Monday, 29 February 2016

Gandhi's visit to Britain in 1931

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) is generally known to history by his honorific title of “Mahatma”, which means “venerable”. It was a well-deserved title, given that he was surely one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century.

Gandhi spent much of his early life in South Africa, but after that he rarely left his native India. One such occasion was in 1931, when he made a considerable impression on the people of Great Britain during a visit that lasted for nearly three months from September to December.

The occasion was the London Round Table Conference held at St James’s Palace with the objective of finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis in South Asia that would eventually lead to the end of British control in that region and the creation of independent India and Pakistan. Gandhi was only one of more than 100 representatives of Indian interests, which included princes, landowners, industrialists and trade unionists. Gandhi remarked that the only class missing from the talks was that of the peasants who made up the vast bulk of the population.

The Indian uprising had been marked by considerable violence and bloodshed, but Gandhi always advocated peaceful means of persuasion, notably a policy of “civil disobedience” towards the British Empire. He identified himself with the poorest members of society, including the “Untouchables” of the Hindu caste system, and his own lifestyle mirrored his belief in the dignity of every man and woman, however humble. He dressed in a simple tunic with sandals on his feet, he ate simple food and fasted regularly.

His visit to England achieved little in terms of the Round Table Conference, but he made a huge impression on the British people. He insisted on travelling second class and being accommodated in the poorer parts of London, often sleeping on the roof of a building in the East End. He believed that if he stayed among the poor he would be more likely to reach into Britain’s heart than if he mixed with fashionable and intellectual people; however, he was probably regarded more as a curiosity than a serious world figure by most of the people who encountered him.

One aspect of Gandhi’s civil disobedience involved encouraging Indians to boycott imports of cloth from Britain and instead to weave their own clothes from thread they had spun themselves. Gandhi could often be seen working at a spinning wheel, which became his personal symbol.

During his 1931 visit to Britain, Gandhi made a point of going to Lancashire, which was the source of most of Britain’s exports of yarn and cloth to India. He wanted to encourage the millworkers to see his side of the argument in the debate over the unemployment caused by his boycott. As he explained to the workers:

“You have three million unemployed, but we have nearly three hundred million unemployed. Your average unemployment dole is seventy shillings a month. Our average income is seven shillings and sixpence a month.”

Gandhi met a number of prominent people and impressed them deeply. These included the Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the London-born film actor Charlie Chaplin, academics at Oxford University and several bishops of the Church of England.

One notable absentee from the list of visitors was Winston Churchill, who thought it “nauseating” that Gandhi, “posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East” should dare to speak on equal terms with representatives of the “King-Emperor”.

However, the King-Emperor himself, George V, was not so standoffish and actually asked to meet Gandhi. Several Buckingham Palace officials were worried about the decorum of allowing Gandhi, dressed in loin-cloth and sandals, with bare legs, to meet the monarch. Gandhi answered this point afterwards by observing that “the King wore enough for the two of us”.

Gandhi and King George had no common ground on which to agree, but the encounter passed in a spirit of politeness and good manners.

When Gandhi returned to India, taking in a visit to Rome on the way, he had achieved nothing concrete in terms of advancing the cause of Indian independence, but he had certainly made an impression on the people he met and those who read the newspaper reports about his activities while in the country. When Indian independence was eventually achieved in 1947 there was considerable goodwill extended from the ordinary people of Great Britain, if not from all of their Parliamentary representatives.

© John Welford

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The death of King William II, 1100

King William II of England was killed by an arrow while out hunting on Thursday 2nd August 1100 (at the spot marked by the stone in the photo). Most historians say that this was an accident, and that the stray arrow was fired by Walter Tyrel, one of William’s companions. However, there is the intriguing possibility that it was not an accident after all.

Death in the Forest

The New Forest is the best known of the many hunting reserves that William’s father, King William I (the Conqueror), had created in England for his personal use. It occupies a large part of south-west Hampshire (and a small bit of Wiltshire) and it exists today as one of England’s national parks. It is a mixture of woodland (both broadleaved and coniferous) and open lowland moorland, with relatively little cultivated or pasture land. There are parts that King William would recognise were he able to visit it today.

The hunting consisted of shooting arrows at deer as they ran past stands where the hunters were positioned. The deer were chased into a channel between trees and bushes that provided suitably hidden sites for the stands. If one hunter missed, a companion on the other side of the channel would probably hit.

However, if a huntsman were to swing round with his crossbow as the deer passed, and then miss, there was the possibility that he could shoot a fellow huntsman on the other side. That is what appears to have happened in this case.

King William (who is always known as William Rufus because of his florid complexion) was hit full in the chest. He is believed to have fallen forward and driven the arrow further into himself as he fell. He would have died almost instantly.

Accident or murder?

The reported behaviour of William’s fellow hunters, immediately after his death, has given rise to much speculation as to what really happened.

Walter Tyrel, who was a close personal friend of the King, did not raise the alarm and send for help. Instead he got on his horse and rode straight for the coast, from where he took a boat for France.

He does not appear to have been alone in fleeing the scene, because William had other companions with him at the time. It was left to some local farm labourers (possibly the beaters who had been driving the deer) to find the body and take it on a cart to Winchester, dripping blood as it did so.

If the death was purely accidental, why did everyone present suddenly get a guilty conscience and run off as fast as they could? It is possible that, under the circumstances, Tyrel and the others believed that they would have been hard pressed to prove their innocence and they feared the prospect of being tortured until they confessed to a crime they had not committed. Thoughts of self-preservation might easily have been uppermost in their minds.

Flight was not therefore necessarily an admission of guilt. It could well have been the most logical choice to make. Walter Tyrel never admitted to firing the fatal arrow, aimed either at the king or the deer, so he clearly believed that somebody else did. He may indeed have had his suspicions about who the guilty party was, but he had no intention of hanging around until he was forced to say what he knew.

Who wanted Rufus dead?

In any case of suspected murder, the finger of suspicion points at whoever has most to gain from the death of the victim. When that victim is a monarch, the obvious beneficiary is the next in line to the throne. However, that poses a problem in the case of William Rufus.

The three sons of William the Conqueror

King William I had three sons who lived to adulthood, namely Robert (probably born in 1054), William (born between 1056 and 1060) and Henry (probably born in 1068). As is clear from the dates given, there is some uncertainty about their actual ages, but the order of their births is clear enough, as is the fact that Henry was, by some, margin, the youngest of the three.

King William I was the legitimate Duke of Normandy and King of England by conquest. He neither liked nor trusted any of his sons (and they felt the same way about each other). William had no intention of rewarding any of them by naming them as his sole heir, so Robert got Normandy (to which he was entitled by right of primogeniture), and William became King of England (where there was, up to that time, no firm tradition of the eldest son automatically inheriting the throne). Henry was allowed some land in Normandy, to keep him quiet.

The heir of William Rufus

William Rufus, although married, had no children. He may even have been homosexual (Walter Tyrel may have been more than just a “close friend”). The question of who would be the next king of England was therefore to be decided.

In 1091 Rufus persuaded the barons to nominate big brother Robert as his heir, and Henry agreed to this, although how willingly he did so is another matter. Clearly, if Robert was to have heirs, that would push Henry out of the line of succession altogether. He would need to take drastic action to ensure his path to the English throne.

An approaching crisis

The situation in August 1100 was that Duke Robert was on his way back from the Holy Land where he had been taking part in the First Crusade. In order to raise funds for the Crusade he had mortgaged Normandy to William, who was therefore now the monarch of both parts of the Norman Empire.

On his way back, Robert had found a wife for himself, a wealthy Italian heiress named Sybilla. He therefore had the means both to buy back Normandy (and thus threaten Henry’s property there) and produce an heir. Henry could see that any prospect of advancing himself could disappear very quickly. Within a few weeks, Robert would be home, so if he was to take action it would be now or never.

After Rufus died

Henry was a member of the party on the hunt in the New Forest but he was not alongside William when the fatal shot was fired. He was a mile or so away, making arrows. However, when he heard about William’s death he leapt on his horse and made straight for Winchester where the royal treasury was held. Having seized the treasury he set out for London where he had himself crowned king three days later.

Henry had therefore beaten brother Robert to the throne, and he would later campaign against Robert to make sure that there was no threat from that direction. Henry’s decisive action in the New Forest was therefore something of a “coup d’etat” that took everyone by surprise.

Did Henry order his brother’s murder?

It is entirely possible. It would have been no problem at all for Henry to have placed an assassin in the undergrowth to shoot William at the opportune moment and then slip away to report back to Henry that the deed was done. Walter Tyrel and the others may well have been witnesses to the murder and realised that they were in considerable danger from Henry, who would have had a very strong motive to silence them should any awkward questions be asked. It is no wonder, if that is the case, that they made themselves scarce as soon as possible.

It all adds up, in that the brothers loathed each other and each would do anything to further their own cause at the expense of the other two. The answer to the question posed earlier, as to who had most to gain from William’s death, is easy to answer. Henry had motive and opportunity for murder, and no moral compunction to stop him from taking advantage of that opportunity.

© John Welford

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Captain Henry Morgan's roast pig disaster

Captain Henry Morgan was a notorious privateer and pirate during the 17th century. He suffered an unfortunate setback when a celebratory pig roast cost him a lot more than he had bargained for.

Captain Henry Morgan was a real “Pirate of the Caribbean” during the 17th century. He was a Welshman (born around 1635) who emigrated to the West Indies and became a sea captain. At the time, England and Spain maintained a running undeclared war for domination of trade at sea, and English ships were given free rein to raid Spanish ships and possessions. Morgan was to make a handsome living by taking part in such activities.

The distinction between “pirate” and “privateer” was one that could become somewhat foggy, in that privateers were supposed to be acting on behalf of the English government, with at least some of the proceeds of any raid going back to England, but piracy involved no such consideration. It was therefore perfectly possible for an unscrupulous man like Henry Morgan to pay lip-service to his official duties but acquire a vast fortune for himself in the process.

The sacking of Porto Bello

In 1668 Henry Morgan attacked the Spanish town of Porto Bello on the coast of Panama. Under cover of darkness he and his men slipped into the harbour in canoes and took by surprise the defenders of two of the three forts that guarded the port.

However, the third fort was less easy to subdue, and Morgan used the subterfuge of capturing a number of priests and nuns and using them as human shields as his men advanced on the fort. The Spaniards surrendered and handed over a huge fortune in slaves and gold as Morgan’s price for not slaughtering the entire population of the town.

Easy come, easy go

The following year, Captain Morgan captured two French ships near Haiti (the French were just as likely to be attacked as the Spanish). This was clearly something for Morgan to celebrate, so he dropped anchor near the island of Ile à Vache (which was his base of operations) and proceeded to do precisely that. With his ship’s hold bursting with treasure, including the bulk of the pieces of eight that comprised the ransom handed over at Porto Bello, the crew proceeded to roast a pig on the deck of his ship.

However, lighting an open fire on board a wooden ship that also contains a goodly amount of gunpowder (which was being used to fire cannon rounds in celebration) is probably an unwise thing to dot, and that proved to be so in this case.

There was a huge explosion that sank not only Morgan’s ship but also the two captured French ships. Morgan himself had the relatively good fortune to be blown clean through the windows of his cabin and into the sea; he therefore survived, but more than 200 of his men did not.

As for the treasure, that went down with the ship, leaving Henry Morgan with the task of starting all over again to rebuild his fortune. Several years later he attempted to recover the gold but was prevented from doing so by a storm at sea that wrecked the ship he was commanding at the time (another wreck from which he survived). As far as Morgan was concerned the treasure was lost forever.

Where is the treasure now?

Despite the fact that the ship went down in relatively shallow waters (no more than twelve feet) nobody has ever found the treasure. In 2004 a team of divers found the wreck and recovered artefacts such as cannons and musket balls, but not a single piece of eight.

The question that arises, therefore, is what has happened to the treasure? There can be little doubt that the ship was carrying the gold when it blew up, because why else would Henry Morgan have tried to recover it?

It seems unlikely that, more than 300 years later, Captain Morgan’s treasure is still where he left it. The 2004 dive found nothing, despite the search being a relatively straightforward one, which therefore suggests that someone else has already found it at some stage since its original loss.

It might even be the case that the treasure was found during the interval of time before Morgan’s own abortive attempt to find it. Despite the huge loss of life when the ship exploded, it is unlikely that Morgan was the sole survivor, so there would have been other people who knew all about the treasure and where it was. Might they have helped themselves at some stage, after Morgan himself had sailed away from Ile à Vache? That sounds like a possible scenario to me!

As for Henry Morgan, he eventually retired from piracy and the sea and also managed to stay out of prison. He was even knighted by King Charles II and became a Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. He died in 1688 and was buried in Port Royal, Jamaica, in a cemetery that later slid into the sea during an earthquake in 1692. Perhaps it was appropriate that both the captain and his treasure disappeared beneath the waves.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Sir Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren, famed as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, was born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, on 20th October 1632. He was the only surviving son of Dr Christopher Wren, the local rector who would later become Dean of Windsor, and his wife Mary.

His early life

After education by private tutors, including his father, he entered Wadham College, Oxford, in June 1650 and graduated with a BA in 1651 and an MA in 1653. Wadham College was known for its strength in mathematics and natural science, and its warden, John Wilkins, was one of the circle of scientists who would later found the Royal Society. Wren was greatly influenced by Wilkins, and the two men worked together on building an astronomical telescope after Wren had become a fellow of All Souls in 1653.

In 1657 Wren was appointed to the chair of astronomy at Gresham College in the City of London and in February 1661 he became Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University. Wren was active in many mathematical and scientific projects, including research in optics and experiments in printmaking, surveying, navigation and other fields.

Wren played an important part in the foundation of the Royal Society (he helped to draw up its royal charter) and his name thus became known to King Charles II.

In 1661, in an unofficial capacity, he gave advice on the repairs needed to old St Paul’s Cathedral, which had suffered from decades of neglect. This was his first brush with architecture, having previously declined a commission to oversee the refortification of the port of Tangier, based on his acknowledged status as one of the best geometricians in Europe.

During the early 1660s he developed an interest in architecture that was to take precedence over everything else in his life. Using observation, his skills as a mathematician and physicist, and intuition, he taught himself the fundamentals of architecture and was soon working on important commissions with considerable success.

His most important early commission was for the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the circular building that is still used today for university events including degree ceremonies. This innovative building, which was always intended to be multi-functional, avoided the use of internal pillars by using traditional roof carpentry methods. The emphasis on functionality was to be the hallmark of Wren’s architectural style. Other commissions followed, including several for Oxford and Cambridge college buildings.

Plague and fire in London

Wren made his only overseas journey when he spent the period from June 1665 to March 1666 in Paris, where he met some of Europe’s greatest architects and artists, notably the French architect Mansart and the Italian sculptor and architect Bernini. This sojourn meant that not only did he avoid the plague that swept through London in 1665, but he also returned full of ideas for new buildings. In particular, he had a vision of how the crowded and insanitary city of London could be remodelled, were the opportunity to present itself.

As it happened, the fire that raged from the 2nd to the 5th of September 1666 seemed to be exactly that opportunity.  Within two weeks, Wren had produced a comprehensive plan for the reconstruction of London, consisting of broad straight streets radiating from large piazzas, with a new St Paul’s as its most prominent feature. However, there were many things wrong with the plan, not least its immense cost and the requirement for life to get back to normal as soon as possible. It was therefore always a non-starter.

Despite this setback, Wren was involved in some of the initial planning for re-building, as one of the surveyors chosen by the King and the City to deal with immediate practical problems. Wren made important contributions to the legislation that was drawn up to govern the rebuilding, such as the need for new buildings to be constructed from brick or stone rather than timber.

Wren’s chance came a few years later in 1669, when he was appointed by King Charles as Surveyor of the King’s Works. This gave him the status to push his own ideas forward, but the task of rebuilding a whole city depended on a large team of people, and Wren’s personal contribution was therefore limited.

Many important buildings needed to be rebuilt or restored, including around 50 churches and, of course, St Paul’s Cathedral. The degree of variation between the church designs was remarkable, even given the requirement to build churches that suited the Anglican liturgy and which were largely neo-classical in style. One reason for this is that, as mentioned above, Wren worked as the manager of a team, and a number of the designs were those of men such as Robert Hooke and Nicholas Hawksmoor, with Wren merely giving their designs his approval.

That said, the designs that were purely by Wren show his delight in experimenting with innovative shapes and geometries, such as the polygonal St Benet Fink and the complex incorporation of a Latin cross into a rectangular shape, surmounted by a dome, at St Stephen Walbrook.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Wren had already planned to add a dome to the old St Paul’s before it was destroyed by fire, so this was in his mind from the very start of the plan for the new cathedral. However, what we see today was not what Wren originally envisaged, given that the “new” St Paul’s, despite its impressive size, is nothing like as big as Wren’s first concept, or even his second. The plans went through several phases before a final design could be agreed upon, and even this was controversial. One of the abandoned designs takes the form of the “Great Model”, more than six metres long, that can still be seen today.

The opposition to Wren’s plans centred mainly on the dome, which many people regarded as being too “Romish”. Wren exploited every loophole he could to get his own way over the dome, and it cannot be denied that the end result is not what was agreed in the final “warrant design” that had received the royal warrant on 14th May 1675.

Wren simply went ahead by instructing the various workmen to perform their own part of the operation without knowing the overall plan. Nobody therefore knew what the final result would look like, and, by the time it was complete in 1711, it was too late for any objections to be taken on board. Wren’s masterpiece took 36 years to build, and the design was undeniably all his own work.  

Other work

Wren worked on other commissions during the years when St Paul’s was under construction. One of these was for a monument on Fish Street Hill to commemorate the Great Fire, which is the massive column, with an internal staircase, that is simply known today as “The Monument”.

The library at Trinity College, Cambridge, was completed in 1695. This is undoubtedly the most splendid library building in Cambridge and arguably the most elegant of all Wren’s secular designs.

His later life

Wren’s long life covered the reigns of several monarchs, and he continued in royal favour after the death of Charles II in 1685. For William and Mary he rebuilt part of Hampton Court Palace and also transformed a Jacobean mansion into Kensington Palace. His last major secular commission, on which he worked alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor, was the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. Wren produced his final design for the building in 1698.

Wren, who was knighted as Sir Christopher Wren in November 1673, was twice married. His first wife, whom he married in December 1669, was Faith Coghill, who bore him two sons before dying of smallpox in 1675. In February 1677 he married Jane Fitzwilliam, who died in 1680 leaving Wren to care for the two children she bore him.

In his later years Wren came under increasing criticism, mainly as a result of his architectural style falling out of general favour, and he was dismissed from his position as Surveyor of Royal Works in 1718. He died on 25th February 1723 at the age of 90.

Sir Christopher Wren’s legacy is clearly the many splendid buildings that have survived to the present day. Unfortunately, many Wren churches were lost during the “second fire of London” that was the blitz of World War II, but there were also many notable survivors. His greatest legacy will always be St Paul’s Cathedral, the building which occupied the most extensive period of his time as an architect and to which he devoted his best inspiration.

He was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s and a tablet to his memory was laid in the cathedral floor under the central point of the dome. The inscription includes the Latin words “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, which translates as “If you seek his monument, look around you”.

© John Welford

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Captain Lawrence Oates

“I am just going outside and I may be some time”. Those were the last recorded words of Captain Lawrence Oates, who stepped into a blizzard in Antarctica on 16th March 1912 and was never seen again. The recorder of those words was Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who kept a diary until shortly before his own death some two weeks later, also defeated in the attempt to survive the terrible conditions of the southern continent.

Captain Oates and the race to the South Pole

Lawrence Oates was born in London on 17th March 1880 into a well-do-to family that provided him with an Eton education and the pleasures of gentlemanly life. He became particularly interested in hunting and horses, and it was his expertise with the latter that made him a suitable candidate for Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, which had never been reached before. Another plus point was the fact that he was able to contribute one thousand pounds to the cost of the expedition, which was a considerable sum in 1910.

Scott knew that he was in a race to be first to the Pole, his rival being the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. However, the tactics of the two expeditions were different. Whereas Amundsen was going to rely on a pack of more than 200 dogs, some of which would be slaughtered to feed the survivors as the journey progressed, Scott was horrified by this idea. Instead, he wanted to take a much smaller team of dogs and use ponies as pack animals to carry supplies to the depots they intended to set up along the way.

Why Oates did not trust Scott

The ponies were to be bought from a source in Siberia, the idea being that these would be used to working in extremely cold conditions. What Scott should have done was send his horse expert, Oates, to Siberia to select and buy the ponies, but he did not. When Oates saw the ponies that had been bought, and which were collected from New Zealand on the expedition’s way south, he was alarmed by their poor condition, describing them as a “wretched load of crocks”. Oates was to continue to have a poor opinion of Scott and his ability to lead the expedition.

Another point of contention was Scott’s plan to establish the final depot, named “One Ton” for the quantity of supplies it would contain, which was too far from the Pole for Oates’s liking. Oates argued that if the weakest of the ponies were killed and fed to the dogs, it would be possible to site the depot ten miles closer to the Pole, thus shortening the distance that would have to be covered by men dragging sledges. However, Scott rejected the idea, saying to Oates that he had had “more than enough of this cruelty to animals”.

For his part Oates clearly distrusted Scott, as revealed in his letters home. He wrote: “The fact of the matter is he is not straight; it is himself first, the rest nowhere”.

Scott loses the race

When the final team of five reached the Pole on 18th January 1912 they found that Amundsen’s well-organized expedition had beaten them by more than a month. Oates wrote of his admiration for the Norwegians in his diary, stating that: “That man must have had his head screwed on all right”. The clear implication was that Scott had not.

It was now a case of returning the way they had come, the first objective being to drag the sledges the 120 miles to One Ton Depot, which they would have expected to do in about three weeks. However, the weather turned bad and temperatures plummeted, resulting in severe frostbite. As progress slowed, the food supplies began to run out.

After four weeks of battling against the elements, Petty Officer Edgar Evans died, although Scott noted that this did at least meant that the food would last longer.

The last days of Captain Oates

The condition of Captain Oates now held everyone back. It is doubtful whether he should have been allowed to be one of the final five given the opportunity to reach the Pole, one reason being that he carried an old and serious war wound (on the thigh) from his former service as an army officer during the Boer War in 1901. He had, after all, served his purpose as an expedition member now that all the ponies were dead, and Scott’s reason for selecting him for the final push seemed to be out of sentiment rather than anything else. It is hard to see a modern expedition allowing someone with such a handicap to take the risk of facing such extreme conditions.

Oates’s frostbite had become gangrenous and every step was extremely painful. Even worse was the fact that it took him two hours every morning to get his boots on, with everyone else having to wait while he did so. He knew that he was holding the others back, but they persuaded him to keep struggling on, although they also knew that their own chances of survival were worsening by the day.

On 11th March Scott issued every man with 30 opium tablets, which was in effect a suicide pill that gave them all a choice of whether to keep going or give up. However, nobody chose the easy way out.

Oates eventually realised that he had to make that choice, and he did it in a way that would inconvenience his colleagues as little as possible. Scott and the others knew that Oates was committing suicide when he walked out of the tent. Whether Scott was correct to write in his journal that they tried to dissuade Oates we can never know. Oates had himself described Scott as “not straight”, and this could have been Scott’s way of trying to exonerate himself from agreement with an act that might just have been enough to save his own life.

In the event, it was not. Scott and the others died some two weeks later, ironically just eleven miles short of One Ton Depot. Had it been sited ten miles further south, as Oates had suggested, would that have been enough to save them? On the other hand, would the extra eleven miles have been covered if Oates had taken his opium tablets five days before his final act, thus speeding the progress of the others? This is, of course, open to speculation because the answers can never be known.

© John Welford

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian IV

Only one Englishman has ever been Pope. That was Nicholas Breakspear, who was elected in 1154 as Pope Adrian IV.

His exact origins are unknown, but he was probably born around 1100, his most likely birthplace being not far from St Albans, where he was educated at the Abbey school.

He travelled to southern France, where he entered the monastery of St Ruf near Avignon and eventually became its abbot. Pope Eugenius III elevated him to the status of cardinal and sent him to Scandinavia as papal legate. He was clearly successful in his mission to reorganise the Church in that region, leading to his election as Pope, in succession to Anastasius IV, in 1154.

His first concern as Pope was to defend the Papacy against Arnold of Brescia, a monk and would-be reformer who had caused problems for previous Popes through his support for the “Commune of Rome”, which was an attempt to govern the city on Republican lines. The Commune had managed to have Pope Eugenius III (predecessor of Anastasius) exiled from the city, and Arnold was still a thorn in the flesh of the Papacy. With the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Adrian was able to have Arnold arrested and executed.

The next problem was an invasion of southern Italy in 1155 by Manuel Comnenus, the Emperor of Byzantium. Adrian saw this less as a threat than an opportunity to establish friendly relations with Constantinople with a view to ending the “Great Schism” that had split the Eastern and Western Churches since 1054. An alliance was engineered to fight against the Norman rulers of Sicily, but this ended when Manuel was summoned back to Constantinople. Adrian’s terms for repairing the Schism also proved to be unacceptable to the Eastern Church.

Also in 1155, it is traditionally believed that Adrian issued a papal bull entitled “Laudabiliter” that conferred on King Henry II of England the right to rule over Ireland, a right that was retained by successive monarchs of England. However, no copy of this bull has been preserved and it has been doubted whether it ever existed.

Frederick Barbarossa’s relations with Pope Adrian later took a turn for the worse, especially after a letter from Adrian was interpreted as meaning that he regarded Frederick as his vassal, although this might well have been a misunderstanding. This led to Frederick taking troops into northern Italy in 1158, and his capture of Milan.

However, Frederick’s argument with the Papacy was put on hold in September 1159 when Adrian died suddenly. One story was that he choked on a fly in a glass of wine, although this is unlikely.

No other Englishman has even become Pope, although Cardinal Pole came close in 1549, falling short by only two votes in the Papal Conclave.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

The woman who is best known as Wallis Simpson, and then the Duchess of Windsor, was born as Bessie Wallis Warfield on 19th June 1896 at Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. She was the only child of a businessman, Teackle Wallis Warfield, and his wife Alice Montague. However, her father had not made a success of his business and both her parents were the poor relations of their respective families. Her father died when Wallis was only five months old, so she had no memories of him.

Wallis’s early life was therefore one of poverty and deprivation, and Wallis had no prospects in life unless she could make a good marriage. Her first attempt was a disaster. She fell in love, at the age of 19, with Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer, a naval aviator, and married him on 8th November 1916. However, he drank too much and Wallis came to despise him. A two-year separation was followed by three unhappy years of troubled reunion and they eventually divorced in 1927.

Wallis had already been seeing Ernest Aldrich Simpson, who had a British father and American mother and who was managing the London office of the family’s shipping firm. They married on 2nd July 1928 and Wallis became introduced to London’s “colony” of American socialites. These included Thelma, Viscountess Furness, who, although married, was having an affair with Edward, Prince of Wales. It was at Lady Furness’s house in Leicestershire that Wallis Simpson met the Prince in January 1931. Three years later, Wallis had taken over from Thelma Furness as the woman in the Prince of Wales’s life.

In their personal relationships, both Wallis and the Prince had, up to this point in their lives, never taken them seriously enough to make a lifetime commitment. Both of them had been happy to move in and out of relationships as the fancy took them. In Wallis’s case, being married was no impediment to having full-blown affairs with other men. The Prince had been notorious for his short-lived “flings” that had appeared serious at the time but eventually blew over.

However, Prince Edward became completely infatuated with Wallis Simpson and was determined that nothing would get in the way of his marrying her. This driving motivation continued after he succeeded to the throne, as King Edward VIII, on 20th January 1936.

The scandal of the King being involved with a married woman, who could only become his wife after undergoing a second divorce, was one that could not be ignored. For one thing, the King was head of the Church of England, and the Church at the time (and indeed until quite recently) did not allow the re-marriage of divorced people while the former partner was still living. In Wallis’s case she would soon have two living ex-husbands.

Wallis Simpson was seen by many people in Britain as a fortune-hunter who had ensnared the Prince’s affections with only one end in view, namely becoming the Queen. Being American did not help either. Clearly, this was something that could not be tolerated.

However, Wallis herself demonstrated little desire for this outcome as such. She was happy to live with the Prince, and to divorce Ernest Simpson to make this possible, but that would appear to have been the limit of her ambition. When push came to shove, and she realised the consequences of her affair, she was happy to offer to withdraw from the proposed marriage if that was what it took for Edward to stay as King. However, when Edward was faced with the stark choice between giving Wallis up or abdicating in favour of his younger brother, he was in no doubt that he could not do the former and must do the latter.

Edward abdicated on 10th December 1936, having been King for less than a year. Wallis Simpson’s divorce only became absolute on 3rd May 1937, and the couple stayed apart until they married in France on 3rd June 1937. They were thereafter granted the titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor and lived in exile in Austria and France until the outbreak of war in 1939.

There has been much speculation about the attitude of the Windsors to Hitler and the Nazis, especially concerning whether they were closet Nazis themselves. These thoughts were engendered by a visit that they made to Germany in 1937, during which they were pictured laughing and joking with Hitler and the Duke made the Nazi salute. There is certainly evidence that the Nazis saw Edward as being sympathetic to them, and it is possible that, had they succeeded in conquering Britain, they would have wanted to install him as a puppet monarch. On the other hand, Edward never endorsed Nazism and regarded Hitler with suspicion as well as a degree of admiration.

Wallis never expressed any strong political views one way or the other, and appears to have been content to support her husband, whichever way the wind blew. There had been suspicions, before the war, that Wallis had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbbentrop, the German ambassador to London, and had passed state secrets to the Nazis via this liaison, but these allegations have never been substantiated.

The Windsors were in France when the Germans invaded in 1939 and had to escape to Spain and then Portugal. Winston Churchill was concerned that they could be used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and suggested that the Duke be given the post of Governor of the Bahamas for the duration of the War. They both hated this time stuck on an archipelago in the Atlantic, but Wallis did her duty ably enough and was able to relieve the monotony by undertaking shopping trips to the United States from time to time. However, reports of this extravagance did nothing to rescue her reputation when they were heard in war-deprived Britain.

After the war the Windsors returned to France and lived a privileged aristocratic life doing the rounds of the places where the rich and famous tend to congregate. Wallis established a reputation as one of the best-dressed women of her generation, and for entertaining lavishly. Although such a life might appear barren and unproductive to many people, it suited Wallis and her husband.

Wallis had never been happy with the antagonism that her marriage to Edward had excited within the British royal family and nation, but she had enough common sense to appreciate that she would never change their minds and her best course was to accept things as they were. Given her background, they could of course have been a lot worse. She wrote her memoirs in 1956, under the title “The Heart has its Reasons”, and there is no bitterness in her words and only a modicum of regret.

After Edward died in 1972 Wallis was invited to Buckingham Palace in a gesture of reconciliation, but it was really too late as she was now in her mid-seventies. She lived for another 14 years, gradually losing her faculties. For the last five years of her life she was a virtual recluse who rarely left her home in Paris. She died on 24th April 1986 at the age of 89 and was buried next to Edward in the royal burial ground at Frogmore, near Windsor.

Wallis Simpson is blamed by some as the “scarlet woman” who stole the heart of a future king and forced him to give up his throne. Others view the affair as a romantic story of love overcoming all, and therefore as something beautiful and wholesome. The truth is surely more complicated than either of these scenarios.

For one thing, Edward’s abdication forced his brother the Duke of York to take the throne in his place (as King George VI), a task for which he was unprepared and, to a degree, unsuited. Edward did not consider his brother’s feelings in this matter, and Wallis was therefore seen as the instrument through which Edward’s selfishness was expressed. Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen’s mother) certainly took this line and was implacable in her dislike of Wallis Simpson for this reason.

Wallis was clearly a highly-sexed woman who would not have fitted in well with the British royal family. Her long series of affairs was evidence of her unsuitability as a Queen, although there is a whiff of hypocrisy in this argument as royal men have long been notorious for their extra-marital dalliances.

There is also the question of Wallis’s own selfishness. She had no children with any of her husbands or partners, which suggests that parental responsibilities played no part in her thinking. However, there are all sorts of rumours on this score, including stories of a botched abortion, a stolen child and a rare abnormality that made her barren. The jury is still out on this issue.

On the other side of the case is the evidence that Wallis was willing to withdraw from a potential marriage to Edward to save his throne, which suggests either that she saw where her duty lay, or that the passion in the liaison was more on his side than hers.

The story of Wallis Simpson will doubtless give rise to many more debates in future as to her motives and whether her life was a fulfilled or unfulfilled one.

© John Welford

Monday, 15 February 2016

Charles Ponzi, fraudster

The maxim that a fool and his money are soon parted is never more true than when the method used for doing the parting is a fraudulent financial scheme of the “pyramid” type in which people are promised massive returns on their investment but there is no proper foundation for such confidence. Such schemes are often dubbed “Ponzi schemes”, but why are they so called?

The name derives from Charles Ponzi, although the man in question did not invent the scheme that bears his name. However, his activities became so notorious during the early years of the 20th century that the label “Ponzi scheme” has been attached to frauds of this type ever since.

Charles Ponzi’s early career

Charles Ponzi was born in 1882 in Lugo, a small town in northern Italy. His early years are shrouded in mystery, but it is known that he emigrated to the United States in 1903 with only $2.50 in his pocket. He settled in Boston.

He drifted from one dead-end job to another, until in 1907 he became a junior clerk at the Zarossi Bank in Montreal, Canada. He did well at his job and became a manager, which was when he realised just how the bank was operating in terms of its investment business.

The Zarossi Bank paid six per cent to investors on their cash deposits. However, these sums were not paid from the proceeds of careful fund management such as property investment but from the fresh deposits of new investors. Eventually the bank failed, with the owner fleeing the country with as much cash as he could carry, and leaving Charles Ponzi and the other employees out of a job.

Time in jail

Ponzi forged a cheque to pay his way back to the United States, and this led to him being thrown in jail for three years. He did not get to the States until 1911, when he again fell foul of the law and served another prison term, this time for two years.

It is often said that prisons are universities of crime, and this certainly proved to be true for Charles Ponzi. While in prison in Atlanta he came across two notorious criminals, namely Mafia boss Lupo Saietta and crooked financier Charles Wyman Morse. There is every possibility that he learned a great deal from those two masters of crime.

A legitimate business

After making his way back to Boston, he tried several new ventures which were, surprisingly for him, legitimate. One of these involved correspondence with potential customers in Europe and this led him to realise that a new line of business could open up for him.

When a correspondent wanted to ensure a reply by Charles Ponzi he or she would send an international reply coupon (IRC) which could then be redeemed in the form of US postage stamps to cover the cost of the return letter or packet. However, during the period following World War One the relative values of these coupons as against American postage stamps was not the same – an IRC bought in Italy, for example, was worth more in American stamps than the actual cost of the postage.

There was therefore an opportunity to buy IRCs in Italy and make a profit on them in the United States. Although the profit margin was small, if this operation could be ramped up significantly there was a potential fortune to be made.

So this was what Charles Ponzi started to do. There was nothing illegal about this trade, but the difficulty was that it was impossible to carry it out in volume because each transaction had to be performed singly by taking an IRC to a post office and redeeming it for stamps.

Criminal activity

However, by recruiting agents Ponzi was able to start trading, and he also invited people to invest in the trade with the promise of a high return in a short time (50% in 45 days). Some people even went to the extent of taking out large loans and mortgaging their homes in order to make investments that were as large as possible.

It was not long before Ponzi started to apply the principles he had seen at work during his previous employment at Zarossi’s Bank, such that his Securities Exchange Company, established in 1919, soon ceased to have much to do with IRCs.

Instead, Charles Ponzi grew very rich by persuading people to invest and paying them with the deposits made by later investors. The initial success of their investments persuaded people to re-invest their profits, and it was due to people surrendering what they had already won that enabled Ponzi to take a controlling interest in Boston’s Hanover Trust Bank, buy a huge mansion, and live the life of a multi-millionaire.

The bubble bursts

Needless to say, the bubble could not stay inflated for long! When questions were asked about how the business was financed, people started to call in their investments and an audit in August 1920 revealed a $7 million dollar black hole in the accounts. Ponzi had no choice but to plead guilty to fraud and was sentenced to five years in jail.

After that, it was all downhill for Charles Ponzi. Further charges and convictions followed, and he was eventually deported back to Italy in 1934 – he had never bothered to take US citizenship.

After a short time working as a financier for Benito Mussolini he fled Italy to end his days in South America, where he died penniless in 1949.

However, despite the sad example of Charles Ponzi’s career from rags to riches and back to rags, others since his time have sought to succeed where he failed, with the same inevitable result. The best that can be said for Charles Ponzi is that his name lives on.

© John Welford

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Jack Profumo and the Profumo Affair

Jack Profumo will long be remembered as the British Cabinet Minister whose personal life made a major contribution to bringing down a government, but less well known is the important work he did in the years following the “Profumo Affair” in the area of social and charity work.

His early life and rise to office

John Dennis Profumo was born in London on 30th January 1915, the fourth of five children of a barrister and an actress. The Profumo family came originally from Sardinia, John’s grandfather having settled in London in the 1880s.

John, who was always known as Jack, was educated at Harrow School and then Brasenose College, Oxford, where he studied Law. He was more interested in sport and socialising than studying, and left Oxford in 1936 with only a pass degree.

He had shown an interest in politics at Oxford, and became approved as a Conservative candidate for Parliament in 1937. War broke out before he could fight an election, by which time Profumo had joined the Northamptonshire Yeomanry as a territorial. However, he was persuaded to fight a by-election in March 1940 (for the Kettering constituency), which he won with a large majority although Labour did not fight the seat.

He was able to attend the House of Commons during his first two years as an MP by virtue of being a general staff officer stationed in England, but in 1942 he was posted to North Africa and was then involved in the Italy campaign, being mentioned in dispatches and awarded a military OBE in 1944.

He was allowed to return to the UK to take part in a Parliamentary debate on demobilisation, but lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1945. He remained in the Army until the Autumn of 1946, finishing with the rank of brigadier.

He waited until the general election of 1950 before attempting to return to the House of Commons, which he did as Member for Stratford upon Avon. After the Conservatives returned to power in the 1951 general election, Profumo was given a junior post in the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation. His political advance was a slow one, his first post as Minister of State (in the Foreign Office) only coming in 1959.

He was married in 1954 to film actress Valerie Hobson and their only child, a son named David, was born in 1955.

In 1960 he was appointed Secretary of State for War, a non-cabinet post but a very important one, involving making arrangements for the ending of National Service and the re-establishment of an all-regular Army.

The Profumo Affair

No doubt all would have gone well, and Profumo would have continued to be a middle-ranking politician who attracted relatively little attention, had he not been invited to an evening function at Cliveden, the Thames-side home of Lord Astor, on 8th July 1961. There he came across one of the female guests swimming naked in a pool in the grounds with some friends. This was Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model and occasional prostitute, who was a friend of Stephen Ward, an osteopath who lived in a cottage on the estate. Profumo, then aged 46, was immediately attracted to Keeler and an affair began that lasted for a month.

The problem was that Christine Keeler had, at the same time, been seeing another friend of Stephen Ward’s, namely the Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. Ivanov had been a member of the pool party that Profumo had stumbled upon. As this was at the height of the Cold War, any suggestion of “pillow talk” between Profumo and Keeler, that might then find its way to Ivanov, was clearly going to be political dynamite.

It was therefore in Profumo’s interests to deny any involvement with Keeler, but he did not help himself much by writing a letter to her, breaking off the affair, which was headed “Darling”. He was also compromised by Keeler’s indiscretion, as she had told several people about the affair.

Despite all Profumo’s denials of the affair in private, coupled with threats of legal action, the time arrived when he was forced to confirm or deny the affair in the most public arena possible, namely the floor of the House of Commons. He was persuaded by government colleagues to make a clear statement of the truth, as they wished it to be, so he announced to the House, on 22nd March 1963, that there had been “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with Christine Keeler.

When a government minister makes a statement of fact in the House of Commons he is honour bound to tell the truth, so this should have been the end of the matter. However, the rumours continued to circulate, and the Prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was eventually forced to institute an enquiry into the affair, to be conducted by Lord Dilhorne, the Lord Chancellor.

It was Jack Profumo’s wife who persuaded him to tell the truth, which he did in a letter of resignation on 4th June 1963. He also resigned as a Member of Parliament.

Despite the fact that there was never any suggestion that state secrets had been passed to the Soviets, the inept handling of the affair by Macmillan and his government was enough to discredit the Prime Minister and led to his own resignation four months later, although his state of health (not helped by the Profumo affair) was also a factor. The Conservatives under their new leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home were unable to withstand the Labour onslaught at the general election held in October 1964 and were swept from office.

Out of Parliament

Jack Profumo’s life following his political exit has been described, by Simon Heffer, as “an epic of redemption”. In April 1964 he volunteered his services to Toynbee Hall, a charity in the East End of London that served those at the very bottom of the social structure. He willingly got his hands dirty doing any job that was needed, and, despite his privileged social background, built a genuine rapport with the people he met.

Many of his former political friends stood by him and he was able to use his contacts to good effect, raising huge amounts of money to fund the charity’s work. In 1971 the Queen visited Toynbee Hall to open a new building, created largely due to Jack Profumo’s efforts. He maintained his links with Toynbee Hall until his death, having become chairman and then president.

He also served, from 1968 to 1975, on the board of Grendon Underwood psychiatric prison in Buckinghamshire.

He was awarded the CBE for services to charity in 1975.

His health began to fail in his 80s and he was not able to do as much as he wished in his final years. He was also deeply affected by the death of his wife in 1998. One thing he was determined not to do was write an autobiography to justify himself, or to make money on the lecture circuit. He said very little about “the affair”, although his friend Bishop Jim Thompson is quoted as saying that: “No-one judges Jack Profumo more harshly than he does himself. He says he has never known a day since it happened when he has not felt real shame.” (quoted in The Guardian, 11th March 2006).

Jack Profumo died on 9th March 2006, in London, from pneumonia following a stroke. He was aged 91. His name will always be associated with the scandal that brought down Harold Macmillan, but it has been pointed out that many politicians have done worse things and suffered much less. Jack Profumo was neither the first nor the last minister to tell a lie in Parliament, and neither is he unique for having had a brief extra-marital affair. His misfortune was to do so at a particularly sensitive time in British political history, not only because of the Cold War but also due to the hypocritical outpourings of moral outrage that the press was prone to at the time (and has been at other times since).

Jack Profumo should be remembered as a basically good man who lost control of himself for one brief moment, and a courageous man whose courage failed him when it should not have done. His example of doing everything he could to make up for his misdeeds is certainly a fine one that many others should emulate.

© John Welford

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe

Alexander Selkirk is usually credited as being the original of the character of Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719. Although Defoe’s book was fictional, and owed much to the author’s vivid imagination, it did contain elements of fact which relate to the life of Alexander Selkirk, as relayed by word of mouth and written accounts at the time of his rescue from having been marooned on a remote island for more than four years.

Alexander Selkirk’s early career

Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Fife, Scotland. He was the seventh son of a shoemaker. He made it clear at an early age that he wanted to go to sea, which he did in August 1695.

In May 1703 he was appointed master of the privateer “Cinque Ports”, which was under the command of Captain Charles Pickering. Together with the “St George”, commanded by William Dampier, the renowned explorer, the ship set sail for the South Pacific Ocean on 11th September. Britain was at war with France and Spain (the War of the Spanish Succession), and privateers were being encouraged to capture and raid ships belonging to those two countries.

When Captain Pickering died after reaching Brazil, Thomas Stradling was appointed to succeed him. Selkirk seems to have found the new commander difficult to deal with and may have been among those officers and crew who mutinied after the ships reached the Juan Fernandez islands, some 400 miles west of Chile.

However, the crew seems to have been pacified following a successful engagement with a French ship, after which both British ships continued to explore northwards in the hope of finding more rich pickings, although these proved hard to come by.

By the end of May 1704 the two commanders found that they could no longer work together so the two ships parted company, with Selkirk staying on Stradling’s ship.

How he became “Robinson Crusoe”

The “Cinque Ports” sailed up and down the coast of Central and South America until August, with relations between Selkirk and Stradling becoming increasingly fraught. When they returned to Juan Fernandez in September for repairs, Selkirk declared that the ship was not in a seaworthy enough condition to continue its voyage and that he would rather stay ashore than sail in her. He therefore gathered together some essentials and disembarked. The list of items he took with him was later given as:

‘his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books’.

It would appear that, once he had realised what he had done, he changed his mind almost immediately but Stradling refused to let him back on the ship. However, Selkirk’s move turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the “Cinque Ports” sank a month later. He had been correct in his assessment of the dangerous condition of the ship.

Selkirk now had to survive as best he could on his own. The island in question (renamed “Robinson Crusoe Island” in 1966; another island in the group being named “Alejandro Selkirk Island”) was large enough (nearly 40 square miles) to support him in terms of food, especially as it had a population of wild goats which he could hunt, firstly using his musket and later catching them on foot. When he had been on the island for some time he tamed some of the goats and “farmed” them for milk and meat. His fear was that he would never leave the island and that he would eventually be too old to catch anything wild.

He also bred cats from the feral specimens that had escaped from ships that had called in the past. These not only provided company but helped to keep him safe from the rats that had also populated the island thanks to the occasional visits of sailors.

Having nobody to talk to was one of his worst privations, and he preserved the power of speech by reading his Bible aloud to himself and singing psalms to tunes that he remembered from his boyhood days in the church at Largo.

On one occasion he was lucky to survive a fall over a precipice when chasing a goat. When he came round he found that the goat was lying dead underneath him, having cushioned his fall and probably saved his life.

His hopes of being rescued lay with the possibility of a ship visiting the island, much as the “Cinque Ports” had done. When two Spanish ships did so, he was spotted by the sailors who sent a boat ashore and fired a gun in his direction. His knowledge of the island, and his physical agility, enabled him to escape and hide until they gave up the chase.

Rescue and further voyages

Selkirk was eventually rescued when two privateers from Bristol, the “Duke” and the “Duchess” called at the island in February 1709 in search of water. Selkirk had a fire burning, and this was seen by an observer on the “Duke”, whose commander, Captain Woodes Rogers, sent a boat ashore to investigate. When Selkirk was brought aboard the ship, dressed in goatskins and barely able to speak coherently, he was recognised by the man who was acting as pilot on board the ship, none other than William Dampier.

Dampier remembered Selkirk as having been an excellent ship’s master and recommended that Captain Rogers should make use of his services. Selkirk was thus not only rescued but he also found himself with a job, namely as mate of the “Duke”.

The two ships made a capture on 26th February which was renamed the “Increase”, with Selkirk being appointed by Rogers to be its master. In December an even richer prize was seized, this being the “Nuestra Señora”, a Spanish galleon which was renamed the “Bachelor”. Again, Selkirk was given the job of being its new master, with Captain Thomas Dover in command.

On 10th January 1710 the fleet of four ships then set sail to cross the Pacific, a voyage of 6000 miles. They arrived in Batavia (modern Jakarta) in June, where the booty was shared out and Selkirk received 80 pieces of eight.

After the ships were refitted they sailed on to Cape of Good Hope where they stayed put for three months before heading home as part of a larger fleet, eventually reaching the Shetlands in July 1711 and London in October. When Alexander Selkirk eventually stepped ashore he had been away from Britain for more than eight years, with four years and four months of that time spent in total isolation.

Later life

He found it very difficult to adjust to a normal life. After telling his story to anyone who was willing to listen, and there were many such, he eventually returned to Largo, where he found it necessary to build a cave in his father’s garden where he could be alone and meditate.

However, he also became infatuated with a local woman, Sophia Bruce, with whom he eloped back to London, living with her for some time (possibly as husband and wife) and making a will in her favour in January 1718.

The call of the sea eventually became too strong for him and he embarked on HMS Weymouth on 20th October 1720, as master’s mate. A factor in his decision may well have been the appearance in 1719 of Defoe’s novel, and the extra attention that would have come his way. For a man who had become used to solitude it must have seemed that this was going to be denied him for ever and it was time to escape to the world he knew best, namely that of ships and the sea.

HMS Weymouth was based at Plymouth, where Selkirk appears to have forgotten all about Sophia Bruce in that he married Frances Candis, a widow, on 12th December 1720, when he also drew up a new will that left everything to his new, maybe bigamous, bride.
From March to December 1721 Selkirk served aboard HMS Weymouth in operations against pirates off the coast of Africa. He died of disease aboard ship on 13th December, leaving the two women in his life to fight over his will, a fight which Frances Candis won.

Apart from those four years and four months spent on Juan Fernandez, Alexander Selkirk’s life was not all that remarkable, in that many sailors of that time could have told a very similar story of sailing around the world and serving on privateers and naval ships. However, it is as the original of Robinson Crusoe that he has gained immortality.

The most accurate account of his “Crusoe years” is in Woodes Rogers’s “A Cruising Voyage Around the World”, which was published in 1712 with a second edition in 1718, but the best-known is clearly Defoe’s novel, despite its fictions. Defoe almost certainly met Selkirk in London, and there were stories that he tricked Selkirk into allowing him to use Selkirk’s own journal, but there is no evidence that this is true.

There is an unproven report, that may well be true, that Selkirk once complained that, although he was now a wealthy man, he was much happier when he did not have a farthing to his name. Even if this was an invention it would not have been out of character for a man whose best years, in retrospect, were spent entirely on his own on an island in the Pacific Ocean.

© John Welford