Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Friday, April 25, 2003

Cuba Confidential

Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana - Ann Louise Bardach

An ajiaco is a spicy Cuban stew. Cuba Confidential is just such a book, filled with myrid tasty insights, bubbling quietly in hidden corners.

Written by the experienced and thoughtful journalist Ann Louise Bardach, Cuba Confidential helps shed some light on what, to an outsider, is one of the most puzzling political stews leftover from the twentieth century.

Taking the recent Elian Gonzalez case as its starting point, the author delves into the intricacies and byzantine political machinations of the both the Cuban exile community and the stolid and enduring dictatorship of Castro, recasting what many see as a Cold War leftover into a bitter family feud that divides Cubans on both sides, sundering relationships and tearing deeply personal scars. The author's expertise and long-relationship with both sides of the Cuban coin reveals the depth of political intrangience that cripples both sides, preventing both true discourse and productive change - trapping both countries in a mutually destructive relationship that neither encourages nor rewards finding common ground.

Bardach is particularly chilling when she digs into the role of Miami's imbittered and politically powerful Exile community of Calle Ocho (the so-called Third Rail of Florida politics (as in the rail that will electrocute you if you touch it)), the control and dominence they have established over South Florida, the strings they pull and power they wield. Filled with vivid glimpses of the inside wheels of power and personal motives (Janet Reno, the Miami-born US Attorney-General under Clinton weeping in her office over the vicious characterizations and personal attacks that exploded in the wake of the Elian affair; the particular callous disregard for the well-being of Elian by his exile relations; the manipulation of the press....and so on. Read the book for a full view.), the book in particular highlights two constrasting characters - the greying Fidel Castro and the Exile leader Mas Canosa and CANF.

One of the particular nuggets of note in the book is the intricate ties between the Exile community and the Bushes; George Sr., George Jr. and Jeb (Governer of Florida); and the infamous "hanging chad" electioneering that in the end, decided the presidency and shaped dramatically the future of the US. Interestingly enough, prior to September 11, 2001, one of the most infamous acts of terrorism in the Western hemisphere was the bombing of Cubana 455 in 1976 which killed 73 people (including almost the entire Cuban National Fencing Team). Carried out by Orlando Bosch (an exile with strong ties to CANF and Mas Canosa), Bosch was later pardoned by - you guessed it - George Bush Sr. This tends to make anyone who follows the current adminstration's pronouncements on terrorism a bit leery...

Cuba Confidential starts a bit slow and I for one found the intricacies of Cuban family ties to be difficult and somewhat tedious to work through, but persistant readers are well-rewarded with a well-written, quality glimpse inside what can only be called the unrivaled family feud of the last century.

For a recipe for ajiaco, check out this site.

Check out the CIA's Cuba page in the CIA's World Fact Book or check out the latest news from Cuba here.

Check out Amnesty International's report on Cuba here, and learn about Cuba's contribution to modern dance with the Mambo, the Rumba and the inevitable Cha-Cha.

For more insight on Cuba check out Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin, or This is Cuba: An Outlaw Culture Survives by Ben Corbett.

Monday, April 7, 2003

The Pirate Hunter

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd - Richard Zacks

Pirates and blue water took hold of me as a kid and never really let go.

I blame those early-morning black-and-white film classics that our local TV station ran where I thrilled to such worthies as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., as they jaunted their way through the Spanish Main, with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's blaring trumpets offering rich accompaniment...

Those celluloid pirates offered only the barest reflection of the reality of the pirate life.

The Pirate Hunter tells the tale (and a richly detailed, well-researched, highly charged tale it is) of Captain William Kidd, who, together with Blackbeard, is probably the most well-known figure in pirate lore. Interestingly enough, most public knowledge of Kidd, his activities and his piratical life, is entirely wrong. In this well-written work, Zacks sheds new light on the legendary Captain Kidd, who was a prominent and well-respected captain and merchant in early New York, painting an authentic picture of Kidd as a privateer captain, sanctioned and backed by certain individuals high in the British government, to seek out and destroy pirate activities (incidentally enriching his investors/backers and himself in the process). Privateers were, as Zacks points out, legally contracted to prey on enemy shipping, so it may well be treading a fine-line to paint Kidd as an innocent abroad, but the evidence Zacks presents that Kidd was a Pirate Hunter, not a pirate himself, is highly compelling, particularly after Kidd returns to await trial. Interwoven with Kidd's story is the tale of a true pirate, Robert Culliford, whose ongoing piratical career weaves in and out of the narrative (and Kidd's life) like an unrelenting Nemesis.

Zacks work is copiously backed by research, documentation and records, and wonderfully enhanced by period details, pirate lore and backroom political intrigue, including such tidbits as the surprising democratic structure of most pirate crews, their general distaste of battle (they prefered to frighten and bluff unwary ships into submission), the truth about the legendary lost treasure of Captain Kidd, and the inevitable and unenviable fate that the Admiralty reserved for convicted pirates.

Zacks paints a vivid and exciting picture that makes The Pirate Hunter a hugely entertaining read. Highly recommended!

Avast there - seeking new reads to plunder? Look no further, check out Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates by David Cordingly. I also recommend the old classic adventure tale, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (also available here as a free online version). Another classic author who knew pirates well was Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe who wrote one of the first "pirate histories" called A General History of Pyrates in 1724 (unfortunately not available yet free online).

If you are looking to fall out of your chair with laughter, I highly recommend George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates. It offers a tongue-firmly-in-cheek look at the Brethern of the Coast that could possibly cause you to rupture something while reading...

For more information (and a terrific link list) on pirates, check out Pirates of the Spanish Main. Find out about the legendary pirate haunts of Port Royal (which sank beneath the waves one cataclysmic morning in 1692), the Island of Tortuga, and Madagascar and the activities of modern-day pirates here.

Looking for lost pirate treasure? Try Gardiner's Island, off Long Island, where Kidd hid some of his disputed treasure; or , if you are feeling very energetic, head for Oak Island, Nova Scotia, another reputed repository of pirate gold...

Lastly, check out the sunken site of Blackbeard's famed pirate ship, The Queen Anne's Revenge! Here's a brief excerpt from Blackbeard's journal (courtesy of Daniel Defoe):

"Such a day, rum all out: — Our company somewhat sober: — A damned confusion amongst us! — Rogues a-plotting: — Great talk of separation — so I looked sharp for a prize: — Such a day found one with a great deal of liquor on board, so kept the company hot, damned hot; then all things went well again."

Hoist the black flag!

Tuesday, April 1, 2003


Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket - Richard Holmes

"All gentlemen that have a mind
to serve the queen that's good and kind
come 'list and enter into pay..."

The Duke of Wellington called them "The scum of the earth". Although he on occasion added as an afterword "But what very fine fellows we have made of them...", he was not far off the mark. They were uneducated, generally illiterate, frequently drunk, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, itinerate looters, vagabonds and thieves. They were the redcoats and they were, for the better part of a century, the finest infantry in the world.

Richard Holmes excellent history is entitled Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, and within its pages the redcoat has never been more vividly portrayed. How did the British Army, playing perpetual second-fiddle to the British Navy in both public respect and budget, rise to become Kipling's legendary "thin red line"?

Holmes touches on every aspect of the life of the Redcoat from the expense of the uniforms (and the recruiters' treachery at charging it against new recruits pay and recruitment bounties), the purchase system for buying officer's promotion, to the weapons (the famed Brown Bess musket - .75 inch muzzle-loading flintlock musket or as Kipling termed it "out-spoken, flinty-lipped brazen-faced jade") the redcoats typically carried.

One of the common problems in a book of this type is that for the average reader, the terminology lends itself to obscure references (particularly the endless reams of regimental names, colors etc.) that can be confusing and tiresome. To be honest, I don't care if the 11th Foot wore buff or yellow facings and to his credit Holmes doesn't dwell overlong on these trivialities. Instead he delves deep into how the British Army functioned in the era of Horse and Musket, the tactics and strategies it used, the sounds and experience of battle (for men of the line as well as the officers), how regimental society (at home and abroad) functioned, the unique position of wives and camp-followers, the soldier's entertainments, food, dueling, the roles of the cavalry, gunners, surgeons, the army bureaucracy (which was notable even then for obtuse behavior. One unit, stationed in the Caribbean was scheduled to return to Britain. The administrators very kindly stopped the unit's pay, clothing and food allowances on their scheduled departure date - six months prior to the actual departure), and the soldier's copious appetite for alcohol and liquor.

Holmes goes to the original sources - the unvarnished, unwashed commentary of the men and officers who stood in the Line, bringing a real voice to the facelessness of the era. From the wry observations of Edward Costello, Rifleman ranker of the 95th on the practice of looting, to the irritated commentary of the Duke of Wellington disparaging British cavalry, the book covers the gamut of viewpoints on every related subject.

Well-written, well-illustrated, with clear prose and solid detail, Redcoat is, hands-down, one of the most enjoyable and readable military histories I have ever encountered on this subject area.

All ranks - CLOSE UP!

For a quick outline of the life of the Iron Duke, click here. If you are interested in a good bio on Wellington, I recommend Wellington: The Years of the Sword by Elizabeth Longford.

Find out about the history of the British Army at this solid site and refight the Battle of Waterloo here.

Looking to sign up? They can always use a little more cannon fodder...