2019 – a busy year for me on history TV programmes!

In the last two weeks, I finished filming for a new series of Forbidden History and for a new documentary series on the History channel that will accompany The Curse of Oak Island. There’s great Templar related content on both programmes and I think you’re going to have some amazing viewing in 2020. I’ll tell you when those programmes appear – of course!

Plus – three months ago I was up in Scotland filming with broadcaster and top comic talent Rob Riggle for a brand new series for Discovery called Rob Riggle Global Investigator. As with the other programmes above, I’m sworn to secrecy on the content but needless to say, more Templar secrets will be revealed.

FIND OUT MORE: Tony McMahon discusses Jesus and James Bond

American visitors to the blog may have seen me on the last series of Strange Evidence and NASA’s Unexplained Files – where I covered an extraordinary breadth of topics. Plus there was my outing with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed where Scott and I investigated a possible Templar link at Rosslyn Chapel back in January of this year – which has now been aired on the Travel channel.

So, all in all, 2019 has been a good year for taking history on to TV and hopefully making it accessible and fun for global audiences. If there are any subjects you think I should be covering on TV in 2020 – please do tell me and comment in the usual way.

Tony McMahon – the bearded historian – is coming to a history TV screen near you!

Corporate racism in the 1920s

Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.

Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.

Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

LEARN MORE: What was the difference between American and Roman slavery?

With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.

This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923

Maddest rulers in history

Who were the maddest rulers in history? We’ve not been short of a few in my lifetime. Though some have been insane but wily while others had become incapacitated through mental illness. Colonel Gaddafi is a good example of insane but wily. While poor old Boris Yeltsin seemed increasingly unstable in his last years.

Dynastic systems breed the maddest rulers

When you have a political system where somebody inherits the top job, you’re not always assured of the best person for the role. That’s especially the case when the new king or queen is completely insane. Yet that’s exactly what has happened many times in history when the mad have taken over.

Charles VI of France (1368 to 1422) believed he was made of glass and wore protective clothes to prevent his body being shattered. Think what happens to the Night King in Game of Thrones and you get the idea. In one incident while out hunting, Charles was convinced he was under attack and killed four of his own retainers before being restrained.

The reign of Charles VI was very long because he took power when he was very young. And there seems to be a connection between assuming the throne in infancy and coming under tremendous mental strain. Think about it. You have had no preparation for absolute power and when things go wrong, it comes as an overwhelming shock.

Maddest rulers: Henry VI and his fits of deep depression

So, child monarchs don’t tend to have happy reigns. Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI in England are good examples of this. Henry VI suffered what looks like fits of depression that made him completely unable to rule for periods of time. Stress seems to have rendered him like a rabbit in headlights – he froze while his advisers around him panicked.

FIND OUT MORE: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

Juana La Loca (literally Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castille, part of modern Spain, in the early 16th century. This was when Spanish power around the world was reaching its height with colonies in the Americas, across Europe and Asia. But Juana was way too mad to be allowed to rule any of that so she was “secluded” (locked away) in a castle.

Maddest rulers from the bible and ancient Rome

The biblical monarch of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar exhibited symptoms of a disorder known as boanthropy where an individual believes they might be a cow! Now it’s hard to know if this was propaganda used against him or the truth. But the condition certainly exists.

The Roman Empire threw up an extraordinary number of mentally unstable emperors almost from the start. The second emperor, Tiberius, retreated to the island of Capri where he reportedly tortured people in some pretty horribly ways.

He was then succeeded by Caligula whose madness is disputed by some historians but accepted by most. One of his oddest acts was to announce the appointment of a new consul, which turned out to be a horse called Incitatus.

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Justin II. A chronicler called John of Ephesus described how he was possessed by an evil angel that made him impersonate animals!

For suddenly it destroyed his reason, and his mind was agitated and darkened, and his body given over both to secret and open tortures and cruel agonies, so that he even uttered the cries of various animals, and barked like a dog, and bleated like a goat; and then he would mew like a cat, and then again crow like a cock: and many such things were done by him, contrary to human reason, being the workings of the prince of darkness…

Ecclesiastical History – John of Ephesus – Book 3

The only way to calm Justin down was to have organ music played all day and night, which must have driven his courtiers round the bend. He also had to be pulled through the palace in what’s described as a throne but I think a baby cart would present a truer picture.

And then no blog post on mad monarchs could leave out the maddest of them all – King George III. The king of England who lost America and his mind. Experts are still debating what the nature of his disorder was and views seem to change every year.

But the poor man was completely incapacitated for periods and would do things like greeting trees and shaking their branches as if they were human. You will all be familiar with the famous stage play and movie on this life story.

Man in the High Castle: the real American Nazis?

The Man in the High Castle – does it tell us anything about the real American Nazis of the past?

2018 will see the return of the grim dystopian TV series The Man in the High Castle – an imagining of the United States conquered by both the Nazis and Japanese at the end of World War II. Several years after the conquest, the east coast is depicted as firmly part of the Third Reich. Americans in SS uniforms enforce Nazi race codes dictated to them by their masters in Berlin.

The real American Nazis

You might wonder what kind of American in real life would ever salute the swastika? Though since the 2016 riot in Charlottesville and the proliferation of extreme right wing accounts on Twitter – it’s getting sadly easier to imagine such a terrible thing.

The truth is that there has been a long history of Americans flirting with Nazism.

Just months before President Franklin Roosevelt took the country into World War II, American Nazis held a huge rally at Madison Square Gardens. The German American Bund, an organisation aspiring to be the Nazi party of the United States, was led by a naturalised American, born and educated in Germany, called Fritz Julius Kuhn.

A rally of American Nazis in the 1930s

Some of the footage of that rally has only recently been re-discovered and turned into an excellent film short by Marshall Curry. It’s truly chilling to watch:

Throughout the 1930s, he rallied a large number of German Americans and fans of Hitler. Click HERE to see some startling copyright images of Nazis marching in America at that time. You almost have to rub your eyes to believe what you’re seeing.

Although Kuhn staged some disturbingly well attended spectacles, he met opposition from other German Americans opposed to Hitler, the Jewish community and both federal and state authorities.

But in spite of protests by anti-Nazis, the fascists continued to openly recruit. For example, supporters of the German American Settlement League, another Nazi front organisation, organised a youth camp in Yaphank, New York state in 1938.

On that occasion, the assistant district attorney moved fast to arrest some of those involved on the grounds they were working for a foreign power….Germany.

He could not tolerate young people saluting the Nazi flag and pledging allegiance to the Fuhrer instead of the US President. Here is the assistant DA explaining why he had to take action against the youth camp:

Kuhn met Hitler in 1936 – the year Germany hosted the Olympics. But he got a cool reception. Most likely, Hitler didn’t want to provoke Washington when he was planning his various invasions of Europe.

Kuhn was eventually imprisoned in late 1939 for embezzling funds from the Bund. In 1943, he was stripped of his US citizenship. Then he was deported to Germany. Unfortunately for him, Hitler and the Nazis had been wiped off the face of the earth. Kuhn was put on trial and sentenced to ten years in prison. Here is a news report from the time where he tries to plead his innocence.

In the years after World War II, you’d have thought that being a Nazi would have been beyond the pale. Scenes from liberated concentration camps showing emaciated survivors disgusted millions of decent people across the world. But not one man: George Lincoln Rockwell.

Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazis of the 1950s

Rockwell formed the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists in 1959 – shortened a year later to the American Nazi Party. He is widely regarded as the founder of today’s white supremacist movement in the US.

Speaking with his trademark and rather cartoonish pipe stuck in his mouth, Rockwell opined that black people should be returned to Africa and unbelievably, advocated exterminating Jewish people. Unlike other Nazis, he didn’t attempt to deny the holocaust so much as embrace it.

rockwell
Rockwell meets the Nation of Islam in 1961

He also exhibited another common trait of the extreme right – rank opportunism. Convinced he could get elected US president, Rockwell decided to swallow his hatred of Latino and Slav-heritage Americans to build an anti-Jewish and anti-African American white power coalition. But more incredibly, Rockwell flirted with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X.

DISCOVER MORE: Ten weird facts about Hitler

In 1961, he and a group of fellow American Nazi Party members attended a Nation of Islam rally – with permission from the organisers – in the belief that they held a shared hatred of Jews.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that Malcolm X was present, though not NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. The Nazi leader fantasised about a grand alliance with the NOI:

Can you imagine a rally of the American Nazis in Union Square protected from Jewish hecklers by a solid phalanx of Elijah Muhammad’s stalwart black stormtroopers?”

Mercifully, this alliance never materialised. But it’s a stain on the history of the NOI. In the end, Rockwell’s hatred of African-Americans trumped his ability to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad’s racialised version of Islam. Malcom X later split with the NOI’s black separatist ideology and sent Rockwell a threatening telegram in 1965.

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans….you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation…

Rockwell was assassinated in his car while on a launderette run. He’d apparently forgotten the soap powder and returned to his vehicle when he was gunned down in 1967. His assassin was John Patler, a member of Rockwell’s own party.

Patler’s real name was Yanacki Patsalos but he changed it to Patler in the belief that sounded a bit like Hitler! A social misfit from a Greek family that had migrated to the US. As a young man, he had fallen into gang activity as well as being discharged from the Marines for his Nazi activity. He got twenty years for the killing.

Today’s American Nazis

Anti-semitism and white supremacism are on the rise today in the United States. A recent media report highlighted the growth of hate crime against the dwindling Jewish population in Yaphank – the New York state town that planned to have a Nazi youth camp in 1938. Incredibly, the German-American Settlement League still operates in that town and only recently has a ban on non-German descent people buying property been lifted.

The 2016 riot at Charlottesville evidenced that the extreme right is still able to dragoon disaffected white males into action. Many of them dream of an America run by the jackbooted racially pure.

But that nightmarish vision is highly unlikely – even allowing for Donald Trump! Nevertheless, those of us who value democracy and harmony in our society must remain vigilant against a resurgence of fascist hate politics.

Here is the trailer for the forthcoming season 3 of The Man in the High Castle 

C’mon America – was King George really a tyrant?

It wasn’t just American colonists who though King George III of England was a tyrant. Many English radicals thought he was too. And that’s before we canvass the opinion of the French!

King George the tyrant – in American eyes!

I’ve now been to see the musical Hamilton twice and what’s not to like. Alexander Hamilton as a morally compromised hero. Thomas Jefferson as a vicious piece of work. And then there’s the hilarious figure of King George III – who prances on to the stage to rile the audience.

He loathes democracy. Thinks America won’t be able to handle everyday life once he’s forced from their stage. They’ll be crying to have him back soon – he jibes at the theatregoers. And we love it of course. Everybody adores a villain. Especially a villain with a big crown and velvet breeches.

DISCOVER: Top history movie turkeys!

King George – not such a tyrant

I appeared as a contributor on the TV series Private Lives of the Monarchs presented by the co-curator of the Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman. We did one programme looking at King George III and posing the question – was he really THAT bad?

He was certainly a lot more complex than he’s given credit for. His correspondence points to a man who took kingship terribly seriously. In fact, he was very keen to be seen as a “good king” and a constitutional monarch.

Compared to monarchs in continental Europe, he was fairly benign. He had to work with a democratically elected parliament (well, elected by property owners at that time) and couldn’t make arbitrary judgments in the way that kings were able to in France – or the Tsar in Russia.

His Prime Minister imposed a stamp tax on the American colonies. The reason was to pay for the war that had just been fought against France in the Americas. Not only the cost of that war but also the continued stationing of troops in the colonies had to be paid for. Not that the English expected to see all that tax revenue as America had a shaky record on actually coughing up its taxes due to the British crown.

Well, as we know, Americans of an independent spirit saw things differently. They rebelled and achieved their independence. So how did King George the tyrant react to the loss of the United States?

George wrote a long letter on the subject full of remorse and sadness. Interestingly, his main point was a warning to British politicians that no overseas possession could be retained if those living there didn’t support British rule.

Americans had clearly turned their back on the king and Mother Country. But George wrote that he hoped they could remain friends – if for no other reason than mutual trading benefits.

I’m not going to completely whitewash King George III here or let him off the tyrant hook completely. But we’re all grown ups here and capable of a bit of nuance and acceptance of shades of grey in history.

George III’s main claim to fame was the onset of madness. Now we wouldn’t mock the insane today. Yet George’s mental illness was treated with hilarity at the time in a way that would make most of you squirm. For example, he was referred to by one English satirist as “Your Mad-jesty”.

The tyrant King George did end up talking to plants and addressing Lords as peacocks. The man’s condition was made worse by being treated with toxic substances like arsenic. Still, he did have an unusually long reign from 1760 to 1820 and very much shaped the era in which he ruled.