salazar fascist

American conservatives and Portuguese fascist Salazar

Over the last couple of years, some American conservatives have been going public on their admiration for the former Portuguese fascist dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Convinced that democracy as presently constructed isn’t working in their favour, they’ve wondered whether a more illiberal approach to enforcing conservative values wouldn’t be out of the question.

I’m not indifferent to this debate as I’m half Portuguese and grew up with the name of Salazar being mentioned favourably and unfavourably around me all my life. As late as 2007, a Portuguese TV poll asked the public to name the greatest Portuguese hero of all time. There was incredulous horror, when Salazar got 40% of the popular vote. I was utterly dismayed myself.

It may seem incredible now, but Portugal and Spain had fascist dictatorships stretching from the 1930s through to the 1970s. On 25 April, 1974, Portugal erupted into revolution and overthrew the dictator. By that time it was Salazar’s successor Marcello Caetano at the helm. Salazar had suffered a stroke after his deckchair collapsed under him in 1968 before dying in 1970.

How did these dictators survive the Second World War after the demise of Hitler and Mussolini? Well, the answer is the Cold War. With Hitler out of the way, the post-war era saw the United States and the Soviet Union squaring off against each other. Fear of communism overrode distaste towards the politics of Salazar in Portugal and General Franco in Spain.

Salazar was a fascist – and proud of it

Take a close look at the images I’ve attached to this blog post. Yes, that is a photograph of Mussolini on Salazar’s desktop. So why is it there?

Contrary to some of the nonsense I’ve read on certain websites, Salazar was ideologically aligned with the prime objective of fascism. To terminate liberal democracy in order to crush communism and defend private property. His style was hugely different from the swagger of Mussolini and he didn’t embrace the genocidal policies of Hitler, but he indisputably recognised himself as part of the fascist wave that swept across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Don’t take my word for it – read what Salazar himself said.

“Our dictatorship clearly resembles the fascist dictatorship in the reinforcement of authority, in the war declared against certain principles of democracy, in its accentuated nationalist character, in its preoccupations with social order”

As a bookish academic and with a burning hatred of liberal democracy, Salazar knew exactly what he was doing. The structure of his ‘new state’ – the Estado Novo – bore a close resemblance to the corporate state of Mussolini. With ‘vertical’ unions and organisations that sought to unify the ‘nation’ as opposed to the class-based ‘horizontal’ organisations of the socialists, communists and trade unions.

The fascism of Salazar and Mussolini was at root the same in terms of substance – even if the style differed. Some people today are confusing form and content. Salazar certainly didn’t.

Salazar and Mussolini – nationalism and globalism

There are two variants on the fascist right that are well recognised. The ultra-nationalist and reactionary mindset versus the global new order. Salazar was more the former. His instincts were always opposed to change and anything that smacked of disruption. He was not looking towards a brave new world but the reawakening of a mythical glorious past.

Salazar adopted the stance of a grim and sombre patriarch bringing an unruly family into line. He referred to the Portuguese people as ‘children’ who needed a stern father figure. There was no Mussolini-style swagger or Hitlerite screaming from the podium. Salazar bored the nation into submission. Tedium was his preferred weapon. But under the dining room table, his right hand held a big stick.

Portugal was run like a stifling, over-disciplined Victorian family. Not for Salazar what he termed the ‘Pagan Caesarism’ of Mussolini. Unlike his Italian counterpart, Salazar had never gone through an anti-clerical phase. The Portuguese people would attend mass on Sunday. Women would know their place in the kitchen. Men would be the breadwinners. And children would be strictly obedient.

Salazar’s fascism was essentially an ultra-nationalist, socially reactionary dead hand laid firmly on the country. He was suspicious of progress, rising living standards and modernism. Church, landlords and industrialists were the right people to run the country with enforced deference from the rest of the population.

That deference was guaranteed by a secret police – the PIDE – modelled to a degree on the Gestapo. The PIDE tapped into a culture of ‘denunciation’ that some historians have suggested is a psychological scar inflicted by the activities of the Inquisition in past centuries. An internal 1964 report by the PIDE revealed that in the northern Portuguese town of Guarda, people had no qualms about snitching on young men avoiding military service and other alleged misdemeanours.

Every factory had a director whose job was to discipline bolshy workers. I know because, regrettably, one of my cousins (long dead) performed this role at a workplace near the city of Porto. This was not dissimilar to the German Labour Front set up by the Nazis to replace the free trades unions.

Salazar building a fascist movement

Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Salazar came into government in 1926 as finance minister without a ready made fascist party behind him. The government in question was a military dictatorship that had just overthrown democracy in Portugal. Its inability to get a tight grip on society convinced Salazar of the fascist approach.

From 1930, he built a political force called the National Union which may not have emulated the street-based thuggishness of the National Socialists in Germany but two years later became the only legal political party in Portugal. That would remain the case until 1974.

In 1932, Salazar became prime minister. This was the title he held throughout his unelected dictatorship. One of Salazar’s first acts was the creation of a distinct secret police force that came to be known as the PIDE. It had responsibilities around immigration and counter-espionage – but its key fascist function was political repression.

In 1936, Salazar allowed the creation of a compulsory membership youth movement called the Mocidade Portuguesa which was closely modelled on the Hitler Youth. My mother, at school in the 1930s and 1940s was pressured to join but my grandmother destroyed her uniform as my grandfather had been imprisoned by the Salazar regime in its first years.

Just as Hitler had his own hotheads with the brown shirts of the SA, Salazar faced a group of ‘blue shirts’ called the National Syndicalists who wanted a much more overtly fascist state in Portugal. They adopted Nazi-style attire but instead of a swastika, bore the Templar-style cross of the Portuguese Order of Christ on their arm.

If you recall, at the urging of the German establishment, Hitler drowned the SA in their own blood during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Salazar didn’t have to resort to such a violent purge but he arrested and exiled members in 1935. It’s hard not to see a parallel here.

Goodbye democracy, hello Salazar

To Salazar, the democracy Portugal experienced after the end of the monarchy in 1910 up until the military takeover in 1926 had been one of chaos and disorder. And indeed, the military dictatorship wasn’t much less chaotic. To understand Salazar you have to grasp his complete aversion to any form of instability which to him included parliamentary debate, questioning of state and church authority, liberal values and intellectual inquiry.

His fascism – and I paraphrase him – was about the systematic infantilising of the nation. Politics was for Daddy. The rest of you just shut up and behave. On several occasions, Salazar made it clear that only he truly understood the challenges Portugal faced. And when he resolved how to meet these challenges – he expected total compliance.

Social organisation would be influenced by the papal encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Presented as documents outlining Vatican concern for the plight of the working classes, what these pontiffs really wanted was an end to class conflict. Pius XI – who signed a concordat with Mussolini creating the Vatican state – argued for medieval style guilds where employers and employees were required to work together in compulsory harmony. Music to the corporatist ears of both Mussolini and Salazar – no matter what their style differences.

Thanks to Salazar, Portugal was subjected to political chloroform for decades. The National Assembly (parliament) would be ‘apolitical’ (just one party) and social organisations like unions and guilds would represent all classes along nationalist and ultra-conservative lines. The Catholic church would determine the moral values of the nation and the history taught to children would be one heroising the Portuguese navigators of the 16th century and emphasising Portugal’s ‘civilising mission’ in its colonies – especially Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

This ideology would be used to justify the catastrophic colonial war in those three African countries that raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in which most of my relatives aged over 70 today were required to fight. Unless of course they wanted to discuss their conscientious objections in a secret police cell with electrodes attached to their body. These wars, fought as Britain and France were giving their colonies independence, would eventually gobble up half of Portugal’s GDP.

Salazar and balanced budgets

Those lauding Salazar today always mention his budget balancing acumen. There was healthy economic growth in the post-war boom and what had been a very rural society saw increasing industrialisation. But the creation of an ever larger urban working class was always viewed as a potential threat by Salazar.

Other hallmarks of his economic policy included protectionism. This meant dumping Portuguese goods on its African colonies. Foreign investment in those same colonies was also discouraged and raw materials were extracted on favourable terms for the mother country.

Incredibly, Coca-Cola was banned in Portugal until 1977. For different political reasons, the Communist Party continued opposition to this ‘imperialist’ product after the 1974 revolution. I was at a disco in 1979 aged 16 and innocently slurping a Coke when a girl marched up to me and announced that I was drinking ‘the dirty water of imperialism’. Sounds better in Portuguese: agua suja do imperialismo!

The legacy of protectionism was hard to ditch. Intended by Salazar to protect his rich friends’ businesses, it then became a policy for protecting workers’ jobs.

Salazar’s budget balancing miracle was achieved by predictable means. Raising taxes that hit the urban poor and colonial populations hardest, driving up the cost of food and cutting public expenditure on the civil service and pensions. With no free trade unions and opposition parties to object – it really didn’t matter what anybody thought.

Where Salazar did spend money on infrastructure, it was to create public buildings from town halls to railway stations that conformed to ‘authentic’ Portuguese styles. Not for Salazar the futurism of Mussolini.

As a child, I visited Portugal under the Salazar and Caetano years. Coming from Britain – where my mother had emigrated to in 1959 – the poverty was glaring and untreated diseases were very evident. There was no public health service until after the 1974 revolution (in 1979).

For a visitor, there were plenty of charming scenes in those days. The peasant women clad in black gathering seaweed off the rocks on the beach to fertilise their family owned farm plots. The crudely made farm carts drawn by oxen with great big lumps of wood for wheels. Villages that seemed lost between the Middle Ages and modern times. Around 1972, I stayed in a stone house where my ground floor bedroom was right next to a hog pen.

I’ve got heaps of fond memories but even then was aware that there was a stark contrast between me in my Harlem Globetrotters T-shirt and new flared jeans and kids walking around in rags.

DISCOVER: Ten weird facts about Hitler

American conservatives and Salazar the fascist dictator

If Salazar today is viewed as a gentle, thoughtful and mild authoritarian ruler who simply wanted to protect his people with conservative family values – then that is a victory for his propaganda machine. And it’s a victory that keeps giving beyond the grave.

Because right now, Salazar is going through yet another rehabilitation. Especially on the American conservative right. He is portrayed as a ‘benevolent autocrat’. And despite his closing down of liberal democracy, banning of all parties except his, creation of a corporate state and a secret police – he has been unfairly described as a fascist according to one new biography. This recently published life story of Salazar includes an ominous statement that a similar kind of leader may be called upon in the future.

American conservative publications and pundits have increasingly invoked Salazar as a credible alternative approach to liberal democracy. To do this, they have to first remove the ‘fascist’ tag. So Salazar’s stated differences with Mussolini are transformed into outright opposition to fascism – which is utterly ridiculous. There is no doubt that Salazar saw his regime as part of the fascist wave but with a distinctive Portuguese flavour.

Towards the end of the Second World War – both Salazar and Franco rapidly pivoted towards the US and UK. Not on principle – but to survive. However not without a good deal of teeth gnashing on both sides. Salazar, for example, bitterly resented the pressure put on him to give Portugal’s colonies independence.

And this makes a laughing stock of one current claim doing the rounds that Salazar had no expansionist ambitions – unlike Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, he may not have invaded new countries – but he spent half the nation’s GDP trying to hold on to big chunks of Africa.

Salazar’s alleged anti-Nazi credentials are ‘evidenced’ by the Hollywood movie ‘Casablanca’ (1942) on the grounds that the protagonists are trying to get to the neutral city of Lisbon, capital of Portugal. Seriously. That is offered as proof of Salazar opposing the Nazis. My advice… Try finding a full-throated condemnation of Hitler from Salazar instead because you may have difficulty!

As regards claims that Salazar was not anti-Jewish, the huge number of visas issued to Jewish refugees by Portuguese consulate around Europe during the Second World War is cited as proof Salazar wasn’t anti-Semitic. An illuminating corrective to this is the story of one diplomat, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. Issuing Portuguese visas to Jews fleeing Hitler was explicitly banned by Salazar. Mendes, based in Bordeaux, continued to do so and not only lost his job but had his life wrecked.

There’s also a spurious claim that Salazar wiped out illiteracy in Portugal. This is not not backed up by the adult illiteracy campaigns that were launched after the 1974 revolution to tackle what was an endemic problem. One British diplomat in the 1950s succinctly summed up Portugal as a country where the middle classes lived off colonial war profits and the poor were “miserable and destitute”. It was a country of vast inequality where many left school early and without any qualifications.

Yet American conservatives write this about Salazar:

If we Americans lack the self-discipline necessary for self-government, if liberalism is off the table, the only alternative to a tyrant like Lenin or Hitler may be a man like Salazar: a paternalistic traditionalist, a philosopher-king.”

Or how about this:

“…the Estado Novo and its supporters did not treat its enemies with kid gloves. They were not limited by self-defeating notions of “principle.” Hostile and revolutionary elements—whether domestic Communists, fascist syndicalists, internal political factions, or international high finance—were treated as equal potential dangers.”

We’ve lived through a phase of democratically elected ‘strong men’ in recent years. Many of them have subverted democratic institutions to increase their grip on power. There is a logic to moving to the next stage. Why bother with democracy at all? But do we really think a new Salazar is the answer?

I sincerely hope not.

alien contact

Alien contact with humans – fact or myth?

For millennia, humans have looked up at the skies and wondered if it was the house of the Gods or alien beings. Over the last century, the genre of science fiction has exploded as we’ve made our first tentative steps into outer space. With that has come a slew of theories about UFOs, UAPs and extra-terrestrials. But have humans ever really made alien contact?

This is what a new film presented by me sets out to investigate. Click on the video link to view. It gives you a full description of one hundred years of conspiracy theories, claimed sightings and the latest views on what may lurk in the cosmos.

I start by looking at our burning desire to find aliens. Something called the Fermi Paradox. We want to believe there are other life forms in the universe, but we have no evidence. That hasn’t stopped us churning out books, documentaries, and movies with aliens as friends and enemies. So much content has been created that most of us are thoroughly convinced alien life exists and human contact will happen.

DISCOVER: Neolithic statues that look like aliens

I run through the key events in the 20th century around UFOs from Roswell to Area 51 and examine the evidence. Also, how alien contact stories have often coincided with politics on planet Earth. For example, how fear of communism in 1950s America was projected on to extra-terrestrials as disguised enemies mingling amongst us – just like Soviet spies.

Then the trend towards aliens being seen as our galactic creators – replacing God. As traditional religion declines, so we’ve turned to the idea of alien intervention in our human past. Contact with creatures from other planets speeding up our development as a species. The theory that ancient monuments and even ancient people could have been alien imports.

In our own time, scepticism and hostility towards government agencies has mixed with a belief in alien life. Some very complex ideas about human alliances with aliens to develop new defence technologies and so on. Accusations that NASA and the US military are covering up what they know about UFOs. None of this is substantiated of course and these agencies have strenuously denied that they’re withholding information.

I’m intrigued by what alien contact with humans could look like. Would our first meeting be with some form of Artificial Intelligence as opposed to a fleshy extra-terrestrial with green skin?

In conclusion, coming back to the Fermi Paradox, I wonder if we are alone in the universe and have simply projected our hopes and fears but also achievements (in the past and future) on to alien beings that we have no solid evidence actually exist? In effect are we the aliens we like to describe?

Enjoy the film and share your views and experience on this fascinating subject!

Locations for the Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden was the paradise in which Adam and Eve – the first humans – dwelt, according to the Bible. The couple were permitted to eat from any tree in this earthly paradise except the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Of course that was way too much temptation. And inevitably, they did what God had forbidden them to do. A devilish serpent goaded Eve into tasting the fruit and she in turn compromised Adam. The sinful duo were then cast our by God. Where this garden was located is a mystery – but there’s no shortage of theories regarding locations!

The biggest clue is the mention of four rivers that watered the garden: Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Phirat. The last two rivers are often assumed to be the Tigris and Euphrates placing the Garden of Eden in modern Iraq. This was the centre of the first civilisations in the Levant so not an entirely unreasonable assumption.

In 2016, UNESCO declared that the dense marshlands of southern Iraq, lying between the Tigris and Euphrates, would be a World Heritage Site. These wetlands covering a vast area have long been considered to be a prime candidate for the Garden of Eden. In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein drained a large part of them to crush the rebellious “Marsh Arabs” who resented his tyrannical rule. Since then, the water has been allowed to flood back in and a civilisation dating back thousands of years has returned from exile in neighbouring Iran.

DISCOVER: Where you can find London’s ancient plague pits!

Prester John and the Garden of Eden

In the Middle Ages, a belief emerged in a mythical Christian king called Prester John. It was thought he commanded vast armies that if only the medieval crusaders could make contact with him, they could overwhelm the Muslim Saracens in the Holy Land. But Prester John was always rather elusive. Except for an alleged correspondence between him and the crowned heads of Europe including the Byzantine emperor, Manuel Komnenos.

In his letter to the Byzantines, Prester John declared that the Garden of Eden was just three days ride from his own territories but where exactly was that? Many believed this Christian monarch was based somewhere in Asia. Then attention shifted to Africa. But Prester John was always hidden from view and remained so forever.

Prester John’s letter didn’t give a precise location for the Garden of Eden but did include a bizarre description. The mythical king claimed that the river Indus had its source at Eden and the whole place was rich in emeralds, sapphires, topazes, onyx and other jewels. “There too grows the plant called Asbestos” (sic!). Mention of the Indus led some to speculate that Eden was somewhere on the Indian sub-continent – along with Prester John of course.

Mappa Mundi and a location for the Garden of Eden

At Hereford Cathedral in England, there is an enormous map of the world created around the year 1300. It’s known as the Mappa Mundi and not surprisingly places Jerusalem firmly at the centre of the world. At the very north is an earthly Paradise surrounded by a wall and a ring of fire. The nearest geographical locations to it are the river Indus and what is possible modern Sri Lanka. That would seem to place the Garden of Eden in India.

However, it’s also thought that the position of Eden corresponds to Japan. In the Second World War, the Mappa Mundi featured in Japanese textbooks as proof that Japan was indeed the divine, earthly Paradise.

The Garden of Eden in China

But Japan may have competition from China in claiming the true location of the Garden of Eden. In the 9th century, one European manuscript placed Eden far into the East. In the early 20th century, a Chinese political radical, Tse Tsan-tai (1872-1938) argued that Eden had been a paradise in western China. Tse was a serious journalist who co-founded the South China Morning Post – a well regarded newspaper still publishing today. Though eyebrows were raised at the time by his theory.

His argument was that far from being a western imposition on China, Christianity had its biblical origins in the East. Below is the map that Tse drafted to support this thesis.

torture museums

The world’s museums of torture!

Chicago has just seen the opening of the first dedicated museum of medieval torture in the United States. Eight interactive learning spaces with truly gruesome displays. This is the latest addition to a global network of torture museums that shows no signs of losing steam. People just can’t get information on Spanish racks and thumbscrews!

Whether these reflect the truth of life – and death – in the Middle Ages is open to question. But experiencing (at a safe distance) the painful fate of heretics who rejected the teachings of the church or traitors caught conspiring against the king or queen is clearly irresistible. Otherwise these torture museums wouldn’t keep opening.

So let’s take a look at the new Chicago torture museum and see how it compares to other such delightful venues around the world. The owners are sure they’re on to a surefire winner. The website boasts: “You’ll discover the world’s most detailed collection of confinement and torture devices, instruments of slow death and execution.” The waxworks are certainly lifelike and you’ll probably have bad dreams after glimpsing one poor fellow getting impaled.

Here is a short promo video from our grim buddies in Chicago!

But as I say – there are many of these museums in Europe.

The quaint historic town of Rothenberg in Germany has an Iron Maiden. It’s also got a cage where a baker would be put if caught cheating with the ingredients. There’s also a pillory for grabbing selfies. And a collection of “shame masks”. All contained in the town’s Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

Back in the 1970s, I went with a schoolmate to The London Dungeon not long after it had opened. Back then it was Madame Tussauds with more bloodshed and gore. Since, it’s evolved into an ‘experience’ where, for example, you are condemned to death and metaphorically hanged.

TALKING POINT: Should the dead be on display in museums?

Other torture museums vary from the London and Chicago approach with a theme park interactive feel to some which frankly border on the deathly dull. The sort of places that need to keep telling how informative and evocative the exhibits are as you suppress another yawn.

Medieval cities like Prague, Toledo, Bruges and Vienna boast torture museums – just in case the castles and palaces haven’t entertained you enough. And it came as something of a surprise to discover that the tiny country of San Marino – surrounded by Italy – also has a torture museum. Indeed Italy is blessed – if that is the right word – with torture museums in Rome, Siena, Luca, Volterra and San Gimignano.

Must confess – but not under torture – that I’ve visited most of these Italian cities and NEVER thought of going to the local torture museum! But presumably for many tourists they offer a frisson of excitement after a day spent wandering through baroque churches and ancient ruins. They don’t feel that history has been truly experienced until confronted by a wax figure contorted in agony being forced to sit firmly on a chair covered in sharp studs. Each to their own!

Personally, I don’t find the instruments of torture that compelling. Especially as many of them are reproductions. What really puts me in the zone of the afflicted is the very genuine graffiti left by prisoners that I saw this year at Carlisle Castle and the Tower of London. Often incredibly moving pleas or religious symbols to show their faith was unshakable. Getting inside the mind of a prisoner being tortured is way more jarring than gawping at some bone breaking implements.

In 2019, I went to the prison in Palermo, Sicily where the Spanish Inquisition tortured many people for a variety of reasons before executing them in public (Spain ruled Sicily from 1409 to 1713). There were no thumbscrews on display. Instead, the walls were covered in drawings by the inmates using a mix of dirt and their own urine. I filmed what I saw and take a look below. This really brought home to me what people endured at the hands of sadistic torturers.

The rat that was executed for murder!

It’s hard to believe that a rat was once executed for murder. The judge in this bizarre trial was Tsar Peter III. He was an adult male, already in his 20s, who retained a childlike fascination for his set of toy soldiers. And when he found a rat chewing the head off one of his model infantry – he saw red.

The rat was put on trial, found guilty of murder and ordered to be executed by hanging. Peter then constructed a mini set of gallows and carried out the grim verdict.

His queen, Catherine, chanced upon the grisly spectacle and decided to bring forward plans to overthrow a husband she totally detested. With him out of the way, she would become sole ruler of Russia. Which is exactly what happened. Peter was discreetly bundled away and most likely murdered.

However, we do have to question this story. On the one hand, it could be entirely true that Peter was a sadistic simpleton as portrayed in later propaganda from Catherine’s supporters. Conversely, Peter was the subject of a campaign to portray him as entirely unsuited for high office. Therefore everybody should thank his wife – sorry, widow – for getting rid of the idiot.

Catherine herself turned out to be a more than capable ruler. But some revisionist historians have pointed to Peter’s impressive legislative record or reform – achieved despite the fact he was only tsar for six months. The suggestion is that far from being mentally impaired, Peter was just as capable as his very driven wife.

DISCOVER: Most power crazed rulers in history

But what’s come down to us is an image of a petulant and grossly immature young man who put a rat on trial for murder in a fit of pique. And in truth, it’s a far better story than the alternative. Getting people to believe that he’d carried out such a morbid exercise wasn’t difficult as Peter had made plenty of enemies among the church, nobility and peasantry with his progressive views. And Catherine kept these stories about him going for the rest of her life.

This is an episode in my new YouTube series Weird Historical Facts – so view and enjoy!

How a horse became a Roman senator!

In my new YouTube series Weird History Facts I’m taking one episode to look at how a horse became a Roman senator. What on earth possessed the Roman emperor Caligula to declare his favourite nag Incitatus both a priest and a member of the senate?

By all accounts, it had an unremarkable record of public speaking and legislative activity. Largely on account of being a horse. But it certainly got under the noses of the senators. Apparently by liberally defecating on the senate floor, according to one Roman historical source.

Caligula was, if we are to believe the historian Suetonius, besotted with Incitatus. The horse was part of his favourite chariot racing faction – the greens – and ahead of a race, the entire neighbourhood around his stable was ordered to be silent throughout the night. Incitatus was then able to get a good night’s sleep in a manger made of ivory housed in a stable constructed of marble, covered in purple blankets.

Suetonius, who loved to combine history with lashings of gossip, claimed that Incitatus had a staff of eighteen servants, was fed oats mixed with gold flakes and was allowed to invite guests to quite elaborate dinners. Caligula also declared that the horse had divine status.

This story was circulated to prove that Caligula was insane. And by the time historians like Suetonius and Cassius Dio were writing about Caligula, he had been assassinated and damned by the Senate. So – we are entitled to question the impartiality and veracity of this story. Was a horse really made a Roman senator? And if so, was it an insane act or was Caligula making some kind of statement?

DISCOVER: Roman and American slavery – how did they differ?

The preferred theory these days seems to be that Caligula did indeed make Incitatus a member of the Senate and proposed him as Consul but the reason was to show his utter contempt for Rome’s senators. Of course they were in an invidious position. The emperor could ask all he wanted for better quality advice and guidance but when he executed people at a whim, it’s hardly surprising senators just kept their heads down – as opposed to losing them.

Incitatus somehow seems to have remained a senator until the reign of Claudius when he was removed on a technicality. He failed to meet the financial requirements for sitting in the Senate. And was later put down after injuring his leg.

Enjoy this episode of Weird History Facts!

The shortest war in history – just 40 minutes!

The shortest war in history was between the British Empire and the sultanate of Zanzibar. A David and Goliath struggle in which Goliath won – in just over 40 minutes. It was enough time for the British to inflict 500 dead on the enemy while only sustaining a single casualty on their side.

The reason for the shortest war in history was a dispute over the appointment of a new sultan. The previous holder of this title and ruler of the idyllic island off the east African coast had died in rather suspicious circumstances. His nephew then took power. But the local British consul took the view that no new sultan could be appointed until Queen Victoria’s local representative said so.

However, the newly enthroned sultan thought different. He told the British to mind their own business. However, the British felt they were indeed minding their own business. Zanzibar was a protectorate. And the British were intent on protecting Zanzibar from German expansion in Africa. The new sultan wasn’t trusted on the German issue and so had to go.

Neither side was prepared to back down. And so the British embarked on what is euphemistically termed ‘gunboat diplomacy’. That meant positioning three cruisers, two gunboats and 150 marines in the harbour of the sultan’s capital and then bombarding his palace. That kind of diplomacy!

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

The sultan responded by firing back with a Gatling gun that – ironically – had been a present from Queen Victoria. He also mustered a 17th century cannon and a couple of field guns. Needless to say, he couldn’t match the firepower of the British Empire.

The war kicked off at 9am and was over by 9.40am – making it the shortest war in history. And it’s the theme of an episode in my new YouTube series, Weird History Facts. Do please watch and enjoy!

The woman who gave birth to rabbits

In the early 18th century, a woman called Mary Toft claimed to be giving birth to rabbits. In the heady gossip-ridden world of Georgian England, this story was taken up with relish. It dominated the gossip sheets in London. And even made its way to the ear of King George the First.

The king was so intrigued by the thought of a woman giving birth to rabbits that he sent his physician down to the market town of Godalming to meet Mary Toft. And not only was his physician convinced of her story, but helped to deliver a fifteenth rabbit. Then he wrote a book on the topic.

All of which made the king absolutely furious when he discovered the whole thing was a hoax. He fired his physician and Mary Toft disappeared into obscurity.

The aftermath wasn’t good for the medical profession. Doctors were ridiculed as dirty old men. And the fact that the king’s physician was Swiss-born opened the doors to some unpleasant xenophobia. Toft’s motives were interpreted as purely financial tinged with a complete absence of morals.

DISCOVER MORE: Women in history, scandal and myth

One cartoon of the day depicted Mary Toft held aloft by the lascivious male doctors enjoying an examination of her private parts. See that image below. The fact this ever gained any credibility is because of some very odd pseudo-scientific theories circulating at the time. One was the notion of ‘maternal impression’ – that a woman could alter what was in her womb through her thoughts and dreams.

Completely mad but these were the early days of modern science.

This is one of several bizarre stories I’m going to be investigating in a series on my YouTube channel called ‘Weird History Facts’ and I invite you to watch this episode below and enjoy!

The Pope alleged to be a woman!

One of the greatest scandals to ever befall the Roman Catholic church was the story that a woman was elected to the papacy as Pope Joan. Her deception was only uncovered when she collapsed in the street heavily pregnant and gave birth. The surrounding crowd was so profoundly shocked that she was lynched on the spot. But is this story – once widely believed – actually true?

The story originates in the Middle Ages about a woman who followed her lover into the clergy to stay close to him. It’s normally claimed this happened in the 9th century. Talented and intelligent, this woman – disguised as a male cleric – just couldn’t help rising up the ranks. Until, unintentionally, she ended up as Pope. And once in the top job, she had to keep up the subterfuge or face certain death.

It’s normally assumed that had she existed, Pope Joan would have reigned between Pope Leo IV and Pope Benedict III in the 850s. This was a very turbulent time in Rome with Arab armies sacking the city and destroying churches. It needed a bright and courageous person to lead the church and a cardinal called John Anglicus from the German city of Mainz was elected. Problem was – John was actually Joan.

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Pope Joan gets pregnant

This might have remained a secret had Joan not got pregnant. Not from her original lover – a monk who had now died – but a cardinal with whom she’d had a secret affair. As her belly grew, Pope Joan needed to use her rich vestments to hide the truth. But eventually while processing from St Peter’s basilica to St John the Lateran – the papal residence at the time – she had contractions and went into labour.

A Dominican friar called Jean de Mailly writing in the 13th century claimed Pope Joan gave birth while mounting a horse to ride in that procession. The sudden exertion brought on labour. The crowd was so appalled that they tied her to a horse and stoned the poor woman until she passed away and was buried.

The exact location of her giving birth and dying shortly after is normally pinpointed at the church of Saint Clement near the Colosseum on a road known as the Sacred Way – Via Sacra – but subsequently dubbed the ‘shunned path’ because of its association with this abominable sacrilege.

In the year 1415, a heretic called Jan Hus was on trial for his life – facing the prospect of being burned to death for defying the teachings of the Catholic church. At one point, in his defence, he made a reference to Pope Joan and her time as pontiff. Despite his trial being attended by 20 cardinals and a large number of bishops and theologians, nobody appears to have disputed that Joan existed. Although Hus did go on to be found guilty and executed.

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Proving a Pope was a man

So concerned was the Vatican about the prospect of another woman being elected pope that they reportedly used a special seat with a hole in the middle to test whether a newly elected pope had fully descended testicles. This seat was called the sede stercoraria and a cardinal would reach underneath to feel for the correct genitalia then announce joyfully that they were there and the papal coronation could proceed.

Pope Joan as the Antichrist

As the story developed, it became increasingly unacceptable to suggest Joan had become pope by accident. She must have been in league with Satan. After all, papal elections are guided by the Holy Spirit so that election must have been subverted by some enormously evil intervention. And so we get the idea that Pope Joan was none other than Antichrist, the being that will rule before the end of times.

During the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, the story of Pope Joan was taken up with relish by Protestants. It was a great way to goad Catholics and jeer at the power of the papacy. So corrupt was this institution that a woman had even once held the position! And as for the father, it wasn’t just some or other man but a cardinal or even….the devil.

Given that today her existence is flatly denied by the Catholic church, it’s unusual how prevalent belief in the story was for centuries. Although her name changed in some tellings to Agnes, Gilberta, Joanna, Margaret, Isabel and the rather curious “Jutt”.

She also becomes English in one account. But if it was made up – who concocted the story and why? One theory I find quite plausible is that the story started in the Byzantine Empire. The Patriarch and the Emperor in Constantinople disputed the claim by the Pope to be the undisputed ruler of the church. How better to undermine the papacy than to claim a woman had once sat in St Peter’s chair?

There have been two movie versions of her life – one in 2009 and a classic in 1972 with a horrific depiction of her murder by the mob.

dead bodies museums

Should the dead be on display in museums?

Must admit I’ve seen my fair share of dead bodies in museums. Like all children, when I was first taken to see the ancient Egyptian mummies in the British museum back in the 1970s – I was eyes out on stalks! Take for example this chap below they used to call the “orange man”. He dates from about 3,400BC – also in the British Museum – and from what we call the pre-dynastic period. Now, as a result of seeing him, that term was embedded in my mind aged seven or eight.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

His excellent state of preservation is because in the pre-dynastic period – a thousand years before the pyramids you know and love – bodies were buried in the sand. And that was a great preserver! You can still make out his ginger hair.

However – informative though this may be – some think orange man should not be there for us to gawp at. And this issue is becoming ever more pressing.

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Goodbye shrunken heads!

About five years ago, I visited the Horniman Museum in south London and was unable to find a particular exhibit that exerted a ghoulish hold on me when I’d first come to the museum as a child in the 1970s. Back then, a large glass case displayed several shrunken heads.

When I asked a curator where they were on this recent outing, she grimaced and said: “We don’t really put that kind of thing out anymore.” The shrunken heads are still shown in graphic detail on the museum website but are labelled as being “in storage”.

And the Horniman isn’t the only museum vexing over the ethics of corpses in cases. There’s a very heated debate going on behind closed doors about the morals as well as the potential negative PR that is attaching to having heads and bodies for the public to ogle at.

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Tribal groups demand their ancestors back – no more dead bodies in museums

Indigenous peoples, tribes and nations are increasingly animated about their ancestors being exhibits. Concerns have been raised from tribal nations in the United States to aboriginal peoples in Australia – and lots of places in between. And you have allegations of racism or colonialism attaching to the display of Ancient Egyptian mummies or Inca sacrificial victims.

Those hostile parties may not be – for example – Egyptian in the case of the mummies but ‘feel’ or believe they have an affinity with these remains. No matter how tenuous one may feel their claimed link is – it’s now becoming difficult to ignore.

Guidance on displaying dead bodies in museums

The United Kingdom government has issued guidance in the past to museums on how to treat human remains. And since 1996, the UK has been committed to repatriating aboriginal remains to Australia and New Zealand. In one example in 2017, over a thousands remains including 13 skulls were sent back.

The British Museum lists its human remains online and it makes for fascinating reading:

  • From Australia: Human skull (adult, male?), covered with pigment; with grass plug in nasal aperture
  • From Borneo: Decorated human skull made of bone (human), wood, cane, shell (cowrie), gum.
  • From Chile: mummified child’s foot with sandal
  • From China: a skeletal human hand with a bangle on the wrist
  • From Ecuador: shrunken head with feathers and beetle wings
  • From Egypt: Fragments of bone and two teeth from infant sacrifice.

And so it goes on…

Egypt’s recent public display of new mummies

In 2020, the Egyptian authorities invited the media to snap at 59 ancient coffins just discovered. One of them was opened up in a flourish to reveal the mummified body within. In a sign of changing attitudes, many people registered their disgust at this theatricality.

Catholic shrines and death

For many Catholic shrines, removing bodies from display would effectively end their pulling power for both tourists and pilgrims. For example, in Palermo, Sicily you have the Capuchin Catacombs where hundreds of bodies, many in their Sunday best, are hanging from the walls. They date from the 17th to the early 20th century.

The Capuchin Catacombs includes the body of a girl, Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920. And yes, she is exceedingly well preserved. I have seen her myself (in 2019). Visitors claim that she blinks at them. I got no blink in case you’re wondering.

But I have to admit this display possibly crosses a line. Why? I suppose the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since her death; her very young age which is rather creepy in of itself and the fact that the 1920s were not Ancient Egypt.

We were not routinely mummifying bodies at that time. So why not put this poor girl where she should be? In the ground.

Dead crusaders on display

In 1976, I was taken to see the desiccated remains of several bodies in the crypt of Saint Michan’s church in Dublin, preserved by the very dry air underground. In those days, you were invited by the guide to shake hands with one of the bodies. And being a child who liked to show off a bit, I grasped the bony fingers of an 800-year-old crusader.

However, times really have changed. Because two years ago, that wasn’t enough for some vandals who broke through a steel door, stole the aforementioned crusader’s head and “desecrated” the body of a nun. I don’t even want to ask!

It does beg the question though whether these kinds of displays, which have an almost Victorian fairground quality, encourage boorish and despicable behaviour and if their time has been and gone.

Or are we getting too sensitive?

But maybe we’re all being way too sensitive. In 2010, a survey by English Heritage found that only 9% of the public opposed bodies being displayed in museums. I will bet that percentage has risen however. But for museums, it’s not just the wider public that are a concern – but those activist groups representing tribes and nations that feel enough is enough.

What do you think? I’d love to know.