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Subject: ‘Legend’

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Cocos Island continues to guard its fabulous treasure

Posted in Adventure, Historical articles, History, Legend, Ships on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Cocos Island first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Captain Thompson and mate,  picture, image, illustration
Captain Thompson and his crew fled from their Spanish captors but only Thompson survived, dying in Newfoundland in 1844 by C L Doughty

In a stretch of waste ground at racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell’s country house, every available man was busy digging. As soon as a hole was deep enough, unwanted pieces of old iron were thrown in and the excavation hurriedly filled up. When no more rusty chains, door locks or buckets could be found, Sir Malcolm ordered his superbly equipped workshops to be raided, and racing wheels, cylinder blocks and other car parts vanished underground.

The object of this hasty burial was to provide a test for a new treasure seeking aid in the form of an electric metal detector. Unfortunately for the one-time holder of the world speed record on both land and water, the gadget proved a total failure. Today, almost fifty years later, several hundred pounds worth of car spares are still quietly rusting beneath that particular stretch of ground, one more memorial to man’s passion for hidden gold.

For Sir Malcolm Campbell, it was only the beginning of a long story of rapidly mounting expenses that would eventually prove to him that although motor racing was unquestionably a rich man’s sport, treasure hunting could prove a pastime that was strictly for millionaires. But even if the great driver had been able to look into the future it is doubtful if he would have behaved any differently, for he had fallen under the spell of one of the great quests of all time. This was the search for the treasures of Cocos Island.

It was easy to believe that there might well be more than one. Cocos Island lies 300 miles south-west of Costa Rica, a tiny, volcanic heap of rock jutting up out of the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Only 4 miles in diameter, it has deeply caved cliffs that rise 600 feet, and what little land there is consists of almost impenetrable jungle. Unwelcoming the island may be, but it stands on what was once the main highway for treasure ships and pirates alike. For many a desperado in need of a quick hiding place, Cocos Island was the only available spot.

The first of its hurried visitors seems to have been Captain Edward Davis, who in 1683 commanded a pirate fleet of no less than 10 vessels. After plundering the coast about Panama, Davis’s flagship headed for Cocos Island on her own, and the pirate leader went shorewards with a number of heavy chests. Davis returned to the ship, but the chests remained behind.

In 1816, a particularly bloodthirsty scoundrel named Bonito Benito heard of a large consignment of gold due to be moved from Mexico City. Disguised as mule drivers, he and his men captured the load, hid it aboard their ship, the Relampago, and set sail. Bonito Benito managed to land his staggering haul on Cocos Island, but shortly afterwards he was cornered by a British corvette. Before he could be questioned, the pirate blew his brains out on his own quarter deck.

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The poet Francois Villon was King of France for a day

Posted in Legend, Literature, Myth, Oddities, Royalty on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Francois Villon the vagabond King,  picture, image, illustration
Francois Villon, the vagabond King

Did medieval Paris really have its own underworld monarch, the king of the beggars? Is it historically true that, for a joke, King Louis XI went so far as to make this arch-criminal king of France for twenty four hours? Was the beggar king a spare time poet, as well as a soldier of such ability that he saved his city from capture during his brief reign? Was there ever, in fact, a man behind the legend of the Vagabond King?

It was always a good story, and in one form or another it has cropped up again and again over the years. Books, plays, even an opera have been written round the cheerful 15th century crook who was supposed to have made the most of a royal whim. It always sounded too far-fetched a story to be true, and few scholars would have wasted their time over such an improbable tale if the Vagabond King had not possessed a name. Fortunately one crops up in all the stories: Francois Villon.

At least we know that this man was real enough. He was born in Paris in the year 1431, and became a Master of Arts at the university of that city, as well as finding fame as a poet whose work is one of the glories of France.

If this makes him sound an unlikely candidate for the title of the Vagabond King, it must be remembered that legends have an almost uncanny knack of proving themselves to be true.

Nevertheless, for four hundred years nobody read Villon outside his homeland, and it was not until half-way through the 19th century that a number of English poets began to translate his work, much of it written in medieval French slang. Suddenly people wanted to know more about this man whose words had the power to make 15th century Paris jump into focus like a film.

For a time, the Vagabond King story was widely believed. Then, as Villon’s works became more and more fashionable, historians began to wonder just how much of the strange tale was really true. The search for the Vagabond King had begun.

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The search for the ‘Abominable Snowman’ is not yet over

Posted in Adventure, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Myth, Superstition on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Yeti first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

The Abominable Snowman,  picture, image, illustration
The Abominable Snowman

Only desperate men would have been wandering among the high passes of the Himalayas in winter, but Slavomir Rawicz and his handful of gaunt companions comforted themselves with the thought that the Indian frontier and freedom could not be far away. The year was 1942, and the little group of Polish officers was nearing the end of one of the epic marches of World War II. One-time prisoners of the Russians, the Poles had broken out of their prison camp and had made their way across the pitiless wastes of Mongolia until they had reached the “Roof of the World” that lay between them and their goal. Suddenly Rawicz gave a warning signal. It was unbelievable in those desolate wastes, but there were two men ahead.

Men? The escapers started wide eyed. What kind of men stood more than seven feet tall? Or tramped naked through the snow and biting wind, their huge bodies covered with coarse hair? The watchers kept silent until the weird figures moved away. Later, when they reached their destination, they recounted what they had seen.

“Those were not men,” they were told. “Those were Yeti.”

“Yeti?” Strangers to the East, the Poles had never heard the name before. Nor could they know that they may well have seen the fabled creature that some of the finest mountaineers in the world would soon be tracking in vain.

Some called the creature the Yeti. Others, the Abominable Snowman. Or Kangmi, or Bhanjakris or Rakshi. The monster had many names. But, legend apart, did it really exist?

The long quest for the Yeti has much in common with the search for Flying Saucers. A terrifying, hairy giant, whose favourite haunts are the slopes of Mount Everest, the Yeti is reputed to have been seen by scores of men, ranging from the inhabitants of remote Buddhist monasteries to British army officers. But just like the elusive Flying Saucer, it manages to avoid direct scientific observation. Yet most descriptions of the Yeti follow roughly the same pattern, even in legends that go back hundreds of years.

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The legend of King Arthur and his fabled Camelot

Posted in Archaeology, Castles, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Royalty on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about King Arthur first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.

Arthur and Excalibur
Arthur takes Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake by James E McConnell

“Then there was a great battle, and King Arthur slew many with his sword, Excalibur. By dusk the enemy had fled, and the king led his Knights of the Round Table in triumph back to Camelot . . . .”

So for years the hero-king has ridden through the story books, ruling with the help of a band of fearless knights pledged to the task of keeping the peace and seeing justice done. But was there ever such a man? And if he is fact, not fiction, when did he reign? And where was Camelot?

The search for Arthur and his Camelot has been keeping historians busy for the last hundred years, although only recently has the pace quickened to a full scale exercise in historical detection.

At first, the doubters claimed it was easy to dismiss the whole story as a fairy tale. After all, the Knights of the Round Table all wore armour and spent their spare time jousting, which clearly set their period at around the 14th century. And whoever heard of a King Arthur the First living then? Equally suspect was the point that many of his knights’ adventures had been told and retold in France since earliest times with absolutely no mention of any English king and his castle at Camelot.

The facts certainly seemed to support the non-believers. The story of the Knights of the Round Table came to us from the pen of Sir Thomas Malory, a rather shadowy figure who died in 1471. His book was printed by Caxton 14 years later, and the great printer himself seems to have had his doubts, for he wrote in the preface “Sir Thomas Malorye did take out of certyne bookes of frensshe and reduced it to Englisshe.”

And if that was what Caxton believed, what was the point of trying to prove otherwise? Obviously, the good Sir Thomas had written one of the first best-sellers, a kind of medieval James Bond. And that was that.

After several hundred years scholars suddenly woke up to the fact that the name of Arthur and his followers kept cropping up in the most unlikely places. In the 11th century Black Book of Carmarthen, for instance. In the History of the Britons, compiled in the 9th century by the Celtic monk, Nennius, and in William of Malmsbury’s Acts of the English Kings. Someone even found a 12th century carving in an Italian church that showed Artus de Bretani (Arthur of Britain), Galvagnus (Gawain), Che (Kay) and others storming a castle where Mardoc, or Mordred, held Guenevere a prisoner. All of which dated back to long before Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was written.

The evidence pointed to only one explanation: that although Malory had undoubtedly collected his stories from a number of sources and knitted them all together within the framework of the Round Table, the stories themselves were the products of ancient romancers. But the people in the stories were a different matter. Certain statements were repeated so often that it seemed probable that they had really lived.

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Dick Turpin’s ride to York would end in the condemned cell

Posted in Animals, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Law, Legend on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about Dick Turpin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Dick Turpin on Black Bess,  picture, image, illustration
Dick Turpin's Ride to York on his horse Black Bess by Ronald Simmons

York Castle must have been a formidable sight for many a person destined for its cells. Thrusting its towers above the ancient city, it housed many kinds of prisoners – from Jacobite rebels to common cut-throats. But York Castle’s most famous prisoner entered it almost by accident.

John Palmer had recently moved to the village of Welton in Yorkshire. He had quickly been accepted by the neighbouring squires and lived the life of a country gentleman. A short, swarthy man, he would spend his time riding the moors astride his fine horse, hunting and shooting.

One day he had a particularly bad day’s shooting, and he returned empty handed and in ill-humour. One of his neighbours jokingly commented that perhaps it was not the lack of game which was to blame but his bad marksmanship. John Palmer immediately raised his gun and shot dead a cockerel that was strutting in the yard.

“That fine bird belonged to your landlord,” his neighbour told him. “There’ll be trouble for you now.”

John Palmer turned on him angrily. “Just give me time to reload this gun and I’ll give you the same!” he shouted.

The neighbour saw the look on his face, turned and ran.

Later, two constables came to the inn where he was having a drink and arrested him on a charge of having threatened one of his neighbours. He was taken to York Castle and placed in a cell to await his trial.

“Bah!” John Palmer exclaimed to his cell-mate. “This is only a trifling matter. If they only knew what my real name was, then they’d really have something to shout about.”

Then John Palmer made his big mistake. He confided his real name to his cell mate. It was not long before word reached other ears. Within a day he had been moved to a dungeon cell and placed in irons.

For John Palmer’s real name was Dick Turpin, England’s most notorious highwayman!

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The 1882 Test Match which gave birth to the Ashes legend

Posted in Australia, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Legend, London, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about cricket first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 567 published on 25 November 1972.

The Ashes,  picture, image, illustration
The first Ashes Test: W G Grace, England's dismissed opening batsman, looks on as his partner's wicket is shattered by the Australian fast bowler Fred Spofforth. Inset: the original urn containing the ashes of a burnt stump, by John Keay

The Crowd of some 10,000 at Kennington Oval in 1882 settled down, confident that they were about to see England give Australia another lesson in cricket, England needed only 85 runs to win and the great W. G. Grace was opening the innings. All present expected him to repeat his performance of 1880 when he slashed 152 runs and took three wickets to contribute to Australia’s five-wicket defeat in the first Test on English soil.

But in 1882 shocks to English pride came in short order in what has been called the greatest Test Match of them all. The Australian “demon” bowler, Spofforth, bowled the English captain with the score at 15, then got another wicket with the next ball – and the first moment of doubt swept through the crowd. Spirits soared again, however, as W. G. Grace and Ulyett took the score to 50. Only 35 needed to win. Could there be any doubt that England was still supreme?

Then Ulyett was dismissed at 51. But the greatest cricketer of them all, W. G., was still there to sweep all opposition to the boundary. Two more runs were added then Grace opened his mighty shoulders to a ball, mis-hit and was caught – with 32 still needed to win.

Nerves became tauter as six, 10, 12 overs were bowled without a run being scored. “This thing can be done.” Spofforth had said at the beginning of the innings – now he was showing how. He had a word with his fielders, a hit was purposely misfielded and Lyttelton was facing Spofforth. Four more maidens then suddenly Lyttelton was out. The rout had begun. Wicket after wicket fell until the score stood at 75 for nine.

Excitement was at fever pitch. The visitors from “down under” were giving England a cricket lesson.

With 10 runs needed to win, Peate, the show bowler came on to take the bowling. He struck wildly at the first ball and they ran a shaky two. Tension was so high that one spectator dropped dead and another chewed lumps from his umbrella handle.

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Ponce de Leon’s search for the fabled Fountain of Eternal Youth

Posted in America, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Legend on Friday, 21 February 2014

This edited article about Ponce de Leon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 561 published on 14 October 1972.

Ponce de Leon,  picture, image, illustration
Ponce di Leon goes in search of the fountain of youth by Tancredi Scarpelli

The heat of the summer nights in the West Indies was unbearable and Ponce de Leon couldn’t sleep. The air was alive with mosquitoes and as if that wasn’t enough there was something on Ponce’s mind.

Ponce de Leon groaned and twisted and turned. But still he couldn’t sleep. What had that Indian said? Those Indians all spoke such barbarous languages. How could a Spanish nobleman like Ponce hope to understand them, however hard he tried.

“The Fountain of Youth,” muttered Ponce de Leon over and over again until at last he dozed. “The Fountain of Youth on the fair island of Bimini,” was that really what the Indian had been trying to say?

Every Spaniard living in the newly conquered lands of America knew about a fabulous fountain that gave eternal youth to anyone who drank from it, but nobody knew quite where it was. Some even said that it was a legend, but most believed that such a fountain existed, somewhere. Ponce de Leon believed in the fountain and he was far from being an ignorant or superstitious sailor. He was a man of breeding, a man of great experience and courage who had won fame as a worthy successor to the great Columbus.

Now it seemed that Ponce de Leon had been given a chance to discover something that could shake the world, just as Columbus had shaken the world by reaching the Americas only a few years beforehand. Ponce had only to find Bimini and search out the fantastic fountain, the fabled Fountain of Eternal Youth.

So started Ponce de Leon’s fanatical hunt throughout the islands and coasts of what is now Florida and the Bahamas. He had a great deal of experience to draw on. Ponce de Leon had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493 when still a young man.

Nine years later he had sailed with Ovando, the first Royal Governor of the Indies. In the cruel rivalry that had then sprung up between Ovando and Columbus, Ponce de Leon had sided with the Royal Governor. It had been a hard life. Endless wars with the fierce Carib indians, disease and even starvation made sure that only the toughest and luckiest survived.

Perhaps Ponce de Leon’s dream of discovering Bimini and the Fountain of Youth would never have got off the ground if it had not been for those vicious jealousies that flared up between Spaniard and Spaniard in the West Indies. For years Ponce de Leon served his leaders faithfully, putting down Indian revolts in the north of Hispaniola, the present day Dominica, until he had been rewarded by being made Governor of that region.

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The ‘Appleseed Saint’ planted orchards in wildernesses

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Plants on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

This edited article about Johnny Appleseed first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 558 published on 23 September 1972.

Johnny Appleseed,  picture, image, illustration
Johnny Appleseed, the American folk hero, was actually named John Chapman, by Richard Hook

Johnny Appleseed was born in Massachusetts in 1774. His real name was John Chapman, but over the years, due to his habit of carrying a sack of apple seeds and planting them on his numerous and long travels, his real name disappeared and he became known to all as Johnny Appleseed.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Johnny arrived in what was then the virgin territory of Ohio. This area was a wilderness of incredible beauty, rich in rivers and forests but inhabited, as is most unexplored country, by many dangers. Wolves, bears, wild pig and snakes abounded in large numbers, but these did not deter Johnny Appleseed from making many incredible solitary journeys into the wilderness, unaware of the dangers awaiting a lone traveller. Sometimes he would make use of the rivers and journey by canoe. At other times he would journey on horseback; more often than not he would walk. But always he carried the leather sack that contained his precious apple seeds.

The reason for Johnny’s obsession with apple seeds and their planting was due to his deep religious beliefs. He believed that fruit was the most wonderful of gifts given to man by God, and he took upon himself the task of planting small orchards in various carefully selected spots throughout the wilderness, thereby aiding the settlers who were moving rapidly westwards by ensuring for them a plentiful supply of fruit in the future.

In between each journey he would travel back to Pennsylvania where there were mills busy in the production of cider. The cider mills crushed and used the juice of vast quantities of apples and it was here that Johnny Appleseed obtained his much cherished seeds.

It is little wonder that Johnny Appleseed came to be thought of by the pioneers and settlers as little less than a saint. His own safety was of very little importance to him, but the happiness and safety of his fellow man concerned him deeply.

One story tells of a settler observing Johnny wandering barefoot in freezing snow persuaded him to accept a pair of shoes. When the settler saw him some time later, again barefoot in the snow, Johnny explained, upon being questioned on the whereabouts of the shoes, that he had wandered upon a poverty stricken family, had decided their need was greater than his and had given the shoes away.

There are many acts of kindness like this attributed to Johnny Appleseed, in fact his attire was at times what one can only describe as comical, due to the fact that he had given all of his more conventional clothes away. He is said at one time to have set off in the forests, barefoot, hatless, and wearing as his main garment, with holes crudely cut into it for his head and arms, a coffee sack.

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The sea-serpent of Gloucester was sighted far and wide

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Sea on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about sea monsters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.

Sea serpent,  picture, image, illustration
A sea-serpent wreaks havoc by Graham Coton

Visitors to Scotland often make their way to Loch Ness, not only to gaze upon the beauty of the scenery but tempted there by the thought that they might be fortunate enough to see the now-famous monster that is thought by some to inhabit the dark waters of the best known of the Scottish lochs. By all accounts many visitors do see the monster. Some claim to have photographed it and the pictures they have produced as evidence have caused considerable controversy. Not only visitors to the Loch claim sightings of “Nessy,” but the locals, too, can claim this honour. Some even are said to have observed it many times.

It would seem by the many sightings reported in the past that the Loch Ness monster has or has had cousins the world over. But judging by descriptions perhaps the creature that most deserves the honour of being Nessy’s closest relative would be the Gloucester sea serpent of America. According to historical records a monster serpent was seen in the harbour of Gloucester in Massachusetts about 30 miles to the north of Boston as well as in the nearby Nahant Bay, from as early as the middle of the 17th century and at various intervals for about the next two hundred years.

The first recorded account of this creature’s appearance occurs in the writings of a Mr. John Josselyn, a visitor to Nahant Bay in 1638. Mr. Josselyn tells of a creature that was seen coiled up on a rock and of an adventurous Englishman who, being on a passing boat at the time, prepared to shoot the beast but was prevented from doing so by an accompanying Indian, who informed the gentleman that to do so would bring them both bad luck.

It was not until 1817 that the Gloucester serpent really drew attention to itself. It would seem that in the summer of that year the monster stayed in the vicinity of Gloucester and Nahant Bay long enough for many people to see it, and even to instill considerable fear into the hearts of the inhabitants of the local towns and villages.

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The Marlborough, a merchant vessel that disappeared and died

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Ships on Friday, 14 February 2014

This edited article about maritime mysteries first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 552 published on 12 August 1972.

The Marlborough is found,  picture, image, illustration
The Marlborough disappeared in 1890 and was not discovered for nearly a quarter of a century, a floating hulk with the skeletons of her crew strewn across the decks by Graham Coton

Captain Hird was in a good mood as he stood on the quay of the little port of Lyttelton, in New Zealand, watching his cargo of sheep being taken aboard. He had a number of reasons to be in high spirits. It was a pleasant day in that January of 1890, and he would soon be on his way home. His cargo of sheep would give him no problems, and there would be a few passengers aboard to help him while away the hours with pleasant conversation when he was not on duty. He had, moreover, a highly competent crew, all of them hard working and happy men, with not a single trouble-maker among them. It was going to be a good trip.

When he had seen the last sheep and passenger aboard, Captain Hird boarded his ship, the Marlborough, a merchant vessel from Glasgow. The anchor was raised, the ropes released from their moorings, and the ship began to move away from the quayside. The few people who had gathered there to see her depart, waved a casual goodbye. It was, after all, not a special occasion. In time the Marlborough would be back to pick up another cargo of some sort. With a fair wind behind her she moved steadily towards the horizon.

Twenty-three years were to pass before she was ever seen again.

There was no reason why the Marlborough, should not have reached her destination on time. The ship was sound and seaworthy in every respect, and there had not even been any freak storms or massive gales over any part of the vast area she had been due to cover on her journey to England. But as the months passed with no sign of her, the relatives and friends of those aboard, were forced to face the sad, inescapable fact that the Marlborough had disappeared without a trace.

Fifteen months after she had left Lyttelton, she was officially posted as “lost with all hands.”

What no one knew was that the Marlborough was still afloat, and that all those who had sailed on her were still aboard.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, she was discovered by the British sailing ship, the Johnston, Sailing around the southernmost tip of South America, she saw a three-masted sailing ship which seemed to be drifting aimlessly. As a matter of routine, almost, the British ship signalled her, asking if she needed assistance. When she did not answer, the captain became uneasy. Only eighteen years had passed since the Marie Celeste had been discovered, without a single member of the crew aboard her, and the memory of that famous mystery of the sea still lingered in his mind. Was it possible that history was about to repeat itself? The captain gave orders that she should be approached.

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