Friday, January 25, 2008

John Evans: In Search of the Welsh Indians

“Either the Madogion or death”– John Evans

Sorry, I don't speak Welsh
JOHN EVANS WAS A STRANGE YOUNG MAN who went on a bizarre journey to find a tribe of Welsh-speaking American Indians. It was a daring trip, and a foolish one. And it ultimately cost him his life.

Born in the village of Waunfawr near Caernarfon in 1770, the son of a Methodist preacher, Evans was a pious lad – pious and patriotic. At 21, he moved to London. And there he fell in with a group of radical Welshmen with some pretty odd ideas.

The Welsh crew were fascinated by the legend of Madoc, the prince who was said to have discovered America three hundred years before Columbus. The story goes that Madoc sailed west in 1170 after the death of his father, King Owain of Gwynedd. After finding new land, he returned to Wales and persuaded a boat-load of brave men and women to head back over the ocean with him to settle in the new world.

The intrepid pioneers were never heard of again. But their descendants still lived in the land that became known as America, and they still spoke Welsh. At least, according to the story they did.

As America opened up in the eighteenth century, the Prince Madoc legend gained fresh currency. Travellers and missionaries pushed into unmapped territories and returned with peculiar tales of Indians who spoke a language that sounded Welsh, or at least Welsh-ish. Some even carried back reports of a fair-skinned tribe – “white Indians” – who were believed to live out west.

Could there be something in the Madoc story after all? Did a Welshman really discover America? Patriotic young bucks like John Evans dearly wanted to believe it.

Things came to a climax in 1791 when an eccentric poet called Iolo Morganwg came down from one of his regular opium highs and announced he was off to America to settle the issue once and for all. The people of Madoc – the Madogions – were out there, he said. And he was the man to find them.

Impressed, Evans volunteered to go with him. Somewhat less impressively, the poet then changed his mind and backed out. But his young disciple was made of sterner stuff: he decided to go it alone.

Evans landed in Baltimore in October 1792 and was welcomed by the city’s Welsh community. He found work. He began planning his adventure. And he was offered the same words of advice by everyone who heard his mad plan: don’t go.

Even today you need to know what you’re doing if you head off into the American wilderness. Bears, snakes, savage weather - it’s not like going for a stroll on the South Downs. But back then Evans faced an additional, more frightening hazard: hostile Indians.

Native Americans and settlers had been at war over territory for decades. If you were white and valued your scalp, not to mention your life, it wasn’t a great idea to go wandering off into Indian lands that you knew nothing about.

But Evans wouldn’t listen. He was a man on a mission. “Either the Madogion or death,” he wrote to Morganwg back in London.

In the spring of 1793 – just after St David’s Day – friends in Baltimore shook their heads in disbelief as the boy from north Wales set out into the west alone. “God is my shield,” he told them. He had $1.75c in his pocket.

Evans crossed the Allegheny Mountains and arrived at a spot where Pittsburgh now stands. From there, he travelled 700 miles down the Ohio in a river boat – through Indian territory - till he reached the Mississippi. Then he followed that great waterway north to St Louis, where it meets the Missouri.

St Louis was a small frontier town at the time. Its people spoke French but it was controlled by the king of Spain who still had a large American empire and was hostile to Britain. When Evans bowled up, they thought he was an English spy and threw him in jail. Evans tried to explain that he was in fact on an innocent quest to find a lost tribe of Welsh Indians. For some reason, they didn’t buy it.

The Welshman was eventually released when it dawned on his captors he would be more useful to them as a free man. At the time, Spain was trying to push west from St Louis and find a route across the Rocky Mountains to its territories in California. If Evans was daft enough to want to go in that direction, why not let him, and maybe give him some backing?

Indians might kill him of course. But on the other hand, he might find that elusive passage through the Rockies and claim it for Spain.

So at a stroke, Evans went from being a prisoner of King Charles IV to an agent of the Spanish crown. An expedition up the Missouri was organised. Evans was made second in command under a Scot called James McKay. In the summer of 1795 the party set off – 30 well-armed men with four large boats loaded with goods for trading.

By November, they’d reached the Omaha Indians, whose chief Blackbird was one of the most powerful rulers in the region. You didn’t mess with Blackbird. He’d once murdered sixty of his own warriors by putting poison in their soup (dog soup as it happens, with the Omaha a dog wasn’t just for Christmas).

But the Europeans won him over with gifts of blankets, tobacco and muskets. And with winter starting to bite, they got permission to build a fort on the riverbank where they could hole up till spring.

John Evans wasn’t going to hang around though. First he spent almost a month out on the frozen plains with an Omaha hunting party, tracking buffalo and sleeping out in subzero temperatures. Then in the new year it was time to get back to the main business of searching for Welsh Indians. He said goodbye to McKay at the fort, took a handful of men with him and rode off on horseback into the unknown.

Before they left, McKay gave the small party strict instructions to claim all lands they passed for the king of Spain and to make detailed notes of every new tribe, plant and animal they saw (including keeping special watch for a weird one-eyed beast said to live in the Rockies).

“Appear always on guard and never be fearful or timid,” McKay warned, “for the savages are not generally bold, but will act in a manner to make you afraid of them.”

Evans and his companions were made afraid all right. After about three hundred miles, they ran into a party of Sioux on the warpath. The Sioux were a terrifying lot, a people constantly at war with other tribes as well as whites. They attacked the Europeans, pursuing them for dozens of miles. Evans and his companions escaped. But the incident put the wind up them big style. They decided to head back to McKay to have a little rethink.

When the weather improved, the indefatigable Evans was off again. This time he traveled right up the Missouri into the Badlands of South Dakota, a barren place where wind and water has eroded the landscape into fantastic shapes: gorges, gullies and tall, thin spires of rock known as hoodoos.

After nine weeks he reached the Arikara tribe, a surprisingly friendly bunch who nevertheless cheerfully relieved him of most of his trade goods. Then it was time to move on again - time to find the mysterious Mandan people.

Evans had high hopes of the Mandan. A French explorer had already made contact with the tribe and reported that their skin was whiter than other Indians. He’d found them living in fixed settlements, not roaming the plains like their nomadic neighbours. They had huts, not wigwams. They raised crops instead of tracking buffalo. If there were “white Indians” out there, they must surely be these people.

Reaching the Mandan was a moment of triumph for Evans. He’d travelled 8,000 miles from his home in north Wales for this. He’d sailed an ocean, trekked across a continent, crossed Sioux territory and survived. Legend was about to be proved fact. John Evans was on the brink of becoming a hero.

So were the Mandan really white? Did they look Welsh? Erm, not really, no. Some seemed quite fair-skinned, Evans thought. A few even had blue eyes. But Native Americans’ complexions vary as much as Europeans. Evans desperately wanted to see white people standing before him, but he couldn’t. There was no getting away from it - the Mandan were, well, Indians.

And what about the language? Did they speak Welsh? Anything even resembling Welsh? Na, as they say in the land of Evans’s fathers. No, they did not.

They were a jolly, hospitable crowd, mind. Evans met their chiefs, Big White Man and Black Cat. He handed over flags and medals as gifts. Then he basically made himself at home, spending winter with them, huddling round their fires in the little earth huts they shared with their horses.

He stayed six months, learning about their culture and their land, occasionally entertaining his hosts on his flute. It must have been quite an experience for the lad. But there was no escaping the bitter disappointment: these people were about as Welsh as a haggis.

To add to Evans’s worries, he was permanently hungry and the extreme cold was starting to get to him. That brutal winter with the Mandan broke his health. He never really recovered.

Evans wasn’t even the first European to reach the Mandan that year. Just before he showed up, a Canadian fur trader called Rene Jessaume had arrived via a different route. Jessaume had established a small trading post, raised the Union Jack and then left.

Evans lowered the British flag and replaced it with the standard of his own paymaster, Spain (which the Mandan found highly entertaining). And when a few other Canadians showed up some weeks later, he boldly sent them packing.

But in the spring Jessaume himself returned with a group of tough frontiersmen weighed down with gear to trade. Evans tried to stop them doing deals with the Indians. But by now he was a sick and isolated man and no match for Jessaume, a hard nut who had spent his whole life in the wilderness.

A furious row erupted. Evans said Jessaume tried to kill him; the Canadians said it was the Indians who turned on him. Either way, the Welshman was way out of his depth and he fled back down the Missouri, his dreams of finding the Madogion in shreds.

Back in St Louis, he wrote to friends with the bad news. “Thus having explored and charted the Missurie for 1,800 miles,” he told one compatriot, “and by my Communications with the Indians this side of the Pacific Ocean… I am able to inform you that there is no such People as the Welsh Indians.”

Evans’s life fizzled out after that. Perhaps he should have gone home to Wales. But he chose to stick it out in America, where the defeats and disappointments kept on coming. He was promised a stretch of land but it never materialized; his health deteriorated rapidly; he was robbed; he lost almost everything in a flood.

John Evans hit the bottle hard. A broken man, he wound up in New Orleans, alcoholic and unemployable. And there he drank himself to death before his thirtieth birthday.

The Mandan, incidentally, fared little better than Evans. Contact with Europeans brought smallpox and thousands perished. By 1837, fewer than 150 remained. The survivors merged with neighbouring tribes, including the Arikara. The last full-blooded Mandan was believed to have died in 1975. Her name was Mattie Grinnell.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!


Williams, David, John Evans and the Legend of Madoc, 1770-1799 (Cardiff, 1963)
Williams, Gwyn A, Madoc: the Making of a Myth (London, 1979)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Frederick Burnaby: the Bravest Man in England

"I have, unfortunately for my own interests, from my earlier childhood had what my old nurse used to call a most ‘contradictorious’ spirit” - Fred Burnaby

Caricature of Col Fred, 1876
BY JINGO, THEY DON’T MAKE CHAPS like Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby any more. Which is a shame, or possibly a relief, I can’t quite make up my mind.

In the Victorian age of larger-than-life heroes, the wildly eccentric colonel towered above the lot of them. He stood 6ft 4ins tall, weighed 15 stone, boasted a 47-inch chest - and had balls to match his enormous frame.

The son of a clergyman, Fred joined the army in 1859 – aged 17 – and quickly became recognised as the strongest man in its ranks. A first-rate boxer, swordsman, rider and runner, his party tricks included vaulting over billiard tables and twisting pokers into knots with his bare hands. He once carried two ponies downstairs at Windsor Castle for a prank, picking one up under each arm like they were cats.

You didn’t want to mess with Fred Burnaby, that was true. But he was more than just a meathead of mountainous proportions. Far more.

Fred was bright, friendly and jovial, always smiling by every account. He could speak seven languages, including Russian and Turkish. He was an insatiable traveller who wrote rip-roaring bestsellers about his adventures. And he was into hot-air ballooning – not exactly a normal hobby for a Victorian cavalry officer.

In 1882, our man packed some roast-beef sandwiches, climbed into his wicker basket at Dover gas works and flew off alone in the direction of the Channel. He landed in a field in Normandy later that day, terrifying some local chickens, and becoming the first person to make a hot-air balloon trip from England to France.

Fred was also into politics. An old-school Tory, he stood for Parliament in 1880 – pitching himself against Joseph Chamberlain in the latter’s Birmingham stronghold.

Chamberlain was one of the bigwigs of the day; Fred never really had a hope. But courage is when you know you’re beaten before you start and you throw yourself into it anyway. Fred was nothing if not courageous – courageous to the point of lunacy most of the time. He lost of course. But by God he gave Chamberlain a run for his money and no one who followed the campaigning in Birmingham that year ever forget Fred Burnaby.

At one meeting in Wolverhampton, for instance, Fred had his stewards bring two persistent hecklers up to the front. He went to the edge of the stage, leaned over and picked them both up by their collars, one in each hand. He then lifted them high for all to see and carried them at arm’s length to the back of the platform where he plonked them in two chairs.

“Sit there, little man. And you, little man, sit there,” he told them in his booming cavalry voice. The crowd was impressed. The heckling stopped. No one was left in any doubt that Colonel Burnaby was not an easy man to intimidate.

By this stage in his short life, Fred was already something of a popular hero in Britain, famous for a bizarre 1,000-mile journey he’d made into Central Asia several years earlier, accompanied by a dwarf. The mad trip was seen as a kind of one-man victory over the mighty Russian empire, which had tried to block his progress. And here’s how he did it.

Fred was attached to the Royal Horse Guards, the Blues, an elite regiment whose officers lived the life of riley and got no less than five months leave a year. Tempting though it must have been for Fred to spend that time carousing, leaping over pool tables and lugging ponies up and down the stairs, he had bigger ideas. Instead, he used those long holidays to travel the world and write about his adventures.

First he went to Moscow, in winter. Next he set off for war-torn Spain. Then it was Sudan, where on a roasting February day he found himself flicking through an old English newspaper in a Khartoum café, absently chatting to some mates about where they all fancied going next time their leave came around.

“At that moment my eye fell upon a paragraph in the paper,” Fred wrote later. “It was to the effect that the [Russian] government at St Petersburg had given an order that no foreigner was to be allowed to travel in Russian Asia, and that an Englishman who had recently attempted a journey in that direction had been turned back…”

As a stout-hearted patriot, Fred wasn’t at all keen on Russians at the best of times. For years the Tsarist empire had been expanding rapidly south, swallowing up vast areas of central Asia – today’s “Stan” lands: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. India lies just below the “Stans”, and Britain was getting twitchy. Was the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown next on Russia’s hit-list?

Now those pesky Russians were trying to ban Englishmen from travelling in the region, too. Englishmen! You can imagine what Burnaby of the Blues thought of that. You can see him working himself up into a Basil Fawlty-style fit. How dare they! What was that rotten Tsar up to? More importantly, who was going to stop him?

Before he’d finished his coffee, Fred’s mind was made up. He would ignore the ban, travel to the heart of central Asia (somehow), and find out for himself exactly what was going on there. He saw it as his personal duty to open Britain’s eyes to the menace of the Russian bear. And, you never know, he might get a bestseller out of it too.

Fred’s friends in the café told him he’d never make it, that he might as well try for the moon. But he returned home to England determined and began making plans for the greatest adventure of his life

By the time he left London’s Victoria Station on 30 November, 1875, he had a bold plan. He’d simply go straight to St Petersburg, travel south-east to frontier city of Orenburg, and from there strike out over the steppes and deserts of Russian-controlled Central Asia. His goal was the mysterious caravan city of Khiva, closed to all travellers since the Tsar’s army seized it two years earlier.

It wasn’t going to be easy of course. Apart from the possibility of being arrested, Fred’s army leave inconveniently fell during winter – so it would be blizzards, snowdrifts and killer temperatures every step of the way. If the Russians didn’t get him, frostbite or exposure probably would.

He wasn’t exactly guaranteed a warm welcome if he made it to Khiva either. The Khivans were a fierce and independent lot who had been fighting Russian invaders for centuries, slaughtering the men and enslaving the women in harems. Their leader, the Khan of Khiva, had a reputation for cruelty. He will “very likely order his executioner to gouge out your eyes”, a friendly Russian warned Fred. Not that that put him off of course.

Fred’s account of his wild journey – “A Ride to Khiva” – turned him into a celebrity. The novelist Henry James enjoyed the book, calling its author a “jovial and enterprising officer”. It sold out. Queen Victoria invited Fred to dinner on the strength of it. Even today it’s a smashing, swashbuckling read.

Wrapped up like the Michelin man in a smelly sheepskin suit, his military moustache frozen stiff on his face, Fred writes with boyish enthusiasm of how he pressed on through the frozen wastelands of Central Asia in the face of the most savage winter in living memory.

He hires a “faithful little Tartar” servant, Nazar, who stands less than five foot tall and sticks with Fred through thick and thin. Later, the Little and Large pair are joined by a third man, a local guide who wears an enormous black sheepskin hat, a bright yellow “dressing gown”, exotic boots with upturned toes, and a scimitar tucked into his belt.

At one remote settlement, the unlikely trio find all the horses have either died or are starving to death. This one-horse town is rapidly becoming a no-horse town. So they hire three gigantic, shaggy camels instead, harnessing the unruly beasts to their tiny sleigh and pushing on through the snowdrifts in bizarre fashion.

On another occasion, the motley team run into six armed Khivans who insult the exotically attired guide, abusing him for working for “dogs and unbelievers” from abroad (ie Fred). The guide lashes out with his whip; a Khivan hits back with a camel-stick. Knives are drawn; Fred pulls out his pistol.

Then something odd happens. The guide “blew his nose with his fingers as a sign of contempt for his adversary, and squatted on his haunches on the ground,” reports the bemused Englishman. “His foe, not to be outdone, performed the same feat with his nasal organ, and sat down opposite him. Then they began a verbal battle, in which the reputations of their respective female relatives were much aspersed.”

On one typically freezing day Fred forgets to put on his gloves and then falls asleep on the sleigh. Forty below and he forgets to put on his gloves - quite a feat in itself when you think about it. It was a mistake that almost cost him his hands.

“In a few minutes I awoke;” he writes, “a feeling of intense pain had seized my extremities. It seemed as if they had been plunged in some corrosive acid which was gradually eating the flesh from the bones.” He was frostbitten. And it was only thanks to the efforts of some rough and ready Cossacks, who rubbed a spirit on his limbs and plunged them into icy water, that circulation was restored and his fingers saved.

Yet despite these hardships, Fred’s pluck and bravery wins the day. He avoids the Russian soldiers and passport officials who would turn him back. And after two months of hard travelling he rocks up outside the ancient city walls of Khiva. First things first, he needs a shave. It simply won’t do for an English gentleman to be seen walking round town like a homeless. So he goes off to find a barber’s, attracting a crowd of three to four hundred fascinated onlookers in the process.

Staring through the window of the barber’s shop, the throng is further amazed when Fred asks for his beard to be removed - it’s heads, not chins, that are traditionally kept clean-shaven in these parts (men’s scalps, our man notes, are “as devoid of hair as a block of marble”). Everyone is then heartily amused when the nervous and bewildered barber accidentally takes a divot out of the Englishman’s face with his blunt razor.

With characteristic optimism, Fred had already sent a messenger ahead to request an audience with the mighty Khan of Khiva, old eye-gouger himself, enslaver of Russian woman, enemy of the Tsar. To his surprise, this is granted. So, after the spruce-up, Fred finds himself being led into the ruler’s palace under the gaze of 40 guards in long silk robes and a curious group of “good-looking boys of an effeminate appearance, with long hair streaming down their shoulders”.

A curtain is pulled back and Fred is face to face with a powerfully built guy in his late twenties, with irregular teeth and a coal-black beard and moustache: the Khan. The main man is seated on a handsome Persian carpet, propped up by cushions. He raises his hand to his forehead in greeting; Fred touches his cap.

And what does our dashing adventurer make of this most feared of Asian rulers? Well, he rather likes him. “[The Khan] had a pleasant, genial smile, and a merry twinkle in his eye…” writes Fred. “I must say I was greatly surprised… to find him such a cheery sort of fellow.”

Fred had gone to Khiva without the permission of his army superiors – there was no point even asking for it, refusal being a certainty. So when word reached Britain via telegraph of Burnaby’s daring one-man bid to upset the Russians, not to mention his jolly chat with the Khan of Khiva, he was immediately ordered home by his commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge.

The intrepid cavalry man dutifully returned to his regiment and got cracking writing his book. But the following year, when leave came round once more, he was off again on another strictly unofficial do-or-die mission.

This time Fred rode 1,000 miles from Constantinople into eastern Turkey, a wild and unstable region where the Tsar and the Sultan shared a frontier. War between the two powers was imminent. Fred wanted to see for himself what the Russians were up to there and whether the Turks could hold their own if fighting started.

Again he travelled through a savage winter. Again Russian agents tried to stop him. Again he had a bestseller on his hands when he returned – “On Horseback Through Asia Minor” – not to mention an even greater reputation for extravagant heroics.

Fred’s hot-air balloon trip across the Channel came next and only served to raise his stock further. His superiors weren’t impressed of course – once again he’d left the country without permission. But Fred just couldn’t help himself. Despite his loyalty, he had an unruly streak that no amount of army discipline could contain.

“I have, unfortunately for my own interests, from my earlier childhood had what my old nurse used to call a most “contradictorious” spirit,” he writes in “A Ride to Khiva”. It was this “contradictorious” streak – this fierce independence - that led him to an early grave in the vast, hot, emptiness of Sudan.

One of the most extraordinary men Sudan has ever seen was on the rise at the time. Muhammad Ahmad had gathered around him an army of desert tribesmen and called out for holy war. He was a nineteenth-century Osama bin Laden. He wanted to drive the Egyptians and British out of his country and convert the world to Islam. They called him the Mahdi, “the expected one”. And he wasn’t a man to argue with.

The Mahdi’s followers were a fanatical and ferocious lot. They had God on their side and a terrifyingly impressive record of massacring their enemies. In 1883, a 10,000-strong Egyptian force led by a British officer, William Hicks, was sent against them. It was completely destroyed; just a few hundred men returned alive. Hicks’s head was cut off and taken to the Mahdi.

The following year, Fred – yet again travelling without permission - was among more than 4,000 British troops who had another crack at the rebels at the second battle of El Teb. It was a brutal clash fought at close quarters. And the mighty figure of Fred Burnaby was in the thick of it, doing dire work with a characteristically unorthodox weapon: a double-barrelled shotgun.

Fred used the butt as well both barrels to fearsome effect – a tactic that got his liberal opponents in a lather (killing Arabs with a shotgun: not the done thing at all, old chap). But this time the British won. Fred was mentioned in despatches. He returned home a hero, to most.

The Mahdi army wasn’t finished though. Far from it. Now General Gordon found himself besieged at Khartoum - and, after much dithering, the British government sent a relief expedition under General Wolseley to save him (too late, as things turned out).

Fred, naturally, wanted a piece of the action and Wolseley was happy to have him on board. But bad-boy Burnaby had by now upset so many people at the top his request to go back to the Sudan was turned down.

Who needs permission when you’re Fred Burnaby though? So, true to form, he simply waited for his leave to come around again. Then off he sailed, arriving in Africa against orders and catching up with the British force as it advanced towards Khartoum.

Welcomed by Wolseley, Fred immediately pushed up to the front. When a vanguard of 1,500 British troops ran into about 12,000 Sudanese a few weeks later, he was with them. And it was here, at a dusty desert watering hole called Abu Klea, that his luck finally ran out.

The rebels charged, unexpectedly and ferociously. The British formed into their usual fighting square and fired off a volley. But it failed to check the onslaught and the Mahdists kept coming at them.

The evening before Fred had told the Daily Telegraph’s war correspondent, a Mr Burleigh, he’d left his shotgun behind because of the fuss it’d created when he last used it in battle. Fuss or no fuss, it would have come in handy now.

The Sudanese smashed into the British, piercing their lines in a wild attack. A bloody free-for-all of hacking, slashing and shooting ensued. Burleigh reports seeing Fred riding out, sword in hand, to help a handful of comrades caught stranded outside the square by the sudden charge.

A Mahdi rebel lunged at him with an 8ft spear, but he saw it coming. “Burnaby fenced smartly… and there was a smile on his features as he drove off the man’s awkward points,” writes the Telegraph reporter.

As the struggle continued, a second spearman came up behind Fred and jabbed him in the shoulder. It wasn’t a serious wound but it made him glance back, just for a second. And in that brief moment, the first guy seized his chance and ran his javelin into Fred’s throat.

The force pushed the huge soldier out of his saddle and dumped him on the ground. Burleigh saw what happened next: “Half a dozen Arabs were now about him. With the blood gushing in streams from his gashed throat, the dauntless Guardsman leapt to his feet, sword in hand, and slashed at the ferocious group. They were the wild strokes of a proud, brave man dying hard and he was quickly overborne, and left helpless and dying.”

Dying, but not yet dead. The Mahdi army’s attack ended as swiftly as it started and Fred was still clinging to life when another officer, Lord Binning, found him lying on the ground, his head in the lap of a young private. The lad was crying. “Oh sir,” he said to Binning, “here is the bravest man in England, dying and no one to help him.”

Fred tried to speak but couldn’t. By now, he had a bullet wound in the forehead as well as the hole in his throat. Part of his head had also been cut away. Despite all this, the story goes that Fred died with his familiar smile on his face. Not sure if I believe it, mind. But I want to.

You can see a painting of Colonel Frederick Burnaby in the National Portrait Gallery in London. He’s not smiling in that. But he is looking relaxed and splendid in his cavalry uniform – cocksure even - his long legs stretched out in front of him, a map of Asia and east Africa on the wall behind, a pile of books at his side.

He’s holding a cigarette aloft in his left hand in a rather grand fashion. His gleaming helmet and breastplate are at his feet. That mighty moustache, once frozen solid on the steppes of central Asia, has been waxed at the tips.

There’s enough room on the settee beside Fred to sit down for a chat, perhaps about those dastardly Russians, his faithful Tartar friend Nazar, or the joys of hot-air ballooning. “Sit there, little man,” he looks like he could be saying to us, “and you, little man, sit there.”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at Thanks again!

Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus, A Ride to Khiva introduced by David Williams (London, 1972)
Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus, A Ride Across the Channel, and other adventures in the air (London, 1882)
Ware, J Redding & R K Mann, The Life and Times of Col Fred Burnaby (London, 1885)
Mann, R K, The Life, Adventures and Political Opinions of F G Burnaby (London, 1882)
Duff, Louis Blake, Burnaby (Welland, 1926)
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Great British Nutters - an introduction

“What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life” - George Mallory, who died on Mt Everest

DON’T GET ME WRONG, calling someone a nutter (great, British or otherwise) isn’t an insult. At least in my book it’s not.

On the contrary, most of our greatest heroes and heroines have been half-mad. Bold, brave and often brilliant, for sure - but also, quite wonderfully, barking.

It’s especially true with the best adventurers and explorers. Schlepping through jungles and crossing Arabian sands is not normal behaviour. You don’t have to be nuts to do it, but it helps.

You don’t have to be British either, but that helps too. God knows why, but over the years this little island has churned out way more than its fair share of intrepid globe-trotters. There’s not a hellish journey on the planet that some mad Brit hasn’t had a crack at at one time or another.

So this blog is a small celebration of these exceptional men and women. I’m whittling down a long list of likely candidates to a few dozen and I'll post a profile on each over the coming months. In a crowded field, these are my favourites – the A-team.

On the face of it, they have little in common. Some are famous, others forgotten. Some were near-saints, others ruthless and racist. They travelled in the name of science and discovery, or the King and Empire. They did it for their God, for glory, for money – or for a laugh.

Yet they all share something special – a surplus of pluck perhaps, an excess of courage – that sets them above the comfortable crowd. And one more thing: they are all gloriously optimistic.

You don’t go charging off to the world’s most distant, desolate and dangerous places because you’ve got some sort of death wish: the opposite. You go because there is something worth seeing; because you believe in yourself; because you know big risks bring big rewards.

There’s nothing wrong with nutters, God no. The world would be a dimmer place without them. Hope you enjoy the blog...

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at Thanks again!