The Arab races

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The Barbary Coast, and Wars

It is difficult to find any time since the Byzantine Empire when the North African coast from Morocco to Libya was not infamous for piracy. The worst period was the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth. The Berbers, who may or may not have originally populated the Canary Islands, were piratical by nature and good navigators in the treacherous Atlantic and unpredictable Mediterranean.

Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolitania (Libya) take their name from the infamous pirate Barbarossa. Even the English adjective barbaric has its roots in berber, bereber or Barbarossa. (more…)

Commerce in History: the slave trade

Thinking people still get hot under the collar when the subject of the trade in slaves looms. But then, more nonsense is spoken about the slave trade by otherwise intelligent and educated people than one would care to admit. For those determined only to be ‘politically correct’, the trade was perfectly simple, evil of course, and typical of the many important countries which indulged in it. It consisted (for them) of wicked whites landing on the coast of West Africa, driving inland with fire and sword, kidnapping young black people from their homelands, chaining them up, and driving them back to the waiting ships with a whip ever ready in case of complaint. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the first place, coastal African tribesmen would have taken very badly to any kind of invasion made by white people, unless they knew exactly what the white intruders were in Africa for. (more…)

The Middle Ages

Historians disagree about exact dates, but I believe it is generally accepted that the phrase ‘Middle Ages’ denotes the period in Europe from around 700 A.D. to around 1500. Before 700 were ‘The Dark Ages’ – dark in many senses but mainly because professional historians did not exist after the decline of the civilised Roman Empire in the west, and countless barbarian invasions/occupations in the 5th and 6th centuries after Christ. (more…)

Knights Hospitaller & Knights Templar: the difference



   The difference is simple, and not very subtle; the Templars ceased to exist, and the Hospitallers certainly exist right now, working for the sick. Originally the latter were of a military order, the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. The name comes from the dedication to St. John the Baptist of their headquarters in Jerusalem.

These are not their only names: from 1310 they were the Knights of Rhodes, and from 1530 the Knights of Malta, but they were established themselves first in (or around) 1070 with Muslim permission, managing a hospital for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. They only became a formal order of knights when the city fell to the first Crusaders in 1099.

They wore a black habit, with a white eight-pointed Maltese Cross. They elected a Master and under him were at first purely military, in an order which spread quickly across Europe. In questions of order and discipline they followed Augustinian rules (q.v.) and divided themselves into three classes or ranks: knights, chaplains and serving brothers.

Driven out of Jerusalem by Saladin himself they moved to Acre, from which they were expelled a century later, transferring to Cyprus. In 1310, however, they captured the island of Rhodes and remained there until 1522. Then Emperor Charles V made them a present of the island of Malta, which they had to defend by force against the Turks, but they could not deal in a similar fashion with Napoleon: by this time the Order had lost its influence and supporting voices. (more…)

Popular Myths and the Conspiracy Theory: ‘the stab in the back’ 1918


Friedrich Ebert did not believe in the Allies' victory /

Friedrich Ebert did not believe in the Allies’ victory /

Learnéd, and sometime not so learnéd people have started myths right down through the centuries almost since the human race was ‘uncivilized’. King Alfred ‘burning the cakes’, ‘Robin Hood and Maid Marian’, Richard III ‘murdering his nephews’, changelings occupying thrones in Europe, what lay behind the sinking of the Titanic, foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor, was the Russian royal family killed in a cellar in Siberia? Plus a long line of etceteras. (more…)

The Intelligence Services

The new SIS headquarters on the Embankment, London /

The new SIS headquarters on the Embankment, London /

Where dictators or democratically elected governments rule, they need organisations dedicated to the gathering and evaluation of information, mainly concerning the intentions of other states that may not have their best wishes at heart. These are the intelligence services, and they have been in active operation for much longer than many students think.

Some historians insist that it was Queen Elizabeth I, with her faithful Walsingham and his ring of spies, who was the first absolute ruler to insist on full intelligence gathering. This is patently untrue. (more…)

Disasters waiting to happen: General Gordon


Gordon meets his end at Khartoum /

Gordon meets his end at Khartoum /

Charles George Gordon was born in 1833. When his father discovered that the boy was wilful, obstinate, brave, selfish and over-fond of himself, he decided to send him to rough schools which would smooth things out a bit. They did not. His qualities seemed to indicate the Army, so to the Army he went.

When the Crimean War started in 1853 Gordon was already a junior field officer, and he distinguished himself at Sebastopol for being brave, wilful, obstinate etc. Later he took part in the second Opium War, and was present at the occupation of Pekin (we must learn to say Beijing) in 1860. As Gordon was annoyed with the ancient Empress of China, who had shown no interest in the murder of European missionaries, and less in the assassination of the German consul, and whose ministers had orchestrated the two opium wars anyway, Gordon decided to burn the Summer Palace to the ground, which he did. This act did not do either Gordon or Britain much good, and was to be remembered by the Chinese. (more…)

Great War Commanders: General Allenby

Allenby’s chief claim to fame, though he would not have liked my reminding him of it, was that for a time he was Laurence of Arabia’s commanding officer. This was not easy for anyone, and Edward Allenby’s notoriously bad temper was always on a short fuse: as a Field Marshall he was known throughout the ranks as ‘The Bull’ on account of his great size and violent nature. (more…)

Great War Leaders: Kitchener needs YOU!

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born in 1850. At school in Switzerland he learned perfect French, and later went to Palestine where he picked up near-perfect Arabic. After military college and commissioning he got to Egypt (where his knowledge of languages was useful for a junior officer).

The British were occupying Egypt in 1882, but this was the time of the Mahdi, an almost mythical religious and military leader who caused consternation in Britain by the brilliance of his strategy, and the blind faith in him showed by his followers. (more…)

Laurence of Arabia (article revised 2012)

The real Laurence, later he wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom' /

The real Laurence, later he wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ /

Thomas Edward Laurence was born in 1888, the son of Thomas Chapman, a member of a distinguished Anglo-Irish family. Thomas had eloped with his daughter’s governess, and settled in Oxford after adopting the name of Laurence. His son gained a First Class Degree in History at the University, and became an enthusiastic archaeologist wen he undertook to make excavations in Syria and Mesopotamia between 1910 and 1914. He learned desert lore from the many Arab friends he made on these scientific expeditions. (more…)

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