King Leopold II of Belgium

Punch Cartoon of the time showing King Leopold as a rubberised snake strangling an African

Punch Cartoon of the time showing King Leopold as a rubberised snake strangling an African

Whilst much of Europe was busy colonising the rest of the world in the 19th century, Belgium was left out and their future King, Leopold II, surmised the key to wealth and influence was to annexe foreign lands. Leopold asked Queen Isabella of Spain to sell him the Philippines to which she politely refused, he unsuccessfully asked the Spanish Government again on her death and also tried to buy Fiji.

So in 1876 he instead set up the International Africa Society; a supposedly philanthropic body with the stated aims of ending the slave trade and improving the lot of Africans by converting them all to Christianity. In fact it was his privately owned company with the sole aim of exploiting Africa’s resources and making himself rich. The explorer Henry Stanley of ‘Dr Livingston I presume’ fame was employed to travel to the Congo and make claim to the area by signing contracts with local chieftains. European legalese ensured the Africans did not understand the small print and within 8 years, 2 million square kilometres lay under King Leopold’s personal control.  Buying a country however is not cheap so the Belgian Government kindly granted him a rather large mortgage.

At the Conference of Berlin in 1884 the European countries sat down and divided up Africa like a huge birthday cake between them all, King Leopold officially took ownership of the now ironically named Congo Free State (CFS). The Belgian parliament decreed Leopold as the King of CFS who immediately passed laws decreeing all the Congolese people and land were his to do with as he pleased.

He set up the Force Publique (FP), a military white’s only force that at first tackled the slave trade but then started trading slaves to conscript them into the FP. The FP kept the locals under the firmest and most bloody hand Africa has ever known. King Leopold’s business started with ivory trading but there was not as much profit as he liked from slaughtering elephants. Opportunity knocked with Dunlops’ invention of the inflatable rubber tyre as the Congo was full of wild rubber vines.

Local men had their families held hostage by the FP until they had returned from the

A child victim

A child victim

forest with crippling quotas of tapped rubber. If the quotas were not met then their villages would be torched and their families raped, mutilated and murdered. There were frequent uprisings with the mutineers hiding out in the jungle. The FP was sent in to exterminate them with instructions to cut off the right hands of their victims as proof they had not wasted their bullets.

The soldiers mostly being slaves themselves were scared of their masters and instead cut the hands off any living locals they met as proof they had killed their quota. So the horrific practice us westerners condemned in the Hutu/Tutsi wars from 20 years ago in Rwanda was in fact a Belgian invention. All the atrocities were hidden from the world by careful manipulation of the Worlds media.

British missionaries with militia men showing off their haul of severed hands

British missionaries with militia men showing off their haul of severed hands

Edmund Morel was a shipping clerk with a Liverpool firm that had a contract with the CFS, as a French speaker he was often sent to Africa where he discovered that ships travelling from Belgium only took arms, explosives and chains to CFS and returned with ivory and rubber. Morel suspected foul play and even though he had risen to the rank of Head of Trade so he resigned, starting work as a journalist with the aim of exposing the atrocities.  His work proved pivotal as Lord Casement, the British Counsel to Congo was sent inland in 1903 to officially investigate.

Public opinion turned against Leopold and in 1908 he handed CFS to Belgium. To hide his  despicable actions he ordered all paperwork be destroyed. It’s estimated that at least 10 million Africans were killed in the 30 years that made King Leopold 1.25bn Euros in todays money from his exploits, yet he never set foot in the country!

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Jerez de la Frontera

Palacio Villavicencio at the Alcazar built in 1664

Palacio Villavicencio at the Alcazar built in 1664

As newlyweds last autumn we tried to explore Jerez de la Frontera; non-stop rain however meant that we only managed the Tio Pepe Bodega and a couple of tapas bars before soggily driving away. So a return visit was on the cards and a couple of weekends ago we drove back under a glorious blue sky.

Jerez de la Frontera is known to us Brits for three things; Sherry, its Grand Prix circuit and ‘spit’ Ryanair flights into the airport. I originally worked in the hospitality industry so for purely professional interest it was the alcohol side of things that interested me. We visited the oldest bodega in Jerez, Pedro Domecq founded in the 1700s. It’s a much more laid back and personal tour than Tio Pepe with no sense of urgency, wonderful aromas from evaporating spirits in the huge wine cellars bring a heady delight to the senses.

70,000 American oak barrels are stored 3 high in the solera system throughout the beautiful sprawling property and there are artefacts everywhere giving visitors an insight into how the various type of sherries and brandies have been produced over the centuries. At one point our guide told us how a special type of black paint is used on the barrels to ensure the humidity inside is kept constant. Then turning a corner, we spied Mr Barrel Painting man knelt on the floor in the gloom with a torch strapped to his head doing his job. Rather like the painting of the Forth Road Bridge I thought as it’s a never ending job.

For strictly educational purposes we had tickets for the ‘deluxe’ tasting tour and we sat at a

Delightfully politically incorrect advertising from the 1930's

Delightfully politically incorrect advertising from the 1930’s

table tasting brandies and 30 year old Sherries only just as the yard arm came round. A clever marketing ploy meant that shop visits are done afterwards and again there was no rush or hard sell. Now for my Christmas tipple I have a 30 year old Pedro Ximenez sherry to look forward to. Mrs Amore was content with her drinks mats, branded glasses, souvenir posters, mouse mat and even a cuddly toy. As in The Generation Game – didn’t we (or they) do well! Afterwards as we sat at a nearby hostelry, nursing cool glasses of fino our erstwhile tour buddies walked past giving us despairing looks.

Jerez has a wonderful old quarter which is easy to navigate, its mostly pedestrianised and fairly level too. Having previously visited The Alhambra in Granada, and other Alcaza’s (palaces) in Almeria, Malaga and Seville I have to admit Jerez takes my biscuit castle wise. Simple gardens surround a beautiful mix of twelfth Century Moorish and later Christian architecture including the only surviving Mosque in Jerez, steam baths, and the olive mill with its huge workings.

Locks on the palace gates

Locks on the palace gates

I’ve loved the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death ever since childhood; seeing it dozens of times. In it Doctor Reeves has a Camera Obscura in his attic; now one is installed in a tower at the Alcaza. For a couple of Euros it can be seen in action, though it’s a small room with places limited to 8 at a time. A rotating mirror on the roof projects what it sees down onto a concave screen some 2 metres across. The detail is astounding and with blue skies on the day we visited, it was a fabulous and beautiful 360 degree tour of the city.  Fittingly it was a Moslem scholar called Alhazen who first put theory into practice building the first one a thousand years ago in Cairo. Viva Jerez!

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The Cork Oak

Glowing red in the evening sunshine - the Cork Oaks of Grazalema near Ronda

Glowing red in the evening sunshine – the Cork Oaks of Grazalema near Ronda

The closest many people ever get to a Cork Oak tree will be when handling a cork from a newly opened bottle of wine or removing the stopper of an olive oil bottle. It’s amazing to think that these cork stoppers were once growing as tree bark around a Cork Oak somewhere here in the Mediterranean.

Eastwards from Portugal through Spain, the south of France, Italy and also Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia stretch 2.5 million hectares of Cork Oak forests. These forests provide some of the most ecologically diverse habitats in the world. Up to 135 different plant species have been found in just one square metre of forest including 30 different types of bracken. In Spain/Portugal the rarest cat species in the world the Iberian Lynx lives in these forests and Barbary Apes live in the oak forests of North Africa. Almost all of Europe’s Crane population use the forests for shelter and breeding. In Cadiz Province especially, the Cranes nests can be seen atop chimneys and electric pylons, the birds revisit each year to repair and re-use them.

The biology of the Cork Oak means that it’s more fire resistant than other tree species, the cork protects the trunk and main branches tree from any wildfire. Afterwards new shoots and leaves sprout quickly again from the tree and the canopy is restored. Other tree species sprout again from their bases or from seed so the oak has a clear evolutionary advantage.

As well as providing a haven for wildlife the oak forests create quality soil and also reduce soil erosion from the wind and rain is absorbed into the rich soil easily. This also reduces erosion downstream from the forests as storm water runoff is greatly reduced. Hydroelectric schemes and reservoirs benefit from cleaner water so increasing safety and efficiency.

In Andalucía 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are stored in all its forests. Every year about 10 million tonnes of CO2 are absorbed by the oak forests alone – they really are the green lungs of the Mediterranean and vital for all our wellbeing. Because it’s renewing its bark, during its lifetime a harvested Cork Oak will store five times more carbon than a non-harvested tree.

The cork is hand harvested by up to 5 people per tree using small axes; a tree will be about 25 years old when it’s first cropped. The trees live for about 200 years and can be harvested every 10-12 years. 300,000 tonnes of cork is produced each year in Europe with half of that coming from Portugal. All those wine corks add up to about 50,000 tonnes with the rest used mainly for flooring, olive oil stoppers and footwear. This equates to a billion Euros in business turnover a year and 30,000 jobs.

Having worked in the wine trade and being keen on preserving our environment, I only buy wine that has a natural cork. There is a romance about opening a bottle of wine and some things should be left as they are. Plastic stoppers and metal screw tops as alternatives use up the earths finite resources and create unnecessary landfill. Plus without the cork being harvested these beautiful and vital habitats will suffer.

I was amongst these splendid trees recently in Grazalema, near Ronda. The cork had just been harvested in the tres surrounding me, so the tannins in the newly exposed trunks made them burn bright red in the autumnal late afternoon sunshine. No wonder it’s called the ‘golden hour’ by photographers as the woods were filled with an almost magical light.

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Still space to be amazed

Praying Mantis and his shadow

Praying Mantis and his shadow

With the world seemingly shrinking as communication and travel becomes easier and faster it’s refreshing to know we can still be amazed by this beautiful blue planet we inhabit. Only last week scientists announced the discovery of a canyon in Greenland that’s 750km long and up to 800m deep making it almost twice as long as the Grand Canyon. It was discovered by bouncing radio waves from planes flying overhead to map the rock underneath the ice.

The canyon is buried by the Greenland ice sheet which in places is 3kms thick; the pressure from this huge mass of ice above it has squashed central Greenland to 200m below sea level whereas before it was 500m above sea level. Loving facts and figures I took out a calculator and a Bic biro to conduct further research. Assuming roughly that the blunt end of a biro is 1cm square and that the biro was buried vertically at the bottom of the canyon it would have the equivalent of 276 kilo bags of sugar precariously balanced on top of it.

Knowing that it would take 10,000 biros pointing straight down to fill a square metre and that the canyon is 6km wide and 750km long that’s a hell of a lot of sugar to buy at the supermarket for the purposes of my virtual experiment. No wonder the Greenland’s crust has been pushed down 700m.

The UK is affected by this ‘springboard’ effect too, after the last glaciers left 20,000 year ago Scotland has been slowly bouncing back with some parts predicted to elevate another 10cms over the next 100 years. This will help counteract any sea level rises from global warming. This is not so good for England and Wales as they are at the other end of this geological See Saw and they will possibly drop 5cm in the same time period. This means any average sea level rises will be felt much more down south.

Nepal in the Himalayas has over 1300 peaks with the two most famous being Everest and Annapurna. About a 1000 have never been climbed by Westerners at least, possibly the odd yeti has had a pop. Amazingly lots of these mountains don’t have names and the Nepalese government has decided to honour Hilary and Tensing who were the first to scale Everest in May 1953 by naming a mountain after each of them. Two French climbers who first climbed Annapurna, Herzog and Lachenal are also being honoured in the same way. In a bid to promote tourism an extra 165 mountains measuring up to 7999 metres high will be opened up to climbers from next Spring.

In the mountainous forests that cover Ecuador and Colombia a new species of mammal has been discovered.  The Olinguito has a teddy bear like face, is the same size as a small cat and the smallest relative in the racoon family. It eats fruit and only comes out at night. Amazingly a female was captured in 1967 and was mistaken for another species called the Olingo. The poor lady was swapped from zoo to zoo for years as she refused to breed with all her potential male suitors as scientists thought she was just being fussy.

In the Maluku archipelago a new species of rat has been discovered and named the Spiny Boki Mekot. This area is where the naturalist Sir Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in 1858 to Charles Darwin about his thoughts on evolution and natural selection. The area is called Wallacea after him. Its likely that the first ever mammals came from here, slowly migrating east or west over the millennia and evolving differently into the Asian or Australasian species we have today.

More scarily a BBC natural history unit whilst filming a programme called Lost land of the Volcano entered the extinct cone of Mount Vosavi in Papua New Guinea. Quite possibly they were the first humans ever to venture there as the animals they encountered were not at all fazed by their presence. I say scarily as they discovered a rat measuring over 80cms from tip to tail so about the size of a cat. All in all the scientists think they have discovered 40 new species of fauna there including a tree climbing kangaroo, a giant caterpillar and a fanged frog. Finally a variation can be made on the the old ‘wide mouth frog joke!’

Not quite so cuddly and considerably smaller at just a millimetre across, a new species of water beetle was recently discovered living right under the scientists’ noses; a river flows through the campus of Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines and the newly named Hydraena Ateneo has always lived there minding its own business amongst the rotting vegetation.

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Guernica by Picasso

Guernica by Picasso

The town of Gernika (Basque spelling) is strategically important as 2 main roads intersect there with links to the port town of Bermeo and the Basque capital Bilbao. The river also becomes deep enough for trading boats to navigate the estuary to the Bay of Biscay.

Across medieval Europe meetings were held and new laws signed under oak trees. In Gernika there’s been an oak on the same spot since the town was founded in 1366. The first lasted 450 years being replaced in 1742. The third tree was planted in 1858 but this was replaced in 2005 after it died from a fungus. The town gardeners have always grown oaks from the acorns and there is a stock of descendants which are given as gifts to towns and organisations friendly with the Basque region.

Gernika is the traditional seat of the Biscay Province Parliament; Basque laws were passed under these oaks up until 1876 with a meeting house built nearby for this purpose. When the Basque region became part of Castille it became customary for new kings to come to Guernica to swear an oath under the tree to uphold the laws of Biscay. The symbol of the oak leaf features on many Basque logos and coats of arms.

So Gernika has always held special significance for the Basque people and it’s regarded as their spiritual heart. During the Civil War most Basque regions voted to side with the ruling republicans which pitted them against the nationalists led by Franco. Northern Spain was hugely important for both sides as it has coal, iron and the subsequent heavy industry in abundance.

The nationalists were aiming to take Bilbao and on March 31st leaflets were dropped from planes across the region bearing a message from General Mola telling people their lives and possessions would be spared if they surrendered. The same day the town of Durango became the first ever defenceless civilian European town to be bombed from the air. Hundreds died and fighter planes straffed people in the streets as they ran. General Queipo Del Llano claimed over the radio that only military targets has been hit and that the priests and nuns that died had been locked by communists in the churches and burnt alive.

Monday is market day in Gernika and was and still is a huge affair taking on a holiday feel. On April 2nd 1936 the town held 10,000 people; locals, market goers and also refugees fleeing the first bombings from a few weeks earlier. At 1630 hours all hell broke loss and for 2 and ¾ hours the German Luftwaffe (Condor Legion) and the Italian air force carpet bombed the defenceless town. Wave upon wave of explosives and incendiaries rained down, with fighter planes shooting people as they ran in fear. The town was all but destroyed.

The supposed military objective was to destroy the river bridge which remained untouched as were the two munitions factories. Journalists arrived quickly to the scene and reported the bombing but the Francoists denied any bombing had taken place instead blaming the republicans for setting fire to the town as they retreated. It’s estimated around 1500 people lost their lives.

A few days later the town was taken unopposed. The oak tree and meeting house were luckily untouched by the bombs and locals held an armed guard around the tree to stop the victors felling it as a symbolic act against the Basques. At the Nuremberg trials Goering confessed that Guernica was used as a testing ground for the ‘total war’ bombing techniques for the war to come!

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Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii

Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii

Pompeii was founded 2700 years ago by the Osci tribe. The next few hundred years saw the Phoenicians, Etruscans and then the Samnites in occupation. Around 400BC the Romans took control fortifying it in the process. The Appian Way passes within 30km of Pompeii, so goods were easily transported to Rome from the bustling port near Pompeii

Pompeii had a cleverly designed piped water system which fed 25 street fountains, private houses, businesses and public baths. In time of drought the water would first be turned off at the baths then the houses and finally businesses leaving the street fountains to supply the populace.

Public water fountain in Pompeii

Public water fountain in Pompeii

Pompeii was a hedonistic tourist resort with as many as 20,000 inhabitants. The surrounding countryside was thronged with villas belonging to Roman elite. In 62AD a powerful earthquake struck the town damaging every building and crippling the water supply. The Emperor Nero was performing in a nearby theatre and as he left the building it collapsed after him. Nero looked upon this as an omen of good luck.

Although the earthquake was a portent of much worse to come perhaps it was Nero’s thinking that swayed most locals to stay on as the Romans were a highly superstitious bunch. Rebuilding work started in earnest and evidence of this can still be seen in what remains there today. The area suffered regular but smaller quakes leading up to the cataclysmic event 17 years later that’s now made Pompeii infamous.

In autumn 79AD Vesuvius erupted, shooting ash, rocks and poisonous gases high into the sky, the eruption was seen from hundreds of kilometres away. A fine cloud of ash rained down from the sky. as much as six inches (15cm) an hour. I remember in my school days being taught that people suffocated on the ash in their sleep. This is now known to be incorrect as their cause of death was altogether more horrid.

The ruins today

The ruins today

As the magma chamber lost its power the huge columns of debris started to fall causing pyroclastic surges of up to 100 km/h of superheated gas and pulverised rock to rush down the mountain sides. Pompeii was in the way of these surges and the 250C gases instantaneously burnt the inhabitant’s lungs and as they died all their muscles contracted so they dropped and lay in foetal positions which are how we see them preserved today. The eruption left Pompeii and the surrounding area buried under up to 80 feet of ash. It was custom to rebuild after a disaster but the damage was so complete that the area was never repopulated.

Only in 1599 when digging a water channel were some remains discovered. Pompeii’s lewd past was revealed as erotic frescos were unearthed which were rapidly reburied as they were deemed too risqué for the times. In 1738 when digging the foundations for a new palace the remains were discovered again and work continued up until a few years ago when the funds dried up. It’s a UNESCO World heritage site but sadly three times in the last 15 years has this certification been called into doubt as currently the place is suffering severe degradation. Three years ago the so called ‘House of the Gladiators’ collapsed and currently less than a third of the buildings that visitors could see in the 1960s are open to the public. It’s estimated that over 300 million Euros are needed to further preserve the site. Mind you with Vesuvius normally erupting every 20 years or so and the last eruption being in 1944 it’s well overdue so perhaps it will soon get covered over again.


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The Zombies of Spain

Desolation and Despair

Desolation and Despair

Believe it or not there are around 40,000 zombies walking the Spanish streets; they are mostly invisible as they hide in their flash cars and behind the high walls of their plush homes. These zombies once feasted off their shareholders, home buyers and lenders.

A zombie in this case is a developer that only has enough income to pay the interest on its loans. These Loans enabled the zombies and another 50,000 construction companies to destroy both the Spanish countryside and the economy. 20,000 of these property businesses have hit the wall since 2007. Domestic renting is not big business in Spain as home ownership stands at a massive 80%. Only those developers with commercial property such as retail units and offices are in a position to carry on paying their debts.

Spain joined the Eurozone in 1999 and immediately took advantage of access to cheap loans. As a result house prices rocketed 55% until the bubble finally burst in 2008. Since then prices have fallen by an average of 45%. Average is the word as more than half of the new properties were built on the Costas and aimed at foreign buyers, where prices have fallen much further. Between 1999 and 2006 Spain built 675,000 new homes a year. That’s more than France, Germany and the UK combined! Construction once accounted for 20% of Spain’s economy a figure now down to about half that.

There are lies, damn lies and statistics, so estimates vary between 2 and 3 million for the number of empty homes in Spain, 700,000 of these are new builds and about half of these are basically unsold apartments by a beach somewhere. It’s estimated it will take up to 13 years to get rid of these properties. Traditionally Spanish don’t commute to work so unless it’s for a holiday home there’s no point in a Spaniard buying a beach view property as their job is more likely to be inland. So that leaves Johnny Foreigner to slowly pick up the slack. 80% less mortgages were granted last year compared to 2006, loans which enabled 275,000 homes to be bought.

Spanish unemployment is over 26% with 56% of the under 25’s out of work. This is a damning figure as 40% of these young people were college educated. What a horrific waste of talent which will have repercussions far into the future. Only Greece as the slightly sicker European man fairs worse with 2 out of 3 of its youth jobless!

The sums involved in the property bubble are mind boggling with apparently about 325,000,000,000€ in outstanding property related loans. One good thing the Rajoy administration has done is to make banks assume 80% are bad loans rather than the 31% the banks were trying to brush under the carpet. 100€bn has been borrowed from the ECB though estimates suggest another 400€bn may be needed to save the Spanish banking system.

Madrid seems to exist on a different level of consciousness as the rest of us mere mortals. On one hand there is the Rajoy administration sabre rattling over Gibraltar potentially alienating British home buyers and over at the Bernabeu; Real Madrid think that paying 100,000,000€ and erecting a stage to show off their new striker Gareth Bale is right and proper in these austere times. To try and explain the offside rule as it were; Spain’s entire toxic loan book amounts to 3250 Bales or just 1300 Lionel Messi’s if ever his mega bucks buyout clause were activated at Barcelona. No wonder UEFA is introducing financial fair play rules next season!

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