is because they wrote everything down.

Seutonius however was a skilled military leader, he identified the route the Celts were taking, following the roman road of Wattling Street and picked a spot for a battle. He chose a narrow valley that would bottle neck the oncoming force whilst preventing them encircling his army. Ultimately the destruction of Boudica and her army was due to the same hubris that destroyed the Ninth Legion, she assembled a crowd of spectators who blocked her retreat. And thus the great Iceni uprising that almost cast the Romans from Britannia fizzled out.

My Analysis

I recognise that this may read fairly critically of Boudica. However I am not critical of her, she achieved things believed to be impossible. However I do take issue with how she has been mythologised. Books have been written about how shes a great feminist icon. Feminism is a movement seeking gender equality, the celts had gender equality. Anyone who thinks she is a great feminist icon just because she was a woman doesn’t have a clue what feminism is.

I also have a bit of an issue with the sources. Firstly the Celts didn’t really write stuff down and so the two sources we have to rely on are –

Tacitus: Having been forced to read pretty much everything Tacitus wrote whilst I was at college will almost certainly be something I describe in detail to a therapist at some point. However as a source for the Boudican uprising it should be noted that he was writing fifty years after the fact. He also hated women like no one else I have ever read. He was utterly outraged that a woman was leading men and doing manly things like speaking in public. The guy had issues and whilst I think in his own way he was being sympathetic towards Boudica his account has definitely been coloured by his prejudice.

Cassius Dio: A Greek “Historian” who wrote a history of the Roman Empire almost three centuries after the events described here. In his account he gets a lot wrong, for example – Britain’s Location, Britain’s Size, Britain’s Climate, The Fact Britain is an Island. So its important to take his accounts with a pinch of salt. Still he is a far more entertaining read than Tacitus.

My feeling is that Boudica was a strong and proud woman who experience unimaginable trauma and tried to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for revenge in roman blood.

I quote the Iliad in the title of this post. “Sing O Goddess, the anger of Achilles” is the complete statement. It may seem like an odd link but the story of Boudica always reminds me of the description of Achilles after the death of Protroclus as an “Avatar of Slaughter”. He becomes incensed with grief at the death of his friend and lover, what happens next is not the result of conscious thought but pure, soul rending fury. A rage so intense that it will never be spent. The kind of rage that drives you to your own destruction. That is how I see Boudica and that’s not a critical view of her. Overly mythologising these figures stops us exploring the human story in any depth. Rage, Despair, Humiliation, Pride these are all very human traits that are represented in this story nothing supernatural or superhuman needs to be added for a meaningful reflection.

Finally I am also struck by one of the universal themes here that transcend time and culture. There are few parents throughout history who wouldn’t have had a similar reaction to the rape of their children. Those parents who would have reacted more indifferently are outliers and often stand out in history for that very reason.

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Lithuanian Immigration to Scotland

This post is intended to support the Biographica Incognita article on Johnny Ramensky. In researching the social and political landscape in which Johnny found himself, a large story started to unfold which I couldn’t fit into the article and was so much bigger and separate to the man himself. Some of the details from the article may be repeated here in order to allow this post to work as support to the article or as a work in its own right.

Scotland at the beginning of the twentieth century was a rapidly changing environment; constantly reconfiguring and reidentifying itself to support the mass industrialisation that had swept across the United Kingdom. Shipbuilding in Aberdeen and Glasgow brought previously unknown wealth into the country. Demand for coal, iron and clay from the mines and pits particularly around Glasgow ensured incredibly low unemployment rates. Scotland’s revenue became entirely dependent on its natural resources, and in turn a huge amount of importance was placed on the native workforce. Unionisation allowed workers to leverage their vital labour against improved pay and working conditions. Company owners became increasingly agitated at the power being pressed against them by “the working classes” and feared (probably quite accurately) that submitting to unionist demands would set a dangerous precedent.

This highly volatile situation couldn’t go on forever. It eventually resulted in a series of labour strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Company owners were determined to find a resolution that would not result in more power being handed to the workforce. They eventually sent agents to countries known to pay extremely poor wages, in particular Lithuania and Poland, with the intention of recruiting a new workforce.

I’m going to focus on Lithuania here because that has been the basis of my research, however Poland has a very similar narrative.

Lithuania in the early 1900s

I will give an overview of the events preceding the recruitment of labour from Lithuania, however it should be noted that it is impossible to offer a complete picture of a regions social and political situation without describing the socio-political situation that preceded it, and from there its turtles all the way down.

From the sixteenth century until the late eighteenth century Lithuania was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was divided in 1795 and Lithuania was, for lack of a better word, “absorbed” by the Russian Empire. For years after this Lithuania struggled to maintain its own identity against the pressures of increasing Russian immigration and investment. This led to Lithuania opening its borders to Napoleon in 1812 when he was marching his army on Russia. A large number of the native Lithuanian population, seeing a chance to gain independence from Russia, joined Napoleon’s army. It is hard to say what reprisals the Lithuanian people faced when Napoleon was forced to retreat out of Russia, however Tsar Alexander I was known for his ruthless reaction to insurrection.

Side Note: It definitely didn’t help that Augustus III, King of Poland-Lithuania was relentlessly committed to failure. He repeated military tactics, economic and social policy that resulted in utter catastrophe without learning or changing and reacted with complete surprise when it all went wrong… immediately followed by doing the same thing again with increased vigor. To call him ruinous would be extremely complimentary.

Two more attempts at independence were made during the nineteenth century which resulted in Tsar Alexander taking an approach of “Russification”. This was a process of suppressing Lithuania’s national identity, banning the use of their native language, persecuting any non-Catholics, and devolving power back to St. Petersburg. This also involved the mass movement of native Lithuanians out of Lithuania, and offering Russians incentives to settle in Lithuania. What strikes me the most about this are the parallels to to a lot of the actions taken by Josef Stalin half a century later – which were a stone on the path to having Stalin decried by many historians as “the most evil man that ever lived”.

This article published in 1863 entitled “Mauravievs Troubles in Lithuania” demonstrates quite clearly the approach taken by the empire.

Far from suppressing the growing nationalist movements in Lithuania, these policies of Russification forged competing nationalist groups into a legitimate resistance.

Exodus

Whilst Lithuania would eventually gain its independence, the cost in human life, infrastructure and economy was tremendous. The new nation was left without the resources necessary to support its population. Disease and famine were rife amongst the lower classes. Day-to-day life was hard. I have rewritten this paragraph a dozen times trying to accurately describe how hard and I have found myself unable to do so. According to one report, 650,000 native Lithuanians, men and women who fought for decades to preserve their culture, community and national identity, left the country they had fought so hard for, never to return. That is one in four of the native population. The driver behind this diaspora was the relentless suffering that was life for the people of Lithuania.

The immigration was aided by agents arriving from Scotland, America and South Africa. They offered wages which, whilst still meagre in the receiving country, were princely to impoverished Lithuanian labourers. I find it hard to believe that those who chose to leave were unaware of the welcome they would face from local communities, given their experiences with Russian citizens being moved into Lithuania however the journey must have seemed worth it.

By the outbreak of World War One over 7,000 Lithuanians had settled into communities around Glasgow with the purpose of replacing the striking Scottish miners.

It appears that the Scots, with their fierce national pride and distinct cultural identity refused to distinguish Lithuanians from Poles, resulting in some very confusing record keeping. I have never seen a Scotsman being recorded as English without resulting bloodshed. It does seem however that over time these migrant communities integrated well. A combination of the “foreigners” willingness to anglicise their names to make them more familiar to the Scots, with some trauma bonding in the small mining communities. Events like the pit collapse at Glenboig in 1909 where a predominantly Lithuanian community spent hours digging the bodies of four Scottish miners out of the collapsed pit.

It is hard to read the story of these migrants without seeing a foreshadowing of Windrush half a century later. The Lithuanians were never forcibly removed however the cost appears to have been the sacrifice of their culture, their history and in many cases their very names.

I feel there is an important reflection point here. Integration is important, a cohesive community offers resilience where division exposes vulnerability. However a diverse community allows innovation, support structures and growth. Either through our action or inaction the men, women and children who left Lithuania after a long fight for independence felt compelled to abandon their culture. At what point does this become an act of attrition and genocide given the scale of the population we are discussing? Centuries of migrations just like this one, have shown that a great deal can be gained by finding the perfect balance between social integration and preserving cultural identity.

In Britain we often find it easy to forget due to our previous standing as Empire and Superpower, that we are a people forged through diversity. From our earliest recorded history with the Celts, the Roman Occupation, Saxon Invasion, Normans, Anjouvins and French adding to us through conquest. Italian, Greek, Spanish, through trade and hundreds of others adding to our civilisation through our own imperial expansion. We are not an element we are a solution and we are, in my opinion better for it.

For a more personal perspective on life for these families please read my Biographica Incognita entry on Gentleman Johnny Ramensky (Coming Soon)

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Saragarhi: Bole So Niha

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the British had been trying to solidify their imperial borders in what is today Pakistan. Despite the enormous wealth India had brought the empire it also provided its share of problems. Arguably more so than any other region under British control. The tried and tested method of arming the local populous to enforce British rule had gone very wrong in the 1850s when an uprising almost led to complete loss of control in the subcontinent. Thousands of British troops were required to maintain order. Troops that given the size of the empire at this time were badly needed elsewhere.

Side Note: One of the key reasons India was so important to the British Empire was because it secured the opium trade into China which created a MASSIVE revenue stream. Pablo Escobar had nothing on King Edward VII.

To prevent further insurrection significant restrictions were placed on the native population, even those serving in a British uniform. These included curfews for civilian population, harsh penalties for what equates to sedition and native military personel were provided outdated weapons, including rifles that could only prove effective in combat if used as a club.

Side Note: I can only imagine the body count that resulted from deliberately under-equipping a military force and then marching them against a well equipped enemy. It certainly wouldn’t have improved sentiment towards the British however it was effective in preventing any further uprisings and mutinies …. for a time.

In a place called Saragarhi, a small, lightly fortified signal station sat between two large forts. The forts were built by the British to secure their control over the Khyber Pass. The signal station placed in what it would be generous to call a village was designed to ensure communication between the two forts which had a mountain between them. Strategically this meant that the forts could respond to threats much more quickly. The signal station was manned by 21 men of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army.

Shortly after dawn on 12th September 1897 a sentry notices a dust cloud on the horizon. Its not long before it becomes evident the cloud is caused by thousands of men on the march. A signal is sent to the fort placed slightly closer to the incoming men, the reply received estimated twelve to fifteen thousand tribesmen on the move directly for Saragarhi. The signaller asked the forts if they could send help. Each of these forts held garrisons of nearly two thousand men however to mobilise a realistic fighting force would leave both fortresses exposed. A larger British force was moving up the pass and may be able to support the forts if the tribesmen could be delayed. Saragarhi are told that no support is coming.

The orders were issued by the station sargeant, Hold. Each man stoically went about his duty. Barring the gate, stockpiling ammunition at defensive points, checking rifles and swords. No argument is made, not even a complaint. The signaller was ordered to remain at his post and relay details of what happened next.

Its important to remember that despite the fact the station was only made of wood and mud it held an elevated position that an attacking force would have to climb to reach. This would have helped but absolutely wouldn’t have done much against 500:1 numbers especially given the Sikh regiments were provided old and inefficient weapons. The most optimistic thing I can say about this situation is that as long as the defenders aimed in roughly the right direction they were pretty much certain to hit an enemy.

The first attempt on the gates was made at about 0900 this was turned back when the incline became too slick with blood and an alternative approach was considered. Clearly no better approach was found as some time later a second identical attempt was made on the gate and duly repulsed. At this point the tribal leaders decided to get creative, they set fires around the station to obscure their approach with smoke and created a breech by undermining a wall opposing the main gate. The defenders are given some small warning as one of forts signalled having spotted a detachment of tribes men sneaking around the outer wall. The warning isn’t enough to prevent the breech and at close quarters the rifles are useless, the next moments are a blinding whirr of steel and blood, of sword and knife and bayonet and gore. The tribesmen are forced to withdraw one last time. The defenders are offered lands and riches to surrender. No one moves. A second melee ensues and the Havildar(Sargeant) Ishar Singh single-handedly holds off an advance to allow his remaining men time to withdraw to the second wall. He is reported to have killed ten men before being overwhelmed.

The handful of remaining defenders steadied themselves for another assault, the gate to the inner wall erupts and and tribesmen flow through. As the remaining defenders fight fearlessly, imposing a terrible cost on their attackers the signalman sends one final message to the fort, requesting permission to take up his rifle. It is reported this man kills about twenty tribesmen before they fall back. Rather than assaulting again they set fire to the signal tower. As he burns he screams the Sikh battle cry “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”.

The post was taken but these 21 men held off an army for a day. Long enough for the reinforcements to arrive to support the forts and drive the tribesmen back. When the post was reviewed the bodies of almost six hundred tribesmen were found with the twenty-one Sikhs.

This story has been told in a lot of places, using much more skill than I have been able to apply here. As a rule I don’t write about something if I cant add quality to the narrative however despite the incredible work of youtubers like Extra Credits and historians like Amarinder Singh, I feel its a story worth telling and repeating.

I remember being told in school, that at its height the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. I was never taught how the empire was spread and maintained with the strength and the blood of recruited indigenous people. Their bravery and contributions were rarely acknowledged. I have found references everywhere citing that these 21 men were given “the highest honours available to them” whilst I cant find reference explicitly stating what those honours were I think its unlikely they would have been decorated as highly as British born soldiers.

I won’t delve too deep into Empire here. The devastating affect imperial expansion has had on cultures across the world has resulted in entire civilisations falling out of the history books. Whilst there was often some benefit to the cultures being ruled it was often small and not worth the cost.

I do however find myself wondering; if the best military wisdom at the time was that native recruited soldiers couldn’t be trusted, which is evidenced by the allocation of laughably archaic weapons, and given the very obvious importance of the signal station, why was the post manned by native troops and led by a non-commissioned officer. Practically speaking I know that if you want to get a job done, your first task is to distract the officer to get them out of your way. However this was not the wisdom of the nineteenth century.

I first heard the story of Saragarhi a few years ago and t remains one of the greatest stories of duty and courage I know. I am sure the social, political and emotional truth of that September day is infinitely more complicated than I have relayed here. Its always worth remembering that the British Empire wasn’t built without an incredible cost and that our taught history doesn’t always reflect who paid that cost.

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Safeguarding: Self Radicalisation

The author is dead” –Unknown

Over the last decade the UK Government have made significant advancements in the identification and support of vulnerable people at risk of becoming radicalised. From its publication and constant revisions of the Prevent Strategy(2011) to the assembly of multi-agency panels to review and support at risk individuals. In my role as a safeguarding nurse I have received specific training in radicalisation however lock down has presented some interesting new spikes in “Self Radicalisation”.

I should probably start by describing what I mean by radicalisation. In the context of my work radicalisation is the exploitation of vulnerable persons, coercing or manipulating them into adopting an extremist ideology or undertaking tasks in the name of an extremist ideology. This is not exclusively about Islamic Extremism, any extreme religious or political ideology counts, be it the IRA in the eighties, or Basque Extremists in mainland europe until 2011. A strong argument has been made to include the INCEL group as extremist, especially after the events in Toronto. The UK Government maintain a “Proscribed Organisations List”. As a rule, you’ll likely have an easier life if you do not become affiliated with any of the organisations on this list. It is not uncommon for some of these organisations to target individuals with deficits in their social awareness, particularly individuals with autism as the lack of social awareness increases the chance of successful indoctrination.

Self Radicalisation is where an at risk individual encounters extremist materials without having been targeted and without guiding begins to engage or adopt the organisations ideologies. In this case the author is dead, their intentions when writing the material are irrelevant, the reader has found extremist meaning in there whether it was intended or not and may undertake acts of domestic terrorism in line with their newly adopted beliefs.

So how to you protect against this? Removal of any inflammatory material would probably help but that would be state censorship and I have a bit of an issue with that. Normally I would have an issue with the state legislating against membership of a particular organisation but take a look at the list, I don’t think anyone could argue how dangerous these groups are.

Its slightly easier with Radicalisation where you have identified dangerous groups and if they start interacting with at risk individuals. With Self-Radicalisation all the individual needs is access to the internet. Many individuals most at risk are socially isolated so they don’t have friends and family noticing the subtle changes in behaviour or picking up alarm cues in conversation. Fortunately however many of these individuals do have some level of health and social need. At the moment the most effective identification method we use is simply asking health staff or social workers to consider the risk of radicalisation when interacting with their patients. They are then supported to put their emerging ideologies into the proper context and understand it. Which frankly is a concept that could be lifted directly out of Brave New World.

I guess my question here is how do we find the line between protecting society and oppressing an individual? when is it ok to cross that line? is it ever ok to cross that line?

I am extremely proud to live in a plural society, I can believe anything I want, within reason I am able to express that belief openly as long as it doesn’t impact anyone else. Individuals may discriminate against me for my beliefs but at least on paper the state cant legislate against whats in my head. However it is clear from our management of individuals in PREVENT cases that the state want us to think a certain way and will take steps to ensure that when belief approaches extremism.

Things I couldn’t find a place for

There were a number of comments I wanted to make that I couldn’t introduce into the text above without breaking its flow.

Firstly I have no idea who said “the author is dead” I thought it was either Oscar Wilde or Roland Barthes, if anyone knows can you let me know.

There is an absolutely amazing episode of The West Wing in which they draw the religious comparison “Islam is to Islamic Extremist as Christianity is to the KKK”. Its an entirely valid religious comparison. The episode is the first episode in season three and is called Issac and Ishmael, I highly recommend you watch it.

Its really important to recognise that radicalisation is safeguarding, terrorism is criminal. Radicalisation is about protecting vulnerable individuals from indoctrination before they go any further.

When Lenin and Mao read Karl Marx Communist Manifesto they could be broadly described as self radicalising. Both were believed to have significant mental health issues which would have made them more likely to adopt extremist ideologies. Their interpretation and execution of the Communist Manifesto was almost certainly not what Karl Marx had intended.

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