1. THE COCONUT KING: AUGUST ENGELHARDT (1875-1919) (1,670 words)

(The nude dude and his attitude to food)


(Food that conveniently transports itself)


(They spoke the Mount Everest of languages)


(He just wanted a better deal for his people, that's all)


(Pitted against the enemy of his former enemy's enemy)


(Haunted by history, nagged by lost circumstance)


*** NOTE: These nonfiction articles first appeared on my previous website dating from 2015. ***




                        THE COCONUT KING: AUGUST ENGELHARDT  (1875-1919)

(1,670 words)


The nude dude and his attitude to food


Dressed for the occasion 


      In one episode of The Simpsons Lisa developed a crush on a handsome eco-warrior campaigning to save a local forest. She tried to ingratiate herself by stressing her vegetarianism. But he was unimpressed. He was a total vegan. And not just any total vegan, but a Level-5 vegan.

Lisa: What’s a Level-5 vegan?

Eco-warrior: It means I won’t eat anything that can cast a shadow.

Food and philosophies often influence each other. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece avoided beans – something to do with the transmigration of souls –  and the medieval Christian cult the Cathars refused any food produced by sexual intercourse. Some Hindu sects still shun garlic and onions, associatint them with sexual lust.


If sex produced it then the Cathars ate it not


     Fast forward to the late 1800’s and dietary gurus are everywhere. One fad was Fletcherism: chew your food 100 times and always check your excreta. By now some folks had the luxury of abstaining from meat altogether, like the inventor of corn flakes, John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943). Inspired by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Kellogg advocated two meals a day (lots of nuts, no meat), avoidance of caffeine (or you’ll get diabetes or go mad). He recommended daily enemas.

Kellogg urged mandatory circumcision – without anesthetic, rendering the pain unforgettable – to decrease the pleasures of masturbation.He was a qualified physician and spoke with absolute confidence when he decreed that the sin of onanism could lead to all kinds of disabilities and even “the victim” dying “by his own hand.” How many American lads were terrified into keeping their hands above their waists at all times? They probably looked wistfully at their peckers, saying I’d really like to keep doing that thing you enjoy, but it says here it might kill us both. 

Late Victorian Europe – especially Germany – saw a swing to even stronger vegetarianism. In 1894 an ex-German Army officer named Wäthe and his Fruitarian Society visited San Francisco They advocated a diet limited to ripe, raw fruit and going nude when circumstances permitted. They hoped to arrange a colony in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). But their plan never reached fruition.

Kellogg: "...or you will go blind!"


     The most radical food cult started with another German, August Engelhardt, a pharmacist’s assistant born in 1875. Young August was a dreamy lad, given to fantasies about distant places. He pored over atlases. This was while Germany was catching up with the rest of Europe in acquiring colonies in Africa and the Pacific. One day, he told himself, I’ll live somewhere exotic. Somewhere in the tropics.

By the age of 22 he’d already published a book – A Carefree Future – describing an imaginary society of tropical frugivores. Their fruit-only diet bestowed boundless health and bliss. The golden goodness of equatorial sunshine and tropical fruits sustained their bodies. Their digestive systems remained untainted by the flesh of dead animals. And they held the coconut in particular esteem.

Soon central Germany’s Jungborn (Fountain of Youth) movement attracted Engelhardt’s attention. It demanded strict vegetarianism and nudism. Were they winter nudists? Reports are sketchy. In any case, the movement had a short life: the police demolished their compound, arresting the members for public indecency.


     August Engelhardt crisscrossed Germany lecturing on the benefits of nudism and a tropical-fruit diet. He preached that humans could live most healthily on nothing but coconuts. How ordinary Germans at the turn of the 20th century could afford to adopt Kokovorismus (a coconut-only diet) wasn’t Engelhardt’s problem. His mind was elsewhere. He wanted to put his ideas into practice by forsaking Europe and starting a new cocovoristic society deep in the tropics.

But where? Germany owned a colony in West Africa, Togoland (today’s Togo). That might do. Or how about Kamerun (today’s Cameroon) in Central Africa? No, too rainy and cloudy, and volcanic to boot. German Southwest Africa (Namibia), then? Nein: it was dry and devoid of coconuts. German East Africa (Tanzania, as it later became)? Lots of coconuts, to be sure, but lots of Muslims too. Nudists would be asking for trouble. Yet throughout this period a little voice inside his head kept whispering Südpazifik! Südpazifik! The South Pacific beckoned. 

Germany had recently purchased Micronesia from the Spanish Empire (Spain needed the money and Germany wanted a bigger empire). But it also owned Samoa and a big chunk of what is now Papua New Guinea. Intrigued, Engelhardt checked the map. German New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhemsland) was almost on the equator, he noted. Lots of coastline. Lots of coconuts. Perfekt!

The gods were kind: Engelhardt’s parents died at a wonderfully convenient juncture. He inherited a substantial sum. Nothing could stop him now. To German New Guinea! He’d abandon Europe and partake of the wonders of cocovorism.


Engelhardt went green


      What backed up his dietary ideas?

Engelhardt was convinced early humans had made a series of wrong turns. They should never have wandered so far north from their tropical homeland. Europe was no place for Homo sapiens, he declared. Our natural home is the equatorial belt, with its fruit trees and warm climate. And clothes are useless encumbrances in such conditions.

Agriculture was another serious blunder, he told whoever would listen. Humans were meant to live free, eating wild plants and living outdoors. The sun was the source of all life, so “getting back to the sun” was imperative. They’d then reach their destiny – healthy, happy, frugivorous and as naked as Adam and Eve.

We must never block the sun from our bodies, he wrote. Away with clothes! The head was the body-part closest to the sun, and was thus of special significance. Wearing hats was foolishness: they obstructed the sun’s beneficial rays. Not only that, but the energy required by our brains isn’t supplied by the alimentary canal, that deep, dark area full of Scheiße. No, said Engelhardt, the human brain receives energy directly from the sun. The hair follicles transform sunlight into nutrients.

Meat, grains and vegetables were less dependent on the sun and were thus inferior to fruit. And what better fruit was there than the coconut? It grew atop tall palm trees, and was thus closest to the sun. Not only was it the most nutritious of all foods, he affirmed, but a lifelong adherence to Kokovorismus would inevitably result in a higher state of spiritual consciousness, approaching the divine.


     Engelhardt arrived in German New Guinea in 1902. He brought 1,200 books and just enough clothes to avoid arrest until he could go nudist. He purchased a 75-hectare coconut grove on the island of Kabakon and built himself a hut.

He was now a wealthy man with few material needs. He could invite European disciples wishing to partake of the cocovore experience. The first arrived in 1903. A few stayed for several months. Some left as soon as illness struck. And many left sooner than that, put off by the mosquitoes and sand flies, the mud, the fevers, the tedium and the enervating heat.

The European population fluctuated wildly. Engelhardt was sometimes alone on Kabakon (alone if you ignored the 40 or so Melanesian residents). Euronudist vegetarians occasionally sought him out. Very few adapted, most found the guru’s standards and practices too strict to maintain. And one died after being hit by a falling coconut.


     One story from that period concerns a noted musician from Berlin, Max Lutzow. His enthusiasm for Engelhardt’s ideas was almost embarrassingly strong. Lutzow brought his violin to play tunes by his pet composers, Georges Bizet and Domenico Donizetti. But Engelhardt loathed Donizetti’s music and detested Bizet’s Carmen. He confronted Lutzow about this and other accumulated grievances. A spirited exchange of opinions ensued. Lutzow stormed off to sleep in a boat moored in the lagoon.

During the night the boat slipped its moorings and drifted out to sea. Strong cross-currents prevented the boat’s return, and Lutzow was stranded for two days exposed to the equatorial sun without earing or drinking. The boat had food but no coconuts, so he abstained. After his rescue he developed a fever. Engelhardt’s medical treatment – based on coconuts – failed. Lutzow died.


      Engelhardt descended into poor health. After years of Kokovorismus his weight plummeted to 39 kg (86 lbs). His skin was badly ulcerated. He could barely stand and had gout. A New York Times reporter from Manila covered Engelhardt’s story. In October 1905 he filed lurid – and bogus – reports of Engelhardt violently defying all attempts by German government doctors to restore his health and of his death while fighting against restraint.

But August Engelhardt still breathed. He remained on his island, usually in splendid isolation. A few sightseers swung by, but he was mostly alone. It became “the done thing” for visitors to German New Guinea to have their photos taken with the naked local loony, the mad coconut king (although the conventions of the time obliged him to cover up for the photographer).


       In  August 1914 the Great War broke out. Australian forces seized German New Guinea on Britain's behalf. They put Engelhardt in an internment camp for German civilians. But his captors decided he was more of a threat to himself than to the British Empire. They released him after three weeks.

He faded into obscurity, dying in May, 1919. German New Guinea had ceased to exist in September, 1914, and the coconut king spent the war confined to his tiny island, sending botanical specimens to Australian scientists as his life petered out. Throughout the years he stuck rigidly to cocovorism, never yielding to temptation. He could not even bring himself to eat bananas. But instead of attaining a long life, glorious health and higher consciousness, he died a lingering death aged 43.

His last thoughts were probably of coconuts.


The Germans held out for weeks






(980 words) 


The gruesome details of a gruesome practice produced by gruesome circumstances


      James Meek‘s haunting novel The People’s Act of Love opens in 1919 with a bedraggled fugitive stumbling into a remote Siberian village. He tells his interrogators he’d not only escaped from a brutal prison camp in the Arctic, but he’d narrowly avoided being eaten by his accomplice.


                                         Better than pork, he said


     Reports of inmates escaping from remote prison camps then eating their fellow escapees first appeared in a Russian medical journal in 1895, although the practice must have been older and more widespread than that. (In the 1820’s the Tasmanian escaped convict and "bushranger" Alexander Pearce boasted of eating his accomplices, claiming they were tastier than pork.) Cannibalism continued among Russian escapees well into the 20th century, by which time Czarist despotism had given way to Stalinist despotism.

This Russian practice involved the following:

Experienced inmates would plan an escape which always included a recently arrived zek (prisoner). The naive newcomer, ignorant of the dog-eat-dog culture of the camps, would count himself lucky to be included in the escape. He would also be relatively healthy, having not yet suffered years of privation. He had plenty of meat on his bones. This was crucial. That new zek would be the korova (cow).

Jacques Rossi’s Gulag Handbook  (quoted in The People’s Act of Love) defines korova as: A person designated to be eaten; suspecting nothing, any novice criminal, invited by his elders to join them in an escape, is fit for this role…if, during their flight, the escapees’ food supplies are exhausted, without prospect of renewal, the “cow” will be slaughtered…

Rossi, who despite his name was a Pole, spent many years in the Gulag (the Soviet prison camp network in Siberia and the Arctic). But his statement “if the escapees’ food supplies are exhausted…” was disingenuous. Prisoners were on semi-starvation rations. Even the most iron-willed zek could never hope to put aside enough morsels to sustain him throughout an escape. So of course the korova was going to be eaten. That was the sole reason for including him.

A political prisoner made the best korova. Thieves and murderers had usually done time before and had developed an instinct about these things. He’d be among the eaters, not the eaten. A “political” was probably not guilty of any crime at all, but had merely been caught up in one of Stalin’s senseless waves of mass arrests. He’d never done the backbreaking toil that half-killed most prisoners. Chances were his idea of a hard day’s work was the endless signing of papers (including, in some cases, arrest orders).


     Hello, breakfast!


        In The People’s Act of Love the fugitive was named Samarin, a leftist agitator escaping from one of the Czar’s harshest and most isolated prison camps. He testified he’d been “bought and sold” by a series of senior prisoners, all thieves and murderers. They were the camp’s aristocracy.

He’d become a camp aristocrat’s slave. The owner received food from other aristocrats in return for Samarin’s extra shifts working in the camp’s mine.

Samarin recounted how his final owner – a vile waste of carbon called The Mohican – suddenly started treating him humanely, using his considerable influence to reduce Samarin’s workload. And he suddenly started feeding Samarin.

One night a now healthier Samarin overheard a couple of aristocrats having a muffled argument with The Mohican. He’s too much for one. You’ve got to share him! he heard one of them whisper. Who was this "him"? And what did "share" mean? But by now the camp was descending into chaos as the Civil War disrupted supplies.

The Mohican prepared an escape. But according to Samarin only he and The Mohican were in on the plan. Samarin soon discerned the evil fate in store for him and evaded his partner. After months of wandering ever southward he arrived half dead at the Siberian village of Yazyk.

From here the novel’s plot unfolds. Things get complicated. All is not as it seems. There are murders and betrayals, lies within lies.



      The Mohican, said Samarin, had selected him and fattened him up for the escape. The supply of new prisoners had stopped as the Civil War raged, so there was no “new meat”. But by Stalin’s time this was never a problem. An endless stream of inmates entered the Gulag, so your average korova was already in good shape compared to the veteran prisoners, and looked good enough to eat.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps tells this grim story recounted by Edward Buca, another Polish survivor of the camps (from August 1939 the Gulag had no shortage of Poles):

Two prisoners arrested for murder and theft plotted an escape. They invited the obese camp cook to join them. A perfect plan: lots of meat, and it conveniently transports itself.

The two men duly killed and ate the cook. But their trek to freedom took longer than expected. Hunger set in and their korova had long been digested and excreted.

They now faced a dilemma. To split up and try to go it alone would be suicidal. But staying together was risky. Each escapee was under no illusions about the other’s intention. The first man to nod off would become several meals. Each tried desperately to stay awake. But finally one succumbed to sleep.

However, the last survivor never made it to freedom. He was caught two days later. Some of his buddy was in his belly and the rest was still in his sack, waiting to be eaten. He wound up back in the Gulag system. There, we can be sure, his fellow prisoners treated him with a measure of respect, while never getting too close.



GULAG: A HISTORYhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulag:_A_History






(1900 words)


The Yaghan/Yámana lived in the lowlands, but spoke the Mount Everest of languages




     The Yaghan people – or their remnants – are native to South America’s southernmost tip, the land of ice and fire called Tierra del Fuego. Research suggests they arrived about 6,000 years ago.

A 19th-century Anglican clergyman with the Patagonian Mission Society coined their name. He was the first to assume the Herculean task of learning their language. (Defying all attempts to link it to other languages, Yaghan remains stuck in the "isolated" category. It has no demonstrable kinship with any other language, living or dead.)

The Yaghan called themselves Yámana. As a noun it meant human. Thus a hand with the suffix -yámana was a human hand, not an animal’s claw. Yámana as a verb meant to live, to breathe, to be happy, to recover from illness or to be sane.



     Diseases wreaked havoc as 19th-century immigrants – Slavs and Germans – displaced the natives and cleared their land for sheep-farming. Until then the Yaghan/Yámana had been incessant wanderers. A stationary Yaghan was an oxymoron: the men were always hunting marine mammals from their canoes, the women relentlessly searched for crustaceans and fish. The Austrian missionary-anthropologist Martin Gusinde noted their restlessness, describing them as “fidgety birds of passage who feel happy … only when they are on the move”.

At first their language was assumed to be just as primitive as their lifestyle, since they lived virtually naked. This was despite a chilly climate where summer snow flurries were no surprise. Clothes just made you colder when they inevitably got wet. Smearing your body with seal fat and making fires everywhere you went were more effective. And natural selection had given them a higher-than-average metabolism and body temperature.

Frequent cloud and fog prevented evaporation, keeping the ground permanently wet and intensifying the ambient cold. Yet everyone slept in flimsy temporary seal-skin and sapling huts or in their canoes.

Fire was paramount. The Yaghan/Yámana could even start and maintain fires on rain-soaked bogs. Fire cooked their food and kept them warm when the seal fat needed assistance. They sent smoke signals warning of danger or alerting friends to sightings of marine mammals. Despite the obvious risk, they even maintained fires in their canoes.


Dressed for the occasion


       The seasons governed their world. The appearance of the blue sea-anemones heralded spring. The first snipes brought in the canoe-building season.

Two supernatural brothers with opposing views on everything dominated their religious beliefs. Their myths included a powerful sea lion and his human wife and stories about a giant albatross and sacred humming birds. Spirits, both malicious and kindly, crowded their everyday world. Any shaman could control the weather (if he so desired). There were stories of how women were once the ruling class and how they lost that role after a male rebellion. The nearby Ona/Selk’nam people had been their sworn enemies since, well, forever.




     Thomas Bridges (1842-1898) was the first outsider to study their language. Abandoned as an infant and raised by a clergyman, Bridges was only 18 years old when he took over the Tierra del Fuego mission, beginning his life-long task of mastering their language for the transmission of Holy Scripture. At his death his dictionary-grammar of Yaghan/Yámana had over 30,000 definitions. But it was still nowhere near completion.


     A British explorer, Captain James Weddell, had encountered the Yaghan/Yámana back in 1822. He  surmised their language was probably a debased form of Hebrew. Wedell’s report fueled speculation in Europe about Noah’s descendants after the Flood and about the Lost Tribe of Israel.

Barely a decade later, Captain Robert FitzRoy – who later commanded the ship HMS Beagle on which young Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking ideas germinated – abducted four young Yaghans to England. They were to be inculcated with the English language and some basic Scripture, then return to form the nucleus of the world's southermost Anglican community.

One soon succumbed to smallpox. The other three, El’leparu (“York Minster”), O’run-del’lico (“Jemmy [or Jimmy] Button”) and Yok’cushly (“Fuegia Basket”) survived the round trip, learning enough English to get by. They even met the King.


 Jemmy before and after


      We know little of what eventually happened to “York” and “Fuegia”, but Jemmy Button’s experience is better documented. On returning to Tierra del Fuego Jemmy shocked everyone – especially himself – by discovering that he could no longer converse in Yaghan. Only English words came out. The British ship left them, promising to return in a year. But FitzRoy was pessimistic that Jemmy – the three survivors’ best English-speaker – would prove an effective interpreter for future missionaries.

A year later the returning ship saw Jemmy had completely recovered his native language, married and reverted to the Yaghan/Yámana lifestyle. He refused to return to England. (He had, however, taught some English to a few Yaghan kids.)

Some 25 years later – his English still robust despite infrequent chances to use it – Jemmy was implicated in a missionary’s murder. He strenuously denied any involvement and escaped punishment.

He died in 1864, aged about 50. One of his sons, dubbed “Threeboy” by the missionaries, was whisked away to England, but his fate remains uncertain.


The Lost Tribe of Israel, you say?


     Young Thomas Bridges firstly assumed – just like Charles Darwin who’d visited the region in HMS Beagle in the 1830’s – that these people occupied the bottom rung of humanity, along with the Tasmanian aborigines and the southern African Bushmen. So how difficult could their primitive language be? Whatever the case, Christians are exhorted to gather all nations unto the Lord, so Bridges plunged into the Yaghan language.

His jaw dropped once he perceived what this entailed.

Their language was so metaphor-dependent that discovering the true meaning of a word was like peeling an onion.

“Monotony” was defined as the absence of male friends.

“Depression” was represented by the single word describing the phase in a crab’s life-cycle between the time it sloughs off its old shell and the time its new shell has grown.

One spoke of "adultery" by using the name of a species of hawk able to hover over its intended victim.

The word for a "fur seal" could mean a fur seal, or could refer to the relatives of a murdered man.

The list was endless. But Bridges persevered.

He noticed the underlying logic of these metaphors was intimately bound up with the Yaghans’ lifestyle. For instance, “the thawing of snow” was synonymous with the words for both scar and teaching. The connection was this: snow melts in patches and leaves a smooth, flat surface (a scar). And snow thaws in the spring, when the Yaghan/Yámana start a new wandering cycle and the children are taught the names of everything that swims, walks, crawls, floats, sprouts, flies, climbs and slithers.

They routinely applied observations of the natural  world to human affairs.

A hiccup was a tangle of fallen trees blocking the path forward.

Sleet (always a threat, a shaman’s powers notwithstanding) was the same word as fish scales.

Old age was easily identified by rough, wrinkly skin, thus expressed as mussels out of season.

And the word for bog was the same as a mortal wound (or a mortally wounded man). The mossy, water-oozing bogs of Tierra del Fuego cover the valley floors, laid out flat like a wounded man. Their dull yellow and reddish-brown hues resemble the blood and pus from a suppurating wound.




     Interestingly, the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation envisaged a similar linguistic scenario. In Season 5, the Federation Starship Enterprise attempts contact with the remote Tamarian people. The Tamarians’ infrequent encounters with Federation starships in the previous century were mutually frustrating since even basic communicationwas uphill work. Despite the Federation’s arsenal of advanced linguistic software, Tamarian remained all but incomprehensible.

The Enterprise‘s captain is kidnapped and forced to cooperate with his Tamarian counterpart in fighting a monster on the planet’s surface. Gradually the captain deduces that the rules of Tamarian don’t allow straightforward declarative sentences. Every utterance is an allegory, simile or metaphor drawn from the Tamarians’ inexhaustible fund of mythology and folklore.

The name of a semi-mythical king combined with “on the ocean” means to be alone.

“His arms held wide” means friendship or cooperation.

"His sails unfurled": Full speed ahead.

And so on.


     With this fundamental feature of Tamarian in mind, it is possible to explain the language thus:

Imagine an English-speaking community communicating only in the style used by the Tamarians. Somebody says Juliet on the balcony. If you didn’t know who this Juliet was, or why she was on the balcony, then this expression would be meaningless. Your ignorance of this image’s Shakespearean origin would prevent you understanding its reference to the first flushes of an ardent romance. It would still be English, of course, but its meaning would completely elude you.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men is another example. We understand this to describe a bad situation which cannot be remedied. But if you had no idea of who Humpty Dumpty was, what he sat on and what his eventual fate was, then this utterance would confound you.

It’s therefore apparent that understanding the Tamarian language depends on learning the culture – the mythology, history and folklore.

Thus the normal learning sequence is inverted.

Normally we assume that mastering the language must precede understanding the culture. But with the Tamarians and the Yaghan/Yámana, an intimate knowledge of the culture is an absolute prerequisite for coming to grips with the target language.

This is the paradox Bridges faced in mastering Yaghan. Making sense of even the basic language required an intimate knowledge of the culture. But that knowledge could only come from mastering the language.

It’s a wonder his brain didn't explode.


 His sails unfurled


     In his genre-bending travel book In Patagonia (1977) – from which some of these details come – Bruce Chatwin wrote that verbs dominated the Yaghan/Yámana language. Its verbs were astonishingly specific, like aiapi (to bring a special kind of spear and put it in a canoe ready for hunting). Or a compound verb meaning to let someone you dislike enter a dangerous situation without warning or stopping them.

Chatwin explained:

The Yaghans had a dramatic verb to capture every twitch of the muscles, every possible action of nature or man. The verb  îya means ‘to moor your canoe to a streamer of  kelp’; ôkon ‘to sleep in a floating canoe’ (and quite different from sleeping in a hut, on the beach or with your wife); ukômona ‘to hurl your spear into a shoal of fish without aiming for a particular one’; wejna ‘to be loose or easily moved as a broken bone or a blade in a knife’ – ‘to wander about, or roam, as a homeless or lost child’ – ‘to be attached yet loose, as an eye or bone in its socket’ – ‘to swing, move or travel’ – or simply ‘to exist or be’.

And so it went. Peeling the onion’s layers took decades. Meanwhile, European diseases ripped through the indigenous population. The survivors lost their traditions. The language shrunk. By the late 1900’s it entered the critically endangered category of languages.

The only Yaghan/Yámana native-speaker died in February 2022 near Puerto Williams, Chile. She was 93 years old.




Technical article on the Yaghan language's features: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaghan_language#Sample_vocabulary


Tierra del Fuego's indigenous people (approx 9 minutes)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjYNmMAtJuI


How Tamarian works (1 minute and 25 seconds)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANtl3bnQJr0






(2,800 words)

A race-based colonial rebellion inspired by the Book of Daniel was doomed to failure. But it built a legend.





     4.  THE REVOLT



     This is the story of a man from an obscure, impoverished land who made a major impact on his fellow Africans’ lives.

An active clergyman in his mid-40’s, he died in a hail of bullets in 1915. Long before the Mau Mau in Kenya and the Black Panthers in America got the same idea, he instigated a bloody anti-white uprising.


     Find Egypt on a map of Africa. Then move your finger down the Nile. Where Tanzania meets Mozambique and Zambia there’s a landlocked country shaped like a pregnant caterpillar. That’s today’s Republic of Malawi. Until 1964 it was the British Protectorate of Nyasaland.

His story begins here in about 1870.





     John Chilembwe came from southern Nyasaland. His father – possibly a Muslim – ignored the local Christian missionaries. Chilembwe’s mother was a slave captured from another tribe.

His early life was anonymous. Even his pre-baptismal name is uncertain. He acquired English and literacy at a mission school, where he later met the Englishman who would shape his destiny.

That man was Joseph Booth (1851-1932).  An ardent Baptist, Booth advocated self-reliance and hard work for both worldly success and salvation. Moreover, he insisted everyone was equal before God. He left class-ridden England for Australia, where his egalitarian values were more admissible. A Melbourne atheist challenged Booth to obey Matthew 19:21 by giving all his money to the poor.

I’ll do more than that, Booth announced. After his wife’s death in 1891, he sold his business and went to Nyasaland. Booth proclaimed his missionary work among the Dark Continent’s pagans would inculcate both God’s Word and the lessons of thrift, diligence and self-sufficiency.

He engaged John Chilembwe as a servant, student and interpreter. Booth’s Zambezi Industrial Mission recruited Africans to grow coffee. Subsistence farming leads nowhere, Booth proclaimed. Cash crops are the future. But his knack for underestimating difficulties and overestimating his managerial skills combined with Africa’s storms and droughts to produce failure.


Booth got the ball rolling


      By 1897 he’d made himself unpopular with Nyasaland’s whites. Africans deserve self-rule, he insisted. Colonialism is naked exploitation. It is unchristian. Independence must come, and the sooner the better.

A typical conversation went like:

Reverend Booth, have you been out in the sun too long? Your opinions are absurd!

Really? Do you think we whites are destined to rule Africa forever?

Who can say? But I can say the natives are lazy children, incapable of self-rule. Give them something to eat and something to play with and they’ll idle their lives away. They lack all capacity for logical thought. They’ve no sense of responsibility. The whole notion is quite preposterous.

Oh? And yet aren’t we here to raise the natives’ lives so they can eventually govern themselves as our equals?

Did you say as our equals? Were you not a Baptist minister I should say you were inebriated. Why, the very idea...!

But Booth was neither drunk nor addled by the tropical sun. He argued passionately: "Education is paramount. When enough natives can read and calculate, they can teach others to do likewise. They will need white teachers no longer. Nor will they require white pastors to preach. Africans can teach and preach for themselves."

That year he took John Chilembwe to America to study for the ministry. Chilembwe was an eager pupil, fervent in his devotions and keen to preach the Word. Who better to prove Booth’s point?

Chilembwe would now experience life as an African in Lynchburg, Virginia.




      Their destination was the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. On the way to Lynchburg the aspiring minister soon learned that “negroes” – or the much cruder word in common use – couldn’t share train carriages with whites. His ship-berths were always less commodious than those available to white passengers. Most hotels and restaurants were off-limits to him. Booth could sit inside a horse-drawn carriage, but the white passengers insisted Chilembwe sit outside with the driver. And on American streets he had to step aside for white pedestrians.

Everything conflicted with Booth’s sermons about everyone being equal before God. Lengthy discussions ensued about this.

The seminary’s principal was a black man, Gregory Hayes. People addressing Hayes as “Sir” impressed Chilembwe. In Lynchburg the young African saw ordinary black Americans wearing shoes, using cutlery and reading newspapers. They were comfortable in the cash economy. True, as residents of Virginia they could neither vote nor run for office, but in many respects they lived just like whites.

Chilembwe pondered all this. Africans should be able to live such lives, he thought. But we go barefoot and fear white civilization. Why?

Along with theology he devoured books by Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He learned about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist. And Chilembwe might have encountered something by young W.E.B. Du Bois, who urged black Americans to embrace their African heritage.


The rebel's on the left


      Ideas swirled in this newly ordained minister’s mind as he returned to Nyasaland in 1900. There he “laboured amongst [his] benighted race” and started the Providence Industrial Mission. Its purpose was to foster hard work, self-respect and self-reliance among his people.

Joseph Booth – all thoughts of Matthew 19:21 now forgotten – sent encouraging words from South Africa, America and Britain. Booth was persona non grata in Nyasaland. In his travels he embraced new sects like other men embraced new mistresses.

By 1912 Chilembwe managed a network of mission schools. He’d also become a strident critic of Nyasaland’s plantation owners. They cheated their native workers of their paltry wages. Arguing with the white plantocracy was pointless: the white man’s word always prevailed. The owners imported wretchedly poor blacks from Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). Britain’s Colonial Office described their wages as “the lowest in settled Africa”.

Chilembwe paid the nearby Bruce Plantation – and its savage overseer William Livingstone – particular attention. Mutual animosity was inevitable. Alexander Bruce declared education was wasted on Africans and called this upstart preacher a menace to decent society. Chilembwe’s chapels on Bruce’s land tended to catch fire.

Now the mission’s American sponsors stopped sending money. Chilembwe’s other income – hunting elephants for ivory – evaporated when his gun permit was revoked without explanation. His daughter died. His eyesight and asthma worsened. His creditors demanded payment. 1914 was grim. Then, to cap a perfect year, the First World War came to Africa.





      During the Great War (1914-1918), Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal had a tacit agreement about this being a white man’s war and about keeping their African colonies out of the fight. This lasted barely a week.

Nearby German East Africa – Tanzania – became a war zone. British troops arrived from India. Europe’s African colonies mobilized for total war.

Each colony transformed its local Africans into expendable beasts of burden. Their pay and conditions were atrocious. Mortality rates were scandalous.

Chilembwe watched helplessly as British-led patrols dragged men and boys from their villages. He contemplated the Book of Daniel, contemplated justice and deliverance and imagined the mighty being brought to their knees. He also contemplated Elliot Kamwana’s prophecies.


Troops & pack animals


     Elliot Kamwana was slightly younger than Chilembwe and was another of Booth's acolytes. He’d left the United Free Church of Scotland, deciding it wasn’t so free when it charged fees most African students couldn’t afford and denied him ordination.

Kamwana became a hospital attendant and preacher in South Africa. Booth –  now in a seesawing relationship with the Watch Tower movement (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) – mentored him. Kamwana took Booth’s anti-colonial and egalitarian ethos back to Nyasaland in 1908.

People still remembered Nyasaland’s recent earthquake, comet and smallpox epidemic portending the Apocalypse. Kamwana incorporated this into his sermons and mass baptisms. The end is nigh, he proclaimed. Repent! Walk the straight and narrow.

“Jolly good,” said the colonial government. “This Kamwana fellow’s fire-and-brimstone sermons will keep the natives in line, what?” But when he preached that all authority except Christ’s would soon end, the British kicked him out.

Kamwana bounced around southern Africa before sneaking back into Nyasaland. Meteor showers – another sign of the approaching Apocalypse – accompanied his return. It’s due in October 1914, he confidently predicted. This white man’s war clearly foreshadowed that.



     November came and Kamwana went. His disciples flocked to John Chilembwe, their new champion for Africans’ rights. His incendiary sermons overflowed with Old Testament imagery about slavery and woe. In Nyasaland are we not like the Israelites of old, a captive people made to suffer?

Chilembwe avoided racist rhetoric. He thanked God for his Christian education. He hoped to see his “benighted race” become like black Americans: regular churchgoers partaking of white civilization like the “coloreds” back in Lynchburg.

Indeed, if you could time-travel to 1914 and converse with Chilembwe, you’d best not disparage Christianity.

You: “You know, Reverend Chilembwe, before the white men came to Nyasaland, they had the bible and the natives had the land. Now the natives have the bible and the white men have the land.”

ChilembweHow dare you say that, sir! Would you deny my benighted people the Word of God and the chance of salvation? But for all its inequities, colonial rule has at least opened our eyes to … etc.

He had no wish to return to pre-colonial idolatry. He merely wanted equal rights for his people. And, as the war intensified, so did his protests.

Chilembwe wrote to The Nyasaland Times (probably the first black man to do so):

As I hear that, [sic] war has broken out between you and other nations, only whitemen [sic], I request you therefore not to recruit more of my countrymen, my brothers who do not know the cause of your fight, who indeed, have nothing to do with it.

…It is better to recruit white planters, traders, missionaries and other white settlers who are indeed of much value and who also know the cause of this war and have something to do with it…

The newspaper ignored the letter but alerted the authorities. They discussed exiling this troublemaker to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. But by now Chilembwe’s patience was exhausted. If the British wouldn’t listen to arguments, he decided, they’d listen to gunfire.




     Gunfire. That meant a bloody insurrection.

Chilembwe studied a military manual and secretly trained his unarmed followers in rudimentary soldiering. A fellow minister in northern Nyasaland agreed to split the whites’ reaction by having his own parishioners revolt once word arrived that the south was in rebellion.

But a Judas among Chilembwe’s disciples warned the authorities twice of this plan. He also warned a white Catholic priest who openly despised Chilembwe. They all ignored him.

John Chilembwe chose Saturday, January 23rd, 1915. In his final speech he said understood colonial rule and knew their chances of success were slim. Whoever survived would almost certainly die in the inevitable reprisals. And hiding out in this poverty-stricken land – where peasants would readily tip off the authorities for a mere sack of flour – was suicidal.

Some survivors may reach neutral Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), but both territories’ border patrols would be on high alert for fugitives.

Even so, he urged determination. A copy of his speech survives. It said in part:

This is the only way to show the whitemen, that the treatment they are treating our men and women was most bad and we have determined to strike a first and a last blow and then we will all die by the heavy storm of the whiteman’s army. The whitemen will then think, after we are dead, that the treatment they are treating our people is bad, and they might change to the better for our people.


     Chilembwe divided his forces in three:

Some would raid the Blantyre arsenal, stealing weapons for a killing spree.

Others would raid the notorious Bruce Plantation – and the brutal overseer Livingstone’s home – and exact revenge for years of cruelty.

A few would carry a letter to German East Africa (Tanzania) which said something like: Now, Nyasaland is in revolt by we natives. This revolt is due to the terrible treatment we are treated. We beg you to strike while the iron is hot and to smite a mighty blow to the British in Nyasaland.

Chilembwe failed to grasp that couriers on foot would take ages to reach German territory. And a serious German invasion - even if it was possible - would take ages to prepare. In any case, the letter never arrived. The couriers were arrested trekking through the Portuguese territory.


      After cutting the telephone lines, 100 rebels raided the arsenal. But its well-armed guards repulsed Chilembwe’s followers, who withdrew with only five rifles and ammunition.

At the Bruce Plantation insurgents stormed the sadistic overseer’s home. The Livingstones were at dinner when they attacked. Livingstone was wounded. As his wife bound his wounds they kidnapped her and beheaded him.

They speared another European nearby, found two rifles and captured more white women and children. But instead of keeping them as bargaining chips, they released them.

Meanwhile a Chilembwe lieutenant, Jonathan Chigwinya, led a raid on the plantation-controlled village of Mwanje. They speared a white manager in his bed. John and Charlotte Robertson escaped and raised the alarm as their African servant died defending them.


     Where was John Chilembwe during this?

At Providence Industrial Mission, deep in prayer. He’d delegated tactical leadership to David Kaduya, formerly of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). Chilembwe thanked the Almighty when his people brought him Livingstone’s head.

He conducted the Sunday service with Livingstone’s head on the altar.


     Chilembwe was satisfied with Day One, despite the shortage of rifles. Then came bad news. He’d expected the news of this revolt to spread like wildfire and inspire similar uprisings. But they all fizzled out. And that upcountry preacher’s diversionary rebellion never happened.

Meanwhile the all-white Volunteer Reserve and native troops attacked Chilembwe’s mission, inflicting 20 casualties before withdrawing. The rebels combined sectarian animus with racial violence by torching a nearby Catholic mission, killing an African security guard and wounding its white priest.

During that fire the Volunteer Reserve-KAR stormed the Providence Industrial Mission again. To their astonishment it was completely undefended.

Chilembwe’s nerve failed. Outnumbered and bereft of support, he aborted the uprising. Everyone fled – mostly without success – disguised as peasants. David Kaduya was the first to be captured and executed.

John Chilembwe was now Public Enemy #1, wanted dead or alive. The authorities combed the land. But first they dynamited the Providence Industrial Mission to show they meant business.

Chilembwe evaded capture for seven days. Then, almost within sight of Portuguese territory, a police patrol cornered him and opened fire, riddling him with bullets.

Only about 30 escaped arrest. The British imprisoned 300 insurgents. They hanged 40 more.


Punishment for the papists


                                             5. SLEDGEHAMMER


     When the dust settled the British applied sledgehammer justice.

They burned the rebels’ homes plus the homes of people unconnected with the revolt pour encourager les autres.

Then they:

fined the area’s residents – including non-participants – 4 shillings, a hefty sum;

confiscated all weapons;

banned all public gatherings;

imposed draconian restrictions on African-run churches; and

introduced preferential treatment for the Yao tribe. The Muslim Yao shunned the uprising. Not because they loved colonial rule, but because of their rejection of Chilembwe’s Christianity-coated message.

The Commission of Inquiry found that the Bruce Plantation’s management wanton cruelty engendered widespread bitterness culminating in insurrection. It singled out the late William Livingstone for particular criticism. The owner Alexander Bruce - the serial arsonist of Chilembwe's churches - remained unpunished.

An investigation discovered earlier statements made by Joseph Booth predicting the end of European rule in Africa by 1914. The colonies, he wrote, would become independent democratic nations united with black Americans. The Commission stated that considerable blame attached to Booth for filling African heads with such dangerous nonsense.

Its final report recommended a few cosmetic policy changes. The rebels remained under police surveillance long after their release. And as the years rolled by Chilembwe’s legend increased, as did academic analysis of the revolt.


     Was he a race-based nationalist? Or a hopeless fantasist? Did his final speech demand martyrdom? Was the insurrection doomed because his urban, Christian, literate followers could never inspire Nyasaland’s rural, animist, tribal majority?

No single explanation will suffice. However, as the century progressed, the Chilembwe saga sustained dreams of self-rule. Independence – along with the name Malawi – came in 1964. The fledgling nation soon degenerated into a Christian North Korea whose obsessively puritanical dictator maintained an iron grip on power and fostered a personality cult.

But Malawi’s “lost decades” under the friend to apartheid-era South Africa (and Latin enthusiast) His Excellency the Life President, the Chief of Chiefs Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda is another story.


Dr. Hastings Banda at XCV years old







(2,700 words)

Pitted against the enemy of his former enemy’s enemy.



     Twists of fate lead to other twists of fate.

This is the story of a man who experienced some big ones. A pawn in a giant game whose rules he barely understood, he wound up serving in three armies and two wars in two continents. And was a prisoner of war (POW) in three countries.


      Yang Kyoungjong (surname: Yang) was born in Korea in 1920, about 10 years after Japan incorporated Korea into its Empire. This made him a Japanese national. Ethnic Koreans like him were denied all the privileges of Japanese nationals from Japan while incurring all the obligations of Japanese nationals. He was drafted into Japan’s permanent military garrison in northeastern China (“the Kwangtung Army”).

In 1938 the Japanese Imperial Army had grandiose plans for enlarging its empire by seizing Mongolia and a big chunk of Siberia. They saw this as straightforward for two reasons:

Manchuria – officially the independent nation of Manchukuo – was a Japanese puppet state in northern China. It provided the Kwangtung Army with the perfect launching pad for a war of conquest.

Secondly, despite the Soviet Union and its obedient puppet state – Mongolia – looming large, the Red Army (the Soviet military) was reportedly in tatters. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s paranoia about traitors in every closet and foreign spies under every bed resulted in scores of top Red Army generals being arrested, tortured then executed.

Japanese intelligence officers noted with particular interest that the Soviets’ leading tank warfare specialist was among the first to disappear. The Red Army’s morale, they reported to Tokyo, could hardly be lower.

Smashing the Red Army would be a cinch.


If the Reds had kept going...


     Not so fast! said the Japanese Navy. The admirals argued the acquisition of sub-arctic tundra was a monumental waste of manpower and resources. Not to mention this was all the Army’s idea, thereby depriving the Navy of glory. But the generals had the Emperor’s ear, and he approved the idea.

Some months later the generals were casting around for someone else to blame. The campaign had been a disaster. Stalin’s Red Army inflicted a stinging defeat. The Navy - pouncing on the chance to score points against its Army rivals - declared We told you so, and submitted its own plan. American, British and Dutch territories in the Asia-Pacific region would be the targets, starting with an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Not that any of this meant anything to Yang. He – along with about 3,000 Japanese and Manchurian POWs – was transported across Siberia to an uncertain fate.

Back home, Yang’s family received notification he’d been killed in action. Japanese tradition required its troops to commit suicide rather than fall into captivity. To spare their loved ones the ignominy of having a POW in the family, Yang and the others were declared dead, case closed. (For the Army they were as good as dead anyway.)


     Yang languished in the Soviet Union, learning the debased, obscenity-laden Russian vocabulary of the prison camps, never knowing if he’d see another day, never knowing what fate had in store for him.

Then history intervened.

In June 1941 Hitler and his Axis allies (Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Romania) invaded the Soviet Union.

They caught the Soviets with their pants down, taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Only the U.S.S.R.’s vast distances and the brutal winter of 1941-42 saved Moscow itself from capture.

The Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, ordered all Red Army units Hold firm! Fight to the last man! Not one step back! Surrender was forbidden. But hopelessly cornered Red Army troops facing certain death surrendered in droves.

The Soviet manpower situation became critical. Stalin now looked to his prison camps (the Gulag) in Siberia and Arctic Russia. In 1942 he released most political prisoners plus the POWs from Manchuria. The idea was: put a little meat on their bones, give them rudimentary training and pitch them straight into battle. That should buy the Soviet Union some time, Stalin thought.

It bought Yang about a year. But in early 1943 the Wehrmacht captured him during the Battle of Kharkov (today's Kharkiv). He was now in a German prison camp.


  Trade rag for potato, please?


      "Prison camp" was a generous term. Stalin’s regime refused to sign any international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war, so Germany had no legal obligation to provide its Soviet captives - over 5 million of them in the course of the war - with adequate food, shelter or medical care. Most of them huddled in barbed wire enclosures, left to freeze and starve, sleeping in piss puddles, surrounded by putrefaction and despair.

Some were used in ghoulish medical experiments. Some wound up as slave workers as far away as Norway and the Channel Islands. And a surprising number were either forced into the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) or enthusiastically volunteered to fight against Stalin.

Nazi ideology permitted the concept of Honorary Aryan: “racially acceptable” non-Europeans, like the Japanese and northern Indians.  There’d be no objection to them serving in German uniforms (whether they wished to or not). Nazi self-styled racial experts toured the camps, selecting Soviet POWs to replenish the Wehrmacht‘s numbers after its heavy losses.

The coerced ones were lumped in with the eager volunteers trudging out of the piss puddles, stepping over the corpses, getting deloused, receiving actual food and putting on German uniforms. They joined Ost-bataillone (Eastern battalions). These were Wehrmacht units under German command but comprising troops from the Soviet Union’s non-Slavic populations. (Later the Slavs’ official sub-human status was conveniently forgotten and any Russian/Slavic prisoner of war or defector wanting to fight Stalin could join in.)

The keen Estonians and Latvians were high up the racial totem pole, and the Caucasians (Armenians, Georgians and so on) were also good to go. So were the Central Asians (Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen…).

Yang made the cut as an Honorary Aryan. We’ll never know whether some racial expert simply liked the look of him or whether Yang somehow managed to convey to his captors that he was Japanese (his Korean ethnicity being irrelevant here). Whatever the case, in 1943 Yang Kyoungjong, formerly of the Imperial Japanese Army and the Red Army, became a private in the Wehrmacht‘s 709th Infantrie-Division. That was a static division – it had precious few motor vehicles and many of its troops were below front-line quality.

Next stop, France.


We're racially acceptable


       What went through the Korean’s mind as he was shunted across Europe to Normandy to be pitted against the enemy of his former enemy’s enemy?

At least Yang was still alive and in one piece, despite all those chances to become neither. One spring day in 1944 he climbed off a horse-drawn wagon at the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass from where he’d started. The salty tang of the breeze from the English Channel filled his nostrils as he joined his new Wehrmacht buddies in a division tasked with repelling the expected Anglo-American invasion.

The 709th Division had its fair share of ex-Red Army soldiers: mainly Slavs and Georgians. Their combat effectiveness wasn’t expected to be high and their willingness to lay down their lives for Hitler was minimal. So, when the invasion came, the U.S. paratroopers assigned to that area easily overwhelmed Yang’s unit.

We don’t know exactly how Yang’s third capture happened, but we know he was luckier than some. Many of his fellow soldiers met a grizzly end, as the movie Saving Private Ryan depicted. In an early scene the Americans take heavy casualties on the Normandy beach then fight their way a little inland, encountering a German bunker complex. Two Wehrmacht guys emerge with their hands in the air, shouting something a language the Americans can’t understand. Czech? Russian? With the noise of battle and the fog of war they might as well have spoken Arabic. The Americans shoot them anyway.


 Wir sind Russen! Russen!


     The G.I.’s guarding Yang and his fellow-prisoners saw four East-Asian-looking men among them and discovered one of them was “Japanese” (Yaponskiy/Japanisch). They immediately assumed all four were Japanese. The guards sent word to their superiors who sent word to their superiors who sent word to Washington D.C.: There are Japanese troops fighting for Hitler in France! We have the living, breathing proof right here!

Questions immediately arose. How was this even possible? They couldn’t just cross the Japan Sea to the U.S.S.R. and travel overland to France. So did they somehow make it across the Pacific, traverse South America and cross the Atlantic to Europe? But why go to all that trouble? And are there enough Japanese troops in Europe to tip the balance?

Even in 1944 the Anglo-Americans had little idea that the Wehrmacht included hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviets of many ethnicities. When the Western Allies encountered Wehrmacht troops with almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones they immediately saw “Japanese”. Only later, as Germany collapsed and masses of prisoners fell into Allied hands, did the reality hit. But the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor) already knew all about this.


      The practice of POWs switching sides was hardly new. During the American Civil War some 5,000 Confederate prisoners of war joined the Union Army and about 1,600 Union POWs switched to the Confederate Army. And thousands of Czech captives defected from the Austro-Hungarian Army to the Russians in World War One.

The scale here was massive. As early as 1942 NKVD officers saw ample evidence of Soviet troops defecting en masse to the Germans. They learned not only of POWs voluntarily switching sides, but soldiers on active duty. Whole units defected without even waiting to be captured. Not only troops from ethnic minorities, but actual sons of Russia. Not only ordinary Russian soldiers but officers too. Military academy graduates! Not only academy graduates – and this made the sweat trickle down the investigators’ backs – but actual Communist Party members. The Soviet elite! Holy Mother of God! the NKVD officers whispered under their breath as they two-finger-typed their reports to Moscow.

Comrades, let’s not kid ourselves, these reports said (although in more conventional language). We can understand – but never forgive! – Ukrainians acting on anti-Soviet impulses after the harsh treatment – harsh but totally justified, comrades! – they received during the collective agricultural campaigns before the war. And we can understand – but never forgive! – the Central Asians’ resentment at the Soviet government’s completely legitimate suppression of their anti-revolutionary Islamic practices.

As for the Armenians and Chechens, well, comrades, who could ever trust those people?

And so on. The revelation that Homo Sovieticus would so eagerly betray both the motherland and communism shocked Stalin. Never one for half-measures, he ordered 25-year Siberian prison camp sentences for every Soviet POW returning to the U.S.S.R. – whether he’d actively joined the German war effort or not.

But there was another dimension.


      General A. A. Vlasov survived Stalin’s mass arrests in 1938. By 1942 he was a highly decorated hero, the Soviet media's golden boy. But that summer, a year after the Axis invasion, Vlasov’s forces – undermanned and undersupplied, unable to advance but forbidden to withdraw – were hung out to dry. He was captured on July 12, readily betrayed to the Germans by a local farmer.

Vlasov later claimed this senseless waste of lives turned him against Stalin and the Soviet system. In the prison camp he approached the Germans with a seemingly outlandish offer: he wished to recruit POWs of Russian ethnicity and train them as an army to fight side-by-side with the Germans against the Red Army.

Russians will fight with passion against the Communist beast, he told anyone who’d listen. And I, Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, will lead them in this crusade.

At first this idea of an army of Russian prisoners helping to liberate Russia went nowhere. But later, as the Germans’ manpower situation worsened, their thinking evolved.

Among Berlin’s elite the conversations went something like:

These creatures in their barbed wire enclosures must be miserable.


Living in their own filth, waiting to shrivel up and die.


Is it true there’s cannibalism in those camps?

Without a doubt.

Apparently many of them hate Stalin and everything he stands for.

It stands to reason.

They say this Vlasov fellow seems rational enough.


He’s not Jewish, is he?

No. We checked.

So what have we got to lose?

Nothing at all.


He'd liberate Russia


     It took ages to get the ball rolling, by which time most ex-Red Army Russians were already ensconced in Ost-bataillone. Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army was too little too late. By then Yang was in his third POW camp.

The Americans shipped most of their Wehrmacht prisoners to the States. But Yang wound up in Britain. As victory in Europe drew closer Stalin demanded the Anglo-Americans hand over all captured ex-Red Army men in German uniforms to Soviet authorities. This included Yang.

But Yang was also ex-Japanese Imperial Army, and he’d never been a Soviet citizen. So the British were under no obligation to return him to the NKVD’s loving arms.


      Let’s review what’s happened so far:

A Korean teenager with Japanese nationality is drafted into the Japanese Army. In 1939 he’s captured by the Red Army during Japan’s attempt to seize territory from the U.S.S.R. and Mongolia. He’s imprisoned in the Soviet Union until 1942, by which time the desperate Soviets turn political prisoners and POWs from anywhere and everywhere into cannon fodder.

He’s thrown into the Red Army. The Germans capture him in 1943. He somehow winds up in their army and he's assigned to France just before the Anglo-American invasion. He’s captured again, this time by the Americans. They ship him to a POW camp in Britain.

Germany surrendered in May 1945. Now Yang posed an administrative problem. He wasn’t a German so couldn’t be repatriated to post-war Germany. The Soviets weren’t legally entitled to him. He was technically Japanese but Japan was a world away and would remain the enemy until September, several months in the future.Then, with Japan’s defeat, Japan could no longer claim him, since Korea’s ties with Japan were severed, meaning Yang was now a Korean, not Japanese. So what to do?

The details are murky, but Yang eventually emigrated to the United States in 1947. What transpired between May 1945 and 1947 remains unexplained.

Perhaps he was a Christian, like some other ethnic Koreans. That would have helped his application to move to America. Who knows?

We do know three things:

Yang settled in Illinois – at last! a place he could pronounce! – got married and had kids.

He never spoke about his experiences, even to his children. He gave no interviews and resisted the temptation to write his memoirs.

He died in 1992.


      So how did the Yang narrative emerge?

Fragments of the saga surfaced over the decades. Other stories circulated about similar discoveries. Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 best-seller about the Normandy invasion – The Longest Day – mentioned Americans capturing “a Tibetan shepherd” in a Wehrmacht uniform. Ryan reported that months later, when they finally found someone to translate, the shepherd explained he’d been kidnapped by Soviets who’d illegally crossed the border to kidnap men for the Red Army. Later, like Yang, the Germans captured him, put him in their army and shipped him to France.

But Ryan’s geography was way off. He should have seen that Tibet is a long way from the Soviet Union. It’s more likely this POW was from China’s Xinjiang Province, whose Uighur people share ethnic and linguistic ties with some Soviet Central Asians. And Xinjiang’s long, porous border with the Soviet Union allowed Red Army “press gangs” easy access.

Some analysts contend that not everything in the Yang story happened to Yang. He may never have been in a Japanese soldeier. He may have come from the Soviet Far East’s ethnic Korean population and served in the Red Army as a regular conscript. Then he was captured and forced into the Wehrmacht, then was captured by the Americans. That’s entirely plausible.

Others argue Yang’s a composite character: the stories of two or more East Asian soldiers have been muddled, combined and conflated into one figure. That’s also possible.

And in 2005 a Korean commercial-TV network's investigation on this whole issue concluded there was insufficient evidence to accept the story of a Korean serving in three armies and winding up in German uniform.

Only Yang knew for sure. But he remained stubbornly silent.

In 2011 a South Korean film studio made a highly fictionalized film about Yang (played by a handsome hunk with guaranteed box-office appeal to the ladies). My Way had its Wehrmacht Korean escaping from Normandy and nonsensically making it back to Korea (!). Unsurprisingly, it was a critical and commercial flop.

Because Yang never gave us his version of these events we can never be certain if we have the truth. He took his story to the grave. And in the increasingly unlikely event that something definitive pops up to confirm or refute it, in the grave it will remain.


WERE THEY KOREAN?:  https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/koreans-captured-at-d-day.html


HITLER'S RUSSIAN ARMY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3u5k7Pd3vPU&t=193s (11 minutes)




(2,900 words)

Italy’s most unusual city is haunted by history and nagged by lost circumstance.



     “But why are you in Trieste?” the woman asked.                                                   

The scene was a popular cafe in an obscure northern Italian port. In a list of Italian cities, this place would probably be in the etcetera section.

That’s no exaggeration. So remote is Trieste from the minds of many Italians that they have real problems pinning down this city's location on maps. In my own atlas it’s located just on the crease separating two pages, with the Tri on one page and the este – slightly out of alignment – on the other.

That says something about this city of 205,000 people scrunched between the Adriatic Sea and the Slovenian border. Trieste is in Italy – just barely – but has one foot in the Latin world and one foot in the Slavic world. It occupies a tiny sliver of the Balkans. So it’s not postcard Italian in the way that Venice and Florence are. This is because until 1918 Trieste was the main port of Austria-Hungary.

The main port of landlocked Austria and even more landlocked Hungary. Landlocked now, of course, but until its defeat in the First World War Austria-Hungary/the Austro-Hungarian Empire/the Habsburg Empire (they’re all the same) owned big chunks of the Adriatic coast: a slab of northeastern Italy and all of Slovenia and Croatia. Plus Bosnia-Herzegovina was inland a bit. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, a slab of Poland, Transylvania and a slice of Ukraine made up the rest.

Some of the empire’s peoples (“nationalities”) were happy to be ruled by Vienna or Budapest (the empire was an egg with two yolks). But some – notably the Czechs and Bosnian Serbs – were restive, muttering about independence, occasionally shaking their fists in the general direction of Vienna.

This was to be expected in a ramshackle empire with two capital cities, its population comprising Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Germans, Magyars, Slavs, Latins and Roma. Its people spoke about a dozen official languages, and could further be classified into beer drinkers, slivovitz lovers, Muslim teetotalers, wine heads and vodka hounds. The Austro-Hungarian Empire lurched from crisis to crisis but always somehow muddled through. Its political history gave rise to the half-joke Situation desperate but not serious. And all the while Trieste was the empire's gateway to the sea.


Tucked away in the corner 


      The woman in this bar was mousy and middle-aged, a faded beauty with faded blonde hair. She wore a faded overcoat despite the mild weather. She must have already had a wine or three and was well into this glass which she wafted riskily in the air as she spoke. Emboldened by the wine, she approached our table a little unsteadily and started speaking a kind of English whose grasp never quite matched its reach.

“Sorry to disturb…would like to take this…er…opportunity…cannot…could not identify your English…not American…not Irish…interesting accents moreover…seldom have the opportunity to speak English…would you…er… be so kind…” We obliged her by explaining ourselves, carefully avoiding the tedious details likely to challenge a drunk person’s attention span.

After more small talk she suddenly leaned forward with the urgent sincerity of the drinker who’s passed that evening’s point of no return, and asked: “But why are you in Trieste?”

The clear inference was that nobody visits Trieste without a pressing reason to do so. You pass through Trieste to and from Austria and the Balkans. You visit this city on business. But who spends hours and hours on planes to visit Trieste and nowhere else?

Before we could answer to her satisfaction she announced she was a coroner, and that she was also a typical Triestina. In her case this meant she was half-Italian, a quarter Austrian and a quarter Slovenian.


Globocnik was a Triestino


     How right she was about being typical. The ethnic mix in this city means that a civil marriage ceremony might be conducted by a magistrate named Emilio Brabich, who would intone something like, “Do you, Fabrizio Horvat, take Giovanna Plunck to be your lawfully wedded wife…?”

You might swing by the Museo Carlo Schmidl on the Piazza Gopcevich. Or you might pay a respectful visit to Italy’s only Nazi extermination camp for Jews, gays and leftists at Risiera di San Babba. Its commandant was a local boy, Trieste-born Odilo Lotario Globocnik (1904-1945).

At first this ethnic salad – all these hybridized, hyphenated Italians – surprises you. But with Google as your friend you find that where you’re sitting the next day – a table in the stately Caffè Tommaseo –  is closer by road to Salzburg than to Florence, closer to Zagreb than to Milan, closer to Budapest than to Rome and closer to Ljubljana than to Venice. So this isn’t the northern fringe of southern Europe. It’s the southern fringe of central Europe.

You know you’re in Italy, but the city keeps reminding that it almost isn’t. It swings your attention this way and that, from plus to minus and back again. You ponder what kind of Italy produces people with names like Globocnik, Horvat and Plunck, and you figure this place isn’t really so Italian. Then a motor scooter zips past. It has about as much automotive power as a sewing machine but emits the noise volume of a chainsaw and you think, This is Italy all right.

You remember reading how Trieste rivals Buenos Aires in the per capita number of psychoanalysts, but then you reflect on how uptight the people are not, with their pleasant manners and their easy charm. You recall the fact that your average Triestino consumes twice as much rocket-fuel coffee as your average Italian, but nobody seems wired up. Some people actually doze over their rocket-fuel.



     So why am I in Trieste?

The wheels started to turn with a reading of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris (2001). As an 18-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, James Morris – she used to be a he – entered Trieste in the chaotic last days of World War Two. Knowing what kind of treatment they could expect, the remaining German troops refused to surrender to the snarling Yugoslav partisans surrounding them. So the Western Allies moved in. Since then Morris has had a fond relationship with the city. She even speaks its distinctive dialect.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere opens with:

I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye. Who can? It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination. It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single name that everyone knows. It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 percent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.

Who could resist such a description? As for her claims:

No unforgettable landmark. Check. No Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House or anything resembling the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

No universally familiar melody. Check. The composer Antonio Smareglia (1854-1929). No, I haven’t heard of him either. Going to Trieste for the music would be like going to Spain for the beer.

No unmistakable cuisine. Here I must take issue with Morris. Trieste has a unique and wickedly rich seafood dish, too thick to be a soup, too digestible to be a stew. But what was its name again?

Hardly a single name that everyone knows. Check. James Joyce was an adopted Triestino when he taught for years at the local Berlitz School. He supposedly based the character of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses on a local Jewish student, also a novelist, Italo Svevo (born Aron Ettore Schmitz). But apart from Joyce, who else can we identify with Trieste?

Ethnically ambivalent. Check. This is clear when you walk its streets and look at all the blue eyes and Melania-Trump-cheekbones, and read the names on the signs in the shop windows…

 Historically confused. Check. Imagine an elderly Triestino who has lived his whole life in the city:

As this centenarian reviews his life he says, “I was born in 1915, during the Great War, as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When I was a toddler Trieste became Italian, and so did I. When I was 28 it became Küstenland, an official part of Germany, so that made me German. Then it became independent, a so-called Free City under United Nations control, so I was nothing. Now Trieste and I are Italian again and everywhere you look there are Romanian immigrants and Chinese traders and Bulgarian hookers and whatnot. So who needs to travel?”


Space? We have space


      Trieste is haunted by history, and the Great War (1914-1918) haunts it the most. The city is trapped between the sea and a looming ring of limestone ridges called the Karst (Italian: Carso, Slovenian: Kras), straddling the Slovenian border. It looks more inviting today, thanks to decades of tree-planting, but from 1915 to 1918 it was a bleak, forbidding plateau, like a petrified sponge five times the size of Manhattan.

One wartime reporter called it  “a howling wilderness of stone”.

The Italians and the Austro-Hungarians battled over this ghastly landscape for three and a half years. Their armies were like two one-armed midgets in a fight to the death. The Italians repeatedly charged uphill into the enemy machine guns, while the Austro-Hungarians on the higher ground rolled boulders down on them whenever their ammunition ran out.



        A constant flow of sick and wounded Austro-Hungarian soldiers streamed into Trieste, carried down by exhausted mules. World wars are inherently unhealthy but both sides endured horrific conditions. Water had to be heaved up from the lowlands by whatever means available. But it was never enough, so kidneys failed and livers rotted.

Vicious winter winds whipped through the canyons and froze the troops huddling in caves or in crude rock shelters (how do you dig trenches in limestone?). Artillery shells bounced and skidded among the Karst’s boulders, shattering them into millions of fragments and ripping the eyeballs of any nearby soldiers. Avalanches and rock slides buried thousands of them alive.

Men were deafened by the monstrously amplified boom of artillery reverberating in the caverns and among the cliffs. Sleep was often impossible. The endless crashing and shaking drove some of them insane. Or they went mad from the all-pervading, nauseating stench of turds and thousands of corpses because you simply can’t dig graves – or latrines – in limestone.


                                                      Austro-Hungarian supply line


       Neither army started the war in great shape. The Italian troops were often illiterate or semi-literate conscripts, poorly trained and under-equipped. They were there because Italian politicians were convinced that Trieste – most conscripts had never heard of the place – rightfully belonged to Italy. These irredentist politicians were also certain that once the Triestini saw how many brave Italian lads were shedding their blood for this noble cause every Triestino’s heart would swell with love for his or her true homeland and rise up against the Austro-Hungarians. They could never understand why most Triestini – civilians and soldiers alike – stayed so loyal to Vienna.

Italian soldiers endured sadistic discipline. Before an “advance” they were issued a cup or two of grappa to stiffen their resolve. Their officers usually ordered the first wave of attackers  – “the first line” – to charge straight at the enemy positions, always uphill. They’d order the second line to lay down a line of fire – aiming at the ground –  just behind to prevent retreat by anyone developing doubts about the wisdom of charging into a solid wall of machine gun fire.

When the Italian second line troops charged the enemy position – their job made harder by having to scramble over the dead and wounded from the first line – the third line also had to lay down a similar line of fire to the second line’s rear in case they tried to fall back to safety.

One time an Italian officer ordered the decimation (the execution of every tenth man, randomly selected) of his second line because he saw them firing over the heads of the poor sons of bitches in the first line instead of firing at the ground just behind them. The men assigned to the firing squads then got good and drunk on army rotgut wine and deliberately missed their targets, so they too got death sentences.

It’s no wonder, then, that by late 1917 most Italians fighting in that bloodsoaked wasteland above Trieste had had enough. During yet another poorly planned pre-winter “advance” about 300,000 of them threw down their weapons and surrendered en masse. They marched joyfully into Austro-Hungarian captivity, shouting Viva Austria!. The Austro-Hungarians, on semi-starvation rations themselves, groaned at the knowledge that they now had almost a third of a million more mouths to feed. 


If only ice was edible


        The Austro-Hungarian forces were no world-beaters themselves, and as the war dragged on they lost whatever punch they had. Their economy couldn’t sustain prolonged warfare. Everyone was exhausted and hungry. In the war’s last months all they could do was try desperately to hang on.

Then the Austro-Hungarian one-armed midget ran out of breath just slightly ahead of the Italian one-armed midget, and the Habsburg Empire imploded. The half-starved and exhausted army disintegrated and the war effort collapsed. After half a millennium of rule from Vienna, Trieste was now Italian.


Soon to be territorio italiano


       What do you do if you’re on the losing side in a war and you’re now a citizen of the old enemy? This question faced the Triestini in November 1918. There was nowhere to run. The old empire was kaput. This new political order turned everything on its head.

Meanwhile, Italy’s generals and politicians were jubilant. They popped champagne and threw their hats in the air. But it soon became obvious that Trieste was a place they wanted but not a place they needed. Sure it used to be Austria-Hungary’s main port, and a good one too, but Venice was just as good, as were Genoa and Naples. So what was the point of Trieste?

What was the point indeed? Trieste was a fine place for novelists to ensconce themselves in cafes and commune with their muses, and few cities could beat its coffee, its decadent Viennese desserts and its wunderbahr sausages. But what else could it offer? Centuries of prestige, sure, but no one seriously thought it had much of a future. And, like the drunken coroner, it faded.

When the next world war ended in 1945 Trieste was a major question mark. Europe’s borders shifted yet again, and Yugoslavia tried a little expansion. Trieste’s historic ties with Slovenia were strong, weren’t they? Slovenes and Croats had lived in its suburbs for generations, hadn’t they? But Italy clung tenaciously to Trieste, and a standoff developed. The U.N. stepped in and took control.

The Free Territory of Trieste mentioned earlier by our centenarian Triestino lasted seven years. Before the situation settled down, the city was on the verge of becoming a Cold War flashpoint. But the West and Yugoslavia reached an accommodation. Trieste then became an Adriatic version of Vienna, West Berlin and Helsinki: a useful base from which western intelligence agencies snooped on regimes they didn’t like, such as Yugoslavia.

After years of negotiations, Italy officially got the city back. By then Yugoslavia was increasingly distancing itself from the Soviet Bloc. So Trieste lost whatever Cold War usefulness it offered. By the late 1960’s it was where Yugoslavian day-trippers bought denim jeans and Rolling Stones albums for re-sale back home. Trieste earned the nickname Smuggle City.


       So here it is, the 21st century. The city’s now over 2,000 years old, even more faded than the drunken coroner. These thoughts remind you how time is so easily lost.

Jan Morris captures the elusive mood of Trieste, a city that is “reliably second-tier,” with these words:

If it were not a port Trieste would have been nothing much, and the sense that it is nothing much, now that its great days seem to be gone, is what has made it feel so wistfully unfulfilled. Trieste is not exactly rankled by its disappointments, as a surgeon might be embittered by unfair dismissal from his hospital, but for nearly a century it has been nagged by lost circumstance.

“Wistfully unfulfilled.”

“Nagged by lost circumstance.”

That’s the thing. Trieste – an unwitting victim of history and geography – never reached its full height and fell short of its potential. It’s now a mere dot in a remote corner of Italy and even many Italians are barely aware of it. How often can we reflect on how our own lives never reached their full height, and how we fell short of our own potential? Reflect on how we could have been, should have been, something bigger and better, with more to show for our lives than amusing anecdotes and deteriorating bodies and jumbled memories?

We recall blown chances, crucial moments when we took our eye off the ball. We reflect on people we mistrusted but who turned out to be more honest than the people we did trust. We regret the money we mindlessly pissed away and all the squandered opportunities we hardly even thought about at the time. We could’ve become this, we might’ve done that, we should’ve chosen something else. LikeTrieste we could’ve reached greater heights. Where did it all go?



TRIESTE IN 2 MINUTES: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzMt9nBNdp4

WHY IS TRIESTE PART OF ITALY? (approximately 4 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyX5i9o0YMU




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Published on  August 19th, 2023