The London Chocolate Houses Of The 17th And 18th Centuries

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It is hard to imagine now, but chocolate was once an exotic luxury, available only to the wealthy. It was taken as a drink, and in 17th century London chocolate houses opened to serve the rich and powerful. But these fashionable new establishments were often rowdy and scandalous places…

Chocolate Comes To London

Chocolate was introduced to Spain from the New World in the 16th century, and gradually spread across Europe. It arrived in London in the 1650s, and soon became popular at the court of King Charles II.

The new drink was initially served in the London coffee houses, but it wasn’t long before dedicated chocolate houses started to appear. The earliest was opened by a Frenchman in 1657, in Queen’s Head Alley off Bishopsgate.

Af first the cocoa was just mixed with water and spices, but sugar was later added to mask the bitter taste. Sir Hans Sloane, a London physician and naturalist, introduced the idea of adding milk following a visit to Jamaica in 1689.

Historic exterior of the shop of Berry Bros & Rudd. Outside has arched windows and doors and is painted black
Berry Bros and Rudd supplied cocoa to the early chocolate houses

Fashionable Meeting Places

Although chocolate was fashionable, and considered to have health-giving properties, it wasn’t the main reason to visit the chocolate houses. These were places for socialising and networking, and their patrons could be sure that anyone who could afford chocolate was as influential and wealthy as themselves.

Many of the chocolate houses were in the elite areas of London, particularly St James’s. They included White’s, established in 1693, and The Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall. The chocolate houses bought their cocoa from the shop of Berry Bros and Rudd on St James’s Street, which opened in 1698 to supply local businesses with chocolate and coffee. (You can still visit the shop, although today it is a wine and spirit merchant.)

Circular entrance hall of a grand clubhouse, with antique furnishing and a vintage car in the middle of the floor
The Cocoa Tree is now a grand clubhouse for the RAC

Dens of Iniquity

The chocolate houses were an all-male environment. They were places to drink chocolate and have a meal, and to discuss business and politics. Unfortunately the debate was not always gentlemanly, and the atmosphere could become quite rowdy. Charles II tried (unsuccessfully) to have the establishments banned, because he considered them to be “hotbeds of sedition”.

Another popular activity – which contributed to their bad reputation – was gambling. Entire fortunes could be won and lost, and seemingly bizarre wagers were placed. On one infamous occasion the bet was on whether a sick man would live or die.

Public opinion was reflected in William Hogarth’s series of satirical pictures, “The Rake’s Progress”, where the gambling sequence shows a scene of debauchery in White’s gaming room. Elsewhere in contemporary culture, Jonathan Swift described White’s as “the bane of the English nobility”.

Gentleman’s Clubs

The chocolate houses fell out of fashion towards the end of the 18th century. The Cocoa Tree became a private club, and its later members included Lord Byron. It is now a grand clubhouse for the RAC.

Exterior of White's Club, a grand building with columns, tall windows and external decorative features
The present day White’s Club

As for White’s, it burnt down and moved to its present location on St James’s Street in 1771. Today it maintains its status as the oldest gentleman’s club in London, an exclusive meeting place for the elite. In some ways not too different from its earliest clientele!

Marco Polo And Korčula

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I visited Korčula, in Croatia, when I was researching my novel Shadow of the Dome. I was particularly keen to explore the Marco Polo House – you might be surprised to know that this claims to be the birthplace of the great explorer!

Most historians are of the opinion that that Marco Polo (1254-1324) was born in Venice, but the old walled town of Korčula, on an island of the same name close to Dubrovnik, has a strong rival claim. The evidence for either birthplace is not conclusive, so I set out to find the connection between Marco Polo and Korčula.

Polo Family Links With Korčula

On the one hand, Marco Polo was certainly a Venetian citizen, and it is known that he spent at least some of his early life in Venice and that he eventually settled there. On the other hand, Korčula was a part of the Venetian republic in the 13th century and it is also true that the Polo family had long trading links with the Croatian town.

Looking from the sea to a medieval town with a large tower, defensive walls and old houses. There is a ship and cars in the foreground
The island town of Korčula

The Croatian tradition is that Marco Polo was born to a local family of merchants and shipbuilders who moved to Venice soon afterwards. The records show that some members of the Polo family were active in the shipbuilding industry in Korčula at the time and, indeed, the name Depolo has been prominent in the town to the present day. It is also likely that Marco’s father and uncle had business interests in both Korčula and Venice.

However, the known facts of Marco Polo’s early life are that he was born after his father and uncle had set out for their first trip to China and that he met his father for the first time 15 years later. During that time Marco’s mother had died and he had gone to live with an aunt and uncle in Venice. Would an orphaned Croatian boy have travelled across the sea to live with relatives in a distant city? Or is it more likely that he was already in Venice at the time of his mother’s death?

Later Connection With Korčula

Whatever the truth of the matter, Marco Polo does have a later (if tenuous) connection with the island. Though he spent many years of his life in China (accompanying his father and uncle on their second trip to the court of Kublai Khan), he did eventually return to Venice. He was unwilling to settle immediately into the relatively sedentary life of a prosperous merchant and became involved in the war between Venice and Genoa.

He was commanding a ship in the naval battle of Korčula when he was captured and taken to prison in Genoa. It was here that he related his experiences to his fellow prisoner Rusticello who wrote them down and created the book that we now know as Marco Polo’s Travels.

Narrow street with steps leading downwards. There are tall stone buildings on either side and a stone archway across the road
The narrow streets of Korcula

Marco Polo And Modern Day Korčula

Today the town abounds with allusions to the explorer, with a Marco Polo hotel, Marco Polo restaurant and countless reminders in the shops. Every year in July there is a Marco Polo Festival of Song and Wine although, apart from the name, it is difficult to tell what connection the festival has with Marco Polo!

Tourists can visit the Marco Polo House, the house in which he is reputed to have been born. This has now been opened as a small museum with items related to the explorer’s travels, but the chief item of interest is the tower which gives panoramic views across the old town.

Side of old stone house with an external staircase up to the roof
The Marco Polo House in Korčula, now a museum

And in 1997 the International Marco Polo Centre was set up in Korčula with the aim of studying Marco Polo’s life and work, encouraging tourism in Korcula and establishing cultural ties between Europe and Asia. As the town’s tourist website acknowledges, the truth about Marco Polo’s birthplace will never be known, but his legacy in spreading understanding between different cultures will always remain.

Visiting Korčula

Quite apart from the Marco Polo connection, the town of Korčula is a great place for a day out. It is a bit like a miniature Dubrovnik, with a maze of narrow streets, an old city wall and restaurants on every corner. Elsewhere on the island you can enjoy hiking, cycling, watersports or vineyard visits.

Ferries run to Korčula from Dubrovnik and from the neighbouring island of Hvar.

(You can read more about the research I did to write Shadow of the Dome, from the South China Sea to a shopping mall in Dubai…)

Pirates Of The Malacca Strait

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When I was writing my novel Shadow of the Dome I discovered that piracy was a big problem for seafarers in the 13th century. And when I went on a cruise of southeast Asia as part of my research I realised that it can still be a problem today!

The Malacca Strait, which runs between Malaysia and Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been a favourite haunt of pirates for over a thousand years. In recent years 40% of the world’s pirate attacks have taken place in this region. 

Protection From Pirates

I sailed through the Malacca Strait as part of the cruise and I idly wondered whether we would have any “close encounters”. But the ship’s lecturer on piracy assured us that pirates would have no interest in a shipload of British holidaymakers who kept demanding cups of tea every half hour! However I did notice that the ship had razor wire around the edges as well as water cannons. And some of my fellow passengers informed me that they had been on a cruise around East Africa when pirates had tried to mount their ship at night. Fortunately on that occasion the intruders were scared off…

In the middle ages ships would travel in big convoys for protection but even that didn’t always stop the pirates from attacking. It is easy to imagine big battles at sea, with fierce looking pirates mounting the side of a ship under cover of darkness, brandishing machetes, while the ship (if it detects them in time) fires cannons and tries to push the pirates into the water. Clearly the pirates were often successful, as they acquired a sort of mythology among Chinese seafarers, being compared with sea dragons, and were reputed to have magical qualities including invisibility and an inability to sink.

Hiding Places For Pirates

Modern pirates are more likely to be of Indonesian origin. Pirates flourish when a number of conditions are present. Firstly, they need somewhere to hide. Then there has to be something worth stealing. And finally, piracy thrives on weak local governance or political unrest. Historically all of these conditions have existed in the Malacca Strait.  

Malacca Strait
There are lots of hiding places for pirates in the Malacca Strait (photo copyright tian yake, creative commons licence from Flickr)

The Strait is 900 km long but only 1.7 km wide at its narrowest point, making it a choke point for the merchant vessels that pass through. It is studded with thousands of little islands and the shoreline is a mass of tangled mangrove swamps, inlets and reefs. In mediaeval times pirates would hide out among the mangroves and launch raids upon nearby villages as well as on passing ships, and today the area continues to offer a wealth of hiding places.

Valuable Cargoes

The Malacca Strait is part of the most direct sea route from India to China and it has been a busy trade route since the earliest times. In the middle ages cargoes would include Chinese porcelain and silks as well as peppercorns and other spices. Spices were particularly valuable as they often had limited habitats and were much in demand for culinary and medicinal purposes. Passengers or crew members might also be taken as slaves.

Today around a third of the world’s trade passes through the Strait, including half of all oil shipments from the Middle East. The route continues to be used despite the threat of piracy as alternative routes are long and costly. Pirates target cargoes, onboard cash and valuables, and prisoners for ransom; or they may simply take over the ship itself.

Political And Economic Conditions

In early times piracy was a way of life, with rich pickings from passing ships. Pirates effectively controlled the Strait, often demanding tribute from ships and port authorities. Local rulers later took advantage of this, working with the pirates to take charge of the area and to fight off potential invaders.

There was an increase in piracy in the 18th century as European traders sought to dominate the spice trade. This was partly a protest against colonisation but also a response to the loss of livelihood as lucrative trade was drawn away from the region.

More recently piracy has been fuelled by political unrest in Indonesia and the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Modern pirates fall into three categories: organised crime, terrorists and small opportunists.

Combatting Piracy On The Malacca Strait

The geography of the Malacca Strait region makes piracy hard to suppress. Historically, conflict between neighbouring states ruled out any collaborative approach and mediaeval traders would sail in convoy, often with naval ships, to minimise their exposure to pirates.

In the 19th century the British and Dutch colonial powers agreed a demarcation line, with the Dutch controlling the waters by Sumatra, and the British monitoring the Malaysia/Singapore side of the Strait. This, together, with increased political and economic stability in the region, led to a decrease in pirate activity.

Piracy In The 21st Century

In recent times there has been a renewed imperative to eliminate piracy in the Malacca Strait. Commercial companies have to face possible loss of life and goods, as well as increased insurance premiums. There are also concerns about terrorist activity and the potential for a major oil spillage.

Multinational controls over the Strait have now been established. Despite initial resistance from local governments, who saw it as a threat to their sovereignty, these measures do seem to be working, with only two attacks in 2010.

Exploring The Myth Of The Wild West At Cody, Wyoming

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Before I visited Wyoming I thought I knew all about the Wild West: gun-toting cowboys, cattle ranching and endless fighting. An image that seemed to be confirmed as I drove to Cody, home of the legendary Buffalo Bill, passing through towns that could have passed as movie sets. Cody itself may be primarily a place where tourists stop on their way to Yellowstone National Park, but for me it was the place where the Wild West came alive.

Buffalo Bill Cody And The Wild West Show

The town of Cody was founded in 1895 by William Frederick Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill”. Cody himself was an entrepreneur whose career encompassed hunting, prospecting for gold and several military campaigns. He came to symbolise the pioneering spirit of the times.

Advertising sign with picture of Buffalo Bill
Images of Buffalo Bill are everywhere

In 1883 he created a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” that toured the United States and Europe. This included displays of shooting and horsemanship, and re-enacted highly-coloured accounts of historical episodes with names like “Train Robbery” and “Custer’s Last Stand”. The shows were enormously popular and helped to build up an image of life in the Wild West in the minds of people who had never been there.

Cody: The Town And Its Museums

Cody is clearly proud of its western heritage. Cowboy culture is everywhere, and the town styles itself the “Rodeo capital of the world”, with rodeo shows taking place throughout the summer. There are lots of museums here, more than you could see in a day. Most of them are places where you can learn more about the town and western history.

The largest museum is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I didn’t have time to explore this one, but it looks like a massive celebration of all things western. It includes a number of separate collections, including the Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody Firearms Museum and Plains Indian Museum. It also hosts a major powwow each year in June.

Cody Heritage Museum

The Cody Heritage Museum is a small museum in a house that once belonged to the influential DeMaris family. It tells the story of Cody from its beginnings, from agriculture and ranching, to mineral exploration and the coming of the railroad, to the present day tourist industry. It also includes profiles of prominent local families.

The Cody Heritage Museum
The Cody Heritage Museum

Old Trail Town

Old Trail Town is on the Yellowstone Highway, about three miles from the centre of Cody. This is an outdoor museum, with 25 historic buildings arranged to resemble a pioneering town.

Wagons and houses at Old Trail Town
Wagons and houses at Old Trail Town

The museum includes a shop and saloon, several homesteads and artisans’ houses. Some of the buildings have historical significance, having been associated with legends of the past, such as Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang. And, of course, there are lots of wagons.

Historic Cody Mural And Museum

For a different perspective, visit the Cody Mural and Museum. This is housed in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, built by Mormon settlers in the mid-20th century. The detailed and impressive mural covers the upper walls and ceiling of one room, and shows the history of the LDS church, from its origins and early persecution, to the founding of Salt Lake City.

A prophet and a fiery sky
Detail from the Cody Mural, showing the history of the Mormon Church

The small museum inside the church is devoted to the story of the Mormons in Wyoming. In the late 19th century a group of church members were sent by the elders in Salt Lake City to settle the area and engage in missionary activity. Later they moved into Cody and established a church and community there. (Curiously, there was no mention of the Mormon settlers in the Heritage Museum.)

Keeping The Myth Alive

Later I stood in the wide main street (presumably a relic of cattle-herding days) and gazed at the tall mountains in the distance. There were pioneer-style houses, western-style diners and references to Buffalo Bill everywhere. I started to wonder whether the whole thing was a pastiche, an invented reality for the benefit of tourists.

But in the evening I sat in one of those diners, surrounded by people eating oversized steaks. There was western memorabilia on the walls and people were dancing to a country and western band. These were not tourists, but local people enjoying an evening out. Clearly the culture of the Wild West is alive and well.

Museums in Cody
Pinnable image of Old Trail Town and Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Native Americans And Yellowstone National Park: Hot Springs, Legends And Sacred Places

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One of the main features of Yellowstone Park is its abundant thermal activity. Sitting on top of an active volcano, the constantly changing landscape features more than 500 geysers and numerous hot springs. From what I had seen of similar places elsewhere in the world (such as the Maori village of Rotorua in New Zealand), I guessed that the area must have been of significance for the Native American tribes, a place teeming with history and legends. But, as I travelled around the park, I looked in vain for any connection between the Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park. So I decided to dig a little deeper and find out why not.

History Of The Native Americans And Yellowstone National Park

Despite the lack of historic names in the park, and the fact that I only saw one reference to Native Americans on the numerous information boards, it is clear that the region has been inhabited for a very long time. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been using the area for at least 11,000 years. Prehistoric tools and other artefacts have been uncovered, and many areas show signs of long-standing human activity. In more recent times several tribes are known to have used, and lived in, the area now occupied by Yellowstone National Park.

Steam issuing from the Dragon's Mouth Spring
Many of the thermal features were given diabolical names – like the Dragon’s Mouth Spring

But when the park was created in 1872 there seems to have been a concerted effort to remove the local people from the land, and to suppress all evidence of their local history and legends. It is likely that this was partly because, at the time, Native Americans were being encouraged to move into reservations. But, additionally, the park authorities wanted to attract visitors, and to reassure them that the park was “safe”.

So they set about creating some myths of their own. The first was that the park was untamed wilderness, waiting to be discovered for the first time. And the second was that Native Americans were afraid of the geyser regions, and avoided them. As part of this myth making they gave fearsome sounding names to the springs and geysers, such as Blood Geyser or Abyss Pool.

Hot Springs And Sacred Places

In fact the Indian tribes in Yellowstone National Park were not afraid of the springs. Quite the opposite: there is evidence that they made use of the springs for cooking food, and bathed in the water for medicinal purposes. On occasion they also buried their dead in the bubbling water.

Bubbling hot mud in Yellowstone Park
Bubbling mud of the Jet Geyser

And, as I originally suspected, the place was regarded as having spiritual significance. Certainly it is true that they believed it was full of spirits. But these spirits were not malevolent – as maintained by the modern myth-makers – but friendly and helpful. Native American names for Yellowstone invariably referred to its thermal properties, such as “many smoke” or “place of hot water”. More explicitly, the Crow nation called the geysers bide-mahpe (“sacred or powerful water”).

Native American Legends Associated With Yellowstone Park

The suppression of Native American legends associated with the park and its springs was part of the attempt to remove traces of earlier residents. There is also a suggestion that Native Americans themselves were reluctant to share their tribal stories. This may have been for religious reasons, but could also have been a symptom of the mistrust that existed between the native people and the settlers.

Pinnable image of Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park, showing geysers and brightly coloured rocks
Pinnable image of the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone Park

Given the astonishing nature of the landscape, with tall geysers and hot water steaming out of the ground, it would be surprising if there hadn’t been any attempts by early people to explain them. In fact, legends do exist, although in some cases their authenticity has been questioned. For instance, Ella Clark collected a number of tales for her book Indian Legends of the Northern Rockies, published in 1966. However, her methods were later questioned, and it is known that the stories were substantially edited.

The legends described here are ones that are considered to be genuine.

How The Yellowstone River Was Formed

One of Ella Clark’s stories that is thought to be authentic relates to the creation of the Yellowstone and Snake rivers. A hungry traveller begged for food from an old woman he met in the mountains. She offered to cook him some fish, but warned him not to touch her basket. But the traveller was curious, and went to investigate the basket. He knocked it over, spilling water and fish down the hillside.

Cascade on the Yellowstone River
One of many cascades on the Yellowstone River

The traveller piled up rocks in an attempt to stop the water, thus creating the Upper Falls. He tried to dam the stream further down: this became the Lower Falls. The water flowed on, to form the Yellowstone River, with several subsequent dams, including the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River. The fish basket became the Yellowstone Lake (and the old woman herself turned out to be Mother Earth).

Old Woman’s Grandchild

This legend tells how a Crow hunter named Old Woman’s Grandchild created some of Yellowstone’s geysers. Old Woman’s Grandchild was a powerful hunter who killed many animals, and turned them into mountains. But when he slew a large buffalo it was transformed into a geyser, and it wouldn’t stop puffing out hot air. So the hunter killed a mountain lion and placed it nearby. This became a new geyser, breathing steam onto the buffalo and so stopping it from coming back to life.

The eruption of Old Faithful
Old Faithful, one of the biggest geysers in Yellowstone Park

The Water Beast Of Overlook Mountain

Another Crow legend concerns the creation of steam vents around Yellowstone Lake. A thunderbird snatched up an Indian and took him to a nest on Overlook Mountain (on the side of the lake), wanting help to fight a giant beast that lived in the water and came out to eat the bird’s young.

Rising steam on Yellowstone Lake
Steam vents by Yellowstone Lake

The Indian heated up rocks and boiled water, then waited for the beast to climb up to the nest. As the monster approached, he poured the rocks and water into its mouth, and it fell back into the lake, steam pouring from its mouth. That was the end of the water beast, and the beginning of the steam vents around the lakeside.

A short video clip of the magnificent hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone Park. You can see why people might regard the place as having spiritual significance

Native Americans And Yellowstone Park Today

The relationship between Native Americans and Yellowstone Park is now beginning to be re-evaluated. Much of my information (including the three legends above) came from an informative paper by Lee H Whittlesey, published in 2002. And the National Parks Service has lots of historical information on its website.

I also discovered (too late for my visit) that you can get day tours looking at the park from a Native American perspective, exploring in particular the significance of the animals that live there. Clearly the history is there: it is just a matter of finding it!