A Selection Of What The Book Contains,
subject to change based on the whims of the author and whether or not the topics turn out to be interesting enough that you'll want to read about them.
1066 - Hastings: Here Come The French
1066 - Halley’s Comet is sighted and everyone freaks out
1070 - William Controls his People With Castles and an Apocalyptic Book
1130 - ‘The Anarchy’ turns out to be rather peaceful
1150 - Henry II invents the Civil Service and kills someone quite important
1183 - Richard the Lionheart goes on a grand crusade and gets himself captured
1200 - A doctor tastes a man’s urine and decides he’s going to die
1200 - A pig and a locust get into serious trouble with the law
1215 - Magna Carta is created to control the king so he immediately and totally ignores it
1216 - King John stores lions in the Tower of London and, surprisingly, someone gets bitten
1300 - Peasants eat some pottage and drink stale ale
1300 - Medieval folk wear some inconceivably pointy shoes
1303 - Richard of Pudlicott steals a lot of gold from the king - bad idea
1326 - The Folville Gang pretend to be Robin Hood before he was famous
1330 - ‘Adam The Leper’ has leprosy
1347 - Basically, everyone gets the Black Death and dies
1346 - Some peasants kill a lot of important French people in a field, twice
1381 - Peasants organise a revolt using secret communication system, seemingly superior to Royal Mail
1394 - Transvestite playboy John Rykener has sex with a lot of priests
1400 - Some naughty peasants are publically humiliated with candles and bed
1422 - Henry VI becomes England’s shitest king
1461 - Edward IV marries a chav
1487 - Richard III most probably, definitely murdered his nephews and Margaret Beaufort is ‘single mum of the century’
1490 - An unknown English peasant pretends to be king, it doesn’t work - so a Dutchman has a go
1501 - An alchemist attempts to fly. He doesn’t.
1509 - Henry VIII hosts medieval Glastonbury then decides his wife would look better without a head
1563 - Francis Drake sails around the world and makes it home in time to defeat the Spanish Armada
1564 - William Shakespeare writes some fairly decent lines
1568 - Peasants are paid to shout ‘Bring Out Your Dead’
1580 - A priest hides in a wall, forgets to bring a packed lunch and starves to death
1590 - Sir Walter Raleigh introduces tobacco to England which was really irresponsible
1606 - Scotland finally gets into bed with England and they paint a pretty
1651 - Charles II escapes to France via an oak tree
1666 - The London Mayor has an opportunity to prevent the infamous Great Fire. He doesn’t.
1688 - The English people kindly invite a Dutchman called William to invade their own country
1756 - England supports piracy then has a war with Spain and changes its
1774 - The English treasury is almost collapsed by some Yorkshiremen in a pub
1776 - The Bloody Code gets quite bloody
1807 - The British Empire sells millions of slaves then flip-flop and
decide slavery isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
1837 - Marquis of Waterford paints the town red (no, literally)
1850 - Victorians race penny farthings and tea leaves
1850 - Victorians invent some utterly stupid things then make up for it with the Industrial Revolution
1850 - Victorians wear silly clothes and talk to each other with fans
1851 - People get excited about toilets at the Great Exhibition
1868 - The British totally overreact to the king of Abysinnia taking a few hostages
1851 - Sir Richard Francis Burton pretends to be an Arab and has sex with everything
1871 - A Scotsman gets lost in Africa and a Welshman utters some memorable words
1890 - The British Navy publically displays its might, then falls apart
1914 - Ernest Shackleton is a shoddy explorer but a stupendous leader
1851: Sir Richard Francis Burton
Typically, humans excel at one or two chosen skills. They are at best mediocre in the realm of all others. However, occasionally throughout history, there are those rare enigmas who have an astonishingly extensive list of titles, accolades and abilities to their name. One such map-divining demi-god was Sir Richard Francis Burton. It is only once you learn of the enormous breadth of Burton's talents, all of which he mastered, that you will begin to appreciate how this Victorian man became legend. Born in 1821 Burton was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. Well, I did say.
It was glaringly obvious from a young age that Burton would never be the type of person to lead a quiet life. As a teenager Burton was punished for writing salacious letters to prostitutes, he smashed his music teacher over the head with a violin case and perforated his brother’s cheek with a fencing foil. I would hazard to say that things were not off to a good start, I fear, however, that Burton would argue to the contrary.
Burton was at heart an academic with an unquenchable lust for knowledge, exploration and women - especially exploring women. At a young age he discovered a love for learning languages, he quickly gained fluency in French, Italian, Neapolitan and Latin. All of which Burton, of course, used for the noblest of deads: seducing the various bountiful women of these regions. Throughout his life, he masterfully acquired proficiency in other linguistic arenas such as Arabic. He spoke twenty-nine European, Asian and African languages by the time he had matured into an astute adult (it is important to note that in describing Richard Francis Burton ‘astute’ depicts an erudite drunk aristocrat wielding a shotgun).
Perpetually restless, Burton joined the East India Company in his early twenties, assuming his ranks amongst the corporation’s substantial private army. He was posted to India and of course, being a serial-polyglot, Burton promptly absorbed the local tongues of Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and Marathi. The rigmarole of an army lifestyle proved too structured for Burton. During his time enlisted he earned himself the nickname “Ruffian Dick” because of his boisterous attitude and equal parts defensive and aggressive disposition towards his fellow comrades. It seemed not a week passed without Burton challenging an acquaintance to a duel. It was widely supposed by his contemporaries that Burton fought more enemies in single combat than any man of his time. Burton also kept a large menagerie of monkeys during his time in the army, with the goal of eventually learning their language. I dare to imagine he was wildly unsuccessful.
One of Burton’s most auspicious ventures of infamy was in 1851 when he assumed the moniker and disguise of an Afghan pilgrim to sneak into the Muslim holy city of Mecca. No, you haven’t inadvertently slipped into an especially exotic Arthur Conan Doyle novel, this really did happen.
At the time it was forbidden for non-muslims (referred to as “Kafirs” by those of Islamic faith) and especially white men to join the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. If a non-muslim was caught inside Mecca, the punishment was death, by crucifixion or, for times when the murderous mobs were slightly more incensed, impalement. This only served to make the idea of successfully infiltrating such a potentially deadly and hostile environment all the more sweeter. The call of adventure and infamy was far too strong for Burton to resist.
Burton went as far as to get himself circumcised before the journey, so if he were strip-searched, his jiggery-pokery would be justified by his junk. It would be an arduous journey to reach Mecca, through the unrelenting desert; during the journey twelve of Burton’s party were killed by Bedouin raiders. As one would expect from such a shrewd confidence man, Burton’s in-depth knowledge of the culture, religion and language of the Arab people allowed him to blend in seamlessly and entirely undetected within the holy city.
Burton had a severe infatuation with impersonating people of other ethnicities and cultures. During his time in India, he would frequently cover his face in walnut oil and speak in fluent Gujarati. One particular Indian gentleman almost had a heart attack upon learning that Burton, the dark-skinned merchant he had been conversing with for some time, was in fact, a white British man. The ruthlessly pragmatic East India Company leveraged Burton’s fighting and espionage talents, not to mention passions, by enlisting him as a spy. He would travel through the hill regions fighting off and reporting on the various tribes, a job which an insatiably curious Burton absolutely relished.
His final brief as a spy was to investigate the daily happenings at a brothel in Karachi where it was rumoured the prostitutes were young boys, and the patrons were mainly British soldiers. In disturbingly typical Burton form, his lengthy report was so detailed that it was strongly rumoured he had partaken in some or many of the illicit services available at the brothel. Burton’s unquenchable thirst for the exotic, bizarre sexual encounters and his voracious voyeurism didn’t help in quelling the rumours; quite the opposite.
Today Burton is best known for being the first to translate The Arabian Nights as well as the Hindu sex manual, Kama Sutra, also the equally ‘naughty’ The Perfumed Garden. Perhaps his best-known requiem was his journey to discover the source of the Nile. An enigma revered as highly as the proverbial fountain of youth. When it came to Victorian-era exploration, the source of the Nile was a thing of great legend. Perhaps a sign of his now wethered age and body, for once in his life, Burton appreciated the dangers that lay ahead and so took a companion explorer on this particular quest. None other than John Hanning Speke.
In 1856 Burton and Speke set off from Zanzibar island, heading dead west towards the heart of the Congo. Both men soon fell gravely ill to a variety of tropical diseases, so severe that Speke became temporarily blind. Mercifully both men recovered, after resting for some time amongst the retreat of some Arab slave traders. They became the first Europeans to find Lake Tanganyika. Perversely Speke couldn’t see the lake upon their arrival as he was still partially blind from illness. I can only hope Burton described the natural wonder to his poor, sightless friend in suitably splendid detail, laced with hyperbole, no doubt. Speke also became partially deaf after a beetle crawled inside his ear and he attempted to remove it with that commonly Doctor-recommended surgical instrument, a bush knife.
Upon their return journey to the coast, Speke took a detour slightly north, due to reports of another mysterious lake but Burton was too ill at this point to join him, so he stayed at their camp to rest. That mysterious lake turned out to be the largest lake in Africa, which Speke named Lake Victoria, after his monarch. Once again Speke was unable to see the lake properly and thus determine its true size and if it could be the elusive source of the Nile. Upon the duo’s return to England, there was a laborious debate about whether or not the men had found the legendary source of the Nile. It wouldn’t be until modern times when it would finally be verified that Lake Victoria is the real source of the Nile.
The two men often quarrelled throughout their adventures, namely because their ideologies and moral compasses didn’t align. Speke was a tremendously prim and proper, tweed-wielding, Victorian gentleman. Burton, on the other hand, was a loose cannon, whose primary approach to travel was to have sexual intercourse with everything and everyone he met, preferably in new and unusual ways. The merest thought of such sultry behaviour would have caused Speke to dissolve into a pool of repressed awkwardness. Burton certainly didn’t help matters since he spent considerable time during their travels boasting of his numerous and often aggrandised conquests, via speech, sword or phallus.
1776: The Bloody Code gets quite bloody
At the Southern end of Edgeware-road, London, very near to the Marble Arch, once stood the world’s most frequented and public theatre of mass execution, Tyburn. In 1571, precisely on the spot where the present-day Edgeware Road, Oxford Road and Bayswater Road meet, was constructed the Tyburn Tree. A large wooden triangle supported several metres in the air by three wooden legs. Its exact location is today marked by a circular stone plaque surrounded by three oak trees. This modern monument to a thoroughly murderous medieval location is situated on the most beautiful of all man-made monoliths - a bloody traffic island. Every year millions of feet pound this ancient and terrible tomb, yet few souls note its significance.
Between 1571 and 1783, over 1,000 men and 100 women were theatrically hung from the Tyburn Tree. This wooden construct of death was designed to facilitate multiple executions. The executions themselves were grand public displays with handfuls of convicted felons often dispatched of in a single dreadful day. On the 23rd of June 1649, twenty-three men and one woman were tragically towed to the Tyburn Tree in eight carts and all hanged, simultaneously in front of a crowd of thousands. The turnout was especially large. It was like the Live Aid of the day, albeit with somewhat more maligned motives. So popular as entertainment were the Tyburn hangings that the local villagers erected large spectator stands to host the more well-to-do day-trippers in search of a good gory day out for all the family to enjoy. These premium seats came at a fee.
So fabulous an event was the sight of your cousin horrifically and unforgettably breaking their neck with the grim snap of a rope that executions were often treated as public holidays. London workers were granted the entire day off work, so they could frolic fully in the festivities. Tyburn was surely the most notorious of 16th to 18th-century gallows in all of Britain. Yet, it was far from the exception. Every large town and city in England had its own public execution spot during these times of tyranny. The need for so many gallows was necessitated by a gradual series of dark addendums to English common law. Starting in the 17th century and arriving at its bloody crescendo in 1815. With each passing decade, the English legal system grew less merciful and its proclivity to enact fatal justice accelerated with terrifying haste.
In 1688 the number of crimes that carried the death penalty in England was numbered at just 50. In 1765 that number had more than tripled, standing at 160 and by 1815, 225 crimes were penalised by death. This totalitarian era of the English legal system is today known as The Bloody Code. Called such because for a while it seemed that almost every transgression of the law, even the most ostensibly benign, resulted in a bloody ending for the perpetrator. In the 18th century all of the following crimes could see you hung from the Tyburn gallows:
Pickpocketing goods worth more than one shilling.
An unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child.
Stealing from a rabbit warren.
Stealing horses or sheep.
Cutting down trees.
Stealing from a shipwreck or naval dockyard.
Damaging Westminster Bridge.
Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.
The reason for the proliferation of the bloody code and its Orwellian mandate was that during this period Britain’s population and the swell of its towns and cities grew exponentially. With such a burgeoning and transgressive society, the now antiquated feudal system of tithings and manorial courts were failing to keep the peace. A police force had yet to be conceived. Wealthy lords and landowners across English were growing increasingly frustrated at the frequent lawless plundering of their lands and properties by outlaws and common thieves. Don’t tell me you’ve haven't fantasised about hanging the local chav who stole your bicycle.
The Bloody Code was a heavy-handed reaction postulating that if the punishments grew more severe and the range of crimes that carried the death penalty was vastly increased then the fear of and severity of the punishments alone would provide sufficient deterrence to aspiring criminals. The English legal system was attempting to police through the mass propagation of fear propaganda. It didn't work. Crime rates were not reduced, as is still the case today, the mere threat of punishment was insufficient in stemming the number of crimes.
Although the bloody code saw the execution of thousands, it was more of a guideline than a code. Depending on the humour of the judge on the day of the trial they would often favour punishment via transportation. This was when the defendant was shipped off, under a contract of forced indenture, to the colonies in America, Canada or most frequently Australia. One-third of all criminals convicted in England between 1788 and 1867 were transported to Australia or ‘Van Diemen's Land’ (Tasmania) for forced labour.
On the 26th August 1768 HMS Endeavour, built in Whitby, North Yorkshire, set sail from Plymouth, captained by James Cook. He had secret orders from the Admiralty to seek out and stick a British flag in the fabled ‘Terra Australis’. On the 29th of April 1770, Captain Cook and his men made landfall in what he named ‘Stingray Bay’. He later renamed it to ‘Botany Bay’ because he rightly suspected that people don’t often holiday in locations that have ‘stingray’ in their name. A Dutch expedition, captained by Willem Janszoon had actually landed on Australian soil in 1606, 164 years earlier. Cook, however, was the first European to realise Australia was a vast continent and properly map a significant portion of its coastline. Janszoon thought he had accidentally bumped into New Guinea and sailed off again, not giving the landmass much thought. Unlike Janszoon, Cook had also remembered to bring a flag, and that’s why he gets all the credit.
In 1786, with the prisons overflowing with miscreants, the British government had the bright idea to make the great expanse of rocky, red, alien land Cook had discovered into a penal colony. Australia surely would have been the 18th-century equivalent of Mars. On the 18th of August six transit ships, huge hulks that resembled floating prisons, two escort ships and three store ships were sent to Australia, carrying 775 convicts along with civilians and military personnel. They arrived in Botany Bay on the 20th January 1788 but the soil was too damp to establish a colony, so the nearby Pork Jackson was chosen instead. I would love to say that the settlement was a thriving success but the whole thing was a colonial clusterfuck. The ships had only brought sufficient food to sustain the settlers until they could set up adequate agriculture to self-sustain. There was one major flaw with this plan: they had forgotten to bring skilled farmers and domesticated livestock. It’s just a stab in the dark but I would venture that both these things are essential for agriculture.
Although the colony survived, mortality rates were high due to dire food shortages. But fortune was on the horizon, in the form of a second fleet carrying extra supplies. It arrived at the colony in June 1790 but by the time it reached Australia it was so full of disease-ridden, dying convicts their arrival actually made the whole situation on land considerably worse. Food shortages increased, the creatively named ‘Second Fleet’ was an even bigger disaster than the first. Though once these initial hurdles had been crossed, Australia soon took flight and today the spectacular city of Sydney sits in the same spot the First Fleet landed. A dazzling jewel of civilization, a terraforming success, built from the back-breaking labour of these first pioneering British convicts.
Daily life for the indentured convicts was mightily hard work, the environment was blazingly hot, dry and unforgiving. But one thing is for sure, it was definitely better than being headless, or hung very publicly in front of all your family. Convicts were sometimes given tickets of leave if they were well behaved. And, when their seven years of slave labour was over they were free to become a full British citizen (they would be presented with a physical ‘Certificate of Freedom’) and they had the choice to stay, residing in Australia or return to England.
Australia has since become a model country, built on Western ideals of freedom by those who weren't. It is estimated that more than 20% of Australia’s present-day population are descendants of the initial convict settlers. And now, the Tyburn tree may be gone, yet to this day the chilling legacy of the Bloody Code still whistles through the leaves of the three sombre oak trees sitting solemn, seeping roots into the ground of ancient souls. In dour recollection of a time when a man could meet the hangman’s noose for catching a fucking fish.