Charles Rose Ellis (1771-1845): Come Sing Me Montego Bay

Stumbled across this documentary about German indentured servants in Jamaica and their descendents, which in turn led me to Charles Rose Ellis.

He was the son of James Ellis, who  in turn was grandson of Col. John Ellis who settled in Jamaica in 1665.  Charles’ father was one of the great landowners of 18th century Jamaica and very rich indeed.  James died at sea when Charles was thirteen, leaving  the young man with an estate worth £20,000 a year (Mr. Darcy, you will recall, had half that amount- but then, he didn’t have land in the Caribbean). Continue reading

Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery. Continue reading

Major-General Rudolf Anton Carl Freiherr von Slatin (1857-1932): Three Faiths

Said to be the inspiration for one of Karl May’s characters, von Slatin is one of those characters who make us feel utterly inadequate.

Born the son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism near Vienna, he was in the commercial academy when his father died rather suddenly.  By chance he heard of an opening at a German bookstore in Cairo.  The sheer unlikelihood appealed to him, and he was off to Egypt.

All thoughts of bookselling left him as he joined Theodore von Heuglin,  explorer and ornithologist into the mountains of Dar Nuba in Sudan.  Rough times and much rebellion in the area at the time, and Europeans were few.  Before he was through, von Slatin met such luminaries as botanist Dr Eduard Schnitzer (aka, Emin Pasha on his conversion to Islam, later to relieve Henry Morgan Stanley) and General Charles George Gordon. Continue reading

Georg Johannes von Trapp (1880 – 1947): Crossing the Streams

I was taken to (subjected to, if you like) the Sound of Music while in single digits, and the one thing I could not understand was how the Austrian Captain Von Trapp could possibly be a naval officer in a land locked country.

Turns out those every mountains he climbed were far from his birth place in the now Croatian city of Zadar on the Mediterranean coast; his choice of a naval career was keeping things in the family, as his father was in the service.  He was apparantly up to snuff, served on the  armored cruiser Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia   during the Boxer Rebellion in China .  The ship arrived late to the happenings, but soon enough for Lieutenant von Trapp to get decorated for bravery. Continue reading

Maria Leontievna Bochkareva (1889-1920): Womens’ Battalion of Death

The recent graduation of three women in the Marine Infantry School revives the whole women in combat issue, and invariably commentators have brought up the story of Soviet women in WWII and their military accomplishments.

There was in fact precedence from the First World War.  Not just individual women (there were several of those), but the entire First Women’s Battalion of Death.  The crew was the brainchild of a blooded veteran of the eastern front, one Maria Bochkareva.

She was a peasant woman of Novgorod with a history of unfortunate choices in men. She married at fifteen and when he became abusive, dumped him for companion number two.  He was exiled to Siberia for criminal misbehavior, she dutifully walked off to join him. And when he repeated the pattern, and became abusive, she dumped him as well and headed back west.  Besides, there was a war on and she wanted to do her bit. Continue reading

Commodore Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862): Anchors Aweigh

“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors… I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”

– Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN

It’s reasonably well known that Thomas Jefferson for all his cleverness was a complete duffer with household finance and died in debt, his estate sold off for pennies on the dollar.

A scandal, really, and as the government at that time did not take much interest in history in general or historical artifacts in particular, the lands and buildings of Monticello were more or less allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Continue reading

George Hoby (1759 – 1832): Boots, Boots, Boots, Boots

Long boots and half boots, Hessians,  Hussar,  top boots, and for the ladies, low cut shoes or pumps – if you wanted them in the age of Hornblower, you went to the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s Street and the establishment of George Hoby, boot maker to George III.   The king was not alone.  The Iron Duke thought so much of the man that he worked with the bookmaker to  modify a Hessian boot a bit higher up than was standard,  and so created the Wellington.

Which gave him particular interest in the battles the Iron Duke was waging in Spain.  He was fitting the Duke of Kent when news of the victory at Vittoria came in.  “If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.” Continue reading

Philippe Duc d’Orleans (1640 – 1701); Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell

Philippe Duc d’Orleans had the dubious distinction of being Louis XIV’s younger brother. It was not a position to be envied. Having the Grand Monarque as a sibling must have been trying sometimes in the extreme, but Monsieur, as Philippe was always called, had a way of getting out of the tedium of his proximity to power: he was gay.

In fact Monsieur was so very far out of the closet, in a place and at a time, when the “Italian vices” were punishable in all sorts of barbaric ways, that it staggers the mind now both that Monsieur could pursue his way of life relatively unobstructed, or that it was so often recorded by memoirists. We know that his brother Louis detested homosexuality, and yet he seems to have tolerated it in his brother, of whom, we understand, he was very fond. Continue reading

Sampiero Corso ‘the Fiery’, ‘the Most Corsican of Corsicans’ – 1498-1567

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved Vendetta, on the other, Morte.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans.  No surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.

And while Napoleon had to prove himself to the rest of the world, Sampiero Corso was concerned only with his own country and his own people.  Keeping it local, as it were, which is a sensible scope for any political leader.

He was born a commoner in 1498 near Bastelica.  Then as now, the army was a means to advancement, and a little less now than then, fighting as a mercenary under foreign flags was a respectable career path.  He started out on that path at age fourteen.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. Continue reading

Catherine Ségurane, 1506(?) – ?: Before There Was Marianne

The occasion as the Siege of Nice, 1543.

In the tangled politics of the day, troops loyal to his Catholic Majesty Francis I, king of France,   joined forces with Muslim corsair Khairedihn Barbarossa,  king of Algiers and lead admiral for Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  Barbarossa had brought his armada all the way from Constantinople to Marseilles help out the French in their interminable fighting against Charles V,  the Holy Roman Emperor.  The original plan had been to take aim at Italy, but in the end, it was poor Nice got the short end of the stick, being both close to Marseilles and a holding of Charles’ ally, the Duke of Savoy.

The Franco-Ottoman armada sailed down the coast on August 7 to an unprepared Nice.  Local militia was about all there was on hand.  That, and women and children.

Which is where Ms Ségurane comes in. Continue reading