President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt cross-trained in a variety of combative arts including western boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and fencing. The following article details his training in the styles of Catch-as-catch-can (or “Catch”) wrestling as well as Cornish wrestling while serving as Governor of New York state:
By Ben Miller
When asked to recall a great martial artist of African descent born in the Americas, the average person is likely to mention a twentieth-century boxer such as Joe Louis, or a more recent exponent of the Asian martial arts, such as Jim Kelly. Or, those of the younger generation might name the modern mixed martial arts competitor Anderson Silva, regarded by some as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time.
What many do not know is that in centuries past, some of the greatest practitioners of European martial arts were of African descent.
Although Africans brought a number of their own indigenous techniques with them to Europe and the Americas (as can be read about here), they also sometimes trained in, adopted, and excelled at European swordsmanship—also known as classical and historical fencing.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was even possible (albeit difficult) for a person of African descent to achieve renown to such a point that they would be revered, and even sought for instruction, by whites—and the historical record shows that such was the case for multiple individuals.
An early instance of one such person can be found as early as 1733, when the following advertisement appeared in a southern Colonial newspaper, informing the public about a runaway slave or indentured servant:
“Run away, from Mr. Alex. Vanderdussen’s Plantation at Goose-Creek, a Negro Man named Thomas Butler, the famous Pushing and Dancing Master.” – South-Carolina Gazette (Whitmarsh), May 19 to May 26, 1733.
In eighteenth century terminology, to “Push” was to launch an attack with the smallsword, a fact which confirms that Thomas Butler was a fencing master—and one who had achieved some degree of fame, at least on a local scale. Butler was apparently so esteemed that in July of 1734, his former master was impelled to post the following additional notice:
“Whereas Thomas Butler, Fencing Master, has been runaway these two years since, and has been entertained by several gentlemen about Ferry who pretend not to know that he had a master, this is therefore desired that they would not do the like in the future…” – South-Carolina Gazette, July 20, 1734
These passages are all the more remarkable when one considers that they are the earliest known reference to a fencing master in the American South—the next being Edward Blackwell, who in 1734 posthumously published his treatise on the art of fencing. Although not much else is known about Thomas Butler, the above passages prove that as early as the 1730s, it was not impossible to achieve fame and esteem as a black martial artist (and instructor) in white society. This article will profile three of the greatest such individuals—the Chevalier Saint Georges, Jean Louis-Michel, and Basile Croquere.
As early as the late middle ages, people of African descent began appearing in European treatises on swordsmanship and the martial arts, such as the books of Hans Talhoffer (1467) and Paulus Hector Mair (1542).
Later, in 1657, a highly detailed account of Africans practicing European swordsmanship was sent down by Richard Ligon:
Some of [the African servants], who have been bred up amongst the Portugals, have some extraordinary qualities, which the others have not; as singing and fencing. I have seen some of these Portugal Negres, at Colonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skillfully, with their Stookados [Stoccatos], their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza [Carranza], with such comeliness; as, if the skill had been wanting, the motions would have pleased you; but they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies, and the advantages the strongest man had in the close , which the other avoided by the nimbleness and skillfulness of his motion. For, in this Science, I had bin so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent Judge. Upon their first appearance upon the Stage, they march towards one another, with a slow majestick pace, and a bold commanding look, as if they meant both to conquer and coming neer together, they shake hands, and embrace one another, with a cheerful look. But their retreat is much quicker then their advance, and, being at first distance, change their countenance, and put themselves into their postures and so after a pass or two, retire, and then to’t again: And when they have done their play, they embrace, shake hands, and putting on their smoother countenances, give their respect to their Master, and so go off.
- Richard Ligon, A true & exact history of the island of Barbados, 1657.
Ligon’s account provides evidence that despite their low social status, people of African descent living in the American colonies were sometimes allowed—even encouraged—to train with various weapons, including the rapier and dagger, and became skilled at multiple styles—including Italian rapier fencing, as well as the profound system of Spanish swordsmanship (La Verdadera Destreza) founded by Jerónimo de Carranza.
Colonists of African descent also undoubtedly learned from less savory channels such as piracy; an estimated one-third of pirates during this period were black, and in such company, knowledge of swordsmanship was paramount. The following passage, culled from Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pirates (1728), gives rise to the possibility that black members had access to sword instruction:
“[Pirate Captain] Misson took upon him the Command of 100 Negroes, who were well disciplin’d, (for every Morning they had been used to perform their Exercise, which was taught them by a French Serjeant, one of their Company, who belong’d to the [ship] Victoire)…”
During the early 18th century, an English fencing treatise entitled “The Art of Defence,” printed and sold by one “John King”, was published containing several plates in which black fencers demonstrated various fencing techniques:
Although such illustrations were the exception rather than the rule, they provide further evidence that blacks could be regarded as potentially serious fencers. In fact, one such fencer—Julius Soubise (1754-1798), a freed Afro-Caribbean slave, was hired to be the personal fencing instructor to Catherine Hyde, the Duchess of Queensbury, and was sent to train under Domenico Angelo, one the most renowned European fencing masters.
Also at this time emerged one of one the greatest fencers of all time, who just happened to be of African descent.
The Chevalier Saint-Georges
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799) was born in Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and an African slave named Nanon. Although his father also had many white children, he took a special liking to Joseph, and in 1753 took his son, age seven, to France, where he began his education in a variety of arts including fencing.
According to the son of the fencing master La Boëssière, “At 15 his [Saint-Georges’] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsmen, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable.”
He was still a student when he publicly defeated Alexandre Picard, a renowned fencing-master in Rouen who had foolishly referred to Saint-Georges as “Boëssière’s mulatto.” Heny Angelo, son of the famous Domenico (and a highly reputed fencing master in his own right) often went to fence with Saint-Georges while in Paris, and wrote about him in his memoirs:
“No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength. He excelled in all the bodily exercises in which he engaged…He was a skillful horseman and remarkable shot; he rarely missed his aim when his pistol was once before the mark…but the art in which he surpassed all his contemporaries and predecessors was fencing. No professor or amateur ever showed so much accuracy and quickness. His attacks were a perpetual series of hits; his [parry] was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him; in short, he was all nerve.”
Angelo also related some details about Saint-George in the following anecdote, regarding an episode wherein the two crossed blades:
“It may not be unworthy of remark that from his being much taller, and, consequently, possessing a greater length of lunge, I found that I could not depend upon my attacks unless I closed with him. The consequence was, upon my adopting that measure, the hit I gave him was so ‘palpable’ that it threw open his waistcoat, which so enraged him that, in his fury, I received a blow from the pommel of his foil on my chin, the mark of which I still retain. It may be remarked of that celebrated man that, although he might be considered as a lion with a foil in his hand, the contest over he was as docile as a lamb, for soon after the above engagement, when seated to rest himself, he said to me: ‘Mon cher ami, donnez-moi votre main; nous tirons tous les jours ensemble.’”
Although there are too many anecdotes about Saint-George’s prowess to recount here, one of the best comes from Alfred Hutton, and occurred in Dunkirk.
Saint-Georges was attending a party with a large number of ladies, when a Captain of the Hussars began boasting of his own skill in fencing—oblivious to the identity of Saint Georges. The latter calmly asked the captain, “That is interesting…but did you ever happen to meet with the celebrated Saint-Georges?” The Captain responded: “”Saint Georges? Oh yes; I have fenced with him many a time. But he is no good; I can touch him just when I please.” Whereupon Saint-Georges challenged the Captain to a bout at foils on the spot. Hutton’s account continues:
“The Captain, seeing that he is opposed to a man much older than himself, is inclined to treat him with contempt, when the veteran fencer calmly turns to the ladies and asks them to name the particular buttons on the gentleman’s coat which they would like him to touch. They select half a dozen or so.
The pair engage. The famous swordsman plays with his man for a few minutes for the benefit of his audience, and then proceeds to hit each of the named buttons in rapid succession, and finishes by sending the foil of his vainglorious enemy flying out of his hand, to the great delight of the ladies, and the discomfited Captain is so enraged that he wants to make the affair a serious one [a duel] there and then. His victorious opponent corrects him with: “Young gentlemen, such an encounter could have but one ending. Be advised; reserve your forces for the service of your country. Go, and you may at last tell your friends with truth that you have crossed foils with me. My name is Saint Georges.”
Saint-Georges also became a respected music composer, and became the instructor of Queen Marie Antoinette. In her diary, the Queen referred to Saint-Georges as her “favorite American.”
Not one to forget his African roots, Saint-Georges was also an ardent and active abolitionist, stating in public, “The slave trade is a barbarous practice and must be eliminated.” Saint-George’s activism drew the ire from many in the slave trade, who attempted to silence him with violence—attempts which were thwarted by the Chevalier’s considerable martial prowess:
“Early in July , walking home from Greenwich, a man armed with a pistol demanded his purse. The Chevalier disarmed the man… but when four more rogues hidden until then attacked him, he put them all out of commission. M. de Saint Georges received only some contusions which did not keep him from going on that night to play music in the company of friends.”
The Journal General de France, on February 23, 1790, also reported that: “the Chevalier was peacefully walking to Greenwich one night where he was going to make music in a house where he was awaited when he was suddenly attacked by four men armed with pistols. Nevertheless he managed to drive them off with the help of his stick.”
Saint George also commanded, as colonel, the first all-black military regiment in Europe, a unit that came to be known as St. Georges’ Légion. Among its officers was a lieutenant colonel named Thomas Alexandre Dumas. The father of the famous novelist, Dumas would go on to become a general in Revolutionary France, and the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army.
Saint Georges was evidently looked upon by the French with great veneration, for a number of drawings and paintings of fencing salles show his famous portrait displayed upon the wall with considerable prominence:
Although Saint Georges passed away in 1799, his name and image is venerated among classical and historical fencers throughout the world.
“The founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of his century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.” – Lafcadio Hearn, 1886
Jean-Louis was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) in 1785, the son of a French fencing master. Later, he served as a soldier in Napoleon’s army.
His most famous exploit as a duelist was a regimental “mass” duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled. Within 40 minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession:
The regiments were assembled in a hollow square on a plain outside Madrid. At its center was a natural elevation forming a platform where, two at a time, 30 champions would duel for the honor of 10,000 men. As the premier fencing master of the 32d Regiment, Jean-Louis was the first up. His opponent was Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment.
Drums rolled. The troops were ordered to parade rest, and as they slammed down the butts of their muskets in unison, the earth shook. Jean-Louis and Giacomo Ferrari stepped onto the fencing strip, each stripped to the waist to show that they wore nothing that would turn a thrust. An expectant silence filled the air as every eye was fixed on the two masters…
The fencing masters crossed swords and the bout began. Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all his flourishes with a calm but intense attention; every time Ferrari tried to strike, his sword met steel. With a loud cry Ferrari jumped to the side and attempted an attack from below, but Jean-Louis parried the thrust and with a lightning riposte wounded Ferrari in the shoulder. “It is nothing, start the fight again!” cried Ferrari, getting back to his feet. Jean-Louis’ next thrust struck home, and Ferrari fell dead.
Jean-Louis wiped the blood from his blade, resumed his first position, and waited. His battle had only begun. The victor in each bout was to continue until he was injured or killed, and Jean-Louis still faced 14 swordsmen of the 1st Regiment, all of them eager to avenge their comrade.
Another adversary came at him. After a brief clash, Jean-Louis lunged and, while recovering, left his point in line. Rushing at him, his opponent was impaled. A second corpse lay at the French master’s feet.
His third opponent, a taller man, attacked fiercely, with jumps and feints, but Jean-Louis’ point disappeared into his chest, and he fell unconscious.
The next man approached. The regiments watched in fascinated silence. They were accustomed to the wholesale music of slaughter: the booming of artillery, the bursting of shells, the rattle of musketry, the clash of sabers. All are impressive, but none so keenly painful as the thin whisk of steel against steel as men engage in single combat. As one contemporary observer wrote, “it goes clean through the mind and makes the blood of the brain run cold.”
After 40 minutes only two Italian provosts were left awaiting their turn, pale but resolved. A truce was called, and the colonel of the 32d approached Jean-Louis.
“Maitre,” he said, “you have valiantly defended the regiment’s honor, and in the name of your comrades, and my name, I thank you sincerely. However, 13 consecutive duels have taken too much of your body stamina. Retire now, and if the provosts decide to finish the combat with their opponents, they will be free to do so.”
“No, no!” exploded Jean-Louis, “I shall not leave the post which has been assigned me by the confidence of the 32d Regiment. Here I shall remain, and here I shall fight as long as I can hold my weapon.” As he finished his statement he made a flourish with his sword, which cut one of his friends on the leg. “Ah,” cried Jean-Louis, distraught, “there has only been one man of the 32d wounded today, and it had to be by me.”
Seizing upon the incident, the colonel said, “This is a warning; there has been enough blood. All have fought bravely and reparation has been made. Do you trust my judgment in the matter of honor?” After Jean-Louis said he did, the colonel said there was nothing more to do but extend a hand to the 1st Regiment. Pointing to the two provosts who still waited, he said to Jean-Louis, “They cannot come to you!”
Jean-Louis dropped his sword, approached the two Italians, and clasped them by the hands. His regiment cheered, “Vive Jean-Louis! Vive the 32d Regiment!”
Jean-Louis added, “Vive the First! We are but one family! Vive l’armee!”
– Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men
Jean Louis’s fencing style would become a major influence on the French school of fencing, and he is credited with the saying—now famous among fencers—“A foil should be held as one holds a little bird; not so tightly as to crush it, but just enough to prevent it escaping from the hand.” He became sought out by members of the nobility for fencing instruction.
Jean-Louis retired from the army in 1849, at age sixty-five, and began teaching fencing permanently at his school in Montpellier. Later he came to denounce dueling. He instructed his daughter in the art of fencing, and she would go on to become one of his most accomplished disciples.
Arsene Vigeant, a famous writer on fencing, remarked of him “Jean-Louis’ face which appeared hard at first meeting, hid a soul of great goodness and generosity.”
During the nineteenth century, New Orleans came to be regarded by many as the dueling capitol of the western world. There, duels were fought more frequently than in any other American city. As to exact statistics, one nineteenth-century visitor noted that “in 1834 there were no less than 365 [duels], or one for every day in the year; 15 having been fought on one Sunday morning. In 1835 there were 102 duels fought in that city, betwixt the 1st of January and end of April.” In 1839, another resident noted “Thirteen Duels have been fought in and near the city during the week; five more were to take place this morning.” Most of these duels were said to have been fought by those of French Creole descent, however, in 1833 William Ladd noted that blacks “are taking it up [dueling]” in the city.
In fact, African Americans fought a large number of duels in Louisiana, which were reported throughout newspapers of the era. One example, published in April 1872 by the New York Times, noted that:
“Two young colored men fought a duel with small swords in New Orleans, on Tuesday, and one was slightly wounded in the breast. One is a son of an internal revenue assessor, and the other a son of a Custom-house official. The quarrel grew out of testimony given before the Congressional Investigating Committee.”
Due in part to this prolific dueling culture, the tradition of classical and historic fencing flourished in old New Orleans. From about 1830 until the Civil War, at least fifty maitre d’armes (masters of arms) operated fencing academies in Exchange Alley, from Canal to Conti between Royal and Bourbon Streets. Of these, the author has personally come across six New Orleans fencing masters of African ancestry. Among the most notable of these were “Black” Austin, a free black man, and Robert Severin, also of African ancestry—who fought at least one duel in the city, and served as a second in at least another.
The most renowned of these masters, however, was Basile Croquère.
Croquère, according to Lafcadio Hearn, was “the most remarkable colored swordsman of Louisiana.” For much of the last century, Croquère’s life has been shrouded in mystery, and what is known about him consists mostly of scraps of anecdotal information set down in local histories. What is certain is that he was born in New Orleans around 1800 to a white father and a mother of mixed African-European ancestry.
At a young age, Croquère took part in the War of 1812, and likely participated in the famous Battle of New Orleans (1815)—in which the Americans soundly expelled the British and effectively won the war. In 1879, Croquère was listed as a member of L’Association des Vétérans de 1814-15.
Like the famous St. Georges, Croquère was sent by his white father to be educated in Paris, where he obtained a degree in mathematics, and probably received some, if not most, of his fencing instruction. After completing his studies in France, Croquère returned to New Orleans, where he set up shop as both a fencing master and a staircase builder, in which profession he applied his mathematical knowledge to construct the “soaring, multidimensional staircases” which became the staple of antebellum southern mansions.
By all accounts, Croquère was one of the best masters-of-arms in New Orleans. As one author of the period recounted:
“Though the population could count a considerable number of these fencing experts and duelists, Basile Croquère was proclaimed their superior in all things…He employed his talent to train the youth, to give them the benefit of his skill and his knowledge in arms.”
In a city known as the fencing and dueling Mecca of North America, where men literally lived and died by the sword on a daily basis, this was high praise.
“Mr. Basile was an educated and respectable man; he knew how to estimate and consider by his character, his behavior and his distinguished manners.
It was not therefore strange that a man having these recommendable qualities should enjoy a certain credit among people of high society, in whom he cultivated an elite clientele…
As to his profession of arms, it is told that he could touch his opponent almost as though composing a ballad…He often said that his chest was a holy place: it was filled with air because, we are told, no adversary’s foil was ever able to touch it…”
John Augustin (1838-1888), a New Orleans poet, editor, and Confederate veteran, recounted that Croquère “was such a fine blade that many of the best Creole gentlemen did not hesitate, notwithstanding the strong prejudice against color, to frequent his salle d’armes, and even cross swords with him in private assaults.”
Although little is known about this extraordinary master, his legend continues to endure among New Orleans guidebooks and books about dueling. Although it would be presumptuous to declare him the greatest of African American martial artists, he was, by all accounts, an extraordinary person and a swordsman of the highest caliber.
Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic
Alfred Hutton, Sword & the Centuries
Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men
Benjamin Truman, The Field of Honor
This article © 2015 by Ben Miller. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Although no sound recordings of Revolutionary War veterans exist, the following recording, made in 1950, is the next best thing. In it, the ninety-five year old Dr. Alfred Worcester relates the events of Lexington, Concord, and Battle Road as told to him by his great-grandmother, who witnessed them firsthand. It’s an extraordinary audio piece, and possibly the only second-hand account of the Revolutionary War ever recorded:
From the Windham Herald, Saturday. September 8th, 1792:
Extraordinary instance of female heroism. Extracted from a letter written by Col. James Perry to the Rev. Jordon Dodge. On the 1st of April inst. a number of Indians surrounded the house of John Merril, which was discovered by the barking of a dog. Merril stepped to the door to see what he could discover, and received three musket balls, which caused him to fall back into the house with a broken leg and arm. The Indians rushed on to the door, but it being instantly fastened by his wife, who with a girl about fifteen years of age, stood against it, the savages could not immediately enter. They broke one part of the door, and one of them crowded partly through. The heroic mother, in the midst of her screaming children and groaning husband, seized an axe, and gave a fatal blow to the savage, and he falling headlong into the house, the Indians supposed they had obtained their end, and rushed after him, until four of them had fell in like manner, before they discovered their mistake. The rest retreated, which gave opportunity again to secure the door. The conquerors rejoiced in their victory; hoping they had killed the whole company, but their expectations were soon dashed by finding the door again attacked, which the bold mother endeavoured once more to secure, with the assistance of the young woman; their fears now came on them like a flood; and they soon heard a noise on the top of the house, and then found the Indians were coming down the chimney; all hopes of deliverance were now at an end; but the wounded man ordered his little child to tumble a couch, that was filled with hair and feathers, on the fire, which made such a smoke that two lusty indians came tumbling down the chimney; the wounded man exerting every faculty in this critical moment, seized a billet of wood, with which he conquered the smothered Indians; at the same instant the woman aimed a blow at the savage at the door, but not with the same effect as the rest, which caused him to retreat. They then again secured the door as fast as possible, and rejoiced at their deliverance, but not without fear of a third attack. They carefully watched with their family until morning, and were not again disturbed. We learn by a prisoner that made his escape from the Indians, that the wounded Indian last mentioned, was the only one that escaped at this time. On his return he was asked,–“what news brother?” “Plaguy bad news,” replied the wounded Indian, “for the squaws have taken the breech clout, and fight worse than the long knives.” This affair happened at Newbardstown about fifteen miles from Sandy-creek, and may be depended on, as I had the pleasure to assist in tumbling them into a hole, after they were stripped of their head dresses, and about twenty dollars worth of silver
“Caleb Kilton was born in Scituate, on the 6th of October, 1781. His parents were John Jenckes and Sarah (Brayton) Kilton. His father was one of those who opened the great drama of the American Revolution, by the destruction of the Gaspee, in 1772. During the war that followed, in common with his fellow-citizens, he was frequently in active service in the field. He was in Sullivan’s expedition to the island of Rhode Island, in 1778,–and in the battle which followed the retreat of the Americans, the barrel of his gun was heated, by repeated discharges, to such a degree as to compel him to desist from reloading it. He used to relate, that a soldier near him on that occasion, was struck by a spent musket ball on his front teeth with such force as to displace four of them. Nothing dismayed, added the ball and the four teeth to the next charge in his gun, with the wish, expressed in terms more forcible than pious, that the redcoats might derive some advantage from them.”
- Transactions of The Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry in the Year 1861. Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co. 1862. p147-148
Many people hold the common belief that modern English, as it is spoken today by the English themselves, is the “purest,” most uncorrupted form of the language. In other words, if one were to get in a time machine and travel back to 16th or 17th century England, the language one would hear would most closely resemble modern British English, as opposed to say, American English.
This is not, however, strictly true. For instance, when an American uses the slang term “bub” (a word long extinct in England), he or she is actually using a term that has its roots in Renaissance England. Numerous “archaic” words and phrases harking back several centuries survived in American English, only to become extinct in the British Isles. One reason for this is that American culture was mostly forged in the initial wave of immigrants that came between 1620 and 1640. H.L. Mencken explains:
Most of the colonists who lived along the American seaboard in 1750 were the descendants of immigrants who had come in fully a century before; after the first settlements there had been much less fresh immigration than many latter-day writers have assumed. According to Prescott F. Hall, “the population of New England … at the date of the Revolutionary War … was produced out of an immigration of about 20,000 persons who arrived before 1640,” and we have Franklin’s authority for the statement that the total population of the colonies in 1751, then about 1,000,000, had been produced from an original immigration of less than 80,000. Even at that early day, indeed, the colonists had begun to feel that they were distinctly separated, in culture and customs, from the mother-country…The result of this isolation, on the one hand, was that proliferation of the colonial speech which I have briefly reviewed, and on the other hand, the preservation of many words and phrases that gradually became obsolete in England.
Just what phrases survived in America, only to die out in England? Mencken provides a list:
A very large number of words and phrases, many of them now exclusively American, are similar survivals from the English of the seventeenth century, long since obsolete or merely provincial in England. Among nouns Thornton notes fox-fire, flap-jack, jeans, molasses, beef (to designate the live animal), chinch, cordwood, home-spun, ice-cream, julep and swingle-tree; Halliwell adds andiron, bay-window, cesspool, clodhopper, cross-purposes, greenhorn, loop-hole, ragamuffin and trash; and other authorities cite stock (for cattle), fall (for autumn), offal, din, underpinning and adze. Bub, used in addressing a boy, is very old English, but survives only in American. Flapjack goes back to Piers Plowman, but has been obsolete in England for two centuries. Muss, in the sense of a row, is also obsolete over there, but it is to be found in “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Char, as a noun, disappeared from English a long time ago, save in the compound, charwoman, but it survives in America as chore. Among the verbs similarly preserved are to whittle, to wilt and to approbate. To guess, in the American sense of to suppose, is to be found in “Henry VI”:
Not all together; better far, I guess,
That we do make our entrance several ways.
In “Measure for Measure” Escalus says “I guess not” to Angelo. The New English Dictionary offers examples much older—from Chaucer, Wycliffe and Gower. To interview is in Dekker. To loan, in the American sense of to lend, is in and Henry VIII, but it dropped out of use in England early in the eighteenth century, and all the leading dictionaries, both in English and American, now call it an Americanism. To fellowship, once in good American use but now reduced to a provincialism, is in Chaucer. Even to hustle, it appears, is ancient. Among adjectives, homely, which means only homelike or unadorned in England, was used in its American sense of plain-featured by both Shakespeare and Milton. Other such survivors are burly, catty-cornered, likely, deft, copious, scant and ornate. Perhaps clever also belongs to this category, that is, in the American sense of amiable.
“Our ancestors,” said James Russell Lowell, “unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare’s.” Shakespeare died in 1616; the Pilgrims landed four years later; Jamestown was founded in 1607. As we have seen, the colonists, saving a few superior leaders, were men of small sensitiveness to the refinements of life and speech: soldiers of fortune, amateur theologians, younger sons, neighbouhood “advanced thinkers,” bankrupts, jobless workmen, decayed gentry, and other such fugitives from culture…There were no grammarians in that day; there were no purists that anyone listened to; it was a case of saying your say in the easiest and most satisfying way. In remote parts of the United States there are still direct and almost pure-blooded descendants of those seventeenth century colonists. Go among them, and you will hear more words from the Shakespearean vocabulary, still alive and in common service, than anywhere else in the world, and more of the loose and brilliant syntax of that time, and more of its gipsy phrases.
Mencken, H.L. (Henry Louis), 1880–1956. The American language: An inquiry into the development of English in the United States, by H.L. Mencken. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1921.
Continued from PART II.
Captain Lightfoot: The Last of the New England Highwaymen (1821)
Among the early annals of the American republic exists a curious pamphlet, published at Boston in 1821, entitled The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. What this little volume contains is nothing less than an account of the life of the last highwayman in New England, as dictated by the criminal himself to reporter Frederick W. Waldo of the Columbian Centinal, during the days leading up to his execution.
A highwayman (for those unfamiliar with the term) was a highway robber–a breed of criminal common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was often known to adopt a polite, gentlemanly tone while accosting his victims. For this reason, highwaymen sometimes attained the status of folk heroes, especially in countries subjugated by the British (such as Ireland and Scotland), where the wealthy class and agents of the law were assumed to be in league with the colonizing powers. Martin’s account is filled with adventure, intrigue, secret societies, daring escapes, and desperate shootouts, as seen through the eyes of a character who has all the tragic failings of a man who has wasted his life in a world of crime. It is, in many ways, an early nineteenth century version of the movie Goodfellas.
Martin’s tale begins thus:
I have in the course of my short life, assumed many fictitious names. My true name is John Martin.
Martin was born in Ireland, in the parish of Connehy, near the city of Kilkenny, in 1795, to Roman Catholic parents. He was provided well for, sent to church and school, but relates that “as early as I can remember, I was more fond of diversion and play, than of learning. My temper was violent, and I chose rather to be subject to the government of my own passions, than to parental authority.” At age fourteen, Martin was apprenticed to his Uncle, a brewer, but according to Martin, his own “bad habits and vicious propensities” did little to ingratiate him with his benefactor. Eventually his Uncle punished him for some crime, and Martin returned home. According to his account,
At this time, my evil habits were partially fixed; and I began to indulge in those propensities which have eventuated in my ruin…I violated all my promises; often neglected my school, and fell into bad company.
From here it was all downhill. Martin began associating with dishonest people, adopting a debauched lifestyle–which, to maintain, he resorted to stealing from his own family. At age sixteen he was initiated into the United Irishmen, or Ribbon Men, a secret society whose object was to free Ireland from British rule. Martin relates that
The meetings were generally appointed at different places each night—sometimes near my father’s, and frequently many miles off. I would, when necessary, take one of my father’s horses from his barn, and return before day light to my chamber, by the rope. The association to which I belonged, had secret signs and secret places of meeting, which were changed every night. The time was principally employed in discussing our grievances, in drilling the use of the pike, rifle and musket; and when those of higher rank had gone, the others would carouse till next morning. Some of those who remained, would talk over the feats of villainy which they had done, or intended to commit. The perpetration of small crimes was directly contrary to the intention of the founders of the association, and in their presence nothing like robbery was ever mentioned. But many others who were desperate in their fortunes, were continually devising schemes to benefit themselves individually, and not for the common good. From such members it was, that I derived my first disposition to mischief and propensity for taking from others what I had no right to demand.
Six months later, Martin’s father discovered his involvement with the Ribbon Men. He confronted his son, beat him, and disowned him. After stealing some more money from his family, Martin traveled to Dublin, where he took up cheating at cards, and began spending time with swindlers and prostitutes. He briefly landed another job at a distillery, but was fired for bad behavior.
One night, while staying at a country inn, Martin fell into conversation with a supposed “clergyman” who would change his life forever. Seeing that Martin was short of cash, the man generously offered to pay for his food and drink for the whole evening. Martin described him as follows:
The name of this man, was John Doherty. ln the course of this conversation, I thought there was something rather mysterious in his manner, although he appeared to me quite undisguised. But he asked me many questions about my family, myself, and my manner of life, which I thought it impossible for a stranger to be acquainted with…
Doherty was very earnest, in all his inquiries, and was continually plying me with liquor. He asked me at first, if my name was not Martin—If I was the young man just returned from Dublin, and who had been obliged to run away from there. You are a wild fellow, said he, are you not? I answered, yes. You are very fond of spending money? Yes, when I can get it. You don’t much care how you come by it? No, if it doesn’t cost me much trouble. He said it was a shame that such a smart young fellow as I was, should be at any time destitute of money. He at length wormed himself into my confidence, and I told him all the history of my past life. After pumping me for some time, and finding out what sort of a disposition I had; and after we had got pretty warm with liquor, he threw off his disguise of a clergyman, but did not then tell me who he was. He talked about robberies and religion, alternately: and I was confused throughout the evening, not being able to find out what was the real character of the man…
Doherty offered to travel with Martin the next day, and continued to interview him about his life story and talents. He invited Martin to race him to test his running ability, saddled him on his horse to see how he could ride, and leap ditches and fences. Satisfied with Martin’s skills, Doherty invited him to a private dinner. After fastening all the windows and doors, he revealed to Martin his true character and profession:
He said he was a highwayman, and that he was Captain Thunderbolt. I was astonished and alarmed at this information—I had for many years heard of the daring exploits of that man; and his name had for a long time been a terror to that part of the country. He had been often advertised; and but a few days before, I had seen an advertisement offering a reward of 500 pounds for his head. I then felt a little dread at being left alone with a man of whom I had heard so many outrageous crimes, and was anxious to get out of the room. He took out two large pistols and laid them on the table, after cocking one of them, and said, “Martin you must stay with me, I cannot part from so clever a fellow as you are.” I then sat down again, and he urged me to drink more. He then recounted many of his feats; some of which were so amusing, and apparently so innocent, that I listened with great delight to him. He touched my quality exactly…I remained till near midnight, hearing him recount his adventures, and he persuading me to embark with him.
The interview was interrupted by the arrival of several British dragoons hunting Doherty. The two men arranged to reunite, however, the next day, where Doherty arrived with “a fine pair of double barrelled brass pistols, a dirk, and in his portmanteau, a large blunderbuss.” And thus it was that Doherty invited Martin to become his apprentice. Doherty justified his criminal profession by claiming to be a sort of Robin Hood, professing a doctrine akin to communism:
He said, it was his principle, to make property equal in this world. That he would get as much as he could from the rich, but would never molest the poor—He would take money from those who had more than they knew how to use, but would never take life, if he could avoid it. If there was any danger of detection, or any strong opposition, he thought himself justified in taking life.
Martin, of course, eventually broke down and agreed to partner with Doherty. In July of 1816, at twenty-one years of age, Martin became a highwayman. He described his initiation as follows:
[Doherty] initiated me into the order, by first throwing a glass of brandy in my face, and calling me Captain Lightfoot. He then presented me a double barrel brass pistol—after having drawn the charge, and loaded it again with slugs, he told me to put it in my bosom, and while I kept with him, and observed his instructions, I should never be taken or die. I obeyed most willingly, for my whole soul was with this man, and I thought he would stand a pretty good tug with old Satan himself.
From here the narrative becomes a litany of burglaries, hold-ups and shoot-outs as Martin learns the various intricacies of his new trade. Clearly the robbers took delight in stealing from the well-to-do; when a trembling servant offered up his valuables, Doherty told him, “we are not in the habit of troubling any but gentlemen.” Likewise, while robbing a lavish estate, he used comforting language to soothe the female inhabitants of the house, while terrifying them at the same time:
He told them his trade; that he wished to do nothing to them but what was gentlemanly, and would not take from them a farthing of property; but he had understood that there was valuable treasure in that house, and they must shell out. He laid his pistols on the table—asked for a glass of brandy: They gave it to him in great fright, and he used every means to prevent them from being alarmed. After some time, they went up stairs, and brought down a gold watch, a pocket book, containing bank notes, and a purse, with a quantity of specie in it. Doherty said that this was not all the treasure; he must have more. They went again, and returned with watches and jewels of their own. He said that he would rather be burnt to death, than take any thing from a woman. He told me to lock the door. We took each of us a part of the spoil, kissed the ladies, and bid them good bye. After we had mounted our horses, I threw down the key of the room where the servants were confined; and we took our course across the country, avoiding the public roads. The amount we lifted at this house was about 160 guineas.
Often the two desperadoes were forced to disguise themselves to avoid detection, and barely remained one step ahead of the “redcoats,” and other authorities. At one point, Doherty is wounded in the calf while being chased by soldiers through a field. After running more than 10 miles on foot, the two hide themselves in a wood, where Doherty collapses:
he fell down on the ground, and as I thought, was a dying man. He had sense enough after a few minutes rest, to tell me that there was a small bottle in his pocket, which he directed me to give him. He smelt of it, swallowed a few drops from it, and nibbed his head with it. He was soon revived, and directed me to take out the ball from his leg, with my penknife. “Cut as near the lead,” said he, “as you can; I can afford to lose a little blood.” It was the first time that I had ever officiated as a surgeon; but I saw he was so resolute upon the subject, that I cut it out without any fear. He bound up the wound himself, and said we must remain in that wood for some time. I cut down a quantity of bushes to make a bed for the Captain, and we remained in this situation for about twenty four hours, without meat or drink. The medicine that he carried with him, saved his life; for he had bled profusely. The next night, I left him, to go in pursuit of food…I ate very ravenously; but he abstained, although he said, he was quite hungry. “If he was at the most splendid banquet in the world,” he said ” he would neither eat nor drink. This abstinence was the shortest way of curing his wound.”
After robbing a score of others, Doherty was ambushed while sleeping by a company of dragoons, and taken captive. Bound hand and foot, he was set under a careful watch. Martin waited until the moment was right, then daringly attempted to free his comerade:
I concealed myself in the rear of the stable until midnight; and then, by the assistance of my pistol, struck a light, and set fire to the stable. I then cried fire, as stoutly as I could bawl…most of the people who were guarding the Captain, came out to assist in extinguishing the flames. I watched the opportunity, and found out in what room he was confined. I went in, and there were only three soldiers left to guard him. I found them sitting quietly along side of him, their muskets placed in the corner of the room. I drew both my pistols, and swore that I would kill the first man that started. They seemed terrified, and offered no resistance. I took out my knife and cut the cords with which the Captain was bound, and gave him one of my pistols. When he was getting up, one of the soldiers got up and grasped a musket; but before he had time to cock it and present, I fired my pistol and shot him in the leg…He fell, the rest were still more alarmed, and we pushed off on foot, leaving them to mend their legs, and put out their fires, in the best manner they could.
At one point, the two become wealthy enough to set themselves up in style in Dublin. They develop an elaborate scheme to pose as gentleman and marry a wealthy widow named Lady MacBriar. The plot is almost successful, but is foiled when the frauds have a chance encounter with someone from Martin’s home town who recognizes him. Constantly on the run, the men flee to Belfast, the highlands of Scotland, and eventually Glasgow, where they “went to a house of ill-fame, where we remained four or five days, drinking and spending a great deal of money.” For a while the men masquerade as doctors, selling people fake cures and quack medicines. The two make so much money at this, that Martin considered giving up highway robbery:
I said one day, to the Captain, that I had rather go on in this way, and would never take to the highway again. He laughed at me, and said, “to be sure we can get a living in this business; but money is not worth much to us if we can’t spend it. I want to lay up enough, so that I can get into some other country, and spend it like a gentleman—Besides, I like the fun of frightening the loons, and taking from them what is of no use to them.”
After this the two hijacked a ship and returned to Ireland, where they continued to rob. Martin describes another scene in which he accosts a prominent member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy:
The Lord Lieutenant had a large gold headed cane in his hand; and in a few minutes he sat down on a bench, on the margin of the pond…I then came out of my hiding place, went boldly up to the master, presented my large double-barrelled pistol, and demanded all the money he had about him. He looked at me for a few moments,and then said, “Did you speak to me ?” “Yes, please your honor.” “What do you want, you impudent rascal,” said he, “get out of my presence, or I will have your skin taken off.” “Please your honor,” said I, ” I must first skin your pockets; and if you offer to call for assistance, and do not give over immediately, I shall take your life.”
At one point they become so notorious, and are pursued by so many sheriffs and king’s men, that Martin and Doherty determine to set sail for America. Before they can do so, however, the two friends are split up by circumstance, and are separated for good. Martin relates:
I never saw John Doherty from this time—Since I have been in America, I received a letter from him, informing me, that he had found out my departure from Ireland for New-York, the day after the vessel sailed; that he had scoured the country for some weeks after; and being pressed very close, he had gathered up his treasures, and pushed off to one of the West India Islands, where he was comfortably settled; and under a fictitious name, transacting much business, in an honest manner. He directed to me in the name that I had agreed to take, in case of separation. It was sent to the care of the British Consul, who, advertised the letter, and I sent for it. This man had a great many good qualities; and although he was the cause of much trouble to me, yet I feel a strong affection for him; and trust that he will die a repentant and honest man.
During his trip across the Atlantic, Martin engages in a mutiny when it is discovered the Captain was planning a detour to Canada, and so the course is set for Salem, Massachusetts. In America, Martin takes up his old trade and for some time becomes the terror of New England.
Unlike in Ireland, however, Martin finds no sympathy or sanctuary among the pious American populace, and is forced to constantly change identities to avoid capture. Soon the inevitable occurs. After robbing a Major Bray, Martin is sighted by authorities in Medford, Massachusetts, who immediately begin pursuit. During the chase, Martin falls off his horse, dislocates his shoulder, and escapes through a marsh. He recounts
I got into a small cluster of woods, and did not see that any one was in pursuit. I then dropped down from fatigue and the pain in my shoulder. After resting a few minutes, I took off my suspenders and cravat, tied them together, fastened one end to a tree, and the other to my wrist, and so pulled the shoulder back to its place. Still it was very painful—I rubbed it with my stocking.
Martin is finally arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he is ambushed while sleeping. He is committed to the jail at Lechmere Point, Cambridge, for the robbery of Major Bray. And it is here that Martin’s account of his life ends.
Above: The Condemned Prisoner
As related by Waldo, Martin is put on trial and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he makes a daring escape attempt after sawing through his chains with a hidden tool. The commotion began when, on the morning of December 8th, a turnkey named Mr. Cooledge brought Martin breakfast:
Martin was then standing up, with the great coat over his shoulders, trembling very much, and rattling his chains. Cooledge sat down his breakfast on a small table near him, and was about leaving the cell, when Martin slyly pulled down a paper of tobacco, which was on the table, and then said, in a feeble voice, “Mr. Cooledge, will you please to pick up that paper of tobacco, I am so weak that I can’t stoop.” The other very kindly stooped for the purpose, and Martin at the same moment raised the chain by which his hand was confined. and struck Cooledge a most violent blow over the head, which brought him to the ground—He remained insensible for some minutes. Martin then threw off his coat, put on his hat, and pushed out of the jail. He ran with great violence against a gate, which was about ten yards from the outer door of the jail. This gate was made of thick double boards, placed transversely, and strongly nailed. It was fastened on the inside, with a large padlock, attached to a very stout clasp, and staple. Martin threw the whole force of his body against it four successive times, without success, running some distance back every time. When he came out of the jail, there was a young man in the jailyard, who immediately gave an alarm in the house.
Martin was pursued and recaptured in a cornfield near the jail. After that, a close watch was set upon him. On Thursday, December 20th, Martin was executed at Lechmere Point, Massachusetts. That morning, hours before he was to be executed, Waldo described the prisoner’s attitude and activities:
Before the hour arrived, he asked for a looking glass, and examined his face two or three times, and adjusted his clothes, and hair, as well as his pinions would permit, With perfect composure. I then asked him if the relation of his life, which he had made to me, was correct and true—He answered, most solemnly, that it was. He was led out, about twelve o’clock, and met his fate with most perfect composure and fortitude; not unmixed with a consciousness that he had met a just doom; and with a humble reliance on the mercy of God, for remission and forgiveness.
The Columbian Centinal related that, on the occasion, Martin
appeared to assist in fixing the fatal noose to his neck, so as to occasion his death without suffering. He then took a handkerchief, and after the cap was placed over his face, and the sheriff and his deputy had descended to the stage, inquired with a firm voice, “When shall I drop the handkerchief?” The sheriff answered, ” When you please.” Martin slowly raised his hands thrice to his breast, as in prayer, and then threw down the handkerchief, and was instantly launched into eternity.
And here the story of Captain Lightfoot ends.
It is not, however, the end of the whole story. In 1847, a resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, revealed that a recently deceased doctor named John Wilson was in fact John Doherty, otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt. It seems that Doherty had come to America in 1818, determined to start a new life, and began working in the slate industry. Eventually he accumulated enough capital to commence a medical practice, and married a Miss Chamberlain. The marriage was an unhappy one, however, and Doherty does not seem to have led a happy life. When he died, it was noted that among his effects were two double-barrelled guns, two or three duelling pistols, a number of swords, powder horns, shot bags, and a walking cane with a hidden ramrod “which, by pointing the cane towards anyone, and giving it a slight jerk, would make a noise similar to the cocking of a gun.”
Although, at the time of publication, several sources doubted Dr. Wilson and Captain Thunderbolt to be the same person, most modern authorities now accept that they were.
Sources and further reading:
The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. Boston: Russell & Gardner, 1821.
Confession of Michael Martin, or Captain Lightfoot, who was hung at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the year 1821, for the robbery of Maj. Bray. Also, an account of Dr. John Wilson, who recently died at Brattleboro, Vt., believed by many to be the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Brattleboro, Vt.: J. B. Miner, 1847.
Captain Lightfoot, the last of the New England highwaymen : a narrative of his life and adventures, with some account of the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Topsfield, Mass. : Wayside Press, 1926.
END OF PART III. Stay tuned for Part IV, when we continue to cover more books on the list.
“I am a King’s man, who dare say anything against it; I have killed so many Yankies at Fort St. John’s with this sword of my Father, they are no soldiers at all. I kill’d and scalp’d, and kicked their arses, and the damned Committee here have gone too far already, I will shew them better, and will cut some of their heads off by and by.”
- William Johnson, Jr., half Mohawk son of Sir William Johnson, September, 1775
Continued from PART I.
Expert Sword-man’s Companion by Donald McBane (1728)
Donald McBane was a highland Scot born in Inverness during the late seventeenth century. In 1687 he ran away from home, enlisting in the British army under the Duke of Marlborough. He served abroad throughout much of Europe, where he took part in sixteen battles, fifteen skirmishes, and by my own estimation, more than one hundred duels. He was twenty-seven times wounded (not counting the time when he was blown up by his own hand grenade). In his spare time, he also set himself up as a fencing master, gamester, and worked as a pimp. His extraordinary book, the Expert Sword-man’s Companion, was published in 1728 and recounts it all. McBane’s life reads like a strange, drunken dream–a whirlwind of blood, wine, warfare, and women–at turns both intense, shocking, horrifying, humorous, and never for a moment boring. Read, for instance, McBane’s account of one of his first battles, a disastrous confrontation with an army of fellow Highlanders:
At length, our enemy made their appearance on the top of a hill. We then gave a shout, daring them, as it were, to advance, which they quickly did to our great loss. When they advanced, we played our cannon for an hour upon them; the sun going down caused the Highlanders to advance on us like madmen, without shoe or stocking, covering themselves from our fire with their targes [shields]; at last they cast away their muskets, drew their broadswords, and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots apiece, broke us, and obliged us to retreat. Some fled to the water, and some another way (we were for the most part new men). I fled to the baggage, and took a horse, in order to ride the water; there follows me a Highlandman, with sword and targe, in order to take the horse and kill myself. You’d laught to see how he and I scampered about. I kept always the horse betwixt him and me; at length he drew his pistol, and I fled; he fired after me. I went above the Pass, where I met with another water very deep; it was about eighteen foot over betwixt two rocks. I resolved to jump it, so I laid down my gun and hat and jumped, and lost one of my shoes in the jump. Many of our men were lost in that water, and at the Pass.
After losing his first duel in the army, McBane promptly began lessons with a fencing master, challenged his adversary again, and beat him. Later he challenged his own Corporal to a duel after the latter punished him for being absent from duty. McBane describes the fight:
when he came he asked if I was for Death or Life, I told him I was for anything that happened, we drew on each other, after some turns he received a Thrust on the Breast-bone, he falling backward cryed you Rogue run, for I am Killed, I said I wished it were otherways, I took him by the Hand desiring him to rise, but he could not, he threw away his Sword, then I returned mine, I said to him, are you Dead really? he answered, I am in very deed, he opened his Breast and shewed me the Blood, he again desired me to run away, for if I was catch’d I would be hanged; I desired him to give me what money he had, in a very trembling manner he put his Hand in his Pocket, and gave me Three Shillings to carry me off, saying it was all he had, he took me by the Hand and said he forgave me, crying make your Escape…
McBane fled and joined a different regiment in Glasgow. The army eventually set sail for Ireland, and many months later, Holland, where, in a tavern, McBane encountered the formal Corporal he had supposedly killed:
I asked him if ever he was a Corporal in Perth? He said he was; I said was not you once killed at Perth as you said yourself? He said almost but not altogether, by a Roguish Fellow called Daniel Bane, and I believe you are the Man; I took him by the Hand, so we went and took a Bottle. He served as a Sergeant all the wars of Queen Anne; now he keeps a public house [tavern] at Gravesend.
This was not the last time McBane ended up becoming friends with someone he dueled; when his regiment was serving abroad in Limerick, Ireland, a feud erupted between himself and a fellow student. McBane recounts:
my Fellow Scholar and I fell out, he said I was not able to do with the Sword what he could do with the Foil, we went to Oxmentoun-Green and drew on each other, I Wounded him in three places, then we went and took a Pot, and was good Friends.
During his time abroad in Holland, McBane set himself up as a fencing master, gambler and pimp, and soon received the ire of the local competition. According to McBane, “they took all Methods and ways to do me Mischief, which obliged me to be constantly on my Guard, and to fight Twenty-four Times before they would be perswaded that I was Master of my Business.” He further recounts:
I continued keeping my School. A short Time after I came to know that there was Four good Swords men in the Town that kept Women and Gaming, the Wheel of Fortune and Ledgerdemain by which they got vast Money. I resolved to have a share of that Gain, at least to have a fair Tryall for it. I Fought all the Four, one by one; the last of them was Lefthanded; he and I went to the Rampart where we searched one another for Fire Arms. Finding none, we drew and had two or three clean Turns: at last he put up his Hand and took a Pistol from the Cock of his Hat; he cocked it against his shoulder and presented it to me, upon which I asked Quarters, but he refused, calling me an “English Bouger”, and Fired at me and run for it. One of the balls went through my Cravat, I thinking I was shot did not Run as I was wont to do, but Run as I could after him crying for the Guard, the Guard being half a Mile distant I was not heard; at last I overtook him over against the Guard and gave him a Thrust in the Buttocks; then I fled to the Fleshmarket; nobody could take me out there, it being a Priviledged Place. I tarried there till Night, then went Home to my Quarters and called for his Commerads that same Night, who agreed to give me a Brace of Whoors and Two Petty Couns a week. With this and my School I lived very well for that Winter.
To recount all his duels here would be impossible; suffice to say his book is filled with a vast number of such skirmishes, including “regimental duels” in which McBane had to fight a dozen men, one after the other, back to back. McBane killed or wounded them all. He also depicts the grim brutality of eighteenth century warfare. After being left for dead during the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, McBane was stripped of his clothes and plundered by the Dutch. Freezing and starving of thirst, McBane says
I drank several handfuls of the dead men’s blood that I lay beside; the more I drank the worse I was.
Of the Battle of Malplaquet, in 1709, he relates the following incident of how he had to carry his three-year old son through the thick of battle:
I had two children at this time. Our wives were far in the rear. My wife gave my little boy to a commerad’s wife who had a horse. The woman, hearing her husband was dead, rode until she saw me in the front of the line; then she threw the boy at me. I was obliged to put him in my habersack: He was about three years of age. As we were inclining to the right, the boy got a shot in the arm. I then got a surgeon and dressed it. I had neither bread nor drink to give him. I got a dram to him from an officer and a leg of a foul; then he held his peace and was very quiet all night ; in the morning his mother took him from me.
At the siege of Liège, McBane vividly describes how the last hold-outs were taken by his army:
In ten day’s time we were in readiness, then we began to play our cannon and morter pieces. Before we cut out our trenches we were within ten yards of their pallasades. Our cannon beat down their walls in three day’s time, our morters burnt down their houses. The Governour beat a parley and promised to deliver the citydale to His Grace against ten a clock next morning. That night the Governour sent to the other fort desiring assistance from it.
The Governour desired him to hold it out another day and he would send to his relief. Next morning about nine a clock the Governour hanged his coffine over the wall and fired upon our trenches. Then we fired all our guns and morters, we destroyed a great many of them.
About three a clock afternoon the Duke of Marlborough came to the Grand battery, he commanded twenty Granadiers of each company through the whole army and ten battalions of the first troops to storm the fort sword in hand. Our Orders was to give no quarters to none within the fort. We made all ready for the attack, every Granadier had three grannads. Our word was ‘God be foremost’, when we came we came with a loud huzza and fired our granads amongst them and small shot without number. We continued thus for an hour and a half, then we jumped over the palasados we then made use of our swords and bayonets and made a sore slaughter upon the French, which obliged them to cry for quarters. Although it was against orders we had mercy upon our fellow creatures and turned them all behind us. Then the Dutch used them as they pleased. They hung out their flag, in several places crying for quarters but none was given. This caused them to take courage and beat us two time from the bridge. Then our morters began to play anew. I was one that made the attack at the sallieport. An officer at the head of his platoon kneeled down and asked quarters. I gave it him and took his sword being mounted with silver. After we took the sallieport the officer took me to a cellar under the wall where was ten or twelve trunks full of gold and money. He gave me eleven bags of it for saving his life, what I got was all pistole pieces. I made all speed I could to my company where they were tumbling over the wall all the carcassus that were loaden with hand granades. I took up one of them with design to throw it amongst the enemy but it prevented me and broke in my hands and killed several about me and blew me over the pallasades, burnt my cloaths about me so that the skin came off me. I and my gold fell among Murray’s company of granadeers, I was stead like an old dead horse from head to foot, they cast me into water to put out the fire about me. The fort was taken and plundered; our army got the money that was to pay the French army.
McBane served in the Regiment until the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1712. He finally retired from the service at age forty-nine, with two musket balls in his thigh and a silver plate in his skull. At age fifty he commenced fighting as a gladiator at the Bear Gardens (see this previous post for a description), where he fought thirty-seven prizes. At age sixty-three, McBane fought his last combat against a tough young Irishman named O’Bryan. McBane wounded his adversary seven times and broke his arm with a falchion (short sword). After winning the fight, McBane decided to fight no more, “but to repent for my former wickedness”. He proceeded to write the story of his life, including an elaborate fencing treatise that contained sections on how to fight with the backsword, smallsword, quarterstaff, shield, and knife.
Above: Eighteenth-century backsword fencers, after James Miller
The Expert Sword-man’s Companion is an incredible book and should be read by any serious student of dueling, fencing, or eighteenth century history. Alas, the reprint published by Chivalry Bookshelf is woefully abridged and incomplete. Jared Kirby sells photocopies of the original 1728 edition on his website here.
END OF PART II. Stay tuned for Part III, when we continue to cover more books on the list.
I’ve always preferred reading history by those who lived it rather than studying modern historians’ narratives or academic treatises on the subject. Reading first person accounts and memoirs is a wonderful way to see history through the eyes of those who were actually there, and get a sense of how it might have felt to live in those times. The authors of such first person accounts can more or less be divided into the following categories:
1. Those who were great writers, but were not extraordinary people
2. Those who were extraordinary people, but were not great writers
3. Those who were both extraordinary people and great writers
Of the first two categories, an almost limitless number of accounts exist. Of the third and last category, very few. Keep in mind that by “great writers” I am not necessarily referring to individuals who were highly literate or had an impeccable command of language, but rather, those who had a unique and interesting outlook on the events of their time, who were able to report it in a vivid and interesting manner with an outsider’s view of detail (i.e., storytelling ability), and who were also able to step outside themselves and view their own experiences with a certain honesty, detachment and perspective.
The following first person accounts, autobiographies and memoirs are of this last caliber, and are the best I have come across so far:
• The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight (1357)
• The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1542)
• Expert Sword-man’s Companion by Donald McBane (1728)
• Captain Lightfoot: The Last of the New England Highwaymen (1822)
• Black Elk Speaks by Hehaka Sapa “Black Elk” (1932)
• Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1935)
The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight (1357)
This first entry is somewhat of a wild card, since it is uncertain whether or not Sir John Mandeville was an actual person. There is no historical verification that such a person existed, and some scholars have theorized that his book is a compilation of material written by a Lombard friar named Odorico (who died 1331). If Mandeville’s own account is to be believed, he was born at St. Albans, and set sail from England on September 29, 1322, travelling through Asia Minor, Armenia, Tartary, Persia, Syria, Arabia, Upper and Lower Egypt, Libya, Chaldea, Ethiopia, Amazonia, and India. He claimed to be on friendly terms with the rulers of Egypt and China, aiding them in their various wars. Mandeville supposedly returned to England after thirty-four years, but not before stopping to get the Pope’s imprimatur to his book.
Above: Portrait of Sir John Mandeville, created in 1459
Two things are certain about Mandeville’s marvelous book: some of it must be true, and some of it could not possibly be true. That is, however, part of the tome’s charm. For instance, his description of crocodiles and giraffes rings true:
In this land & many other places of Inde, are many cocodrilles, that is a maner of a long serpent, and on nights they dwell on water, and on dayes they dwell on land and rocks, and they eat not in winter. These serpents sley men and eate them weping, and they haue no tongue. In this countrey and many other, men caste sede of cotton, and sow it eche yeare and it groweth as it were small trees, and they bere cotton. In Araby is a kynde of beast that some men call Garsantes, that is a fayre beast & he is hyer than a great courser or a stead but his neck is nere xx cubytes long, and his crop and his taile lyke a hart and he may loke ouer a high house
Whereas his account of the fantastic creatures inhabiting the “wildernesse wherein groweth the trees of the sonne & the Moone” (take note of his reference to “Oliphantes”) is most certainly false:
Beyond that river is a great wildernesse as men that haue ben there say. In this Wildernesse as men saye are the trees of the Sonne and of the Mone that spake to Kyng Alexander and tolde him of his death, and men saye that folke that kepe these trees & eate of the fruits of them, they live foure or five hundred yeare through vertue of the fruite, and we woulde gladly haue gone thyther, but I beleve that an hundred thousand men of armes shold not passe that wildernesse for great plenty of wilde beastes, as dragons and serpents that sley men when they pass that way. In this lande are many Oliphantes all white and blew without number, and unicornes & lyons of many maners.
Whether or not there is any truth in Mandeville’s account, it is a fun read which vividly recalls the wonder, fantasy and superstition prevalent during the Middle Ages.
The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1542)
De Vaca was a Spanish nobleman and explorer who took part in the ill-fated New World expedition led by conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez. When, in 1527, their seaborne expedition (comprised of more than 600 men) was hit by a hurricane, their battered ships landed near Tampa Bay, where they endured attacks by American Indians, and were subject to an onslaught of diseases, and eventual starvation. The remaining men were then enslaved by a tribe of Indians. De Vaca writes
I had to remain with those same Indians of the island for more than one year, and as they made me work so much and treated me so badly I determined to flee and go to those who live in the woods on the mainland, and who are called those from (of) Charruco. I could no longer stand the life I was compelled to lead. Among many other troubles I had to pull the eatable roots out of the water and from among the canes where they were buried in the ground, and from this my fingers had become so tender that the mere touch of a straw caused them to bleed. The reeds would cut me in many places, because many were broken and I had to go in among them with the clothing I had on, of which I have told. This is why I went to work and joined the other Indians. Among these I improved my condition a little by becoming a trader, doing the best in it I could, and they gave me food and treated me well.
During this time Cabeza De Vaca tried and failed to escape three times, and endured hardships that would have destroyed most men. He also saw flora and fauna that few Europeans had likely ever seen, such as buffalo. After escaping his captors, De Vaca, along with a few survivors, proceeded to journey across the entire country of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. During this time, according to DeVaca’s own account, the unthinkable happened—somehow the men managed to cure various natives (attributed by DeVaca to mystical God-like powers), which caused them to attain a sort of mythical, legendary stature among the natives of the new world:
Nothing was talked about in this whole country but of the wonderful cures which God, Our Lord, performed through us, and so they came from many places to be cured and after having been with us two days some Indians of the Susolas begged Castillo to go and attend to a man who had been wounded, as well as to others that were sick and among whom, they said, was one on the point of death. Castillo was very timid, especially in difficult and dangerous cases, and always afraid that his sins might interfere and prevent the cures from being effective. Therefore the Indians told me to go and perform the cure. They liked me, remembering that I had relieved them while they were out gathering nuts, for which they had given us nuts and hides. This had happened at the time I was coming to join the Christians. So I had to go, and Dorantes and Estevanico went with me.
Next De Vaca describes how he apparently helped resurrect a dead man:
When I came close to their ranches I saw that the dying man we had been called to cure was dead, for there were many people around him weeping and his lodge was torn down, which is a sign that the owner has died. I found the Indian with eyes upturned, without pulse and with all the marks of lifelessness. At least so it seemed to me, and Dorantes said the same. I removed a mat with which he was covered, and as best I could prayed to Our Lord to restore his health, as well as that of all the others who might be in need of it, and after having made the sign of the cross and breathed on him many times they brought his bow and presented it to me, and a basket of ground tunas, and took me to many others who were suffering from vertigo. They gave me two more baskets of tunas, which I left to the Indians that had come with us. Then we returned to our quarters.
Our Indians to whom I had given the tunas remained there, and at night returned telling, that the dead man whom I attended to in their presence had resuscitated, rising from his bed, had walked about, eaten and talked to them, and that all those treated by me were well and in very good spirits. This caused great surprise and awe, and all over the land nothing else was spoken of. All who heard it came to us that we might cure them and bless their children…
We remained with the Avavares Indians for eight months, according to our reckoning of the moons. During that time they came for us from many places and said that verily we were children of the sun. Until then Dorantes and the negro had not made any cures, but we found ourselves so pressed by the Indians coming from all sides, that all of us had to become medicine men. I was the most daring and reckless of all in undertaking cures. We never treated anyone that did not afterwards say he was well, and they had such confidence in our skill as to believe that none of them would die as long as we were among them.
Cabeza and his men were able to use this mystique and notoriety as a way to survive among the various Indians they encountered:
While travelling with these we used to go the whole day without food, until night, and then we would eat so little that the Indians were amazed. They never saw us tired, because we were, in reality, so inured to hardships as not to feel them any more. We exercised great authority over them, and carried ourselves with much gravity, and, in order to maintain it, spoke very little to them.
By the time De Vaca and the few other survivors (including a black ex-slave) encountered Spaniards once again, the men had a different perspective on life and humanity. As they approached the Gulf of Mexico, the men were horrified to observe what the Spanish Conquistadors had done to the land:
We travelled over a great part of the country, and found it all deserted, as the people had fled to the mountains, leaving houses and fields out of fear of the Christians. This filled our hearts with sorrow, seeing the land so fertile and beautiful, so full of water and streams, but abandoned and the places burned down, and the people, so thin and wan, fleeing and hiding; and as they did not raise any crops their destitution had become so great that they ate tree-bark and roots. Of this distress we had our share all the way along, because, they could provide little for us in their indigence, and it looked as if they were going to die. They brought us blankets, which they had been concealing from the Christians, and gave them to us, and told us how the Christians had penetrated into the country before, and had destroyed and burnt the villages, taking with them half of the men and all the women and children, and how those who could escaped by flight…
At noon we met our messengers, who told us they had not found anybody, because all were hidden in the woods, lest the Christians might kill or enslave them; also that, on the night before, they had seen the Christians and watched their movements, under cover of some trees, behind which they concealed themselves, and saw the Christians take many Indians along in chains.
After traveling many miles, the men finally encountered four Spanish soldiers on horseback, “who, seeing me in such a strange attire, and in company with Indians, were greatly startled. They stared at me for quite awhile, speechless; so great was their surprise that they could not find words to ask me anything.”
The men were led to their commander, Diego de Alcaraz, and felt the joy of being back in Christian hands. By now, however, De Vaca’s allegiance was compromised by his own conscience. He was a different man, changed by his incredible time among the various peoples of the New World. He reports that “we had many and bitter quarrels with the Christians, for they wanted to make slaves of our Indians…” When the Spanish tried to enslave the local Indians through trickery, De Vaca exposed their treachery and warned the Indians not to listen. He records the Spaniards’ response as follows:
At all this the Christians were greatly vexed, and told their own interpreter to say to the Indians how we were of their own race, but had gone astray for a long while, and were people of no luck and little heart, whereas they were the lords of the land, whom they should obey and serve. The Indians gave all that talk of theirs little attention. They parleyed among themselves, saying that the Christians lied, for we had come from sunrise, while the others came from where the sun sets; that we cured the sick, while the others killed those who were healthy; that we went naked and shoeless, whereas the others wore clothes and went on horseback and with lances. Also, that we asked for nothing, but gave away all we were presented with, mean while the others seemed to have no other aim than to steal what they could, and never gave anything to anybody. In short, they recalled all our deeds, and praised them highly, contrasting them with the conduct of the others.
De Vaca was not able to stop the widespread oppression of the indigenous peoples of New Spain. However, when he finally returned home to Spain in 1537, he began penning an account of his experiences in a report for King Carlos I. It was published in 1542, and ends with a plea to the king that the natives be well-treated, and Christianized instead of enslaved:
May God in His infinite mercy grant that in the days of Your Majesty and under your power and sway, these people become willingly and sincerely subjects of the true Lord Who created and redeemed them. We believe they will be, and that Your Majesty is destined to bring it about, as it will not be at all difficult.
END OF PART I. Stay tuned for Part II, when we continue to cover more books on the list.