Sex, Lies and Braveheart

Braveheart won five Academy Awards on its release twenty years ago and took its place in the pantheon of iconic historical movie epics.

Braveheart, Isabella, William Wallace

copyright: Paramount/20th Century Fox. Claimed under fair use.

For a lot of people, it remains the one thing they remember about Scottish history.

Which is ironic, really, because as film critic Sharon Krossa noted: “The events aren’t accurate, the dates aren’t accurate, the characters aren’t accurate, the names aren’t accurate, the clothes aren’t accurate—in short, just about nothing is accurate. ‘

Mel Gibson, as William Wallace, and his fellow Scots look stirring before the Battle of  Stirling, painted in woad and showing off their knees in fetching tartan kilts.

Trouble is, the Scots had stopped wearing woad a thousand years before and it was still another few centuries before they gave the world belted plaid.

William also has an affair with Isabella of France, by whom she has a son – the film implies that the boy becomes the future Edward the Third of England.

Braveheart, Isabella, William Wallace

copyright: Paramount/20th Century Fox. Claimed under fair use.

The problem with this plot point is that Isabella was three years old and living in France at the time of the affair, and only nine years old when William died.

A Scots friend of mine also assures me that William’s rallying speech before Stirling: ‘They can take our lives but they will never take our freedom!’ sounds implausible.

He reckons a true Scot would have said: ‘They can take our lives but they will never take our money!’

What is interesting to me is what a curious culture we have; directors and screenwriters can take outrageous liberties with history, yet we won’t accept even the smallest inaccuracy from historical novelists. No complaints: that’s just the way it is.

If I wrote Braveheart as a novel I wouldn’t get five awards – I’d end up like William Wallace – hung drawn and quartered. (Did anyone say tomatoes?)

Isabella, Braveheart, William Wallace

photo: Scott Neeson

We eschew historical fiction that is not properly researched, and rightly so I think; do it in a movie and it won’t affect your box office in any way.

A final note on Isabella. The real truth is that when she grew up, she became a very interesting person indeed, not just a hairy Highlander’s love interest.

She invaded England and threw Longshank’s son – and her former husband – off the throne.

Something Mel Gibson never came close to doing, with or without his woad and his hairy knees.

Isabella Lake Union








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What would you do if you discovered that your mother and father were not your real parents after all … that the two people who raised you knew the truth and hid it from you … that you were one of those children known as … the Disappeared?

Agencia de Noticias ANDES

source: Agencia de Noticias ANDES

What would you do?

How would you feel?

For most people it is almost impossible to contemplate.

But a year ago this was the situation that Ignacio Hurban had to face.

On August 5 2014, Ignacio received a phone call informing him that DNA tests had proved that he was the stolen grandson that Argentina’s most famous grandmother – Estela Carlotto – had been searching for.

Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti 3

source: Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti

Carlotto is the leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which had been founded to search for the 500 babies stolen from political prisoners during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship of the late seventies.

The organization worked with testing centers to carry out DNA analysis to find the missing babies.

Hurban had gone to them on a hunch.

Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti

Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti

At that time Carlotto’s group had managed to find 113 missing children – but that phone call meant that Estela had finally located the lost grandchild she had been desperately searching for herself.

Hurban was actually the son of Walmir Montoya and Laura Carlotto, leftist activists abducted by government agents during the regime’s “dirty war” of the seventies. Laura gave birth while in prison; she was murdered shortly after.

The infant was handed over to two farm workers by their employer, who had close ties to the military junta.

Thirty seven years later his ‘parents’ are now facing trial.

Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti 2

Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti

Hurban – who now calls himself Ignacio Montoya Carlotto – still speaks of them with some fondness. He said they had loved him and cared for him and given him a good life. Why should he hate them?

And Carlotta herself described just how difficult it had been for her and for him to sort through his tangled identity. With one phone call he had lost his entire history and now had to grapple with a terrible truth that until then had been kept secret from him.

It is unimaginable; and yet for hundreds of men and women, the secret still remains hidden, even today …

Disappeared, Dirty War, Argetine



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Not all history is in books.

Some of it you can see for yourself in a photograph.

history, world war two, blitz

What can you see here?

What you are looking at is a little boy who had just come home to find his house in rubble and his mother, father and brother dead inside.

It happened during the “Little Blitz” when Nazi Germany employed V-1 and V-2 rockets to bomb England.

It was taken in 1944 by the legendary photographer Toni Frissell.

The little boy survived the war and actually recognized the picture many years later when it was used to advertise an exhibition.

Hollywood, movies, MGM

‘Leo the Lion’ having his famous roar recorded in 1928 so that it could be heard throughout history at the start of every MGM movie.

The lion’s name was actually Jackie, though I suspect he didn’t come when he was called either way.

Mata hari, spies, world war one

The legendary World War One spy Mata Hari.

In this instance, she’s the one being spied on.

wild west, Billy the Kid, gunfighters

The only known picture of Billy the Kid.

It was taken some time between 1873 and 1881.

apache, geronimo, wild west

And one of Bill’s contemporaries, the legendary Geronimo.

He is seen here on the right with fellow Apache warriors, Yanozha (his brother-in-law), Chappo (the son of his second wife) and the inappropriately named Fun (his half brother).

The photograph was taken somewhere in Arizona in 1886.

Berlin wall, East Germany, Cold War

A mother in East Berlin passes her young son across the border to his father while the East German police are momentarily looking the other way.

The photograph was taken in August 1961.

bowling, history

‘Pin boys’ working in a bowling alley in South Street Brooklyn, in 1910.

It was taken at one in the morning. Three much smaller boys were not allowed to be photographed by the manager of the hall.

Machu Piccu, Incas, Peru

The first ever photograph of Machu Picchu, taken by Hiram Bingham III himself in 1912.

The beautiful peak of Huayna Picchu overshadows the city. On its summit were found a few rough caves from where Inca guards could once give warning of approaching danger.

What they couldn’t see coming was tourism, and hordes of western backpackers taking naked Selfies of themselves on the sacred sun dial stone.

einstein, relativity

Albert Einstein’s school report when he was seventeen.

Pupils were graded from 1 to 6.

As you can see, he performed quite well in maths, but in other areas there was Room For Improvement.

samurai, Japan

Satsuma samurai during the Boshin war period in the 1860’s.

You can tell it’s an old photograph because they’re not using Google maps.

elephant man, joseph merrick

Joseph Merrick, on whom the film Elephant Man was based.

The photograph was taken in 1886.

And finally:

abraham lincoln, slavery

Abraham Lincoln, before he became Abraham Lincoln, holding the anti-slavery newspaper ‘Staat Zeitung’ in 1854.



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Like music? You have to LOVE these guys. The Two Cellos. Check this out:

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So what was it really like to fight in armor?

We’ve all seen it done i.n the movies. But how realistic is it?

As you’ll see from the following demonstration medieval knights could have been surprisingly mobile.

And fighting tactics were quick and utterly ruthless.

The video was made by the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Cluny, France and the armor is modeled on that worn by two actual French knights of the fifteenth century.



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This is the story of the good Nazi you may never have heard of; though the surname will be familiar.

Goring, Nazi, holocaust

copyright unknown: claimed under fair use

Hermann Göring was founder of the Gestapo and Hitler’s anointed successor at the start of the second world war.

He was instrumental in creating the first concentration camps and accrued massive wealth from art and property stolen from Jewish holocaust victims.

Convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials he committed suicide the night before his execution.

A thoroughly evil man. But did you know he had a brother?

In fact he had two; an older brother called Karl and a younger brother called Albert.

Goring, Nazi, holocaust

Herman Goring addressing the Reichstag

Albert Göring was born in 1895. His father was the German Consul General to Haiti and was rarely at home so he and his two brothers and two sisters were raised in a fairy tale castle by their aristocratic godfather, Ritter von Epenstein – a Jew.

The young Albert grew into something of a bon vivant and lived a mostly unremarkable life as a filmmaker – until the Nazis took power in 1933.

While his brother rose rapidly through the ranks to become Hitler’s right hand man, Albert was repelled by fascism and refused to join the National Socialist party.

In fact he actively opposed it.

Once he took off his jacket and joined a group of Jewish women who were being forced to scrub the street. The SS officer supervising them had to call a halt when he realized who Albert was. He could not allow the brother of Hitler’s number 2 to be publicly humiliated.

Then, when the Gestapo arrested his former boss Oskar Pilzer, a Jew, he used his influence to have him freed and then helped Pilzer and his family escape from Germany.

Goring, Nazi, holocaust

Herman Goring

When Albert was made export director at the Skoda factory in Czechoslovakia he even made contact with the Czech resistance and forged his brother’s signature on transit documents to help dissidents escape.

He sent trucks into concentration camps to collect prisoners to work as laborers.

The trucks would then stop in an isolated area, and the workers would be allowed to escape.

Whenever these and other activities landed him in hot water, he called up his brother.

Albert became ever more ­audacious and survived four arrest warrants because of his brother’s influence.

But by 1944, with a ‘shoot on sight’ order in his name, Albert went on the run in Prague. Hermann dropped everything to save him one final time, intervening personally with Himmler.

Goring, Nazi, holocaust

Herman Goring at Nuremburg

Albert survived the war but after the fall of Berlin he spent two years as an Allied prisoner, unable to convince his captors of his innocence.

The name that had once saved him and countless others would now make him a pariah for the rest of his life.

He was eventually released but soon fell into depression and alcoholism.

His Czech wife, Mila, requested a divorce and took his only child, Elizabeth, to live in Peru. He never saw or spoke to them again.

He lived in penury for many years with occasional work as a translator.

When he died in 1966 he was living on a pension from the government.

Knowing that his pension would be transferred to his wife, he married his housekeeper a week before he died, as a mark of gratitude.

His wartime activities were never publicly acknowledged.

But if you’re reading this, then at least one more person has acknowledged what he did, right now.

To find out more, read this.



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This guy is fantastic: I thought you might like to take a look.

In this short and entertaining video he explains why we all find it hard to change, even when we know we should.

I’m off to practice on my backwards bicycle. Only another seven months and twenty nine days and we may see some progress round here!

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middle ages, medieval, household tips

“Buttocks clenched, snot wiped off face … okay little lady, let’s bust a move!
source: Hester

This is a very handy tip from the sixteenth century from a dude by the name of Antonius Arena, who was clearly a real ladies’ man.

Writing in Leges Dansandi in 1530 he had some great advice for young men out clubbing:

“Furthermore never fart when you are dancing; grit your teeth and compel your arse to hold back the fart…

” … Do not have a dripping nose and do not dribble at the mouth … and remember not to wipe your nose with your fingers; do it properly with a white handkerchief.’


middle ages, medieval, household tips

“What the hell did you just put in my ear … !”

Girls, if you can find a non-farting non-dribbling alpha male, you want to hang on to him! And the way to do it is this:

You get some chicken feathers, some hair from the right leg of his dog and some fur from his cat’s tail  (this clearly only works with an animal lover) and you stick them in his ear.

Yes, his ear.

Forget about learning to communicate and not going to bed angry.

This is much easier.

This great advice comes from The Distaff Gospels in the 14th century.


You take some manure fresh out of a donkey, mix it with vinegar and blow it up the patient’s nose. Does it stop the bleed? I doubt it.

But it sure stopped them complaining about the nosebleed. This first aid tip was being touted by an apothecary named Hieronymus Braunschweig in 1561.


Dice up some old cheese and soak it in water for two days. “Then add to them almost as much good quicklime, and grind them well together, and it is the best glue; use it immediately while it is moist. This glue joins wood very well and when it is dry it is dissolved by neither fire nor water.”

That’s some strong glue. Back in the day they didn’t need nails or even cement, they could build a Hilton out of Stilton, a shack out of Monterey Jack. This lost gem is from the Secretum philosophorum of 1300


middle ages, medieval, household tips

“Quick, go and get the onion out of the oven, this is an emergency!”

No need to waste time checking the carotid pulse back then. You just applied a lightly roasted onion to the patient’s nose.

If they scratched their nose, there was still hope; if they didn’t, it was time for the plague pit.

This ever-reliable trick came from Johannes de Mirfield in his Breviarium Bartholomei of the late fourteenth century.


middle ages, medieval, household tips

“Forsooth! One of my denuded capons has awoken from its slumber!”

The Vivendier of 1450 recommended plucking a chicken alive in hot water.

Once denuded, you smothered it in egg yolks that had been mixed with saffron and dripping so that it looked as if it had been cooked. Just before you served dinner, you put the outraged chicken’s head under its wing “…and turn it in your hands, rotating it until it is fast asleep.”

You then served it to your guests. When the guest of honour started to carve it “it will wake up and make off down the table upsetting jugs, goblets and whatnot.”

And all your guests would then, presumably, laugh uproariously. Why this little party trick ever went out of favour amazes me.


No, washing is for wimps. What you do is fill your shoes with iron filings. ” …it takes cleane away the evill smell thereof.”  Well yes, you can barely walk, but isn’t that small price to pay? This from one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Lupton, in A Thousand Notable Things.


Simple. You find an adolescent and suck their blood … “a youth, I say who is willing, healthy, happy and temperate …” (Life must have been very different then, full of happy and temperate teenagers.)

You suck “an ounce or two from a scarcely-opened vein of the left arm; they will immediately take an equal amount of sugar and wine.” Apparently this is best done when the moon is waxing.

This call to vampirism came from Marsilio Ficino, an early Italian renaissance philosopher.


Well you should dilute it, obviously, if the child is less than seven years old. Michele Savonarola, a professor of medicine at Padua in the fifteenth century, also recommended only white wine for toddlers, because that seemed the responsible thing to do.

middle ages, medieval, household tips

‘The little brat’s drunk all my 1995 Chateau Rayas again!”


middle ages, medieval, household tipsThomas Lupton again, that reliable fount of wisdom: “An Italian, through the oft smelling of an hearb called Basil, had a Scorpion bred in his braine, which did not only a long time grieve him, but also at the last killed him… Take heede therefore ye smellers of Basil!”

Sage advice.

Question though: if you are killed by a plant, is that first degree herbicide?


“This is how to keep your teeth: gather the grains of a leek, burn them with henbane, and direct the smoke thereof to your teeth with a funnel, as if smoking a pipe.” This sound advice comes from the 13th century tome, Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum.

The Middle Ages, ladies and gentlemen. So much more than just plague and the rack.

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COLOSSUS – what if Alexander the Great had not died young?

“What if Alexander the Great had not died so young?”

My publisher, Anthony Cheetham, started with that throwaway line over dinner in London one night a few years ago. The idea stuck.

So today COLOSSUS is being published in hardback in New York.

Described by my agent as the love child of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and WARHORSE it’s an historical epic of what might have been.

Even as alternative history I had to thoroughly research Alexander the Great’s battle plans, character – he was a psychopath – and of course, my wonderful protagonist, Colossus, the elephant.

Did you know that elephants grieve, much like humans do? Did you know that Alexander had appointed a ‘captain of the elephants’ just before he died, the first western commander to do so? Did you know that when he died he had drawn up battle plans to attack Carthage?

COLOSSUS is out now. You can check it out here.

THERE’S A SAMPLE BELOW!!Colossus_Cover_02‘Kill him! Kill the monster now!’

Colossus has sent everyone scattering. He has ripped the stake out of the ground and the heavy iron chain now trails his hind leg as light as a flower garland, bouncing this way and that. He has pulled down a small building at the edge of the enclosure by ramming it with its head and shoulder. A mahavat lies stricken on the ground nearby.

Someone has scared him. He is screaming with rage.

He picks up another of the mahavats with his trunk and swats him like a fly. The man rolls across the ground like tumbleweed and thuds into a mud brick wall. Colossus finds a straw cart and stamps on it leaving behind just splinters.

The captain of the elephants has lost his fine turban and his swagger. He is panicked and his face is covered with dust and sweat. The captain is deciding where to place his spear but it is not easy to kill a fully grown elephant. It takes an army and a forest of darts. Even without armour there are not many places a man can strike with a spear and even offend an elephant much, let alone kill him. He must  somehow get underneath the beast, avoid his tusk and feet and strike upwards. To do that the beast’s attention must be distracted and Colossus is not of a mind to take his cold red eyes off the captain of the elephants for even a moment.

The fool tries to run around him but whichever way he turns, Colossus turns too. It is clear now that he is the target for the animal’s fury. Gajendra supposes he has been beating him with the ankus again. How many times has he told him not to do that?

Colossus tramples down several tents and knocks over another cart. It is pandemonium. The other elephants are agitated now and if someone doesn’t do something they will stampede. Gajendra doesn’t like the captain and will happily see him squashed like a beetle, but someone must help him, for the sake of the entire regiment.

So Gajendra steps out in front of Colossus.

The world stops. He can hear only two things now: his own blood pounding in his ears and his Uncle Ravi shouting at him to come away. He hears galloping horses on the road, sees a hawk soaring high overhead.

He cannot let them slaughter Colossus. The beast just needs someone who knows how to handle him, that’s all.

If someone put that bull hook up the captain’s ample fundament instead everything would be all right.

He stands in front of the big bull and Colossus bellows, trunk raised, ears flared. The tusks are terrifying. He once saw a man gutted and near torn in half by one of those. He still remembers the inhuman cry as the bull tried to shake him off.

Never mind the tusks, just watch what he does. The tusks are the least of your worries. He can just stamp on you if he wants, leave behind just a red stain and a few stringy fibres like betel nut.

Colossus swings his front foot, a sure sign he is going to charge. He starts at a gait, trunk curled. The ground shakes under his feet. The captain of the elephants screams and tries to run but he trips in his haste and falls flat on his face in the dirt.

Hold your ground now. Go down on one knee like Ravi showed you. Don’t let him see you’re afraid even though you’re near pissing yourself. Remember what he said. ‘On one knee and point to the ground.’

Hida, Hida!’ Lie down!

The effect is dramatic. His ears crack out and he unrolls his trunk. He shakes his huge head, showering Gajendra in a cloud of sand, and backs off a few paces.

Impressive. He has only once before seen an elephant break off an attack at full speed. On that occasion it was Ravi who was standing in front of the elephant.


Colossus is slow about it, but he does it, settling into the dust.

The captain runs forward with his spear. Gajendra sees what is intended, and throws himself at the captain, taking him in the midriff, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling on the ground. The spear bounces across the dirt. Colossus gets back to his feet, picks it up with his trunk and tosses it casually over his massive shoulder. He does not see where it lands.

Greece, perhaps.


After all the trumpeting and screaming the silence that follows is eerie. A shadow falls across Gajendra’s face, and he hears the jangle of trappings, realizes that a horse and its  rider have stepped up to him. The rider has his back to the sun and Gajendra must shield his eyes to look at him.

‘Well, that was smartly done,’ the newcomer says. He sits on a huge white Arab stallion. The captain of the elephants scrambles back to his feet and almost immediately puts his head back into the dirt, this time without the assistance of one of his own elephants.

The rider steps his horse forward and turns to the officer beside him. ‘I can make an oriental kneel, but this one makes an enraged elephant grovel. Which of us is greater, do you think?’

The rider slides from the saddle and stands, legs apart, surveying the scene. Gajendra finally realizes who it is and gasps and falls to his knees behind the captain.

‘Oh, don’t bother with all that now,’ Alexander says and grabs him by the tunic and pulls him back to his feet.

Gajendra is surprised to find that the great Alexander is shorter than he is. Squat, golden and broad, his legs are bowed from spending his entire life in the saddle of a horse. And yet he feels as if he is standing next to a giant.

He had heard legends of his general long before he was conscripted into Alexander’s army. It is like standing next to the sun; how the energy burns off him.

Alexander nudges the captain of the elephants with his foot. ‘What’s your name?’ He has a high-pitched voice, this lord of war, it grates on the nerves.

‘Oxathres, my lord,’ the captain says, without raising his face from the dirt.

‘You might as well lick his boots while you’re down there,’ Alexander’s lieutenant says and then guffaws when Oxathres actually does it. Apparently, it was just a joke.

‘You’re a fool, Oxathres. What are you?’

‘A fool, my lord.’

Alexander winds up and kicks him hard in the ribs and then turns to Gajendra and asks him his name.

‘“Gajendra”,’ Alexander repeats, when he hears it. ‘It sounds a little like my own name. Gajendra the Great!’ he says and his lieutenants laugh, which is why he keeps them with him, Gajendra supposes.

He nudges the captain of the elephants with his boot a second time as if it is something in his path that he is unsure about. ‘You’re in charge here, am I right? How did this come about?’

The captain says, ‘Beg pardon, my general, but the beast is mad. It should be killed immediately.’ He wipes the sweat off his face and smiles up at his general in an ugly way, something like a grimace. ‘The animal is a menace and will not be properly trained.’

Alexander starts to laugh. He throws back his head and roars. Even Oxathres starts to laugh, not yet party to his own joke. Now the lieutenants on their horses laugh as well; even one of the horses seems to snicker. Then Alexander draws back his boot and kicks Oxathres in the ribs again. It is a terrifying sight because Alexander is still laughing as he does it.

‘Who made you captain of these beasts?’ Kick. ‘Was it me?’ Kick. ‘I shall have to put myself on a charge for incompetence. What was I thinking? I must have been drunk!’ Kick, kick, kick.

The captain of the elephants starts to cry. The fault is not his, he grunts in between having his ribs tickled. The beast is unnatural. It will not submit to direction. Forgive me, I am Alexander’s most faithful soldier. I would follow you to the ends of the earth.

‘Only to the ends of the earth?’ Alexander says. ‘But I’ve been there. I need somewhere to march that is more of a challenge!’

He suddenly loses interest in his captain of the elephants. He seems as easily distracted as a child.

‘Well, look at this,’ he says and walks up to Colossus and stands in front of him with his hands on his hips. Gajendra watches Colossus carefully; the imperceptible flick of the pink tip of its trunk, the slow blink of his eye. No sudden movements please, my lord, he thinks, or you will follow the captain’s spear over that wall.

‘What is his name?’

Fateh Gaj – it means Victory Elephant. But your soldiers have called him by a different name.’

‘And what is that?’

‘Colossus, my lord.’

Alexander laughs. ‘Yes. Colossus. It suits him.’

Gajendra approaches, so that he can intervene should Colossus take exception to his general’s behaviour. Colossus reaches out with his trunk and touches Gajendra’s head and face with his trunk. He makes a deep rumbling in his stomach as he does this.

‘He is the biggest beast I have ever seen; even at Gaugamela I never saw the like,’ Alexander says. ‘How did you tame him?’

‘I spoke to him.’

Alexander walks around the grey mountain of leathery flesh. Colossus has tufts of greyish hair all over him and ears as big as a man. Alexander folds his arms and frowns.

‘You’re not telling me this beast can talk?’

‘No, but he can understand.’

‘And what’s that language you use?’

‘It’s the language of elephants, my lord.’ He cannot explain to him that it is the language Uncle Ravi spoke as a child.

Alexander gives him a pained look. ‘And why does this special language make a difference?’

‘He is trained to obey certain commands and that is the only language he understands.’

‘Does that imbecile…’ he indicates Oxathres with a dismissive nod of the head, ‘… does he know that?’

‘I have tried to tell him, but he pays no attention to me.’

‘Are you Indian? You don’t look Indian. You look Greek.’

‘My mother was Persian.’

‘What was your father doing with a Persian? Besides making you?’

‘The Rajah gave her to him. As a gift, for his exploits in battle. He said he was the best mahavat in his whole army. But then he was wounded and he could not be a soldier any more. He turned to farming.’

‘The son of a hero!’

‘I suppose.’

‘So you are telling me that you are the only one who knows how to control this animal?’

‘It would so appear.’

‘So if you are the only one here who knows how to control the beast, why has it done all this?’ He looks around the enclosure. Two men lie motionless in the dirt, two small buildings are partially destroyed and three carts are now only of use for firewood.

‘I believe the captain of the elephants took to him witha bull hook. He doesn’t like bull hooks.’

‘Where were you?’

‘I was mucking out the straw.’

‘But isn’t this your elephant?’

‘He won’t give me an elephant. He says I’m too young.’

Alexander sighs, theatrically puffing out his cheeks. He walks over to Oxathres, who is still curled up on the ground, clutching his ribs. This has not been a good day for him and it is about to get worse. Alexander grabs him by the hair and cuffs him smartly about the ears. ‘You’re stupid. Say it now. Come on. You’ll feel better once it’s said.’

‘I’m stupid,’ the captain of the elephant sobs.

‘Why are you stupid?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re stupid because you don’t know how to use your resources to their best effect.’ He picks him up by the collar and drops him back into the dust. He kicks him again, much harder than before. ‘From now on, this boy here… what was your name again?’

‘Gajendra, lord.’

‘Gajendra is this animal’s mahavat. Now I want no more trouble.’ He nods to his lieutenant. ‘Give the boy five of those new coins I had minted yesterday.’

Even the lieutenant seems surprised. ‘So much?’

‘Just do it.’

The lieutenant gestures him to approach. Gajendra gapes; it is as much money as he might make in a year.

Alexander turns around and takes a last look at Colossus, who is still kneeling, playfully blowing at the dust with his trunk, mild as a kitten. Alexander shakes his head.

Then he looks at Gajendra and grimaces with distaste. ‘You’re covered in elephant snot,’ he says.

Gajendra looks down at his tunic. He is indeed covered in slime, half a pint of it from where Colossus has expressed his affection.

‘We have known each other a long time. He is fond of me.’

‘I should not like anything to be that fond of me,’ Alexander says, and then gets on his horse and rides away, his lieutenants in tow.

The captain of the elephants gets to his feet. His ear is bleeding. He tries to straighten up but his ribs will not let him. He looks at Colossus and then at Gajendra. He points a finger at him. ‘You’re dead, boy,’ he says and staggers away.

Gajendra looks over his shoulder at his elephant. All the madness has gone out of him. He flaps his ears and tastes the air with his trunk. Now that Oxathres has gone, he seems perfectly at ease.

‘Now look what you’ve done,’ Gajendra says to him. He taps the ankus behind his tail and Colossus does as he asks, and trails him across the enclosure, leaving the waterboys to clear up.

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This is a story about how a vast multi-national corporation used a western nation’s military muscle to economically rape the country it had ‘liberated’.

East India Company, India, corporation

‘We come in peace … for now.’

Halliburton? Sirco?

No, though you’re warm.

We’re talking the great granddaddy of them all – ladies and gentlemen, I give you the British East India Company.

On 24 September, 1599, 80 merchants met at the Founders Hall in London to petition Queen Elizabeth I.

What they wanted was a charter authorizing a radical new type of business: a company that could issue tradeable shares on the open market to any number of investors.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

For over a century the British East India company quietly traded in silks and spices in the Orient. Their business was concentrated in Mughal India, a vast empire which then stretched from Kabul to Madras.

In those days India accounted for around a quarter of all global manufacturing.

But in 1739 Nadir Shah and 150,000 Persian cavalry invaded the Punjab and defeated a Mughal army one and a half million strong and took home the emperor’s Treasury.

Mughal India went into terminal decline. The empire broke up into tiny, competing states.

At the time, the Company was operating from the home of its governor, Sir Thomas Smythe, with a staff of six.

'It's not personal - it's just business.'
‘It’s not personal – it’s just business.’

With the full support of the British Parliament the Company looked to exploit the situation. They started training their own army and put the domino theory into action, defeating the now divided states one at a time.

The Company’s ascendant was astounding. The last Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, surrendered in 1765.

The so-called “Treaty of Allahabad” required him to hand over all his tax revenues to the new governor of Bengal and the Company’s man in India – a strange and unstable sociopath called Robert Clive.

It was the first corporate coup in history – a vast subcontinent was now ruled from a boardroom in Leadenhall Street.

But good government was not a corporate priority, only profit. Clive and his fellow administrators ransacked the country’s wealth, while flooding its markets with British products.Unspeakable atrocities were visited on those who resisted.

East India Company, India, corporation

Clive of India – seen here wishing he could run for Congress

Clive returned to Britain the richest self-made man in Europe.

He and other Company men used their massive and newly acquired wealth to start buying parliamentary seats – they soon became known as ‘the Rotten Boroughs’ – to ensure that the Parliament backed the Company with state power whenever it was needed, particularly when the French tried to get in the Company’s way.

In fact, protecting the Company from outside competition became enshrined in national foreign policy – after all, many in the Parliament owned substantial Company stock.

But it worked, for a while. The Company soon reversed the balance of trade, which had essentially gone from west to east since Roman times.

The Company extended its operations, ferrying opium to China, and fought the Opium Wars to seize an offshore base at Hong Kong to safeguard its monopoly in narcotics.

I had to break this to you, but it’s better you heard it first from a friend. About half of London’s great marble edifices were built with drug money.

East India Company, India, corporation

headquarters of the East India Company in Leadenhall Street

By 1803, when the Company captured the Mughal capital of Delhi, it had a private security force of around a quarter of a million men  – double the size of the British army! – and more firepower than any nation state in Asia.

It was like Google owning a fleet of nuclear submarines.

But when the crash came, it was massive.

A famine in Bengal led to massive shortfalls in expected land revenues and left the Company with an eye-watering shortfall in their accounts. When the news got out thirty European banks collapsed and trade came to a standstill.

East India Company, India, corporation

‘Good news – we’re here to bring you democracy. Just sign this.’

So guess what they did? They asked the government to bail them out.

In fact, the Company’s losses were so huge they could have brought down the whole nation. Unlike Lehman Brothers, the Company was just too big to fail.

So in 1773, the world’s first multinational corporation was rescued by history’s first government bailout.

The Company continued its operations under stricter regulation but without seriously mending its ways. In fact 15 years later Clive’s successor, Robert Hastings, only narrowly escaped impeachment.

During the proceedings Britain’s greatest orator at that time, Edmund Burke, railed against the ability of a ruthless corporation to buy politicians and destroy good governance.

Thank God those days are gone, right?

It was the Mutiny of 1857 that finished the Company. The Parliament finally realized they must bring to an end the EIC’s corporate greed and incompetence, or they would lose India.

When it was all over Lord Canning announced that the Company’s Indian possessions would be nationalized.

Britain winning the war on drugs - by creating a monopoly

Britain winning the war on drugs – by creating a monopoly

When people think of British colonialism in India, they conjure images of railways, tea and cricket.

But Britain’s colonial heritage was something far more sinister, something which now represents the greatest threat to contemporary democracy – the joint-stock company.

No nation has yet found a way to protect itself from corporate excess.

As with the East India Company, joint stock companies still retain the actual power, with parliaments and congresses as their puppets. A toxic cocktail of power, money and unaccountability masquerades as democratic principle.

In fact, the interests of shareholders have become more important than those of the nations that host them.

East India Company, India, corporationThe East India Company is the ultimate model for Shell and the Halliburton Corporation – except they do not need their own armies, because they use the government’s.

It could be argued that many western countries have in fact been successfully privatized.

But when these megalithic companies fall, their hosts fall with them.

The subprime bubble of 2007 demonstrated the hazards. US and European banks lost more than $1 trillion dollars; what Edmund Burke feared would happen to England in fact happened to Iceland two hundred years later.

We have learned absolutely nothing from history. We never do.

Why? Why don’t we learn?

The reason can best be summed up with a Hindustani slang word, once rarely heard outside northern India, but which suddenly gained common currency all over England in the late eighteenth century, during the rise of the East India company.

The word?


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East India, Batavia, shipwreck




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