Ben Miller

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The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History

In Bizarre and Unusual, Customs and Traditions, Edwardian Era, Middle Ages, Military, Renaissance on March 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm

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.

 

Historical Background

 

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 book of Hans Talhoffer (1467), plates of which are featured below:

Tall1

Above: Plates from the work of Hans Tallhoffer (thanks to Michael Chidester for locating these images)

Above: Plates from the work of Hans Tallhoffer (thanks to Michael Chidester for locating these images)

About seventy-five years later, combatants of African descent were also illustrated in the martial arts treatise of Paulus Hector Mair (1542).

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair's De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://infinitemachine.tumblr.com/post/80881463031/medievalpoc-paulus-hector-mair-arte-de

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://infinitemachine.tumblr.com

Rapier

Above: A fencer of African descent, wielding an early rapier (or “sidesword”) pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://www.hammaborg.de/de/transkriptionen/phm_dresden_2/05_rapier.php

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:

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart. Source:www.truefork.org”

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart.” Source:www.truefork.org

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand. Source:www.truefork.org

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand. Source:www.truefork.org.

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

 

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

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.”

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D'Eon

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D’Eon. Source: Wikipedia

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.”

Sketch entitled "St. Georges and the Dragon," depicting Saint-Georges boxing

Sketch entitled “St. Georges and the Dragon,” depicting Saint-Georges boxing. Source: http://theprintshopwindow.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/a-truly-british-art-images-of-pugilism-in-georgian-caricature/

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 [1789], 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-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L'arche Marion

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L’arche Marion. Source: Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:http://s236.photobucket.com/user/DeeOlive/media/GeneralDumas_zps10105513.jpg.html

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:http://s236.photobucket.com/user/DeeOlive/media/GeneralDumas_zps10105513.jpg.html

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:

Angelo's famous Salle d'Armes, displaying Saint-George's portrait

Angelo’s famous Salle d’Armes, displaying Saint-George’s portrait

Although Saint Georges passed away in 1799, his name and image is venerated among classical and historical fencers throughout the world.

 

Jean-Louis Michel

 

“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.”

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D'Erape. From L'Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D’Erape. From L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

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

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis served as the President de Combat, and can be seen at center, behind the fencers' blades.

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis presided as “President de Combat,” and can be seen at center.

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.

JeanLouisPortrait

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.”

 

Basile Croquère

 

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.

Above: A duel under the famous "Dueling Oaks" in New Orleans' City Park.

Above: A duel under the famous “Dueling Oaks” in New Orleans’ City Park.

Further reading:

 

African American Knife-Fighters of Old New York

African American Soldiers fight off 24 Germans with Bolo Knives during World War I

Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic

http://www.chevalierdesaintgeorge.com/bio_fulltext.html

Gabriel Banat, The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow

Reminiscences of Henry Angelo

Alfred Hutton, Sword & the Centuries

http://sworddueling.com/2010/03/08/jean-louis-michel/

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.

One Tough Soldier

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on September 4, 2010 at 1:13 am

“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

A Loyalist Boasts of Scalping During the American Revolution

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on March 4, 2010 at 1:29 am

“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

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part II

In Dueling, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on February 25, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Continued from PART I.

Expert Sword-man’s Companion by Donald McBane (1728)

Inverness

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.

Leap
Above: The site of McBane’s “leap”

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…

Plate from McBane’s Expert Swordman’s Companion

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.

Rake

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.

Portrait of Donald McBane

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.

James Miller
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. In 2017, a new edition was released, which includes a foreword verifying many of the historical details related by McBane in his memoir. It can be purchased by following this link, or by clicking on the image below:

cover

END OF PART II. Stay tuned for Part III, when we continue to cover more books on the list.

Top Must-Read Autobiographies

In Bizarre and Unusual, Everyday Life, Middle Ages, Military, Renaissance on February 23, 2010 at 4:15 pm

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.

Mandeville

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

Giraffe

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)

DeVaca

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.

How to Scalp Like an Indian

In Colonial (American) Period, Federalist Period, Martial Arts, Military on February 18, 2010 at 1:57 am

We’ve all seen Hollywood depictions of American Indians scalping their enemies. Whether it’s The Last of the Mohicans or Dances With Wolves, the procedure is portrayed in roughly the same manner: an Indian grabs his struggling enemy by a tuft of hair, and with one clean blow of his tomahawk takes off an entire scalp. Movie representations were likely based on posed, melodramatic period images such as the following–painted by artists who had never had the misfortune of being near an actual battle:

Fake scalping

The historical reality was a bit different, however. Actual scalping was considerably messier and took much longer. We have an account from Jonathan Carver, an American writer and explorer who served in the French and Indian War. Carver writes:

At this business [the Indians] are exceedingly expert. They seize the head of the disabled or dead enemy, and placing one of their feet on the neck, twist their left hand in the hair; by this means, having extended the skin that covers the top of the head, they draw out their scalping knives, which are always kept in good order for this cruel purpose, and with a few dextrous strokes take off the part that is termed the scalp. They are so expeditious in doing this, that the whole time required scarcely exceeds a minute!

A similar account was published in 1865, by a Corporal Pike who had fought in the Indian Wars out west. In Pike’s account, the use of the knife is not enough to sever the scalp–the leverage of the foot is needed:

Scalping, barbarous as it is, is reduced to an art among the Indians. The victor cuts a clean circle around the top of the head, so that the crown may form the center, and the diameter of the scalp exceed six inches; then, winding his fingers in the hair, he puts one foot on the neck of the prostrate foe, and with a vigorous pull tears the reeking scalp from the skull. To the dead, this, of course, would not be absolute cruelty; but it is too frequently the case that the process is performed and the scalp severed while yet the mangled victim lives ; and there are instances where parties have recovered, and long survived this barbarous mutilation. Occasionally, a warrior is not satisfied with the part of the scalp usually taken, but bares the skull entirely, and carries away in triumph even the ears of his victim.

The following image is a more accurate representation (source unknown):

Scalping

A Medieval-Style Tournament Held at Philadelphia, in 1778

In Colonial (American) Period, Customs and Traditions, Martial Arts, Military on February 6, 2010 at 1:29 am

In May, 1778, Sir William Howe surrendered the command of the British army in America to Sir Henry Clinton, and soon afterwards returned to England. He was a favorite, and the officers under his immediate orders resolved, on the eve of his departure, to give him a splendid entertainment, to which they gave the name of Mischianza.

An account of it was written by the ill-fated [Major] Andre, and transmitted to London at the time. I extract nearly all that relates to the tournament, which exhibition formed an important part of it. Many of the ladies who were honored by the knights were daughters of Loyalists of Pennsylvania. One of them, as will be seen, was the beautiful Margaret Shippen. This young lady, after the evacuation of the city by the royal troops, was won and wed by General Arnold, who was placed in command of the Continental army stationed there, by Washington.

“The company, as they disembarked, arranged themselves into a line of procession, and advanced through an avenue formed by two files of grenadiers, and a line of light-horse supporting each file. This avenue led to a square lawn of one hundred and fifty yards on each side, lined with troops and properly prepared for the exhibition of a tilt and tournament, according to the customs and ordinances of ancient chivalry. We proceeded through the centre of the square. The music, consisting of all the bands of the army, moved in front. The managers, with favors of blue and white ribbons in their breast, followed next in order. The general, admiral, and the rest of the company proceeded promiscuously.

In front appeared the building, bounding the view through a vista formed by two triumphal arches, erected at proper intervals in a line with the landing-place. Two pavilions, with rows of benches, rising one above the other, and serving as the advanced wings of the first triumphal arch, received the ladies, while the gentlemen arranged themselves in convenient order on each side. On the front seat of each pavilion were placed seven of the principal young ladies of the country, dressed in Turkish habits, and wearing in their turbans the favors with which they meant to reward the several knights who were to contend in their honor. These arrangements were scarce made, when the sound of trumpets was heard at a distance; and a band of knights, dressed in ancient habits of white and red silk, and mounted on gray horses, richly caparisoned in trappings of the same colors, entered the lists, attended by their squires on foot, in suitable apparel, in the following order: —

Four trumpeters, properly habited, their trumpets decorated with small pendant Danners. A herald, in his robe of ceremony; on his tunic was the device of his band, two roses intertwined, with the motto, We droop when separated.

Lord Cathcart, superbly mounted on a managed horse, appeared as chief of these knights. Two young black slaves, with sashes and drawers of blue and white silk, wearing large silver clasps round their necks and arms, their breasts and shoulders bare, held his stirrups. On his right hand walked Captain Hazard, and on his left Captain Brownlow, his two esquires, one bearing his lance, the other his shield.

His device was Cupid riding on a lion, the motto, Surmounted by Love. His lordship appeared in honor of Miss Auchmuty.

Then came in order the knights of his band, each attended by his squire, bearing his lance and shield.

1st Knight, Hon. Captain Cathcart, in honor of Miss N. White. Squire, Captain Peters. Device, a heart and sword; motto, Love and Honor.

2d Knight, Lieutenant Bygrove, in honor of Miss Craig. Squire, Lieutenant Nichols. Device, Cupid tracing a circle; motto, Without end.

3d Knight, Captain Andre, in honor of Miss P. Chew. Squire, Lieutenant Andre. Device, two game-cocks fighting; motto, No rival.

4th Knight, Captain Horneck, in honor of Miss N. Bedman. Squire, Lieutenant Talbot. Device, a burning heart; motto, Absence cannot extinguish.

5th Knight, Captain Matthews, in honor of Miss Bond. Squire, Lieutenant Hamilton. Device, a winged heart; motto, Each Fair by turns.

6th Knight, Lieutenant Sloper, in honor of Miss M. Shippen. Squire, Lieutenant Brown. Device, a heart and sword; motto, Honor and the Fair.

After they had made the circuit of the square, and saluted the ladies as they passed before the pavilions, they ranged themselves in a line with that in which were the ladies of their device; and their herald (Mr. Beaumont), advancing into the centre of the square, after the flourish of trumpets, proclaimed the following challenge: ‘ The Knights of the Blended Rose, by me their herald, proclaim and assert that the ladies of the Blended Rose excel in wit, beauty, and every accomplishment, those of the whole world; and should any knight or knights be so hardy as to dispute or deny it, they are ready to enter the lists with them, and maintain their assertions by deeds of arms, according to the laws of ancient chivalry.’

At the third repetition of the challenge, the sound of trumpets was heard from the opposite side of the square; and another herald, with four trumpeters, dressed in black and orange, galloped into the lists. He was met by the herald of the Blended Rose, and, after a short parley, they both advanced in front of the pavilions, when the Black Herald (Lieutenant More) ordered his trumpets to sound, and then proclaimed defiance to the challenge in the following words: ‘ The Knights of the Burning Mountain present themselves here, not to contest by words, but to disprove by deeds, the vainglorious assertions of the Knights of the Blended Rose, and enter these lists to maintain, that the ladies of the Burning Mountain are not excelled in beauty, virtue, or accomplishments by any in the universe.’

He then returned to the part of the barrier through which he had entered; and shortly after, the Black Knights, attended by their squires, rode into the lists in the following order: —

Four trumpeters preceding the herald, on whose tunic was represented a mountain sending forth flames; motto, burn for ever.

Captain Watson, of the Guards, as chief, dressed in a magnificent suit of black and orange silk, and mounted on a black managed horse, with trappings of the same colors with his own dress, appeared in honor of Miss Franks. He was attended in the same manner as Lord Cathcart; Captain Scott bore his lance, and Lieutenant Lyttleton his shield. The device, a heart, with a wreath of flowers; motto, Love and Glory.

1st Knight, Lieutenant Underwood, in honor of Miss S. Shippen. Squire, Ensign Haverkam. Device, a pelican feeding her young; motto, For those I love.

2d Knight, Lieutenant Winyard, in honor of Miss P. Shippen. Squire, Captain Boscawen. Device, a bay-leaf; motto, Unchangeable.

3d Knight, Lieutenant Delaval, in honor of Miss B. Bond. Squire, Captain Thome. Device, a heart aimed at by several arrows, and struck by one ; motto, One only pierces me.

4th Knight, Monsieur Montluissant (Lieutenant of the Hessian Chasseurs), in honor of Miss B. Redman. Squire, Captain Campbell. Device, a sunflower turning towards the sun; motto, Te vise a vow’.

5th Knight, Lieutenant Hobbart, in honor of Miss S. Chew. Squire, Lieutenant Briscoe. Device, Cupid piercing a coat of mail with his arrow; motto, Proof to all but Love.

6th Knight, Brigade-Major Tarlton, in honor of Miss W. Smith. Squire, Ensign Heart. Device, a light dragoon; motto, Swift, vigilant, and bold.

After they had rode round the lists, and made their obeisance to the ladies, they drew up fronting the White Knights; and the chief of these having thrown down his gauntlet, the chief of the Black Knights directed his esquire to take it up. The knights then received their lances from their esquires, fixed their shields on their left arms, and, making a general salute to each other by a very graceful movement of their lances, turned round to take their career, and, encountering in full gallop, shivered their spears. In the second and third encounter they discharged their pistols. In the fourth they fought with their swords. At length the two chiefs, spurring forward into the centre, engaged furiously in single combat, till the marshal of the field (Major Gwyne) rushed in between the chiefs, and declared that the fair damsels of the Blended Rose and Burning Mountain were perfectly satisfied with the proofs of love, and the signal feats of valor, given by their respective knights; and commanded them, as they prized the future favors of their mistresses, that they would instantly desist from further combat. Obedience being paid by the chiefs to this order, they joined their respective bands. The White Knights and their attendants filed off to the left, the Black Knights to the right; and, after passing each other at the lower side of the quadrangle, moved up alternately, till they approached the pavilions of the ladies, when they gave a general salute.

A passage being now opened between the two pavilions, the knights, preceded by their squires and the bands of music, rode through the first triumphal arch, and arranged themselves to the right and left. This arch was erected in honor of Lord Howe. It presented two fronts, in the Tuscan order; the pediment was adorned with various naval trophies, and at top was the figure of Neptune with a trident in his right hand. In a niche on each side stood a sailor with a drawn cutlass. Three plumes of feathers were placed on the summit of each wing, and in the entablature was this inscription: Laus Mi debetur, el alme gratia major. The interval between the two arches was an avenue three hundred feet long and thirty-four broad. It was lined on each side with a file of troops; and the colors of all the army, planted at proper distances, had a beautiful effect in diversifying the scene. Between these colors the knights and squires took their stations. The bands continued to play several pieces of martial music. The company moved forward in procession, with the ladies in the Turkish habits in front. As these passed, they were saluted by their knights, who then dismounted and joined them; and in this order we were all conducted into a garden that fronted the house, through the second triumphal arch, dedicated to the general. This arch was also built in the Tuscan order. On’ the interior part of the pediment was painted a plume of feathers, and various military trophies. At the top stood the figure of Fame, and in the entablature this device: I, bone, quo virtus lua te vocel; I pedefausto. On the right-hand pillar was placed a bomb-shell, and on the left a flaming heart. The front next the house was adorned with preparations for a firework. From the garden we ascended a flight of steps covered with carpets, which led into a spacious hall; the panels

Painted in imitation of Sienna marble, inclosing festoons of white marble; the surbase, and all below, was black. In this hall, and in the adjoining apartments, were prepared tea, lemonade, and other cooling liquors, to which the company seated themselves; during which time the knights came in, and on the knee received their favors from their respective ladies. One of these rooms was afterwards appropriated for the use of the Pharoah table; as you entered it, you saw, on a panel over the chimney, a cornucopia, exuberantly filled with flowers of the richest colors; over the door, as you went out, another represented itself, shrunk, reversed, and emptied.

From these apartments we were conducted up to a ball-room, decorated in a light, elegant style of painting. The ground was a pale blue, paneled with a small gold bead, and in the interior filled with dropping festoons of flowers in their natural colors. Below the surbase the ground was of rose-pink, with drapery festooned in blue. These decorations were heightened by eighty-five mirrors, decked with rose-pink silk ribbons, and artificial flowers; and in the intermediate spaces were thirty-four branches with wax-lights, ornamented in a similar manner.

On the same floor were four drawing-rooms, with sideboards of refreshments, decorated and lighted in the same style of taste as the ball-room. The ball was opened by the knights and their ladies ; and the dances continued till ten o’clock, when the windows were thrown open, and a magnificent bouquet of rockets began the fireworks. These were planned by Captain Montresor, the chief engineer, and consisted of twenty different exhibitions, displayed under his direction with the happiest success, and in the highest style of beauty. Towards the conclusion, the interior part of the triumphal arch was illuminated amidst an uninterrupted flight of rockets and bursting of balloons. The military trophies on each side assumed a variety of transparent colors. The shell and flaming heart on the wings sent forth Chinese fountains, succeeded by fire-pots. Fame appeared at top, spangled with stars, and from her trumpet blowing the following device in letters of light: Tes Lauriers sont immortels. A sauteur of rockets, bursting from the pediment, concluded the feu d’artifice.

At twelve, supper was announced, and large folding-doors, hitherto artfully concealed, being suddenly thrown open, discovered a magnificent saloon of two hundred and ten feet by forty, and twenty-two feet in height, with three alcoves on each side, which served for sideboards. The ceiling was the segment of a circle, and the sides were painted of a light straw-color, with vine-leaves and festoon flowers, some. in a bright, some in a darkish green. Fifty-six large pier-glasses, ornamented with green silk artificial flowers and ribbons; one hundred branches with three lights in each, trimmed in the same manner as the mirrors; eighteen lustres, each with twenty-four lights, suspended from the ceiling, and ornamented as the branches ; three hundred wax-tapers disposed along the supper-tables; four hundred and thirty covers, twelve hundred dishes ; twenty-four black slaves, in Oriental dresses, with silver collars and bracelets, ranged in two lines, and bending to the ground as the general and admiral approached the saloon : all these, forming together the most brilliant assemblage of gay objects, and appearing at once, as we entered by an easy descent, exhibited a coup cCozil beyond description magnificent.

Towards the end of supper, the herald of the Blended Rose, in his habit of ceremony, attended by his trumpets, entered the saloon, and proclaimed the king’s health, the queen, and royal family, the army and navy, with their respective commanders, the knights and their ladies, the ladies in general. Each of these toasts was followed by a flourish of music. After supper we returned to the ball-room, and continued to dance till four o’clock.

Such, my dear friend, is the description, though a very faint one, of the most splendid entertainment, I believe, ever given by an army to their general. But what must be more grateful to Sir W. Howe is the spirit and motives from which it is given. He goes from this place to-morrow; but, as I understand he means to stay a day or two with his brother on board the Eagle at Billingsport, I shall not seal this letter till I see him depart from Philadelphia.”

–  Sabine, Lorenzo, Notes on Duels and Duelling: Alphabetically Arranged, with a Preliminary Historical Essay. Boston: Crosby, Nichols and Company, 1859.

The Spear in Japanese Martial Culture

In Martial Arts, Military, Weapons and Armor on January 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Article by David Black Mastro

In various martial cultures around the world, the sword is held in the utmost esteem–it is a weapon that has transcended its original role as a tool of war, and it is thus also seen as a symbol of power, justice, and so on. As the great European swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton once wrote, “The history of the sword is the history of humanity”.

That being said, the aura of romance surrounding the sword has done much to cloud the fact that there are, in fact, other edged weapons which are far more formidable.   Among the numerous hand weapons which fighting men have developed over the centuries, the simple spear is perhaps the greatest, and most misunderstood.

The Japanese have always had a very strong martial culture, and they did not ignore the development of the spear. Early Japanese spears were of the hoko type, made with a metal socket which the wooden shaft fitted in–much like Continental Asian and European spears. According to Donn F. Draeger in his classic text Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, the hoko remained in use from c. 200 B.C./B.C.E., to the late Heian or early Kamakura period (c. late 12th century A.D./C.E.). Then, the Japanese developed their distinctive yari, which featured a spearhead with a very long tang, that was fitted into a hollowed-out portion in the shaft of the weapon.

From a purely combative sense, the great advantage of the spear was obviously its superior reach. For a swordsman, facing a spearman is a daunting prospect. Draeger’s protege, Hunter B. Armstrong, commented on this in his excellent article, “Owari Kan Ryu Sojutsu–Classical Japanese Spear Arts”, which appeared in the February 1998 issue of Exotic Martial Arts Around the World. Armstrong correctly noted that “it was the spear that dominated the battlefield,” and, “In a one-on-one combat between a spearman and swordsman, the sword had little chance.”

Practitioners from other martial cultures have noted this truism. In his Paradoxes of Defence from 1599, the great English swordsman George Silver wrote that, “The short staff (quarterstaff) or half pike (spear) have the vantage against the… two hand sword, the sword and target (round shield), and are too hard for two swords and daggers…” In other words, a spearman could safely engage and defeat two men armed with sword-and-dagger, facing him at once. 

The great difficulty for the swordsman in facing a spearman lies in the fact that the spearman can make what are generally referred to today as “slip-thrusts”–i.e., a thrust delivered with the rear hand, where the shaft of the spear slides through the loose grip of the forward hand (similar to using a pool stick). The use of slip-thrusts makes it extremely difficult for the swordsman to judge the ma-ai (combative engagement distance, what Western swordsmen refer to as “fencing measure”). The spearman can thus make feints high and low, to the outside and inside lines, and is himself safe from counters, since the swordsman cannot immediately reach him.

The Japanese took the slip-thrust concept & technique to its most extreme, by sometimes making use of a small metal tube (kuda), which fits around the spear shaft, and is held by the forward hand of the spearman. With the kuda, the slip-thrusts can be made with even greater speed, due to the reduced friction. Kan Ryu sojutsu–which makes use of a yari nearly 12 feet long–features the use of the kuda.

Another advantage of the yari–one not featured on all spears around the world–is the fact that it also has functional cutting edges. Yari heads are typically of a stout triangular cross-section, and have two edges. The spearman can therefore make sweeping cuts to various parts of the opponent’s body, in addition to thrusts.

Yari were available with a variety of spearheads. In addition to the conventional head described above, there were some yari that featured a crossbar called a hadome, at the base of the head (similar to the crossbar or toggle seen on European boar spears), which could be used for parrying and trapping. In addition, there were yari with more elaborate heads, like the magari-yari (also known as the jumonji yari), with side blades more or less perpendicular to the main blade. These side blades apparently could function like a hadome, but they were also sharpened, giving the spearman more cutting options. During the 16th century, when the Portuguese arquebus (a type of matchlock musket) entered the Japanese arsenal, the nagae-yari or long spear was developed, which, at some 16 feet or more in length, was akin to the European pike. The nagae-yari was used by the ashigaru (lit., “light feet”), the footsoldiers of peasant stock who served as pikemen and arquebusiers. These organized infantrymen represented a Japanese parallel to the rank-and-file Swiss reislaufer and German landsknechte–low-born footsoldiers who could use the reach of the pike and the even greater reach of the arquebus, to down their social betters (the samurai and knights, respectively). 

 A weapon as devastating as the yari was naturally bound to produce its share of legendary users. Author Anthony Bryant, in his Osprey book, Samurai 1550-1600, noted the great Watanabe Hanzo, who was one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s retainers. He was so skilled in spear-fighting that he ultimately gained the nickname “Yari no Hanzo” (lit., “Hanzo of the Spear”). Another famous spearman was Kato Kiyomasa, one of the commanders in Hideyoshi’s army that invaded Korea in 1592. During lulls in the fighting, Kiyomasa was known to hunt tigers, using only a spear. This was yet another example of professional fighting men hunting and/or fighting big, dangerous game using spears, as an adjunct to their military training. Northern Europeans often hunted wild boar with spears, and Spanish knights engaged in bullfighting with swords and lances. While such practices may seem repugnant to the modern mind, they nevertheless require substantial skill, and a great deal of nerve.

 Even after the demise of the Feudal bushi in the mid-19th century A.D./C.E., spear technique did not die. Just as European pike and half-pike technique survived in the use of the bayonet, so did Japanese sojutsu contribute to juken-jutsu. And so the spear–one of Man’s earliest weapons–tenaciously refuses to be forgotten. Though it lacks the popular mystique of the sword, its sheer effectiveness and practicality cannot be denied.

For further reading:

 Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith

Classical Bujutsu–The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan Vol. One by Donn F. Draeger

 Samurai 1550-1600 by Anthony Bryant (Osprey Warrior Series 7)

Samurai Warfare by Dr. Stephen Turnbull

 Samurai–The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior by Clive Sinclair

 “Owari Kan Ryu Sojutsu–Classical Japanese Spear Arts”, by Hunter B. Armstrong (from the February 1998 issue of Exotic Martial Arts Around the World)

 Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver

 The Book of the Sword by Richard F. Burton

The (Old) American Way of War

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on January 29, 2010 at 5:40 am

By Ben Miller

Michael Scheuer, author, military philosopher, and former CIA veteran, has often written of the traditional, ruthless guiding philosophy of American warfighting–and has publicly lamented its decline. In one of his many essays, Scheuer elucidates:

“Until the last half-century, America’s Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen were not used to pursue a war aim called ‘building democracies.’ Historically, U.S. leaders have understood the American way of war: Get there quick with the biggest stick, annihilate the enemy, his supporters, and infrastructure, and come home.”

There is no better example to help illustrate this than the notorious Sullivan Expedition (well, okay, maybe King Philip’s War, but we’ll save that for another post). In July of 1778, a couple of years into the Revolutionary War, a combined force of British-allied Loyalist Rangers, Senecas and Cayuga Indians launched an assault on settlers living in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, near present-day Wilkes-Barre. The male population was virtually wiped out, with 227 American scalps taken, and an unknown number of prisoners and fleeing soldiers tortured. This event became known as “The Wyoming Massacre” (as it so happens, my x4 great grandmother, Mary Benjamin, was a survivor). In November of the same year, the Loyalists struck again, this time with the assistance of about 320 Iroquois. The target was Cherry Valley, New York. After surrounding the main fort, Indians began massacring civilians in the village. Sixteen soldiers and thirty-two civilians were killed and scalped, the latter consisting mostly of women and children. Eighty people were taken prisoner, half of whom were never returned. The town itself was completely destroyed.

Illustration of the Wyoming Massacre

At this point, George Washington decided that enough was enough. He sent the following orders to General John Sullivan:

“Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 1779

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.

But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”

Sullivan dutifully carried out Washington’s orders, and the Indian threat was completely eliminated, with more than forty Iroquois villages destroyed in upstate New York. According to some historians, Washington’s Iroquois nickname “Town Destroyer” was bestowed as a result of this expedition.