Monthly Archives: July 2011

Dracula, Wales, Walnuts, the Romans and William Wallace

In the third century BC there were a number of tribes from Germany which were collectively called the Volcae.  These people controlled the trade routes between Germanic tribes and the Mediterranean and their name was soon adopted for new tribes from as far as France and Turkey.

To the Germanic people these people who traded in foreign goods were naturally identified as foreign themselves, and the Old German word for Volcae, Walha, came to mean foreign.  When the Germanic tribes met Celts, and later Romans, they were also called Walha.  Because the Romans were known to geld their horses, these horses also became known as Walha.

Old German influenced a lot of modern languages, and we see this influence in Polish, where Wlochy means Italy, and Walach is a gelding.  In Czech, a Vlach is an Italian, and a Valach is a gelding.  Several languages call Romanians Vlah, Voloh, Valah, Vlahi, Vlachen and other variations.

As early Germanic tribes, such as the Franks, came to dominate Europe, variations to Walha were used to describe foreign people, and stuck till today.  In the lowlands we now know as Belgium and Netherlands, the French speaking people who came to settle were deemed foreign, and therefore called Walloons.

On the other side of Europe, an area of land that acted as a barrier between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, a new country was created when several Romanian noblemen rebelled against the Hungarian King. Possibly because of a legend that their leader came from a foreign land, this new country was a “foreign land” and became known as Wallachia. While Romanian history will recount many great and infamous leaders, the one most known to the rest of the word is Vlad III, commonly known as Vlad the Impaler, who belonged to the royal house of Draculeati. He is seen as the inspiration to the story of Dracula.

In Britain, the Old English word for the foreign Romans was Wealh, and when these Romans brought over a new nut (Hnutu in Old English), this nut was called Walhnutu, which literally meant “Roman nut”, and this is our modern Walnut.  Later, as the Anglo Saxons came to settle, they saw the Cymru language as foreign, and called it Welsch, later to become Welsh. The suffix “wall” was also added to names of areas which resisted the initial Anglo Saxon invasions, such as Cornwall.

Finally, there’s a strange connection which is often overlooked. Many people assume that Gaul in English, and Gaule or Gaulle in French are from the Latin Gallia, but the problem here is that words from Latin which became French would usually change G to a J, whereas words that migrated from German into French often changed W to G. Gaul was ironically used to call the Romanised Celts, but was then used to mean other foreigners as well, so that while the Anglo Saxon English used Wales to refer to the land of foreign speakers, the Frankish French called it Pays de Galles, which means the same.

Considering the origin of these words, it sheds new light on characters from history, such as William Wallace, the Scottish hero, whose name means “The Foreigner”, and raises the question why the heir to the British throne is Prince of the Foreigners?

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Posted by on Sunday 31st July 2011 in History, People, Places


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How invisible ink led to the invention of the tabloid

Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, born on 21st August 1853 in Wisconsin, his father was a farmer and a missionary who was forced to move his family to Minnesota in 1861 after his potato crop failed.

Henry’s uncle, Jacob Wellcome, was a successful doctor, and just as Henry was celebrating his 9th birthday he witnessed the Sioux uprising of 1862 and helped his uncle tending to the wounded.  This early fascination with medicine, and his religious upbringing would shape the rest of Henry’s life.

16 year old Henry ready to do business

At the age of 16 Henry started his own business, advertising invisible ink in his local paper, the Garden City Herald, which was simply lemon juice.  Not long after Henry moved to Chicago, and then to Philadelphia to further his training in pharmacy, graduating in 1874.

He started work as a salesman, but was soon travelling to the forests of Ecuador and Peru for new sources of Cinchona bark and writing about his expedition in the American Journal of Pharmacy.

In 1880 Henry moved to London and founded Burroughs Wellcome & Co with another salesman, and they established themselves as a highly reputable and reliable business.

Henry dressing up for a bit of fun

During his time in London Henry enjoyed socializing and loved to meet with explorers and travellers, including Dr Livingstone (I presume he was his favourite), and the stories he heard from these friends inspired him to set up a tropical research laboratory, as well as funding several hospital dispensaries abroad.

Syrie Wellcome at her best

One of his friends, Dr Bernardo, had a daughter called Syrie, who Henry met while visiting Sudan, and they soon married and had a boy.  However, the marriage did not last, and they suffered a very public divorce in which William Somerset Maugham was named as co-respondent.  Syrie later married and divorced Maugham as well and is reputed to have also had an affair with Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Burroughs Wellcome was one of the first companies in Europe to introduce a new way of selling medicine, which was in tablet form, and they trademarked the name “Tabloid” which they thought captured perfectly the concept of medicine in a compact form.

A Burroughs Wellcome "Tabloid" First Aid kit

Henry was quick to exploit the expeditions of the day which became big news and would provide medicinal kits to the likes of Scott of the Antarctic and other famous explorers.

This new form of medicine became very popular, quickly replacing the bulky powder that had been used up to now, and like all popular trademark names, the word “Tabloid” had become popular and was used to mean anything that was compact, including the Sopwith Tabloid biplane, which saw active service in the early stages of WWI.

“Tabloid Journalism” was already coined as early as 1901, to describe the condensed simple stories that appeared in newspapers, but it was not until the end of WWI that the smaller sheet newspapers were introduced, which were soon nicknamed “Tabloids”.

Henry died on 25th July 1936, leaving his entire estate to individual Trustees, who were charged with spending the income to further human and animal health.  Out of his estate (which included the company that would later merge with SmithKline), the Wellcome Trust was born.  The endowment of the trust is calculated as nearly £14bn, and it spends about £600m per year supporting biomedical research, which makes it the largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research in the UK.

Thanks Henry.

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Posted by on Monday 25th July 2011 in People


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Where is Ghana?

Today we know the country of the Republic of Ghana as a small country in West Africa, which achieved independence in 1957, and is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world (estimated growth of 20% in 2011 alone).

But what of the history of Ghana?

The country is named after the Ghana Empire which existed until the mid 13th century.  However, the modern country was made up of the Gold Coast and British Togoland and was home to the Ashanti Empire, whereas the Ghana Empire itself existed in an area where we now have Mauritania, Mali and Senegal and the nearest it got to modern Ghana was about 500 miles north of the present country.

The word Ghana itself means “Warrior King” and the name Guinea is derived from this word as well. Another name for the ancient Ghana Empire was Wagadou or Ouagadou, and more often the longer name was used Ouagadougou which means “where people get honour and respect”, this is used by Burkina Faso as the name for their capital city, though the territory of Burkina Faso is also outside the area ruled by the Ghana Empire.

The reason for the links in the name is probably down to the theory that the Ashanit Empire itself was made up of migrants from the Ghana Empire after it’s demise in the 13th century, though this is based mostly on linguistic similarities than any written evidence.

So instead of the Republic of Ashanti, we now have the Republic of Ghana.


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Posted by on Sunday 24th July 2011 in History, People, Places


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Brazil’s Irish roots

Most countries have a clear definition of where their name comes from, but the 5th largest country on Earth, and certainly the most successful footballing nation, is not one of them.

Do we need a reason to show this girl supporting Brazilian football?

One thing many historians agree on is that Brazil probably got it’s name from the Brazilwood which was traded from that region to Europe.  However, not everyone agrees, and there are some holes in that theory.

There is another theory which exists, which has been around since the 16th century, almost immediately after the country was first discovered, that Brazil may have been named after a mythical island named Hy-Brasil, which was often simply known as Brasil.

The story goes that when Pedro Alvares Cabral landed in South America, his men thought it was an island and called itIlha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross), and that when tales of his discovery reached Europe, those who read his exploits thought this may very well be the mythical island of Brasil, which is why they named it such.

But what was this mythical island?

A 1572 map of Ireland, with Brasil shown to the west.

Many sailors tried to find this magical island, said to be shrouded in mist except for one day in every seven years, and it appeared on many maps from as long ago as early 14th century, and still popped up in some until as late as 1865.  There were a number of expeditions sent to find this island, including one led by John Cabot (credited with discovering North America), and several reported sightings, the last one in 1872.

A number of known islands have been identified at one time or another as Brasil, including Terceira, one of the larger islands in the Azores.

Though mythical, the island of Brasil was famous across western Europe, and it was accepted by some that the name came from the Portuguese word Brasa, which meant Ember, which is where the name for Brazilwood came from, because of the colour of the wood when polished.

However, there was never any proof for this origin of the word, and it’s worth noting that this mythical island was also identified strongly with Ireland, who had strong trading connections with the Iberian coast.  In Ireland, the legend of the island identified it with an ancient clan called Ui Breasil, Ui translates as Clan, and Breasil could mean Beauty, Worth or Great Mighty.

So there we have it, is Brazil actually named after the beautiful and mighty Irish people?

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Posted by on Wednesday 20th July 2011 in History, Places


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Minack Theatre, carved out of rock

In 1929, a local village group of actors around Crean, Cornwall decided to stage an open air version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a meadow. The show proved popular and next year they staged The Tempest.

A local woman, Rowena Cade, offered to build a stage and seating in her garden, overlooking Minack rock, and with the help of her gardener they were able to stage a repeat of The Tempest in 1932. Rowena was only 38 when she decided to dedicate the next 51 years building one of the most remarkable theatres ever seen.  She even left sketches of further improvements on her deathbed.

With the help of Billy Rawlings and Charles Angove she would haul sand from the beach, as well as huge beams which had to be dragged up from the shore.  As they built ever more elaborate stage and seating, Rowena would carve Celtic designs onto the drying cement with the tip of a screwdriver.

Today the theatre stages professional productions during the summer evenings, but attracts many visitors during the day because of the amazing structures and gardens, as well as the view out to sea.

The theatre as also been used in a number of films and television productions, and most recently as part of a BBC ident featuring several dancers on the stage.

Here are some other images of the theatre from various angles:

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Posted by on Friday 15th July 2011 in Places


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USA, home of the 49 states?

For some time now it has been accepted that the USA has 50 states (though some are technically commonwealths), but it seems North Dakota may have only been a territory all this time.

North Dakota, a somewhat square shaped state, was part of the Dakota Territory, which was broken up in 1889 and allowed North Dakota and South Dakota to be declared the 39th and 40th states of the union.

Shuffle along to little over a century later and John Rolczynski, a citizen of North Dakota, happened to be perusing the constitution of his state (as you do) and notices the following section:

Article XI, Section 4 of the North Dakota state Constitution:

“Members of the legislative assembly and judicial department, except such inferior officers as may be by law exempted shall, before they enter on the duties of their respective offices, take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of North Dakota, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of ____ according to the best of my ability, so help me God’ (if an oath), (under pains and penalties of perjury) if an affirmation, and no other oath, declaration, or test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust.”

Like everyone else, John was aware of clause three of the US constitution that reads:

Article VI, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Trust under the United States.”

He spotted that the state constitution had missed out the word “executive” and therefore breached the Enabling Act of 1889, which could mean that North Dakota may not have been a legitimate state all this time.

Apart from all the legal ramifactions, there was also the very important matter that if North Dakota was not a legitimate state, would this mean that the Coen Bros film “Fargo” should be withdrawn???

It may have taken John several years to convince the politicians that the constitution needed amending, but early in 2011, after nearly 16 years of campaigning, a bill to amend section 4 of the state constitution was introduced, and was voted through in July 2011.  All it now needs is for the public to approve it in the 2012 election.

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Posted by on Thursday 14th July 2011 in History


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The Scottish prince celebrated in Venezuela, who killed many Scots

Among the many people commemorated in the National Pantheon of Venezuela is a man known as General Gregorio MacGregor.  He is remembered as a man who fought beside Simon Bolivar for the independence of Venezuela and he even eventually married a niece of Bolivar, further cementing his link to the cause.

Below is a painting of MacGregor as he is remembered, by the artist Martín Tovar y Tovar:

Gregor MacGregor (as he was originally known) was born in Edinburgh in 1786.  At the age of 17 he followed his father into the Royal Navy, married soon after and seemed to be settling down.  Perhaps because of the death of his wife soon after the wedding, or other reasons, he started serving in both the Portuguese and Spanish navies.  By 1811, aged 25, he had joined the war of independence in Venezuela as a Colonel, where he seemed to have equipped himself quite well.

MacGregor then turned to piracy and in 1817 and captured Amelia Island off the coast of Florida (then in the hands of Spain), hoping to sell it to the United States and perhaps capture more of Florida with the money, but his plans fell through and he sold it on to other pirates for less than he hoped for.

In 1820 he sailed to the Mosquito Coast where me met the Miskito King, George Frederic Augustus I, got him drunk and claimed the King signed over 8 million acres of land.

When he returned to London with his family he claimed he was now Gregor I, Cazique (or Chief) of Poyais, the country he claimed to have created with this land.  He described Poyais as a land of cathedrals, public buildings and banks, with all the other trappings of a civilised nation. The capital, St Joseph, was said to boast an opera house among its fine buildings.  To add to this, the land itself was described as having unimaginable fertility and beauty, a land where gold nuggets and diamonds and pearls were as “plentiful as pebbles” and where grain could grow without the need for sowing.

MacGregor sold plots of land and issued bonds in order to raise capital for this fabulous country, and by 1822 he had raised over £200k (about £18m in today’s value).

Two ships laden with would be settlers, mostly Scottish, sailed to their new country and found that it had all been a scam, but because of tropical diseases, infighting, and various events, less than 50 survived to make it back to Britain from the 240 who sailed out.  Five more ships that had departed to Poyais were chased down by the navy and turned back before a greater disaster occurred.

Despite the loss of life and money from many investors, and the fact that MacGregor had then fled to Paris, some of the people he’d cheated still believed in him and claimed the two ships had either landed in the wrong place, or were advised wrongly, and some even wrote publicly to defend MacGregor.  Buoyed by his success, MacGregor just started the whole thing again in Paris. He tried to raise even more money (£300k), but only succeeded in raising some of it before he was rumbled and arrested together with a number of conspirators.

Amazingly, MacGregor not only got himself acquitted, but managed to get one of his conspirators blamed for the whole affair and jailed for 13 months.

Not chancing his luck in Paris any further, he returned to London, where he was promptly thrown into prison, only to be released within a week. Now believing himself to be invincible, he carried on trying to raise more money through his Poyais schemes over the next few years, including trying to issue bonds to the value of £800k, but he had little success.

In 1838 his wife died, and a year later he left Scotland and settled in Venezuela, where he received a military pension until his death in 1845.

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Posted by on Sunday 10th July 2011 in History, People


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