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Behold the mystery of 9, the largest single-digit number. It has unique properties. Let us begin.

If you multiply 9 by 1, you of course get 9. But if you multiply 9 by 2 you get 18, whose digits (1 and 8) also add up to 9.

Multiplying 9 x 3  gives you 27, and 2 +7 = 9.

9 x 4 = 36, and we see 3 + 6 = 9.  And 9 x 44 is 396, and 3 + 9 + 6 = 18 and then 1 + 8 = 9. And so on.

Choose any number, no matter how big, and multiply it by 9. Its constituent digits will always reduce to 9.

For example: 867,412,155 multiplied by 9 is 7,806,709, 395.

7 + 8 + 0 + 6 + 7 + 0 + 9 + 3 + 9 + 5 = 54, and 5 + 4 = 9.


But we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Add up all the digits from 1 to 9 and they come to 45. Needless to say, 4 + 5 =9.

Then there’s this:

If you line up all the single-digit numbers (1 to 9) and multiply them by 9, you wind up with 123,456,789 x 9 = 1,111,111,101. That number’s digits add up to 9.

If you line up 123,456,789 and multiply that number by 18 (whose digits add up to 9) you get 2,222,222,202. All those 2’s add add up to 18 which reduces to 9. If you take that same line-up from 1 to 9 and multiply it by 45 (whose digits also add up to 9) you end up with 5,555,555,505. And all those 5’s add up to 45, which reduces to 9.

And so on.

You can also take any number whose digits add up to 9 and then subtract 9. Let’s say the original number is 441 (4 + 4 + 1 = 9). Now watch this:

441 – 9 = 432. Then 4 + 3 + 2 = 9.


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Here’s a neat observation:

Take any 2-digit number, let’s say 64, and divide it by the 2-digit number 99 and see what happens.

64 ÷ 99 is 0.6464646464. Notice how the two-digits on either side (64/99) result in a repeating decimal which also consists of two digits?

The same would work for any 7-digit number divided by the 7-digit number 9,999,999. Let’s say 8,865,931 ÷ 9,999,999. The result is 0.88659318865931…(a 7-digit repeating decimal).


Let’s dig deeper.

The internet tells us Chuck Norris can count to infinity (∞). (They say he can do that twice, in fact). For our purposes the irrational number pi (3.141592653….. ), which stretches to ∞, will suffice. If we use a shortened (non-infinite) version of pi and multiply it by 9:

Pi x 9 = 28.274333877.

Add up all those digits from 28 to 77 and the answer is 54. And of course 5 + 4 =9.

Even if we use a much shorter version of pi, we still can’t escape the pattern. 3.1416 x 9 = 28.2744, whose digits add up to 27, which reduces to you-know-what.


Image result for nine in chineseImage result for nine in chinese


Hindu mystics think the world of 9. So do Buddhists. Their prayer beads (similar to Catholic rosary beads) contain 108 beads. At New Year Japanese Buddhists toll the bell 108 times. And Buddha had 9 virtues.

Indian astrology has 9 influencers (called navagraha): the sun, moon and planets.

Indian mysticism holds that there are 9 elements: earth, water, air, fire, ether, time, space, soul and mind.


9 also looms large in Chinese culture. The word for 9 (jiu) sounds like the word for long-lasting (something akin to immortality, perhaps). And in Chinese tradition the dragon, which represents power and magic, has 9 forms, 9 attributes and 9 children. It has 117 scales, of which 81 are yang (masculine) and 36 are yin (feminine).

The ancient Greeks had 9 Muses (goddesses of creativity). Christian tradition holds there are 9 choirs of angels in heaven. The Vikings of old divided the cosmos into 9 worlds. Both the Aztec and Maya underworlds consisted of 9 levels, as did the Christian hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to after sunset, is the 9th month. The list goes on and on.


In more modern times 9 has held special significance. Westeros, in The Game of Thrones has 9 regions. The U.S. Supreme Court has 9 justices. A baseball game has 9 innings and 9 players take the field for the pitching team. 9 strikes is enough to retire the side. Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorák and Mahler all died after composing their 9th Symphonies.

The NATO radio alphabet makes 9  the only number to be pronounced in an irregular way – niner – to differentiate it from the similar sounding five.

Some countries AM radio stations’ frequencies are assigned by making sure the kHz add up to 9, for example 1530 kHz.  This is to space them out more effectively and prevent them interfering with other stations’ signals.

The worst movie ever made – believe it or not even worse than The Room – was Plan 9 From Outer Space, directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Not Plan 8 or Plan 10, you’ll notice. And – I know this is a stretch – it was made in 1959.

And our mothers carried us around as ever-growing internal residents for about 9 months.

So remember to show 9 a little respect.



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It’s possible they played The Room on a loop at Guantanamo Bay









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


Here we go again


Twists of fate lead to other twists of fate.

Here 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.


Image result for Japanese plan to conquer northeast Asia
It seemed like a great idea at the time


Yang Kyoungjong (surname: Yang) was born in Korea on 3/3/1920, 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”).

Our story opens here in 1938.


Japan had grandiose plans for enlarging its empire by seizing Mongolia and a big chunk of Siberia. This would be easy for two reasons:

Manchuria – ostensibly the independent nation of Manchukuo – was Tokyo’s obedient puppet state in northeastern China, providing The Kwangtung Army with the perfect base for a war of conquest.

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

Japanese intelligence officers noted with satisfaction that the Soviets’ leading tank warfare specialist was among the first to disappear. The Red Army’s morale, they reported to Tokyo, couldn’t be lower.

Smashing the Red Army would be a cinch.

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“…are hereby sentenced to death…”


Not so fast! said the Japanese Navy. The admirals saw the acquisition of sub-Arctic tundra as a monumental waste of effort. (Not to mention this was all the Army’s idea, thereby depriving the Navy of glory.) But the Army had the Emperor’s ear, and he approved the generals’ plan.

Meanwhile, Yang and his fellow Kwangtung Army troops geared up for what was supposed to be a brief and glorious invasion. But the Soviets inflicted a stinging defeat. Japan’s generals searched for someone else to blame, the admirals said We told you so and the Emperor now transferred his attention to the Navy’s idea: seizing America’s and Europe’s Asian-Pacific territories.

All this meant nothing to Yang, who – with 3,000 other Japanese and Manchurian soldiers – was now a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.


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 shame 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.)

He languished in the Soviet Union, learning the debased Russian vocabulary of the prison camps, never knowing if he’d see another day, never knowing what fate awaited him. Then geopolitics intervened.

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


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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! 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 the 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 us some time, Stalin thought.

It bought Yang about a year. But in early 1943 the Wehrmacht captured him at Kharkov. He was now in a German prison camp.


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Will trade rag for potato


Prison camp was a generous term. Stalin’s regime spurned all international agreements on the treatment of POWs, so Germany had no legal obligation to provide its Soviet captives 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.


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Join us and fight for a brighter Europe!


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 racial experts toured the camps, selecting Soviet POWs to replenish the Wehrmacht‘s numbers after its heavy losses.

The coerced ones joined 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): Wehrmacht units under German command but comprising troops from the Soviet Union’s non-Slavic populations. (Later, as we’ll see, the Slavs’ official sub-human status was conveniently forgotten and any Russian/Slavic POW 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…).


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 of inferior quality.

Next stop, France.


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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?

He was still alive and in one piece, despite numerous 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. He felt the salty tang of the wind from the English Channel as he joined his new Wehrmacht buddies in a division charged 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 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 the Americans can’t understand. With the noise of battle and the fog of war they might as well have spoken Tamil. The Americans shoot them anyway.


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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). 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 proof right here!

Questions immediately arose. How was this even possible? They couldn’t cross the Japan Sea to the U.S.S.R. and travel overland to France. Did they somehow cross the Pacific, traverse South America and cross the Atlantic to Europe? But why go to such 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 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 about all this.


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Cossacks for Hitler


The practice of POWs switching sides was hardly new. During the American Civil War some 5,000 Confederate prisoners joined the Union Army and about 1,600 Union POWs switched to the Confederate Army. And thousands of Czech and Slovak prisoners 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 words). 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 agricultural collectivization campaigns before the war. And we can understand – but never forgive! – the Central Asians’ resentment at the Soviet government’s completely justified suppression of their Islamic practices.

As for the Armenians and Chechens, well, comrades, who can 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 actually joined the German war effort or not.

But it got worse.


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He would liberate Russia


General Vlasov survived Stalin’s mass arrests in 1938. By 1942 he was a highly decorated hero, the Soviet medias golden boy. But that summer 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 fizzled. But later, as the Germans’ manpower situation worsened, their thinking evolved. Among Berlin’s elite the conversations went thus:

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?

In all probability.

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

It stands to reason.

This Vlasov fellow seems rational enough, though.


He’s not Jewish, is he?

No. We checked.

So what have we got to lose?



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 Russian Liberation Army


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 meant Yang.

But Yang was also ex-Japanese Imperial Army, and strictly speaking he’d never been a Soviet citizen. So the British weren’t obliged 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. 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 into cannon fodder.

He’s thrown into the Red Army. The Germans capture him in 1943. They shove him into their army, assigning him to France just before the Anglo-American invasion. He’s captured again, this time by the Americans, and shipped to a POW camp in Britain.

Germany surrendered in May 1945.

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 remained the enemy until September. Then, with Japan’s defeat, that country could no longer claim him, since Korea’s ties with Japan were severed, meaning Yang was 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! – 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 roots 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 have come from the Soviet Far East’s ethnic Korean population, served in the Red Army as a regular conscript, was captured and forced into the Wehrmacht, then was captured by the Americans. That’s 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.

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 (!). It was a critical and commercial flop. Don’t bother.

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 unless something pops up to confirm or refute it, in the grave it will remain.


My Way (2011 film).jpg

Don’t bother with this one
















A race-based colonial rebellion 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 Kenyan Mau Mau and the Black Panthers in America got the same idea, he instigated a bloody uprising by the black population.


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

Our story begins here about 1870.


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It was once Nyasaland



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 inconspicuous. Even his pre-baptismal name is uncertain. He acquired some literacy and by the age of 20 was attending a mission school. Soon he met the man who shaped 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 in the hereafter. Moreover, he insisted everyone is 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, hard work 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 announced. 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 made it happen


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 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?

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





Their destination was the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. En route 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. During his Lynchburg years the African saw ordinary black Americans wearing shoes, participating in the cash economy, using cutlery and reading newspapers. True, as residents of Virginia they couldn’t vote, but in many respects they lived just like many whites.


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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 the anti-slavery activist, John Brown. And Chilembwe probably 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-sufficiency among the natives. Joseph Booth – all thoughts of Matthew 19:21 now forgotten – sent encouraging words from South Africa, America and Britain. Booth had become a semi-nomad, exiled from Nyasaland. 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 all-white plantation owners. They cheated their native workers of their paltry wages. Arguing with the plantocracy was pointless: the white man’s word always prevailed. The owners started importing 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 developed. Alexander Bruce declared education wasted on Africans and this upstart preacher a menace to decent society. Chilembwe’s chapels on Bruce’s land tended to burn down.

Meanwhile, 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. He owed money. 1914 was grim. Then, to cap a perfect year, the Great War came to Africa.



Soldiers and pack animals




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. It lasted barely a week.

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 lamentable. 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.


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Nyasaland’s somewhere in there


Elliot Kamwana was slightly younger than Chilembwe and was also a Booth acolyte. He’d left the United Free Church of Scotland, deciding it wasn’t so free when it charged fees he 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, 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 from mischief, what?” But when he preached that all authority except Christ’s would soon end, they exiled him. Kamwana bounced around southern Africa before returning to 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.


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This is the end


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.

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

You: “You know, Reverend, 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? Colonial rule is to be deplored. But for all its inequities it 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 African 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 such troublemakers to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. But Chilembwe’s patience was exhausted. If the British wouldn’t listen to arguments, they’d listen to gunfire.


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Plantation life was preferable


                       4. THE REVOLT


Gunfire. That meant a bloody insurrection.

Chilembwe studied a military manual and secretly trained his unarmed followers in rudimentary soldiering. A 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 disliked Chilembwe. They all ignored him.

John Chilembwe chose Saturday, January 23rd, 1915. His final speech mixed frank realism with optimism.

He understood colonial rule, he said, and he 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 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. Like his letter to the newspaper, it displayed his loose grip on punctuation and idioms. 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 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 German invasion would take ages to prepare. In any case, the letter never arrived. The couriers were arrested trekking through neutral Portuguese territory.


To grab the whitemen‘s attention


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 quickly 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, wounding its white priest.



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Punishment for the  papists


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

Chilembwe’s nerve had gone. Outnumbered and without support, he aborted the uprising. Everyone fled – mostly without success – disguised as peasants. 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 a week. Then, almost within sight of Portuguese territory, a police patrol cornered him and opened fire.

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


The dynamited mission



              5. THE AFTERMATH


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 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 openly racist owner Alexander Bruce remained unpunished.

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


The Commission recommended some 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.




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President Hastings Banda at XCV years old 

                            THE  END




















Japan’s student protest movement around 1970 made American anti-war demonstrations look like picnics in the park.


         1.  THE SNOW MURDERER



         4.  THE RULES OF THE GAME

         5.  THE TOWER

         6.  TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE





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One look at Hiroko Nagata and you know there’s trouble.

She wasn’t your average murderer. When the Japanese police finally caught her in February 1972 she’d participated in 14 homicides. All but two of her victims – including a heavily pregnant woman – were fellow members of the terrorist group Rengo Sekigun,  “the United Red Army” (URA). It had a particularly ambitious revolutionary agenda for a group with barely 30 members, all sleeping on the floor of a single-stove alpine cabin.

Japan’s media branded Hiroko Nagata a she-devil. In the aftermath of  “the snow murders” every Japanese criminologist, psychologist and talking head dissected her psyche. She’d led the group alongside the glib, dictatorial Tsuneo Mori. During police interrogation both were secretive about their relationship. They had every right to be.


This is the story of how the tumultuous student protest movement in the 1960’s-early 1970’s turned Japanese universities and cities into war zones. We’ll see how the protest movement’s attempts to foment a class war:

alienated the very people it claimed to champion, and

unwittingly started a chain of events leading to one of its main group’s – the United Red Army‘s – self-destructive homicides and

how a snowball effect led to the URA’s final traumatic shoot-out with 1,000 police.

We’ll also see how the group was indirectly responsible for a terrorist outrage which even rocked the Middle East.





Japan’s postwar generation grew up in a vastly different society from the one their parents knew. Democracy filled the air. The emperor was a living god no more. The old militaristic ethos was dead. And at long last Japan’s parliament had an actual political spectrum. In fact – who would have imagined it? – some parliamentarians even belonged to the Japan Communist Party, the JCP.

Few Japanese aspired to live in a Soviet-style dictatorship, but only the communists had resisted Japan’s rampant militarism. They’d rotted in military prisons for that resistance. When the 2nd World War ended thousands of half-starved JCP comrades emerged from their dungeons, blinking in the sunlight and scratching their lice.

They saw the pendulum had swung and they got straight to work. And as Japan’s dispirited troops returned to their devastated country, these newly freed communists grabbed every chance to ram home the message: Why didn’t you all listen to us when you had the chance?

The prewar leadership was now discredited. The Left had the momentum. America’s supremo in Occupied Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, was no friend of the Lefties, but he was committed to warts-and-all democracy. So the communists were free to organize and evangelize.


While waving the red flag in factories remained important, universities became the JCP’s happy hunting grounds. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, they declared, and the young have fertile minds. Universities – dilapidated and bomb damaged – hummed with leftist activity. Students with vivid memories of the war flocked to on-campus Marxist study groups to make a brighter world. And they learned to sing the communist anthem The Internationale in Japanese.

The JCP was there every step of the way. Wasting no time, the Communists cultivated the newly formed “All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Governing Associations“. Its abbreviated Japanese name was Zengakuren. Soon young communists dominated Zengakuren‘s leadership.

As the Cold War intensified the Zengakuren-JCP bond tightened. Angered by the government’s crackdowns on the Communist Menace, 20,000 members stormed the emperor’s palace, precipitating the 1952 protest campaign. Zengakuren used molotov-cocktails and threw ammonia into the riot cops’ faces.

But in 1958 the hitherto solid JCP-Zengakuren alliance cracked over doctrinal differences. The students severed the bond. The old-school JCP communists and the young university firebrands became bitter rivals.


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Flying the red flag


By 1960 Japan’s booming economy needed more university graduates. But how could intellectual life flourish in decrepit little lecture halls and inadequate labs? The general air of intellectual sterility came as a shock. Q: Why do so many professors view teaching with such disdain? A: Because teaching interferes with their real priorities: getting published and waging faculty power struggles.

Soon the undergraduates’ frustration reached boiling point.

Their frustration wasn’t merely about abysmal campus infrastructure, professorial indifference, exorbitant tuition fees, administrative inertia and corruption. Japan’s servile attitude to America during the recent security treaty negotiations was on everyone’s mind. The prime minister’s willingness to negotiate away Japan’s rights as a sovereign nation enraged both leftists and nationalists. Now, in 1960, their fury took a dramatic turn.

In June Zengakuren students and their allies stormed the parliament. One of the 5,000 riot police killed a 22-year-old female student, Zengakuren‘s first martyr. 300,000 protesters then surrounded the parliament building.

Now came a momentous shift. Zengakuren‘s radicals  had long expressed outrage that their compatriots tolerated such political leadership. Now they asked how people could tolerate such a corrupt political system. Every radical (“rad”) agreed: revolution was the only solution. But then the movement splintered into a bewildering forest of factions. Everybody proclaimed the need for revolution. The big question was What kind of revolution? From the 1960’s into the early 1970’s this question fueled countless impassioned debates. And lots of violence.





The summer of 1969.


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Just over a year earlier the streets of Paris heaved with students and workers, teachers and truckers, plumbers and poets waving banners and chanting revolutionary slogans. 11,000,000 workers went on strike. France was on its knees. But the flame of the May ’68 Revolution spluttered. In June’s election the conservatives gained a solid mandate, and when the dust settled it was like May had never happened.

Doubtless there were lessons in this, but whatever they were they bounced off the minds of radical Japanese students. Meanwhile, their universities remained woefully unhappy, overcrowded institutions whose professors remained uncontaminated by concern for their students.

With a few praiseworthy exceptions a typical Japanese university was administered by President Under-the-table and Dean Kickback. You were “taught” by Professor Ivory-tower and his assistant, Professor Thinking-about-ways-to-improve-my-lectures-would-just-be-a-waste-of-precious-milliseconds.

Desperately needed student housing was still being demolished and the land sold to real estate pirates. But…what differentiated 1960 from 1969 were (a) the Vietnam War and (b) all the left-wing factions.

The May ’68 demonstrators protested the Vietnam War – as if Washington gave a hoot what the Frenchies thought – but they also protested underfunded universities, outdated teaching methods, government arrogance and bureaucratic sloth. This resonated with Japan’s students. Even so, France was a world away from Indochina. The Vietnam War was on Japan’s doorstep. American air and naval units in Japan and Okinawa routinely launched attacks on Vietnam.

Students nationwide condemned their craven government’s willingness to make Japan a cog in Uncle Sam’s war machine. The Japanese Left was divided on everything except Vietnam. On that it stood firmly united.


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The Revolution starts here


Visit any major Japanese university in 1969 and you couldn’t miss the wild disagreements – except on the Vietnam issue – everywhere. The campus would be a veritable jungle of political consciousness groups, revolutionary brigades, revolutionary fronts, revolutionary armies, revolutionary corps, revolutionary alliances, revolutionary councils, solidarity committees and action cells. Everybody was anti-this and pro-that. Everybody was an -ist or an -ite.

Some preached worldwide revolution. Some wanted to smash Japan’s imperialist alliance with America (like Hiroko Nagata’s group, emerging that same year). Others said the real enemy was capitalism itself. Or the consumer culture. The list was endless.

If the factions ever considered setting aside doctrinal differences for the benefit of a greater cause, they never acted on it. Quite the opposite. This brigade denounced that council as capitalist stooges. This front scorned that alliance for being imperialist lackeys. This solidarity committee had utter contempt for the fascist tools in that corps.

When they weren’t demonstrating against the Vietnam War, the U.S-Japan alliance, America’s occupation of Okinawa or the constipated university system, on-campus radical leftist groups could usually be found drowning out rival factions’ rallies with megaphones, erasing their rivals’ graffiti and storming their offices. And much worse.




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Another schism in their -ism


Demonstration.  What images come to mind?

21st-century demonstrations usually involve chants like:





Whereas we imagine Japan – especially in bygone decades – as a constrained, polite and modest society producing protest chants like:






However, a typical Japanese student protest around 1970 was like this 1-minute-and-16 -second video (no sound):





And like this 2-minute video (also no sound):




Incidentally, the woman under arrest in the second video’s 1 minute 27 second mark was Fusako (The Red Queen) Shigenobu. She’ll figure prominently in part 2.


How did these radicals organize themselves? What were all those helmets, towels and sticks about? And those weird conga lines of protesters snaking through the streets? And how did the police deal with all this?





White helmets, red helmets, white helmets with a red stripe, yellow helmets. Each signified something. Yellow helmeted protesters were with

  • the JCP (Communist Party). They had big numbers and were lavishly funded. But they avoided heavy violence, and so lacked the oomph of:


  • the Kakumaru (Revolutionary Marxists): white helmets with a red stripe and big Z. They were the ex-partners of, and therefore the implacably bitter enemies of:


  • the Marugakudo Chûkaku-ha (Marxist Student League Central Core Faction): white helmets with 中核 (Chûkaku Central Core”) emblazoned on them. This was the radical fringe’s radical fringe. Chûkaku-ha wanted to make every other group look about as revolutionary as boiled cabbage and about as violent as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Or:


  • the Shagakudo: red helmets with 社学同 (Socialist Student League) on the front. They adored the May ’68 French protesters, and were respected for the sheer professionalism of their street barricades, if nothing else. Or the group which we’ll get to know well in part 2:


  • Sekigun-ha, or the Red Army Faction (red helmets emblazoned with 赤軍派 [“Red Army Faction”]). Originating in western Japan it started bombing police stations and robbing banks and carried out Japan’s first airplane hijacking. Their mission? To “Escalate the Present Struggle into Armed Revolution”. They claimed to be soldiers in a war to the death.


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Uchigeba in its clearest form


The doctrinal conflicts among rival factions – uchigeba didn’t merely manifest in shouting matches and erasing each others’ graffiti. Like the Germanic tribes engulfing the Late Roman Empire, the various on-campus factions would just as soon fight each other as fight their common enemy. Convinced of both their own ideological purity and the other factions’ criminal betrayal of revolutionary ideals, each faction felt duty bound to obliterate the others.

Uchigeba took several forms. The factions conducted midnight “liberation” raids on rival groups’ on-campus offices, brawled and hurled bricks through windows. They kidnapped “enemies of the Revolution” (other factions’ members), slapped them around and released them. But from 1970 the Kakumaru vs Chûkaku-ha enmity escalated into torture and murder. More on this in Part 2.

The police rarely intervened unless a university requested. They were happy to see the “rads” at each others’ throats instead of turning the streets into warzones.


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Say hello to my gebabo


Demonstrators wore wet towels over their noses for protection against teargas. They wielded sticks called gebabô. That name combined gebaruto, the Japanese pronunciation of the German noun Gewalt (“force”) and bô (stick). Some gebabô had iron tips or nails.

At street demonstrations they linked arms, forming long lines several protesters abreast. Chanting slogans, they zig-zagged towards the police lines.

Each “snake line” followed its line master, a guy at the front. Like a traffic cop he blew a whistle to direct the line. He set the rhythm. He watched out for TV cameras and newspaper photographers, directing the line for optimum media exposure.

The hypnotic chanting and rhythmic movements mesmerized the protesters. As if to break the spell, the line master sounded a signal and the protesters immediately formed a phalanx. Everyone raised their gebabô and charged full-speed at the riot cops. The police reaction varied. Occasionally they’d suddenly open their ranks and let the students through. The cops would then close ranks, sandwiching the protesters before letting them have it with their truncheons.

The police preferred meeting massed charges with water cannons, but the narrow streets of typical Japanese cities sometimes prevented that. Their water cannons sprayed dyed water so the “rads” at the forefront of the charges became clearly identifiable and arrestable.

These massed charges traditionally put the youngest students in the vanguard. Teenagers were mostly inexperienced, so readily accepted the risks that experienced protesters had learned to avoid. They’d be more aggressive in order prove themselves. Plus – and this was the clincher – they weren’t yet 20 years old. Under Japanese law they were minors, meaning they’d receive more leniency from the courts. They might be let off with having to issue an apology (Ha!) or with a warning (Ha ha!). Or a small fine, paid by the group’s emergency funds.


Political protest was testosterone driven. Even the most ardent female radicals were stuck with support roles away from the main action. When there were no protests, “the girls” brewed the tea, solicited donations at subway exits, rolled bandages, emptied the ashtrays, made posters, distributed pamphlets, emptied more ashtrays……

Older, more experienced protesters usually got molotov-cocktail or rock-throwing duties. Once the police had absorbed some gebabô charges the radicals’ rear-guard maintained a furious barrage of missiles. Having dealt with massed charges and hand-to-hand fighting, the cops now faced fire and rocks. Teargas was the normal response if water cannons weren’t available. On good days they could combine both.

Demonstrations occasionally targeted individuals. President Eisenhower’s Press Secretary’s visit in 1960 met such violent protests that he feared for his life. A military helicopter whisked him to safety. However, some “attacks” were laughable. In Tokyo in 1969 a student radical penetrated the police cordon and tried to stab U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers with a sharp pencil. Rogers was unharmed. The attacker targeted the wrong guy.


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No little umbrella in this cocktail


The riot police were Japanese law-enforcement’s elite, numbering 29,000 by 1969. Applicants passed rigorous psychological and physical tests before training intensively for urban warfare. Most were officially limited to only a few years as riot cops before reassignments to safer duties. This was to prevent burnout from the stress, the injuries and all the adrenaline.

It was an exciting, prestigious and well-paid part of their career, despite the constant criticism. The police always over-react, one media outlet or politician would declare. No, they’re far too lenient insisted another. The students are merely exercising their democratic rights, you fascist thugs, cried the Left. Smash more heads and make more arrests! demanded the Right.

In any case, the riot police were not above raiding hospital wards after a street battle and beating injured radicals in their beds.



    5. THE TOWER



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It just kept escalating


Ask any Japanese person who remembers the Tokyo University (TôDai) Siege of 1968-69 and you’ll get a reaction. The final assault by thousands of riot police on Japan’s most prestigious university was televised nationwide. Many old-timers can recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. It was the turning point in Japanese society and the student protest movement.

It started in 1968 when senior medical students politely protested unwelcome changes to their training regimen. The administration was outraged, and its heavy-handed response made things worse. Both sides dug in. The lukewarm support they’d received until then – these were medical students, after all – now intensified. By July most of TôDai was on strike.

Tokyo University’s administrators were trapped. The med students’ demands weren’t unreasonable, but Tôdai couldn’t lose face by backing down.  The campus was now in virtual paralysis. That year’s students couldn’t be promoted. The entrance exams for the Spring 1969 intake were scrapped. By October every department had shut down. And about 20 other universities had “solidarity rebellions” supporting TôDai’s protesters.

Meanwhile, “rads” occupied Yasuda Auditorium, the 9-story edifice dominating Tokyo University’s campus. Riot police evicted them. The students then coordinated their resistance. And before you could say The Revolution starts here they’d retaken Yasuda Auditorium.

By the end of 1968 a partial accommodation was within reach. But the factions occupying Yasuda Auditorium started fighting each other as well as the police. They also “arrested” professors, publicly interrogating them over blaring loudspeakers, like the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution. One professor endured nine straight days of this.


Actions: louder than words


The police were also in a bind. TôDai needed them to restore order.  Yet unresolved legal questions about police jurisdiction and university autonomy muddied the waters. The administration faced censure for involving the cops in the first place. But by now this had dragged on long enough, and something had to give. Tokyo University had become Tokyo Jungle.

In mid-January 1969 the media reported the police were preparing an all-out assault to dislodge the rads from Yasuda Auditorium. 8,500 police assembled. Students on nearby campuses tried to divert the police with impromptu riots. The cops ignored them and zeroed in on Tôdai.

All the various factions in the auditorium put their doctrinal differences on temporary hold and coalesced against the common enemy. All except Kakumaru (white helmets with red stripes). Kakumaru made a complete withdrawal so it could live to fight another day. (This added immeasurably to the hatred Chûkaku-ha – white helmets with the characters for “Central Core” – already bore its bitter rival.)

Allies on the ground helped the holdouts stockpile molotov-cocktails, rocks, bottles of acid, bricks and whatever they could scrounge at short notice. They’d long ago rained all the desks, tables, bookshelves and doorknobs down on whoever was blaring demands that they put an end to this nonsense, stop this fiasco and come down this instant. This would surely be the final showdown.


This teargas should do the trick


The police had shields, clubs and 10,000 teargas grenades. They cut off the auditorium’s water, gas and electricity. Helicopters dumped freezing water onto the students while enormous water cannons blasted the auditorium from below. Evening news reports televised ghostly images of the students hurling flaming bottles over the ramparts, creating arcs of sparks in the night sky.

On the second day red, waterlogged flags still adorned the tower. The police continued the water attacks from above and below. The students maintained their avalanche of bricks and molotov-cocktails. But the cops made headway, advancing floor by floor, squeezing the radicals into the building’s top floor where escape was impossible.

By Day 3, as the non-stop nationwide TV coverage transfixed Japan, the students were out of options and missiles. A few made catapults to fling their own shit at the police. But despite their hopeless position they resolved to go down fighting. They grabbed their gebabô, soaked their anti-teargas towels in water – there was no shortage of that – and set themselves for the final onslaught.

Wave after overwhelming wave of elite cops raided the top floor. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The police prevailed. What remained of Yasuda Auditorium reverted to university control.


The police commander then made an astonishing gesture.

He later admitted he was not without sympathy for their grievances, but he’d had a job to do. He acknowledged the students displayed admirable physical courage and spirited determination.

That was why, when the last gebabo hit the floor and the last “rad” surrendered, the police commandant told his men to stand back.

Stand back, he ordered, and let them get cleaned up and sort themselves out. His panting, sweating, bleeding front-line cops obeyed. Those students who were still ambulatory assembled and linked arms. They then stood erect, linked arms and belted out a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Hands on their heads, they marched proudly down the stairs – each according to his faction – to be handcuffed and stuffed into paddy wagons. About 800 people altogether.




But things changed through 1969. Public support waned. People muttered: Sure we oppose the Vietnam War. And sure we wish for Okinawa’s rightful return. And sure we want Japan and Okinawa out from under Uncle Sam’s thumb. But why all this chaos? All this disruption to everyday life for us ordinary folks? So much teargas and violence on the streets? Over 500 arrests a month in 1968! Anyway, aren’t students sometimes supposed to, you know, study?

The more perceptive radicals sensed the decline. Apart from America agreeing to return Okinawa on absurdly lopsided terms, there was nothing to show for all their efforts. The Yankee war machine still attacked Vietnam from bases in Japan/Okinawa and capitalism was still firmly entrenched. The Revolution seemed as remote as ever. The movement had degenerated into a ritualistic slugfest between two boxers on autopilot. Greater public support was needed.


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Nothing to see here


Public support? Perhaps the unions…  Sorry, kids. This isn’t the 1950’s.

Stirring newsreel images of French students and workers marching arm-in-arm just reinforced the message: Japan’s protest movement was stuck. Most unions stayed aloof. Their interests no longer overlapped with those of the radicals. The urban proletariat showed little enthusiasm. The farmers cared more about soy beans than social issues. A few high school kids were keen, but so what?

More bad news: the police had informants in the movement. They weren’t undercover cops. The nagging question was: Who knew what really went down when the cops secretly interrogated some rads then very kindly released them back into the movement?

The obvious answer was recruitment by blackmail.

Police raids on radical hideouts were sharpening up. Five simultaneous raids from Tokyo to Osaka on one September night in 1969! And 21 arrests! At the October 21st Anti-War Day protest the cops knew where some leaders would be even before members of their own organizations knew.

More key arrests made, more dark suspicions raised.

But the police had their own looming problem. Those September raids netted not only key radicals, but chemicals. Chemicals for making explosives, said the lab reports. A collective groan filled the National Police Agency.

A new development had emerged. The recent increase in molotov-cocktail attacks on police stations signified a major change in tactics. Some radicals were evolving from battling the riot police to hit-and-run fire-bomb attacks on selected targets. They were old hands with those molotov-cocktails. But were the rads now planning to bomb their way to victory?


                                                         CONTINUED  IN  PART  2











Can we pierce the fog and fish out the facts of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’s shadowy careers without mixing too many metaphors?



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In the early 1900’s two North American bandits with hefty criminal records “led active lives” in South America. Patagonia, the continent’s southern fringe, was their main turf. Their part-time accomplice was “a most beautiful woman”.

La señora norteamericana was no dilettante, yet never really adapted to the outlaw lifestyle. She spoke polished Spanish but had little liking for South America. She disliked the isolation and instability that went with dodging lawmen from two continents.

Their mysterious fate has spawned countless arguments, articles, books and documentaries. Plus a hit movie.



 ii: HERE’S THE PLAN     











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Butch the boy


Their leader was Robert Leroy Parker (1866 – ?). The Parkers were Mormons from Lancashire and Scotland. “Bob”, the oldest of thirteen, shared Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. He inherited his mother’s eyes and jawline. He was a genial lad, fond of books about medieval England, Scottish clans and anything by Charles Dickens. But by 1884, chafing against his native Utah’s economic and religious boundaries, Bob went rogue.

He started with petty crime, a theft here, some cattle rustling there. His crimes were interspersed with periods of good conduct as a ranch hand. Gradually he escalated to big-time robberies – banks and trains.

In Wyoming he was imprisoned for buying a stolen horse. To spare his Mormon family the shame of his imprisonment he claimed to be a New Yorker without kin (Religion: None). After his release he settled on the permanent nom-de-crime Butch Cassidy, after earlier using other aliases.

“Butch” came from working in a Rock Springs, Wyoming butcher-shop, while “Cassidy” originated with an early hero-figure, Mike Cassidy.

Parker/Cassidy founded the most successful train-robbing “gang” – actually a loose band of comers-and-goers  – in U.S. criminal history. It had various names, but The Wild Bunch stuck the longest.



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Butch behind bars



Unusually for the 1890’s, during robberies Cassidy enforced absolute sobriety among his accomplices. Planning robberies afforded Butch genuine pleasure. Despite his easygoing image, he researched every heist’s details with rigorous precision, insisting the perfect robbery involved (a) nobody getting hurt and (b) no arrests. Meticulous about the getaway phase, Cassidy stymied the pursuing lawmen by cutting the telegraph lines and pre-positioning supplies and fresh horses along the planned escape routes.

This was key. Knowing when trains or banks held the maximum cash, what the staff arrangements were and how the security worked was vital. But what was the point if you got caught?

Cassidy targeted railroads, cattle barons (“dudes”) and banks, never ordinary folks. This endeared him to the masses but also produced high-powered enemies.


His longest-serving associate was a tall, taciturn Pennsylvanian, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (1867 – ?).

Longabaugh’s German grandfather was Conrad Langenbach, back when names and spellings were more flexible. The Longabaughs knew poverty, but young Harry’s library card let him escape into fantasies about outlaws like Jesse James. He yearned to go west. Aged 15 he did just that, adapting to frontier life with remarkable ease and becoming an expert horseman. He played down his East-coast origins and tried to comport himself as a true son of the west.

Longabaugh called himself The Sundance Kid, commemorating his first serious crime at the age of 20: stealing a horse and gun near Sundance, Wyoming. If he were alive today he’d have 18 tattoos (one for every month behind bars).

Unlike Butch, he was not given to deep analysis. He shunned complexity. While Cassidy’s research aimed to prevent on-the-job hiccups, Sundance didn’t mind them. They gave him an excuse to instill fear, something he enjoyed.

Some described Harry Longabaugh as warm, but he was normally standoffish. He rarely smiled, although maybe he simply wished to hide a flashing gold tooth, which he later replaced with a porcelain tooth once the big money rolled in. Plus he had chronic catarrh (excessive respiratory mucus), so all that snorting, sniffing and spitting was unlikely to transform him into The Sunshine Kid.

Despite their popular image, Butch and Sundance weren’t bosom buddies. They somehow clicked, despite temperaments as different as cheese and chalk. But the lure of big money was what drew them together and kept them together.


 The Wild Bunch (November 1900): Sundance seated L, Butch seated R


Their part-time accomplice – Sundance’s lover – was the most mysterious. Her biography remains a thicket of question marks, frustrating generations of researchers. One commented: It’s as though she had no identity before she met Sundance and no identity after they separated.

Was Etta (Ethel?) Place a Colorado schoolteacher? Perhaps. Other research traces her to Texas bordellos. Perhaps. Was her name originally C-a-p-e-l? Or Platz (“place” in German)? Coincidentally (or not) Longabaugh’s mother was Annie Place. Did that make Etta his cousin?

She was Sundance’s lover until she left South America around 1905. She probably rejoined her lover, but at some point she abandoned South America forever (perhaps) and her trail went stone cold.

Some researchers argue she settled in Colorado. One source claims her daughter was the bank robber Betty Weaver, who was finally nabbed in Kansas in 1932. Another has her running an Arizona sanatorium. Other investigators say Etta simply “went underground” in San Francisco.

One attests she spied on Cassidy and Longabaugh for the U.S. Secret Service and that she was assassinated in California in 1915. Other research claims she returned to South America and (a) committed suicide in 1924 or (b) was murdered in 1922 by Mateo Gebhardt, her Argentinian lover.

And one researcher says Etta lived until 1966, just three years before the Hollywood movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid hit the world’s screens.


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Sundance & Etta in The Big Apple




The year is 1900 and the times they are a-becomin’ different. The heat is hotting up for The Wild Bunch. Law enforcement has become uncomfortably sophisticated.

Lawmen in the West were spirited and hardy. They had to be. But their resources were limited, their adversaries just as spirited and hardy, and the West’s vast stretches of wilderness hindered pursuit.

Now the Pinkerton Detective Agency tipped the balance.

It was once the world’s largest private law-enforcement and detective agency. “Pinkertons” formed Abraham Lincoln’s personal bodyguard. Government authorities hired Pinkertons for special investigations. Railroads had them guard payroll-carrying trains. Huge profits accrued from locating WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE outlaws.

The agency’s detection-for-profit ethic and its multitude of agents, undercover operatives, archivists and part-time informants made it a formidable outfit. Its voluminous cross-referenced files on every known criminal in America covered every detail. What are his aliases? Where are his known hide-outs? Who are his known associates? What is his preferred weapon? What does he smoke, cigars or a pipe? Does he have visible scars? Missing digits? A limp? Is he left-handed? Which teeth are missing? And so on.

The Pinkertons operated 24/7, accepting any assignment with a reasonable chance of success. That, and their famous “all-seeing eye” commercial logo, engendered the label “private eye”: detective for hire.


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Shouldn’t that be Longabaugh?
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They outcopped the cops











This hurt The Wild Bunch. They’d steal a payroll, only to find the Pinkertons had recorded and telegraphed every banknote’s serial number – promising rewards for actionable leads – throughout the area. So spending that cash risked blowing their cover.

Cassidy had to think outside the box. He reasoned: Our luck will run out, and most likely soon. So why not try something radical? Like Argentina.

The Argentinian government was giving – giving! – virgin Patagonian farmland to North American settlers. While the German, Italian and Slavic immigrants fueling Argentina’s booming economy were still welcome, norteamericanos – with their proven expertise in transforming wilderness into productive farmland – got Patagonian land gratis.

Here’s the plan, Butch announced. We get free farmland in Argentina. The Pinkertons won’t look for us there. We walk the straight and narrow. Then we don’t have the law breathing down our necks. And we get rich from farming.

Who’s in?

Only Harry Longabaugh/The Sundance Kid and Etta Place were in. Fine, said Cassidy. Then just us three will go. ¡Adios!


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Their home on the range




Riding some of the very trains they’d robbed, they rendezvoused in New York in February 1901 after Longabaugh visited his family’s new residence in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The trio bought stylish clothes (a priority for Sundance), attended the opera, experienced the kinetoscope (moving pictures) and sailed to Argentina.

The couple embarked as Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Place. Cassidy became Mrs. Place’s brother, “James Ryan”, the same name as the sheriff who’d arrested young Longabaugh back in Wyoming.

In Buenos Aires they chose the luxury Hotel Europa. Señor Place opened a bank account with US$12,000 (what the average white U.S. male earned in 27 years). They established themselves as people of substance, desirable additions to Argentina’s burgeoning population.

After scouting potential places to settle they visited the Land Department. 61 square km of pristine Patagonian grassland near the Chilean border fell into their laps. On behalf of the group the señora asked the Director, ¿Hay bandidos en esa zona? They were relieved to hear Cholila was bandit-free.

By June their cottage, resembling the Parker home back in Utah, boasted lace curtains, brass lamps and perfumed wash basins. A Cholila policeman named Humphreys befriended them, but came perilously close to risking Sundance’s vicious wrath by displaying an unseemly interest in the señora.


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Cholila can’t be beat for stockraising


On August 10, 1902 Cassidy/Ryan wrote to Matilda Davies in Ashley, Utah. She was the mother-in-law of Ellsworth (‘Elzy’) Lay, his closest friend. Lay was behind bars for killing two lawmen in a New Mexico shoot-out. Butch addressed her as my dear friend, but such affectionate terms were really meant for Elzy, who’d receive that letter himself in due course.

Cassidy and Lay were old pals/ brothers-in-crime. They’d both been romantically involved with the Bassett sisters. As we’ll see, Josie Bassett later swore she met Butch three times in the 1920’s in the States.

I was restless and … wanted to see more of the world, Cassidy wrote. [One] of my Uncles died and left $30,000 to our little family of three … So I took my $10,000 share and I located to South A.

The death of his “Uncle” was actually the $33,000-haul from The Wild Bunch’s robbery of a Nevada bank in 1900. The “little family of three” was the ménage à trois with Etta and Longabaugh.

The homestead pleased Butch: I have 300 cattle, 1500 sheep and 28 good saddle horses, and 2 men to do my work, also a good 4 room house, a wearhouse [sic] … But he regretted having to cook for himself. He confessed to loneliness: I am alone all day, and … besides the only language spoken in this country is Spanish, and I don’t speak it well enough to converse on the latest scandals so dear to the hearts of all nations…

Cholila was good agricultural country … and it can’t be beat for [stockraising]. The new trans-Andes road to Puerto Montt opened up the lucrative Chilean beef market and easy access to cheaper Chilean products.

Patagonia’s climate pleased him: The summers are beautiful, never as warm as [Utah], and grass knee high everywhere and lots of good cold mountain water. But [in] winter… it rains most of the time…[S]ometimes we have lots of snow, but it don’t last long.

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Elzy Lay (1869-1934)


Butch’s letter was all I-me-my: “I took my $10,000…”. “I have 300 cattle”. “2 men do my work”. He never mentioned Longabaugh and Etta. They were currently away, leaving the naturally gregarious Cassidy bereft of company (and without a cook). Why didn’t he mention them? In case the letter was intercepted and the authorities put two and two together.

Their new lives assumed a patina of respectability. The Cholilans embraced the newcomers, even the throaty, rather standoffish husband with the made-to-order shirts, expensive vests and masses of silk handkerchiefs, Señor Enrique (“Clothes maketh the man”) Place. His charming señora‘s witty conversation and excellent Spanish put some  Cholila homesteaders – especially the well-off Brits – to shame.

The Places and Señor Ryan – the shorter, congenial fellow with the infectious laugh – were welcome additions to the community. So welcome, in fact, that nobody objected to the two men always carrying guns. Or to the elegant young señora displaying such masculine skills with horses (skills no Argentinian lady would ever wish for herself).

The territorial governor visited Cholila, and Enrique Place kindly entertained His Excellency on the guitar. The three norteamericanos made such positive impressions that nobody around Cholila suspected their dark secrets.

Life can be good. But it don’t last long.





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What most people “know” about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid derives from the 1969 film starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross. It depicts The Wild Bunch disintegrating when they accept that honest outlaws can no longer make a decent living. Butch, Sundance and Etta head to Bolivia, not Argentina. Etta’s unhappy there, predicts this will all end badly and returns to the States. Cassidy and Longabaugh resolve to stop robbing Bolivian banks. They’ll “go straight”.

While working as mining company security guards the Devil whispers in their ears. They revert to banditry. One day half the Bolivian Army corners them in the godforsaken hamlet of San Vicente.

Wounded but undaunted, they discuss their next destination once this minor difficulty is resolved. Butch suggests Australia: no language barrier, Australian banks are bursting with money and there are unlimited spaces for outlaws to disappear into. They draw their weapons and make a dash for it, but they’re blasted to smithereens after only a few strides.

That scenario mined – and distorted – Arthur Chapman’s anonymously-sourced magazine article from 1930. Chapman had the pair heroically resisting the Bolivian troopers on their trail. In November 1908, they made a last stand in San Vicente (altitude 4,500 meters /15,000 feet). But far from planning an Australian crime spree they couldn’t even plan an escape. Both wounded and down to only two bullets, Butch shot Sundance in the head and then shot himself.


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Australia here we come!


Both versions are completely unsubstantiated.

Research on the San Vicente “siege” has unearthed so many wildly contradictory versions, all differing in every conceivable detail, that now only the most irredeemable fantasists cling to the idea that Butch and Sundance died in that Bolivian hamlet.

In any case, the Bolivians’ – and the outside world’s – willingness to believe they died had proven to be wonderfully convenient. What better cover for fugitives than to be assumed dead?


The trio definitely farmed in Cholila until 1905.  “Enrique and Etta Place” visited the U.S.A. three times. In 1902 they visited New York, Atlantic City – where Sundance introduced the Longabaughs to his “wife” –  and Buffalo before returning to Argentina.

Their detour to Buffalo, an unlikely destination for that couple, has been plausibly explained as a confidential visit to a renowned venereal disease clinic. They docked in Buenos Aires the day before Cassidy wrote his letter to Elzy Lay.

April 1904 saw their second trip. Ignoring the risk of Pinkerton agents detecting their presence, after Atlantic City they visited Fort Worth, Texas. Its brothels were always high on The Wild Bunch’s list. Etta probably had connections there. Then they nonchalantly took in The World’s Fair in St. Louis.

The third trip – arranged hurriedly – was in May 1905. Etta developed an intestinal problem. Claiming to distrust local doctors, she demanded treatment in the United States. They sailed from Chile to San Francisco.

Longabaugh soon returned to Cholila but Etta stayed on. One possible explanation for this concerns her “intestinal problem” being a pregnancy for which Longabaugh wasn’t the father. This had to remain secret from him at all costs. She needed to get away before her belly bump showed. Significantly, nearby homesteader John Gardiner simultaneously made a sudden unexplained departure to Britain.

Whatever the circumstances, a separation ensued.  Evidence suggests Etta returned later.


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Possibly warned by the local lawman Humphreys that the Pinkertons had discovered their whereaboutsthey suddenly sold their homestead to an Anglo-Chilean. They reverted to banditry, crisscrossing the border, robbing banks. This was late 1905.

Eyewitnesses reported a female accomplice: her impressive horsemanship and male disguise couldn’t conceal her feminine beauty.

Unless there was another beautiful yanqui expert horsewoman in cahoots with the bandidos, and unless these eyewitness reports were actually dozens of hallucinations, she must have been Etta. Meaning she must have returned by 1906 at the latest. Meaning Etta and Sundance must have rekindled their relationship and the ménage à trois.

But eventually Etta dropped completely out of sight, leaving Butch and Sundance to their fate.

But what was that fate?





Much of the mystery surrounding Butch and Sundance’s fate arises from them being not the only bandidos yanquis in Argentina. American outlaws found Argentina’s rich pickings, undistinguished police standards and lack of Pinkertons irresistible.

W. C. Jameson’s Butch Cassidy: Beyond the Grave (2014) explained:

To compound the identity problems, the number of North American outlaws … operating in … Argentina was increasing, and it is likely that several robberies committed by them were attributed to Cassidy and Longabaugh. The [outlaws] Robert Evans [from Montana] and William Wilson [from Texas] were committing crimes in the area in much the same manner as Cassidy and Longabaugh, and were often mistaken for the more famous duo. (p.103)

Actually, Evans and Wilson knew Butch and Sundance. They’d almost certainly visited their homestead. Their appearance and personalities were known to resemble Butch and Sundance’s. Evans, the shorter one, shared Cassidy’s gregarious nature. Wilson had Nordic features and shared Longabaugh’s taciturnity. (But not his catarrh.)

It’s very probable that the Montanan and Texan exploited these resemblances by sometimes posing as Cassidy and Longabaugh to confuse the police. It’s also very probable that Butch and Sundance posed as Evans and Wilson for the same reason.

The claim that Evans and Wilson were Butch and Sundance limped through the decades. Then in 1970 (following the movie’s release) a 104-year-old Argentinian – Pedro Peña – told interviewers he was in the Frontier Police patrol which killed Cassidy (Evans) and Longabaugh (Wilson) in 1911.

Now, said the death-in-Bolivia-fantasy doubters who yearned for something substantive about the outlaws’ fate, now we’re getting somewhere. And the Evans-Wilson narrative did seem credible.


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Where the Welsh were


It’s December, 1909 in Arroyo Pescado, southwest of Cholila. Two Welsh immigrants ran the local general store: Llwyd ApIwan, the owner, and Bobby, “a soft-headed religious maniac”.

“Evans” and “Wilson” entered the store, ostensibly as customers, but actually intent on stealing the gold sovereigns in the safe. The bandidos forced ApIwan to open the safe but found it virtually empty. The expected gold consignment was late.

Wilson covered the Welshmen as the bandits backed their way out. His spur caught on the rug and he fell backwards. ApIwan tried to wrestle the gun away but Wilson shot him in the chest. Then the pair escaped.


The local Police Commissioner, Milton Roberts, knowing the Pinkertons still maintained Butch and Sundance were in Argentina, sent detailed descriptions.

Evans was “about 35 years old, height 5 feet 7 inches [170cm]”. Stockily built, he had red hair, although Roberts surmised this was a wig or a dye job. The man known as Wilson, he wrote, was “about 25 years old”(!),  height 5 feet 11 inches (180cm). He was slim with fair hair.

Roberts never saw them himself, so the descriptions depended on Bobby’s observational powers. Their descriptions matched the outlaws’. The age discrepancy – Cassidy and Longabaugh were well past 40 in 1909 – was explained by Bobby being not too bright, the shock of it all and everything happening so quickly.

The Pinkertons sat on this information and did nothing. We’ll learn why in Part vii.


The scene moves south to their camp near Río Pico. It’s March 1911. A kidnapping now proves significant, leading to Peña’s story.

Luis Otero was an eccentric loner from a wealthy Buenos Aires family. He avoided women, dressed badly and loved Patagonia’s solitude. One day he and a servant were driving a buckboard to his farm. Two riders approached. One smiled and waved Otero on, giving his buckboard the right of way. The other rider suddenly grabbed the passing buckboard’s reins.

The horsemen – now identifiable as English-speakers – took them to their camp, tied them up and built a crude prison cell with tree trunks and rawhide. Otero noted the taller, fair-haired bandit left most of the heavy work to the shorter fellow.

The two bandidos had English-speaking sidekicks. They let the prisoners out twice a day for exercise and bodily functions. After two weeks of this routine one gringo accidentally dropped a match. Otero scooped it up, surreptitiously lit a small fire and burned through the rawhide.

That night the prisoners heaved aside a log, squeezed out and escaped. Otero made hysterical accusations, claiming his brothers had orchestrated the kidnapping to poison his affection for Patagonia. His family assured the police that mentally he was not a well young man. Nobody believed Otero’s story until the police investigated the site. Then the kidnapping scandalized Argentina.


The Ministry of the Interior took the heat.

We can imagine the Minister at his desk, bewailing all the negative publicity Otero’s kidnapping and other recent abominations had sprayed on Patagonia in general and on his ministry in particular.

Here he is, venting to an assistant after digesting the latest newspaper reports and editorials:

Minister: Fabris, this is outrageous! Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous! I’m … I’m …

Fabris: Outraged, Your Excellency?

Minister: Outraged! Yes! How did things in Patagonia get so bad? Just look at these headlines. Kidnappings! Marauding outlaws!Bandidos yanquis acting like they own the place! I mean, how did it get like this?

Fabris: Well, I hesitate to use the word misappropriation, but Your Excellency will recall those funds earlier allocated to the improvement of law enforcement in Patagonia…

Minister: Er … y…yes.

We have to do something, Fabris. Not only do something, but be seen to do something. I’m ordering a huge increase in police manpower down there. Let’s beef up the Frontier Police. With luck they’ll make some juicy arrests and embarrass those sons of whores who run the newspapers. I’ll rub their noses in it. See to it at once, will you?

So the funds earmarked for the suppression of Patagonia banditry magically rematerialized. Patrols were stepped up. Evans and Wilson laid low.


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Read all about it!



Old Peña’s story featured in Bruce Chatwin’s genre-bending book In Patagonia (1977):

In December, 1911 Evans and Wilson returned to Río Pico to buy supplies from the Hahn brothers, German immigrants on friendly terms with the bandidos. The Hahns warned them that the Frontier Police were uncomfortably close, and treated Wilson’s wounded hand. He explained a faulty cartridge had detonated while he was repacking it. After paying for the provisions they rode off into the hills.

They rode into trouble. A local landowner named Solís suspected his wife of “carrying on” with Evans. Having a rough idea of their camp’s whereabouts, Solís directed a patrol there. They saw Evans taking shelter from the summer sun, eating lunch under a tree. Wilson was in his tent, feverish from his infected hand.

Taking cover, the patrol’s leader, Lieutenant Blanco, shouted “¡Arriba las manos!“. But instead of submitting to capture, Evans fired twice, killing one trooper and wounding Pedro Peña. The troopers returned fire, killing Evans. Wilson, fleeing barefoot through the underbrush, was an easy target.

Six decades later Peña told interviewers Blanco’s search of the corpses produced two gold watches and the photograph of “una mujer hermosísima” (a most beautiful woman).


We should assess this.

The discredited Bolivian shoot-out story means Cassidy and Longabaugh could have remained active in South America post-1908. Given multiple yanqui gangs roaming Argentina-Chile, and with Evans and Wilson often posing as Butch and Sundance, it’s likely the Frontier Police weren’t always sure who their quarry was.

But in Peña’s story, researchers yearn for solid answers to:


  • (1) Were the corpses independently identified?


  • (2) Where were they buried? (Recent advances in DNA analysis compel this question.)


  • (3) Assuming it existed, what became of “the most beautiful woman” photo?


It’s highly unlikely but not impossible that the victims really were Butch and Sundance. However, those events occurred from 1909 to 1911. What about “the gap years”, 1906 to 1908?




Cassidy, Longabaugh and Etta meandered north, reaching Bolivia (without Etta) in 1906. From Cholila this was about the same distance as Miami to Montreal.

As “Santiago Maxwell” and “Enrique Brown”, they walked the straight and narrow – to some extent – as employees of the Concordia Tin Mine.

Their American boss, Percy Seibert, liked Butch, describing him as “a gentleman … pleasant … charming … Women invariably liked him”. Longabaugh, however, was “distant and difficult to befriend”. They became reliable workers, and Seibert was glad to have them.

Cassidy/Maxwell eventually revealed their true identity, but their recent excellent conduct gave Seibert no reason to make this an issue. While Sundance trained the company’s mules, Butch was entrusted with delivering valuable payrolls. His impeccable record made him Concordia’s golden boy.

(Incidentally, Butch told Seibert about Etta: she was a great housekeeper – and sure could cook! – with “the heart of a whore”. He didn’t elaborate, and Seibert thought it unwise to pursue the subject.)


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Sundance’s students


Cassidy’s duties included detailed negotiations for the purchase of Concordia’s pack animals. His Spanish had obviously come a long way since 1902, when his letter to Elzy Lay lamented his linguistic inadequacies.

Seibert allowed the pair considerable freedom. He figured if they were happy they’d be less likely to rob their employer and more likely to foil robberies by other outlaws.

There were reports that Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed other Bolivian mines themselves. This backfired on them: caucasians stood out in Bolivia’s largely indigenous population. Every robbery produced more eyewitnesses. Butch feared trouble was coming. And his partner became problematic.

During 1907 the tedium of training a tin mine’s mules unhinged Sundance. He hit the bottle.

Longabaugh’s drunken boasts of the robberies he and his amigo had pulled in Argentina and Chile prompted one cantina owner to summon the police. They made a speedy exit.

The crunch came on a visit to Santa Cruz. They saw a Spanish-language Pinkerton poster of themselves. Luckily, Cassidy now sported a beard and Longabaugh – no longer slim – had a booze-hound’s puffy face and double chin. Nobody connected them with the Wild Bunch-era faces on the posters.

Sundance sobered up and they quit the mine in 1908 to work as stagecoach drivers for a Scottish owner.

Then they vanished. November 1908 saw the San Vicente shoot-out involving two gringos.

Seibert did his ex-employees a kindness by identifying the corpses as Cassidy and Longabaugh.

That’s it, said the authorities. Case closed.

Butch and Sundance were now good to go.




The Pinkertons hadn’t forgotten them.

In 1902 an agent visited Argentina following reports that three yanquis in Patagonia matched the outlaws’ and Etta’s descriptions. He alerted the authorities and distributed Spanish-language wanted posters, reminding everyone of the generous rewards still available. But nothing happened.

In 1903 Agent Frank Dimaio arrived in Argentina with orders to get the ball rolling. In Patagonia falsely depicted Dimaio as a nervous fellow, endlessly delaying his search for the fugitives after somehow forming an image of Patagonia as a snake-infested jungle full of crocodiles and fevers.

In fact, Dimaio was an agency hero. One of the few Italian-American Pinkertons, he volunteered to infiltrate Sicilian gangs in a New Orleans prison. One slip-up and Dimaio was a goner. But he pulled off this perilous undercover mission with exemplary skill and courage.

Dimaio sent more Spanish-language wanted posters throughout Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. Yet unexplained stalling by the Argentinian authorities and U.S. consular officials now confounded him. Then HQ suddenly informed Dimaio that this investigation was deprioritized.

The Union Pacific Railroad and the American Bankers Association, accepting the Pinkertons’ contention that these fugitives had relocated to Argentina, were now perfectly satisfied to let them be. Look, they said, if they’re down in South America they can’t rob our banks and trains. Reward money? Forget reward money. Repeat: forget reward money. Forget Cassidy and Longabaugh.

The case remained officially open. Then in 1911 the Uruguayan police reported killing three bandidos yanquis, two men and a woman, in a shoot-out. This was music to the Pinkertons’ ears. That’s it, they said after a decent interval. Case closed.


Frank Dimaio (1864-1954)



The word spread: Butch and Sundance were pushing up South American daisies. But not everyone was convinced.


Poppycock! said Cassidy’s old friends:


  • Butch dead in a South American shoot-out? A shoot-out? Butch? Never! 


  •  WhyI seen old Butch running guns for Pancho Villa in Mexico! (Possible but unlikely.)


  • A Mormon family named Bowman swore Cassidy skillfully negotiated them out of a serious jam with Mexican troops in Chihuahua in 1910. Years later Butch visited them in Texas. They sent his photo to his folks in Utah.


  • Butch went gold-prospecting in Alaska with Wyatt Earp. But the climate disagreed with Butch so he come on back. (Alaska: possible. Earp: nope.)


  •  I met Butch at a Wild West show in San Francisco. (Not impossible.)


  • After South America Butch went to Paris, France, Europe. He had surgery on his face. Now he looks real different. (C’est possible. But see Part viii.)


  • Old Butch? He got himself a Model T Ford and drove all around the West. (This was supposedly Cassidy’s sentimental journey to his preferred brothels from Nevada to Texas.) (Memories, memories.) And he’s gotten rather fat.



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So you’re the Butch Cassidy!?



Other return stories:

A Rock Springs, Wyoming bartender, Bert Kraft alleged that during the 1920’s Elzy Lay and Cassidy entered his saloon. Lay was incarcerated in 1899, but was pardoned in 1906 for helping to end a prison riot. He straightened himself out, remarried and moved to California.

Kraft knew them back in the 1890’s. He mentioned that Elzy’s old flame, Josie Bassett (whose sister was Butch’s old flame) lived nearby.

Butch, Elzy and Josie reminisced for hours. She later claimed she’d met Butch twice in Johnnie, Nevada. Josie added he’d worked for a mining company there, where he died “in the 1940’s”.

Then there’s Lula Parker Betenson, Cassidy’s youngest sister.


In her book Butch Cassidy, My Brother (1975), Betenson described the autumn day in 1925 when “Bob” – as the Parkers remembered him – appeared in Circleville, Utah.

A shiny Ford stopped on the road where Mark Parker was repairing a fence. After some hesitation Bob’s identity clicked and the brothers embraced. They took Bob’s car to the house where old Maximilian (“Maxi”) Parker – with his distinctive shock of white hair – and daughter Lula (aged 41) still lived.

“Bob” was 59 and hadn’t been home in over 40 years, but Maxi knew immediately his firstborn had returned. Lula – too young to remember him – observed the stranger had her mother Annie Parker’s face. She fixed an extra plate for her long lost brother.

Bob expressed grief at how his wicked ways had broken his dear mother’s heart. He described the day in ’84 when he left home. His mother packed some food in a blue blanket. She and the family dog, Dash, watched him ride past the poplar trees his mother had planted years earlier.

He declared he and Sundance had sincerely tried to “go straight” in Argentina and Bolivia. But he blamed corrupt local lawmen and Pinkertons for relentlessly hounding them, forcing them back into criminality. The family believed him.

Accepting they weren’t kids anymore and enough was enough, Cassidy and Longabaugh abandoned the outlaw life in 1909.

(If true, this casts fatal doubt on the outlaws in Bobby’s, Otero’s and Peña’s stories being Cassidy and Longabaugh.)

The ex-outlaws separated in 1909, arranging a future rendezvous and a return to America. A scorpion sting made Cassidy miss the rendezvous. He reached Mexico, finding employment here and there. In a cantina Butch suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. He froze, fearing a zealous lawman had identified him. But the hand belonged to Etta.

Sundance was with her (!). The trio shared two convivial days. Later, Bob recounted, he prospected for gold. But Alaska’s climate aggravated his old injuries and he settled in the Pacific Northwest (not – as Josie said – in Nevada). There he hoped to live out his days.

His family promised never to reveal his whereabouts, allow outsiders access to his letters or divulge his burial place.

Lots of Lula’s blueberry pie (but no coffee in that Mormon household) later, he departed. Lula – “forthright and energetic into her nineties” – wrote: “Bob died of pneumonia in the Pacific Northwest in 1937”.


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And on to the next cat house…






Lula’s memoir contains nothing impossible but much that’s unprovable. Did she massage the facts to protect Bob’s anonymity and reputation? Perhaps. But we must balance that against her religious scruples and her stated wish to set the record straight.

Another memoir exists. A never-published manuscript, The Bandit Invincible, surfaced in the mid-1930’s. It claimed to tell the truth about Cassidy, by Cassidy, under the pseudonym William T. Phillips.

What can be said about William T. Phillips (“WTP”)?

Nothing for certain before 1908 (when Butch and Sundance were still known to be in Bolivia). WTP died in 1937 – as Lula reported about Butch-  but his death certificate puts his birth in Michigan in June 1865, ten months before Butch was born in Utah.

Michigan’s 19th-century census records are intact, but no records exist for either WTP or his “father”, “L.J. Phillips”. The records for the “mother” show she was a 12-year-old in 1865.


The first appearance of WTP in any official record is his wedding certificate issued in Adrian, Michigan on May 14, 1908. He gave his age as 34 (wildly inaccurate for someone born in 1865). His profession was “mechanical engineer”. He took Gertrude (an asthmatic) to the healthier climate of Spokane, Washington (the Pacific Northwest), where he worked for a utility company and then a typewriter manufacturer. WTP quit temporarily to prospect for gold in Alaska.

Acquiring his own company, he took time off for a trip – alone – through Wyoming and Utah in 1925.

In 1930, as the Depression hit, WTP went to Wyoming to find some Wild Bunch money stashed decades earlier. He failed.

During another trip in 1934, WTP’s companion, a young Spokanite, heard WTP’s accounts of daring robberies, travels throughout the West, narrow escapes, brushes with death, adventures in South America and much more. WTP virtually admitted he was Butch Cassidy, complaining of decades-long harassment by lawmen. “When they get a man down they won’t let him up” was his constant refrain.

Urged to write his memoirs as soon as possible, WTP obliged by pouring out plodding prose in pencil.


He obviously wrote in haste. WTP was his own worst editor. The questionable chronology and frequent misspellings (emaculate; only heresay) attest to that. WTP wrote in the third person (Butch knew…; Cassidy was…) but occasionally slipped and used  I/me/my. Names, dates and places were changed, either because of memory lapses or to hide incriminating details. These “errors” led some researchers to dismiss The Bandit Invincible as a failed fraud.

But. The misspellings, idiosyncrasies, faulty grammar and quirky punctuation are close to what’s found in Cassidy’s early letters. While not a perfect match, the handwriting is too similar to be coincidental. The differences could be due to ageing.

The Bandit Invincible includes intimate details which its defenders claim only someone living in Cassidy’s shadowy world would know. It describes long forgotten saloons which subsequent research showed had briefly existed as the author portrays them. Obscure South American locales appear with details that you’d only know if you’d been there.


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Without editorial comment, here’s what The Bandit Invincible says:

Parker wasn’t Butch’s original surname. As a runaway he was adopted by a George Parker. WTP ignores his childhood experiences and goes straight to Butch’s nascent criminality. His petty crimes eventually escalate.

Cassidy’s unjustly imprisoned for a minor crime, resulting in a lifelong grudge against the judge responsible. A model prisoner, he’s released – with that judge’s official apology – after seven months of an 18-month sentence. He works various straight jobs, but frequently backslides into crime.

Butch’s increasing boldness leads to notoriety. He forms The Wild Bunch, a loose coalition dissolving and coalescing with the circumstances. With western lawmen on his tail, Cassidy heads east. In Chicago and Michigan he dispenses largesse, survives close calls, coincidentally encounters Western lawmen (even accidentally sharing accommodation with one), works for a circus and steers a Lake Michigan boat. He also visits Central America but is unimpressed.


Butch returns to Wyoming, associating more with Dick Maxwell – Harry Longabaugh – who’s never called The Sundance Kid. Maxwell and his girlfriend, Betty Price, maintain a fierce mutual loyalty.

The pressure surges, and after more narrow escapes Cassidy and Maxwell decide to “go straight” and become Patagonian beef farmers. They arrange to rendezvous in Montevideo, Uruguay in September 1901. Butch travels from Montreal to Liverpool, the Canary Islands, Madeira and Brazil. He arrives in Uruguay in July.

Maxwell arrives. Before Betty’s arrival they purchase a homestead near the Rio Negro, nowhere near Cholila. After an uneventful three years they encounter an ex-Wyoming lawman – now a Patagonian stock buyer – named Apfield. Alarm bells ring. Apfield knows them from “the days of your”. They abandon farming and revert to banditry.


Two yanquis – Fowler and Haines – join them. Betty tags along. In northern Argentina Butch spreads  the word they’re leaving Argentina forever. Respectable job offers arrive from Chile and Peru, but he declines: staying anchored to one spot increases his vulnerability. Entering Bolivia, they rob trains for chicken feed.

Their crimes become bolder. Betty’s unhappy. Maxwell sends her to Buenos Aires with all his money.

Bolivian troopers pursue them. In a vicious firefight Cassidy, Maxwell and an unexplained partner named Billings kill 17 troopers. Billings dies. Maxwell’s hit. Sinking fast, Maxwell’s last words are: Good-bye, Butch, my old pal. Don’t forget Betty. Take my [money] belt with you if you can get away and send it to little Betty and she will know I died fighting and thinking of her.

Butch skedaddles before the troopers realize he’s survived, heading to Brazil by horse, riverboat and foot. He sends Maxwell’s belt to Betty without an accompanying letter. She’ll understand. From a Brazilian port he sails to Liverpool, then heads straight to Paris for three weeks of facial surgery by an unnamed doctor in an unnamed hospital to alter his appearance.

Butch returns to the States. The Bandit Invincible ends.




Q:  What can we make of all this?

A:  Firstly, I believe Lula’s account is the more reliable, I’ll say that much.

Before we tackle Invincible itself, consider WTP’s timing.

There’s a signed letter from Cassidy to Concordia’s top management, sent from Tres Cruces, Bolivia on February 16, 1908.  It says nothing about leaving. Yet three months later WTP’s already abandoned Bolivia, has already settled in Michigan, has already courted Gertrude and is saying “I do” at the altar.

Either: (a) WTP wasn’t Cassidy but someone expertly hiding his true identity who knew Cassidy intimately. Or (b): He was Cassidy, and he left South America much earlier than we thought, making that letter a red herring.

My bet’s on (a).

Q:  And the similar handwriting, misspellings and grammar?

A:  Did a relative or close companion who’d seen his letters copy his style? But that does remain a nagging problem, as nagging as the WTP-first-appearance conundrum.

It’s like JFK-assassination studies: implausiblities can produce possible explanations, but plausible explanations often produce shaky conclusions.

QInvincible‘s defenders point to many details that only Cassidy could have known. For example, he refused to shake hands with the judge who imprisoned and later released him. Only Butch was there, so…

A: This episode’s recorded by that judge in Wyoming’s public records, so it wasn’t something only Butch could know.

What if the text said The night before, Cassidy had dreamed about his family? Would this be proof of the dream’s reality? Only Butch could remember Butch’s dreams, right? With these statements you can say pretty much anything because nobody can prove you wrong.

Anyway, even a cursory reading raises these issues:

Cassidy’s picaresque Michigan adventures were intended to create links between Cassidy and Michigan, to make WTP/Cassidy’s sudden presence there in 1908 less surprising.

Remember his weird sea-routes to and from South America? The first is explicable by a natural desire to conceal his true final destination. But the return-trip’s Paris episode was necessary to explain why WTP and Cassidy looked like:


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Also, how did he reach Europe and America after barely escaping with his life in Bolivia? How much money could he carry? Enough to cross Brazil, reach England, spend three weeks in Paris, pay for plastic surgery then sail to the States and start afresh?

Invincible ignores Cassidy’s spell in Mexico. Lula’s book didn’t. There’s nothing about the Bolivian mine. Invincible asserts Longabaugh died but Cassidy told the Parkers they met in Mexico. There’s nothing about Cassidy’s new life in America.

The similarities may certainly be striking but the discrepancies and omissions are glaring.

Plus, Invincible‘s depiction of Cassidy is questionable. Butch’s character combines Huckleberry Finn with Robin Hood and Indiana Jones.

Q:  What about the “Evans and Wilson were Butch and Sundance” idea?

A: Doubtful. The chronology’s problematic. Also: If Butch and Sundance left Bolivia around 1908, why would they return to Patagonia? They were still wanted by the Argentinian and Chilean police, remember.

Q:  Finally, Cassidy dominates the narrative. Longabaugh always played second fiddle. Why isn’t there more research on Longabaugh‘s post-Bolivia fate?

A:  It seems people just aren’t that interested in Sundance. Butch was charismatic. Sundance stayed a shadowy, silent figure, except in Bolivian cantinas. There was never much to say about him. And that’s probably how he wanted it.



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The nude dude and his attitude to food


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In one episode of The Simpsons Lisa developed a crush on an eco-warrior campaigning to save a local forest. She tried to ingratiate herself by stressing her commitment to vegetarianism. He was unimpressed, displaying a low opinion of mere vegetarians. 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 often influences our beliefs. The ancient Pythagoreans avoided beans – something to do with the transmigration of souls –  and medieval French Cathars shunned any food resulting from sexual reproduction. Some Hindu sects refuse onions and garlic, believing these arouse sexual passions. And so on.



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If sex produced it, the Cathars ate it not


Fast forward to the late 1800’s and we see dietary gurus everywhere. Some folks now had the luxury of abstaining from meat altogether, like the inventor of corn flakes, John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943). Taking his ideas from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Kellogg advocated two meals a day (lots of nuts, no meat), avoidance of coffee (you’ll get diabetes) and tea (you’ll go  insane). Plus daily enemas.

Kellogg also urged compulsory circumcision – without anesthetic so the pain would never be forgotten – to decrease the pleasures of masturbation. Kellogg was a qualified physician and spoke with supreme confidence when he decreed that masturbation could lead to “the victim” dying “by his own hand.” How many 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 me. And then they must have looked at their right hands with fear and loathing.

Fin-de-siècle Europe – especially Germany – saw a swing to even stronger vegetarianism. In 1894 The New York Times described an ex-German Army officer named Wäthe and his Fruitarian Society. Their diet was limited to ripe, raw fruit. They embraced compulsory nudity. Wäthe visited San Francisco to arrange a colony of fruitarian nudists in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) . That was the plan, but it  never reached fruition.


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“…or you will go blind and/or die!”


The most radical food cult started with another German, a pharmacist’s assistant born in Nuremberg in 1875, named August Engelhardt. His family was omnivorous, with no interest in vegetarianism. Young August was a dreamy lad, given to fantasies about distant places. He pored over atlases. This was while Germany was catching up with France and Britain in the acquisition of 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 frugivores living on fruit alone. They held coconuts in esteem. Their lives were healthy and blissful, their bodies sustained by the golden goodness of equatorial sunshine and tropical fruits, their digestive systems untainted by the flesh of dead animals.

Soon the Jungborn (Fountain of Youth) movement in Central Germany attracted Engelhardt’s attention. It demanded strict vegetarianism and nudism. Were they winter nudists? Reports are sketchy. In any case, the movement was short lived: the police demolished their compound, making a few arrests for public indecency.


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Lass uns nackt werden!


August Engelhardt crisscrossed Germany, lecturing on the benefits of nudism and a vegetarian diet loaded with tropical fruits. He preached that humans could live healthily on coconuts alone. How ordinary Germans at the turn of the 20th century were expected to adopt Kokovorismus (a nothing-but-coconuts diet) wasn’t Engelhardt’s problem. His mind was elsewhere. He was planning to put his ideas into practice by leaving Europe and starting a new cocovoristic life in the deep 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 too cloudy, and volcanic to boot. German Southwest Africa (Namibia), then? Nein: it was a desert devoid of coconuts. German East Africa (Tanzania, as it later became)? Lots of coconuts, to be sure, but lots of Muslims too. A nudist would be asking for trouble. Yet throughout this period a little voice inside his head kept whispering  Südpazifik! Südpazifik! Yes, the South Pacific beckoned. That could be the place where a naked cocovore could live joyfully under the tropical sun.

Germany had recently purchased Micronesia from the Spanish Empire (Spain needed the money and Germany needed 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’s almost on the equator, he noted. Lots of coastline. Lots of coconuts. Das ist perfekt!


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The gods were kind: Engelhardt’s parents died at a wonderfully convenient juncture, leaving him a substantial inheritance. Nothing could stop him now. To German New Guinea! He’d forsake Europe and live the wonders of cocovorism.


What supported his dietary ideas?

He believed early humans had made many wrong turns. They should never have wandered so far north from their African homeland. Europe was no place for Homo sapiens, he declared. Our natural home is the equatorial belt, with its fruit trees and warm climate. Clothes would be useless encumbrances in such conditions. Agriculture was another blunder, he told whoever would listen. Mankind was meant to live free eating wild plants and living outdoors. The sun was the source of all life, so humans needed to “get back to the sun”. They’d then reach their destiny – healthy, happy, frugivorous and as naked as the day they were born.

We must never block the sun’s influence on our bodies, he wrote. Abandon clothes! The head was the body-part closest to the sun, and was thus of special significance. Wearing hats was foolishness: it hindered the sun’s beneficial rays. Not only that, but the energy required by our brains isn’t supplied by the alimentary canal, that dark and dirty 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 therefore inferior to fruit. And what better fruit was there than the coconut? It grew at the top of 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.


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In 1902 August Engelhardt arrived in German New Guinea (the map’s green area). He brought 1,200 books and just enough clothes to avoid arrest. He purchased a 75-hectare coconut grove on a small island and built himself a hut.

Engelhardt was now a wealthy man with few material needs. He could bring in German disciples who wanted 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 and the enervating heat.

The European population fluctuated wildly. Engelhardt was often alone (alone if you ignore the 40 or so Melanesians on the island). He was occasionally surrounded by enthusiastic nudist vegetarians. Some adapted, others found the guru’s standards and practices hard to maintain.



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Dressed for the occasion (Engelhardt’s topless)


One story concerns a noted classical 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. Unfortunately, Engelhardt loathed Donizetti’s music and detested Bizet’s Carmen. He confronted Lutzow about this. 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 food or drink. 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 himself was in poor health. After years of nothing but coconuts his weight plummeted to 39 kg. His skin was badly ulcerated. He could barely stand. 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 Engelhardt didn’t die. He remained on his island, usually in splendid isolation. Occasional visitors briefly stayed on, 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).


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The Germans held out for weeks


In  August 1914 the Great War broke out and at Britain’s behest Australian forces seized German New Guinea. August Engelhardt was interned as an enemy civilian, but his captors soon decided he was more of a threat to himself than to the British Empire. They released him.

Engelhardt 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 couldn’t 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.


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It’ll be coconuts for lunch, I think







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


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Right down the bottom



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 local languages, Yaghan is a language isolate: it has no demonstrable kinship with any other language, living or dead.)

The Yaghan called themselves Yámana, which as a noun 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.


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There’s more where this came from


Disease 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 always hunting marine mammals from their canoes, the women relentlessly searching 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, for the Yaghan/Yámana people lived virtually naked, despite a chilly climate where summer snow flurries surprised nobody. Clothes just made you colder when they inevitably got wet. Smearing your body with seal fat was more effective. Their higher-than-average metabolisms and body temperatures did the rest.

Frequent cloud and fog prevented evaporation, keeping the ground permanently wet and intensifying the cold. Yet everyone slept in flimsy temporary seal-skin and sapling huts or behind rock shelters, or just 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 help. They sent smoke signals warning of danger or alerting friends to sightings of marine mammals. Despite the risk, they even maintained fires in their canoes.


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Fire in the hole


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

Two supernatural brothers with opposing views on everything dominated Yaghan/Yámana religious practices. Their myths involved a powerful sea lion and his human wife and stories about a giant albatross and sacred humming birds. Spirits, malicious and kindly, crowded their everyday world. Any shaman could control the weather (if he so desired). Tradition held that women were once the ruling class, but lost that role after the men rebelled. The nearby Ona/Selk’nam were their traditional enemies since, well, forever.

The first outsider to study their language was the British missionary Thomas Bridges (1842-1898). 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.


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Dressed for the occasion



British explorer, Captain James Weddell, had encountered the Yaghan/Yámana back in 1822. He surmised their language was 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 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 and returned to their desolate homeland to form the nucleus of a Christian 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.

We know little of what eventually happened to “York” and “Fuegia”, but Jemmy Button’s experience is better documented. On their return 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 reluctantly conceded that Jemmy – the three survivors’ best English-speaker – would probably prove useless as an 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 knowledge of English still robust despite sporadic chances to exercise it – Jemmy was implicated in a missionary’s murder. He emphatically denied 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 probably soon returned to his people.


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Jemmy Button, before & after


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? In any case, Christians are exhorted to gather all nations unto the Lord, so Bridges plunged into the Yaghan language.

His jaw dropped once he saw what this entailed.


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Looks aren’t everything


The language was so metaphor-dependent that finding 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 persisted.

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 word for scar and also for 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, the shaman’s powers notwithstanding) was the same word as fish scales.

Old age was easily identified by rough, wrinkly skin, or 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.


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There was talk of the Lost Tribe of Israel


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 communication proved impossible. Despite the Federation’s arsenal of advanced linguistic software, Tamarian remained 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. And so on.

As this fundamental feature of Tamarian becomes clearer, the Enterprise‘s officers explain it thus:

Imagine a linguistic community using English vocabulary and grammar but  communicating only in the Tamarian style. 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 happened to him, 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 the 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.


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His sails unfurled = Full speed ahead


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 [him].

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. 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.

At the moment only one Yaghan/Yámana native-speaker is left alive. She’s a 90-year-old woman living near Puerto Williams, Chile.


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