Black British Georgian Rebel – William Davidson

In 1820, a group of English radical activists plotted to kill the entire British government while they were sat down to dinner in central London. The Cato Street Conspiracy – so-called from the place where they met to plot – was uncovered and the ringleaders executed in a public and grisly manner. One of those who died was William Davidson – a black British Georgian rebel.

Davidson is an under-recognised figure in our history. An educated and resourceful radical. The illegitimate son of the slave-owning Attorney General of Jamaica and a local free woman. And a man whose gravitas on the scaffold as he faced his fate was commented on positively by journalists.

Britain had won a long war against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire with the final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But far from ushering in a period of peace and stability, the ending of military conflict was followed by economic depression and mass hunger as food prices skyrocketed.

This was a period when working-class people didn’t have the vote and precious few rights in the workplace – if they were lucky to have a job. Demobbed soldiers joined civilians sleeping rough on the streets with many surviving through petty crime even though pickpocketing and burglary could carry the death penalty. And those being hanged in public included teenagers and very occasionally what we would regard as children.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Black British Rebel – William Davidson

Little wonder that radical movements emerged, and Davidson was drawn to them like a moth to the flame. He would play a leading role in the Cato Street Conspiracy that aimed to take out hated ministers like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. The plotters hoped to display Castlereagh’s head after the government had been wiped out but instead, it would be Davidson who would be beheaded in front of Newgate prison on the first of May 1820.

Join me as we go back to this turbulent yet fascinating period of history!

suffragette terrorism

The Suffragette use of terrorism

Were you taught in history that the Suffragette campaign on votes for women just involved smashing a few shop windows and being chained to railings? Well, you may have been denied some critical information. Because the Suffragettes deployed tactics we would define today as terrorism. Some of this Suffragette terrorism was quite shocking and has been swept under the carpet.

From 1903 to 1918, an organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) spearheaded the campaign to gain the vote for women. The so-called “Suffragettes” emerged from a more moderate movement as the belief grew that only direction action would get results. Led by the mother and daughter team of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst – they eventually adopted a bombing and arson campaign that we would easily define as terrorism.

However, this move to terrorist action has been rather airbrushed out of the Suffragette story. Most people are aware of the shop window smashing and chaining to railings but bombs in churches and railways stations has been pushed out of sight.

Using contemporary newspaper reports, the terrorist campaign of the suffragette movement is brought back to the fore and analysed. Did it work? How was it perceived at the time? Who were the targets? What were the methods used?

And as a fascinating postscript – why did some senior Suffragettes become fascists in the 1930s? Fifteen years after women got the vote in 1918, Suffragettes who had led the movement or been high profile members decided to follow Britain’s answer to Hitler and Mussolini – Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF).

Was there something about the terrorist campaign of the Suffragettes that led some in that political direction?

DISCOVER: Was Jesus Christ a terrorist?

Terrorism – borne out of frustration

The Suffragettes had always emphasised their belief in deeds over words. They upped the ante when attempts to gain votes for women by the parliamentary process failed. If democracy couldn’t deliver, then the bomb just might. That was their thinking, and the result was a wave of very real bomb and arson attacks.

The targets were government ministers, and institutions like the Church of England that Suffragettes felt had dragged their feet on the issue or simply opposed women’s suffrage. It seems incredible now, but parish churches were reduced to ashes and bombs planted in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

On 19 February 1913, a bomb exploded at a large mansion being refurbished for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George – who would later become Prime Minister. Emmeline Pankhurst admitted responsibility personally at a rally in Cardiff. She justified the attack on Lloyd George saying that “we have tried blowing him up to wake his conscience”.

Lloyd George retorted that he did support women’s suffrage but not for a minority of well-heeled women (who would vote Conservative more than likely) and the militancy of the Suffragettes was damaging their cause.

A fellow cabinet minister in the Asquith government was a young Winston Churchill whose views on women’s suffrage were far more hostile. Though his exact words are debated, he did write a few years before that “only the most undesirable class of women are eager for the right” to vote. And that they were “adequately represented by their husbands”.

Churchill would be attacked by a male Suffragette wielding a dog whip in an incident that was notorious at the time.

FIND OUT MORE: Women denying women the vote!

Suffragette use of terrorism

We have been served up a story for a long time that the Suffragettes rather quaintly smashed windows with their umbrellas and chained themselves to railings. In the run up to the First World War, there was a seemingly ceaseless wave of bomb attacks on public places. By the end of the war, and the granting of votes to women, this aspect of the Suffragettes was swept under the carpet.

But it happened. And it undermines the oft stated mantra that the most successful civil rights campaigns eschewed violence. The Suffragettes had no qualms about terrorism. The Pankhursts didn’t hesitate to justify these tactics. And they displayed a haughty indifference to mainstream public opinion on the matter. Even a certain contempt and disregard for ordinary working-class people.

Some of their planned actions – which thankfully never came to fruition – included bombing attacks on cotton mills, timber yards, and docks. Also, postal depots and telephone operating facilities. These could only have harmed working-class people. One also has to wonder at what was going through the mind of the Suffragette concerned who placed a bomb in a third-class train carriage or under a seat in a train station waiting room in Liverpool.

DISCOVER: Gunpowder plot – 17th century terrorism

The Suffragette rationalism for terrorist methods

The attack on a mansion called The Elms, situated just outside London, is very noteworthy. It suggests that targets were not only those denying women the vote but opponents within the broader women’s suffrage movement. Because what we have here is a violent act against a female aristocrat who supported women’s suffrage but was opposed to the Suffragettes and their methods.

Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle, was an elitist opponent of democracy who seems to have found the idea of working-class men having the vote problematic. But she did support votes for women though not using the deeds-based approach of the Pankhursts. In uncompromising terms, she said that the Suffragettes had “wrecked the progress of a great constitutional reform”.

And then her property, The Elms, was subject to an arson attack. The culprits were apprehended and faced their day in court. What followed gave an insight into the mindset of the average Suffragette terrorist.

In court, the judge – Justice Lawrence – was involved in a fascinating exchange with the accused arsonist Rachel Peace (real name Florence Jane Short). He asked the militant Suffragette if she agreed that a crime had been committed. Peace replied that she didn’t deny guilt but added “I suggest I am not guilty of any evil motive. My motive is pure”.

The judge insisted that the case had to be based on facts and not “the purity of your motive”. He added that had the fire extended from The Elms to other properties nearby then lives would undoubtedly have been lost. Peace retorted that was “very improbable”.

Justice Lawrence then pointed out that the Suffragettes in effect relied on the authorities to ensure that fatalities didn’t result from their bombings and arson:

“I am amused at your theories of probabilities. You seem to think you may break the law and rely on the officers of the law to prevent the consequences of your act in so doing. You rely on the policeman patrolling the streets to find the fire, and the Fire Brigade to prevent it from spreading to houses with people in them.”

Peace was treated appallingly in prison and subjected to forced feeding. This was commonly used with Suffragettes to break hunger strikes. The exchange above shows that in her view, the purity of motive was paramount, and the consequence of a terrorist action was secondary. The struggle was everything.

The inevitable hoax attacks

During the Suffragette terrorist campaign, there were undoubtedly hoax attacks by opportunists and idiots who having started a fire then blamed it on the campaign for the vote.

In the Welsh town of Abergavenny, an eighteen-year-old man, Douglas James, admitted in court to two charges of arson, both at a church rectory. To try and implicate the Suffragettes, he printed the words “Votes for Women” on a large piece of paper that he left at the scene of his crime.

Well, they do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Gunpowder Plot

Gunpowder plot – 17th century terrorism!

In 1605, there was an audacious attempt to assassinate King James the First of England and his entire parliament. The so-called Gunpowder Plot was exactly that – a plot using gunpowder to send the king sky high. But why was this plot hatched?

It was very much rooted in the religious strife that was gripping England between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics had been forbidden to worship openly and their priests were executed in a very gruesome manner if caught. When James became king, some Catholics thought matters might improve as his late mother and wife were Roman Catholic.

DISCOVER: The Great Plague of London in 1665

But it was not to be. James decided not to rock the boat and accepted the Protestant settlement put in place by King Henry VIII decades earlier. He might have expected his subjects to just accept his decision. But that wasn’t going to be the case.

A man called Robert Catesby and like-minded plotters conspired to end the monarch’s life. One of the conspirators was Guy Fawkes – whose name has survived down the centuries. He was a military man who took charge of placing the explosives under parliament.

The plot was betrayed and those who were caught and taken to prison would later die horrifically in public on the scaffold. Watch the video on this page to get the fully story!

Loch Ness Monster

The enduring legend of the Loch Ness Monster

In the rugged highlands of Scotland there’s a large freshwater lake known as Loch Ness. It stretches for 23 miles flanked by rolling hills. And its depth reaches nearly 800 feet. The reason you’ve probably heard of Loch Ness isn’t because of the dimensions but what allegedly lies beneath its murky surface. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the lake is home to some type of prehistoric animal. Otherwise known as The Loch Ness Monster.

Saint Columba tames the Loch Ness Monster

Nearly all these claimed sightings date from the 20th and 21st centuries. However, there is one alleged account from the sixth century AD. At this time, in what used to be termed the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, monks from Ireland kept the flame of Christianity burning. One of their number, Columba, journeyed to what is now Scotland determined to bring the gospels to the pagan inhabitants.

His mission was largely successful.  A century after Columba’s death, the abbot of Iona Abbey – a man called Adomnán – wrote a two-part biography of the heroic Irish monk. In the second part, he describes an encounter between Columba and Nessie (as the monster is fondly known today).

“The brute lay asleep in the riverbed, waiting in his lair. He ascended to the surface and with a loud roar from his open heart, he lunged at the man. The Holy Man raised his hand and made a sign of the cross. At the sound of the saint’s voice, the brute retreated so quickly, it seems as if were pulled by a rope.”

Well, of course, confronted by this astonishing sight – the locals deserted their pagan gods and converted to Christianity on the spot. Now, stories of heroes taming or killing beasts and dragons have been a feature of both Christian and pre-Christian mythology going back millennia. Normally as a way of proving that my god is better than your god. Look what he can do!

In Christian scripture, we have Saint Philip described in the Acts of Philip – a gnostic gospel the church chose not to include in the bible – casting a dragon out of a temple dedicated to Apollo. Then there is Saint George who as everybody knows slew a dragon. Saint Theodore of Amasea did a similar deed. And in the Book of Revelation, we see Michael the Archangel sticking it to a devilish reptile.

Was Columba’s beast Nessie? That is a moot point. His biography states the monster was to be found in the River Ness, which flows from the lake. And that’s good enough for Nessie fans.

DISCOVER: So – did aliens from outer space civilise us?

Fast forward to the 1930s

We then have an enormous gap in the Nessie story from the sixth century AD to the 1930s. Had the monster gone into a multi-century hibernation – or swum off elsewhere? Who knows?

But for whatever reason, Nessie takes off in the decade that brought you the Great Depression and the Third Reich. Were people in the 1930s looking for a little escapism? Or were they influenced by Hollywood movies that had begun to master special effects. In the 1933 epic King Kong, we see the gigantic ape kill dinosaurs in the jungle. Could this imagery have been burned into the public consciousness?

In 1933, a newspaper article in the Inverness Courier sparked the Nessie craze. A married couple had seen a whale-like creature in Loch Ness.

“The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.”

Something about this story fired people up. A circus offered a £2,000 reward to capture the beast (how very King Kong!!).  While the Daily Mail newspaper sent a big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to see if he could bag the monster. A breathless Wetherell reported back that he found gigantic footprints by the lake. Sadly, these turned out to have been created by hoaxers using the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus.

Incredibly, the famous author and member of the Bloomsbury group Virginia Woolf was swept up by Nessie mania. She wrote to her sister:

“We met a charming couple in an inn, who were in touch through friends, with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at intense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”

For the next twenty years, glimpses of the monster would continue to be reported. In 1959, a local firefighter, Peter O’Connor, was condemned for planning to kill Nessie. A year later, the chief constable of Inverness, J. R. Johnstone, called on parliament to pass legislation protecting the monster from “human villainy”.

The 1960s gets a bit silly

The decade that brought us the permissive society also loved to poke fun at pomposity. It took the Loch Ness legend and turned it into a comic British movie with a smutty title: What a Whopper.

The movie’s protagonist Tony Blake – played by real-life early 60s pop heartthrob Adam Faith – is an author whose book on Nessie has just been roundly rejected by publishers. So, to drum up interest he goes up to Loch Ness to fake a sighting. When his plan fails, Blake is forced to flee across the lake from angry locals…at which point the real monster appears.

Is this movie garbage? Oh god yes! As an aside, I worked with Adam Faith on a media venture forty years later at the turn of the 21st century and made sure I never mentioned What a Whopper to him. Some points in your life are best forgotten.

The use and misuse of science

There have been numerous attempts to apply scientific methods to the search for the Loch Ness Monster. In May 1973, a Boston patent attorney called Robert Rines took sonar and underwater photographic equipment to Loch Ness and claimed to prove the existence of “at least two large marine animals”.

Rines had set up an organisation called the Academy of Applied Sciences that despite its name, railed against “official science” because, as Rines told journalists, “organised science doesn’t know how to handle oral evidence”. This is a familiar trope of pseudo-science – arguing that real science should be a blend of peer-reviewed evidence and what a bloke said down the pub.

Over the last fifty years, expeditions to Loch Ness have used sonar probes, a submarine, a gyrocopter, a trained dolphin, a baited cage, an amphibious Volkswagen, and a model monster smeared with salmon oil to try and locate Nessie.

The sightings have come thick and fast with sceptics rolling their eyes and attributing the visual phenomena to otters, ducks, seals, cormorants, mirages, shadows and even rotting vegetation. All of this not helped by the dark gloom of the water, which is caused by the surrounding peat. It gives the lake an impenetrable and mysterious aspect.

The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited

In December 1961, an organisation was set up to investigate claims about Nessie: The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited. The founders were David James MP, Richard Fitter, the author Constance Whyte, and Sir Peter Scott.

Scott was a conservationist and the only son of the famous and fabled Scott of the Antarctic – the doomed explorer. Sir Peter worked with the above mentioned Rines and in 1975, they provided blurry photos of what looked like an underwater prehistoric creature, which was given the Latin name Nessiteras rhombopteryx.

Now I remember as a 12-year-old how exciting this was initially until some people began to analyse that Latin a little more closely. Didn’t it look suspiciously like an anagram? The Daily Telegraph newspaper decoded it as: “Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S”. A furious Rines countered that it could also read as: “Yes, both pix are monsters, R.”

The damage, however, was done – and no more was heard about that photo. In 2008, before his death, Rines announced that he believed Nessie had become extinct due to global warming.

Russian versions of the Loch Ness Monster

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, I remember as a child reading a sneering feature article in a Soviet publication laughing at the west’s obsession with childish fantasies like the Loch Ness Monster. It was symptomatic of our inferior bourgeois, capitalist mentality.

Only, Russia can hardly lecture the west on this subject. Back in 1953, members of a geological expedition claimed they could verify a local folktale about a monster living in a large body of water in Russia’s far east. The Labynkyr Devil was described by local fishermen as a “huge aggressive monster with a big mouth full of sharp teeth”.

What nonsense, the Soviet scientists initially retorted – before apparently running into it. One of the geological team, Viktor Tverdokhlebov, described a dark, grey creature moving at speed. “There was no doubt, we had seen the Devil – the legendary monster of this locale,” Viktor said afterwards.

And then there’s the Brosno Dragon, tales of which go back 800 years. Allegedly when the Mongols swept across Russia in the Middle Ages, the dragon obligingly stopped the Mongol army from seizing the city of Veliky Novgorod. As the Mongols unwisely watered their horses by the dragon’s lake – it leaped out and tore the warriors to pieces.

The rise and fall of Nessie?

In many ways, Nessie was a creation of mass media. The popular press and radio latched on to this fantastical story and amplified it globally. But one newspaper article in recent years has raised the point that modern media today is a double-edged sword. It can spread fake news and conspiracy theories with remarkable speed and impact. But it also punctures silly stories very quickly. The journalist posed the question whether the internet has now killed off Nessie?

Nazis who fled to Egypt

Leading Nazis either died with Hitler in the bunker in Berlin as the Soviets closed in; got themselves executed by hanging after being tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War; or simply disappeared off the face of the Earth (often to Latin America). Some Nazis though found a new home – in Egypt.

In a bizarre turn, many adopted new Arab names and even converted to Islam. Living in the Egyptian capital Cairo, they enjoyed the protection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These unrepentant Nazis played a massive role in poisoning the discourse between Arabs and Jews continuing the anti-Semitic propaganda they had refined and spread under Hitler’s Third Reich.

Nazis working in Egypt as propagandists against Zionism

President Nasser of Egypt was a charismatic figure on the 1950s world stage. An imposing and proud nationalist attempting to shake off the last vestiges of British Empire rule in Egypt but also embroiled in an increasingly hostile relationship with neighbouring Israel.

Without going too much into the dynamics and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which is well covered elsewhere – Nasser sanctioned the setting up of the Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo in 1955. This organisation staffed by Nazis who had worked for the Reich used conflict with Israel to stoke hatred of Jews. This was simply a continuation of the work of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry in a different context.

Two of the Institute’s leading lights were Nazis who had reported directly to the head of propaganda in the Third Reich – Joseph Goebbels. One was the Institute’s Director Alfred Zingler who converted to Islam and adopted the name Mahmoud Saleh.

Some people seem to have even believed he was Egyptian born and bred. He was nothing of the sort. Zingler was a German Nazi who fled his homeland as the war ended.

The other leading light was Johann Jakob von Leers who had also become a Muslim and taken the name Omar Amin. His route out of Germany to Egypt had been via Argentina. While working for Nasser, Von Leers kept up a correspondence with Otto Ernst Remer, the military officer who foiled the Valkyrie plot against Hitler’s life in 1944 leading to the execution of all the main conspirators. An event dramatised in the Hollywood movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Von Leers was no slouch when it came to attacking Jews under the Third Reich. An academic, he had produced papers likening Jews to a plague that needed to be eradicated. He and Zingler brought in other Nazi chums from their time working for Goebbels – who had committed suicide with his wife in the Berlin bunker at the end of the war. Goebbels’ wife Magda notoriously poisoned all six of her children as one last act of loyalty to the now crazed Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry might have been no more – but there was plenty of work for former employees in Cairo.

Dr Werner Witschale and Hans Appler were two former Goebbels operatives who now joined the Institute. Appler had taken the name Saleh Shafar. Louis Heiden had worked for the Reich’s news agency and in Egypt set about producing an Arabic translation of Hitler’s seminal work, Mein Kampf.

Predictably, the Institute also published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a book purporting to reveal a conspiracy by Jews to take over the world that was in fact, an early 20th century example of disinformation or fake news. Forged by the Tsarist secret police as part of the Russian state’s anti-Semitic policies. Yet, it has retained the veneer of authenticity in the Middle East to the present day. In no small part due to the activities of Nazis operating under the radar in 1950s Egypt.

Other Nazis who found a new life under Nasser in Egypt – and an opportunity to continue venting their hatred of Jewish people included ex-Gestapo officer Franz Bartel, SS espionage chief Walter Bollmann and SS officer Werner Birgel.

Doctor Death in Cairo

One of the most ghoulish Nazis to end up in Egypt was Aribert Heim – better known as the Butcher of Mauthausen. An SS doctor, Heim enthusiastically took up a medical position at the Mauthausen concentration camp as it exterminated enemies of the Reich using lethal injections, a gas chamber and a combination of starvation and backbreaking work.

Inmates referred to him as Doctor Death. Pseudo-scientific experiments were an exercise in brutal sadism. Heim kept the skull of an 18-year-old patient he murdered while under anaesthetic as a desk ornament. It’s alleged that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of non-terminals patients.

Incredibly, Heim was released from prison by the Allies after the war and worked as a gynecologist in Germany until 1962 when he fled the country as the West German police closed in on him. He ended up in Cairo where he followed the example of his Nazi comrades and converted to Islam adopting the name Tarek Hussein Farid. Local people came to know him as “Uncle Tarek”.

It was claimed that he died of cancer in Egypt in 1993 but this was disputed for a decade by the Simon Wiesenthal Center which has specialised in hunting down surviving Nazis since World War Two.

Nasser, Israel and the Nazis

It’s ironic that while Nasser protected former Nazis who were used to develop arguments against Zionism, he also characterised Israel as a Nazi state – something that you still hear today. Of course these Nazis – who had overseen the Holocaust of millions of Jews – were only too happy to do their bit to try and sink Israel. A country created largely as a result of what had the Third Reich had done to European Jewry.

There had been a significant Jewish population in Egypt for over two thousand years if not longer. And Nasser grew up very near a Jewish neighbourhood so it wasn’t like he’d never met a Jewish person. In fact, in his early years as a political figure in Egypt, Nasser wasn’t immediately hostile to Israel.

But as he positioned himself as the leader of a pan-Arab movement spanning the whole of the Middle East, the pressure built to adopt an anti-Israel position. Something that would play well on the street and with other Arab countries. He fell into line with the argument that Israel’s creation was a catastrophe for the Arab world that had split Arabs in North Africa from their brothers in the Middle East. Only its disappearance would resolve matters.

Today, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours is becoming more complex while the plight of the Palestinian people remains intractable. But whatever one thinks of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East today – the role of undercover Nazis in stoking hatred in the region after the Second World War is a story that needs to be told and remembered.

Fear of nuclear war in the 1980s

In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the possible use of nuclear weapons as he pushed ahead with the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. This sent a shudder of familiarity down the spines of anybody aged 50 and over. Those of us who grew up in the last phases of the Cold War when fear of nuclear conflict reached a terrifying height in the early 1980s. For young people – this unfamiliar territory so let’s shine a light on the past.

Protect and Survive – advice on living through a nuclear war

It’s been a long time since nuclear war gave me butterflies in my stomach. But back in the early 1980s, many young people surveyed genuinely believed they would die in a nuclear conflict. From the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom government issued public information guidance on what to do in the event of a nuclear war. This culminated in 1980 with the issue of a notorious pamphlet: Protect and Survive.

This guidance was intended to be distributed to families once the nuclear threat was very real. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy back then and I share some images below. Very much in the DIY spirit of the time, people were instructed on how to radiation-proof their homes. This involved moving furniture in front of windows, blocking up fireplaces and creating a lean-to shelter by propping up doors against a wall.

A lot of this reflected Second World War approaches to surviving Nazi airborne bombing raids in major cities. You dug a shelter in the garden. Went underground. Avoided the blast as best you could. But given what we knew after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions in Japan that ended World War Two in a blaze of catastrophic radiation – we were a bit sceptical about this pamphlet!

DISCOVER: Fear in history – what scared us in the past?

Protest and Survive – pamphlet reflecting widespread fear of nuclear war

In fact, Protect and Survive was ridiculed in an alternative pamphlet titled Protest and Survive. Authored by veteran Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, it included quotes from government documents that made sobering reading. For example, in 1976, the Home Office had issued guidance to the chief executives of local authorities on what to do after a nuclear attack:

“When radiological conditions permitted movement, district and borough London controllers should assume that one of the priority tasks for their staff, in areas where survivors where to continue residing, would be to collect and cremate or inter human remains in mass graves.”

And this from the Home Office advising healthcare managers:

“Trained health service staff would be vital to the future and should not be wasted by allowing them to enter areas of high contamination where casualties would, in any case, have small chance of long-term recovery.”

FIND OUT MORE: AIDS and Soviet disinformation in the 1980s

Fear about nuclear war returns as never before

The end of the 1970s saw a dramatic change in the global political dynamic. Ronald Reagan was elected president in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. The rhetoric towards the Soviet Union was dialled up and on both sides, new nuclear weapons were deployed. To be blunt – this freaked young people out. And suddenly, protest about nuclear weapons was back in vogue!

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) saw a huge surge in membership and monster demonstrations through the middle of London. About 300,000 marched in 1983. I attended the 1981 demos where an estimated quarter of a million marched.

This was a revival for CND from its previous heyday in the 1950s when earnest students and intellectuals in duffel coats had rallied in Westminster or marched on the atomic weapons research establishment at Aldermaston. But after the 1963 Test Ban Treaty and a calming in tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, fear of nuclear war and protest activity receded.

In fact, in the 1970s – a decade brimming with protest movements – anti-nuclear barely got a look in. Driving through Europe as a kid in the 70s with my parents, the most notable anti-nuclear presence were German hippies in VW camper vans covered in smiley anti-nuclear stickers saying: Atomkraft? Nein Danke.

Otherwise, we switched on our TVs to see the US President of the day (Richard Nixon then later Jimmy Carter) engaged in long and tedious negotiations with the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to limit their respective nuclear arsenals. Even as a politics-obsessed child, I struggled to be interested in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT for short. Things on the nuclear front seemed to be broadly under control with the certainty of mutually assured destruction (appropriately MAD for short) ruling out the use of these bombs.

And then everything changed. Thatcher and Reagan were demonised as the architects of an upcoming Armageddon. Women protestors set up a Peace Camp outside the Greenham Common armed forces base over the proposed siting of cruise missiles there. Pop groups began singing about nuclear conflict – the list of songs on the topic is endless from this period. I try and avoid linking to Wikipedia but on this occasion – there is a comprehensive list of 80s nuclear pop hits HERE.

Fear of nuclear war recedes again

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, the fear moved to nuclear material finding its way into the wrong hands – especially terrorists. But the idea of nation states using nuclear weapons in a war that could wipe us all out faded away. Well, history is cruel. And here we are again. Let’s see if Vladimir Putin would really do what Leonid Brezhnev was not prepared to countenance.

Queen Victoria assassination attempt

Queen Victoria – the eight assassination attempts

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, there was a wave of anarchist inspired political assassinations. The Empress of Austria, King of Italy, Prime Minister of France, King of Greece and President of the United States (William McKinley) were all killed by assassins. But one ruler blithely survived an astonishing eight assassination attempts during the 19th century: step forward indestructible Queen Victoria.

DISCOVER: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

While other heads of state breathed their last – the Queen of Britain and Empress of India seemed to almost bat away the bullets. So let’s list all those attempts on Her Majesty’s life:

  1. Edward Oxford was the first would-be queen killer taking a shot at Victoria in 1840. She was still a young woman and had barely been on the throne for three years. Her assailant was a mild-manner unemployed man called Edward Oxford. Victoria’s security was unbelievably lax. Shooting her as she drove past in her carriage was beyond easy. Oxford just stepped forward, took aim and fired. At his trial, claims to be part of a conspiratorial group called Young England proved to be a fantasy and it soon become clear he was insane. The jury certainly thought so and off he went to an asylum for the next 24 years. After which he was sent off to Australia where he assumed a new identity and married a woman who apparently never knew who he actually was. Oxford – now called John Freeman – was an upstanding member of the local community and nobody was any the wiser.
  2. Two years later and a man called John Francis, described by Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, as a “little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal”, pulled out a pistol and fired on the queen as she drove down Constitution Hill. But the pistol mercifully jammed and Francis ran away.
  3. Well, if you don’t succeed the first time – come back and have another go. Incredibly, the following day – 30 May 1842 – Francis did exactly that. This time he was arrested, sent to Newgate Prison and sentenced to death. Strictly speaking, the punishment for treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I’ll spare you the details. This horrific medieval punishment was only removed from the statute books in 1870. Francis, it turned out, was the son of an employee at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Before taking aim at the queen, he’d been seen walking round the nearby park yelling obscenities about Victoria – so not exactly keeping a low profile.
  4. 1842 was going to be quite memorable for Queen Victoria. Because she’d barely got over two assassination attempts in May when along came another one on 3 July. This time the pistol wielder was John William Bean. His gun was a ramshackle affair that failed to fire. Bean was only four feet high and severely disabled. He was clearly a very unhappy chap and the subsequent story was that his assassination attempt was more or less a cry for help. But Victorian England wasn’t such a kind place. The order went out – I kid you not – to round up every ‘hunchback’ in the vicinity. Bean was captured but shown some leniency – by which I mean he wasn’t hanged publicly but sent to a pretty dreadful prison. In fact, he was imprisoned at the Millbank Penitentiary – which is now the site of Tate Britain in south London. Eventually released, he got married, had a son but happiness proved elusive. He lived not far from my house here in the Camberwell district of London and in 1882, killed himself with poison.
  5. Bean claimed to have been inspired by Edward Oxford – as did the perpetrator of the next assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. Like Oxford, William Hamilton was unemployed. His gun was only loaded with powder and there doesn’t seem to have been a serious desire to murder the queen. Hamilton was Irish and had left his homeland during the appalling famine of the 1840s. By 1849, when he took aim at Her Majesty, he was broke and like many at the bottom of society, thought prison might be a better option than life on the streets. However, Hamilton instead was transported to Gibraltar and from there to Australia.
  6. Hard to know whether to regard this one as an assassination attempt – but Robert Pate certainly meant the queen considerable harm. A former army lieutenant in the Tenth Hussars, life on civvy street hadn’t been kind to this gentleman. Many Londoners saw this strange man marching frantically around Hyde Park as if he was still on military service. Frankly, he became a bit of a joke. Even, it’s said, Queen Victoria was aware of him. But the joke turned sour when he ran at her coach and whacked the sovereign on the head with a cane. She was left with severe bruising and I think it’s safe to say that despite her famous stiff upper lip – this was a deeply unpleasant incident. This was in 1850 and it’s simply mind-boggling that Victoria’s protection was not up to scratch.
  7. Queen Victoria now had a two decade respite in her long reign until 1872 when Arthur O’Connor raised his gun. Like Hamilton, O’Connor was an Irishman. But whereas Hamilton seemed to have no political motivation, O’Connor claimed his act was intended to goad the British state into releasing Irish Republican prisoners. This was a time when the movement for Irish independence from the British Empire was gathering pace. And Irish nationalists were the first to bring what we would now call terrorism to the British mainland to make their point. Well, another Celt – the queen’s Scottish servant (and very, very close friend) John Brown – wrestled O’Connor to the ground. As with previous assassins, he was spared the rope and instead got prison, a spell in an asylum and transportation to Australia.
  8. Ten years later in 1882 came the final assassination attempt by Roderick Maclean. Now this was at a time when anarchist killings were picking up. But Maclean’s shooting at Victoria outside Windsor Station was a clumsy affair. Schoolboys from Eton College beat him to the ground with their umbrellas – which can hardly have been the heroic image he was striving for. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

There clearly wasn’t the appetite in 19th century England to impose draconian punishments on these assassins. Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy with radical movements like the Chartists and the emerging trade unions as well as other pressure groups campaigning for a more humane and just society.

For her part, Queen Victoria seems to have been bitterly disappointed at the relatively lenient punishments. She wanted consequences that were way more severe. A noose around the neck and a long drop. It left the queen with the distinct impression that parliament viewed these incidents as either irrelevant or maybe worse – amusing.

She, though, was not amused.

Elizabeth I – why was she a Virgin Queen?

In 1998, the movie Elizabeth was released with Cate Blanchett as the queen who resolved to never marry nor have children. Audiences in the United States were so moved by her strength and defiance that some stood up to shout “go girl!” during the film. The decision by a real-life female monarch to reject all those royal male suitors and become the almost ethereal Virgin Queen is a hugely compelling narrative. But is it true?

Well, let’s look at the different theories about Elizabeth – the allegedly Virgin Queen.

Powerful royal women – but this was the first Virgin Queen

Many women had exerted power behind the throne in England for centuries. Powerful and intelligent women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Margaret of Anjou. But the Tudors in the 16th century gave us two women who ascended to the throne in succession: Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth. Both daughters of Henry VIII and as strong-willed as their father.

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Elizabeth was crowned as the last Tudor monarch after a stormy century of religious turmoil and war. Her rise to power was by no means assured and on many occasions she had good cause to fear for her life. Elizabeth was constantly at the centre of court intrigue for which she could easily have paid with her head. But good fortune saw her succeed to the top job. However, holding on to power was a formidable challenge.

Creating Elizabeth – Gloriana and Virgin Queen

To do that, Elizabeth crafted an image of herself. She used her body, her sex and her appearance as propaganda tools. Her Ladies of the Bedchamber worked tirelessly on her dress, make-up and hair to project Gloriana – the Virgin Queen. In effect, Elizabeth politicised her body to create a myth. That she was married to England and no prince would come between her and royal duty.

It was a secularisation of the wedding between Catholic nuns and Christ – appropriate for the newly Protestant England. This spiritual marriage was to a country now independent of the Pope and his church. Elizabeth’s chastity was a statement of dedication to her country – not to God and Rome.

But sceptics abounded. Elizabeth was the subject of gossip with regards to several very eligible courtiers. Expert Dr Anna Whitelock believes the rumours of illicit relationships between Elizabeth and various male aristocrats were dealt with by her ultra-loyal Ladies. If necessary, they would take a bullet for the queen and claim to have been seeing the man involved themselves.

Whitelock details how Elizabeth batted away attempts by her Privy Councillors to force her to marry soon after becoming queen and how this pressure to wed continued into her 40s as she approached the menopause. Her contemporaries and many commentators down the centuries wrestled with the question of whether she simply concealed her affairs, was incapable of having sexual relations or if her propaganda was in fact the truth.

No choice but to be a Virgin Queen?

Maybe Elizabeth simply couldn’t have sex – for solid biological reasons. The playwright Ben Johnson (1572-1637) believed “she had a membrana on her which made her uncapable of man, though for her delight she tried many” (his spelling). Peter Bayle writing in 1710 stridently asserted that “it is certain, she had no vulva”. A gynaecologist writing last year thought that Johnson and Bayle were referring to a condition called vaginismus – where penetration is impossible due to a combination of fear and pain.

Even in death, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen left instructions to ensure that there would be no embalming. This would have led to the prying hands and eyes of physicians taking a good look at the royal corpse. And that would not be allowed to happen. Her womb, as was the custom, would not be examined to see if it had borne children. Her secret would go to the grave.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.