Carmen Sylva, the Poetess Queen

I’m doing a short series of ‘Badass Women’ posts (see last week’s post on warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa), and I’ve decided to combine this with the series I did a few weeks ago on Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. Previous posts include: Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others.

When we talked about Princess Missy, the eventual Queen of Romania, I touched briefly on the subject of her husband’s aunt, the Queen Consort Elisabeth of Romania, who was also a poetess under the pseudonym Carmen Sylva.

All quotations come from Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004).

Carmen Sylva, as I’ll refer to her for the purposes of this post, was dramatic and romantic and embarrassing and loved stirring shit up, and did not give a single fuck. To briefly summarize details about her from my post on Princess Missy, who took over as Queen Consort after Carmen Sylva’s husband, King Carol, died, here’s some of the shit she did:

1.) She and her husband made a super awkward couple (which also made for a really uncomfortable royal court). He was very cold and formal, while she was extremely theatrical and sensitive. It was like every bad ’90s and ’00s romcom where a manic pixie dream girl changes the life of an uptight dude, except in this situation it was a royal marriage and nobody changed and nobody fell in love, they just got married.

2.) She encouraged her nephew Nando, the future king, to have a love affair with an unsuitable commoner, which caused an international scandal. His uncle, King Carol, told Nando he would either have to choose love or the throne, because he could never take the crown if he married such a lowly woman. Nando chose the throne, and quickly sought out a princess to marry. He found Missy and married her very quickly before she could hear news of his love affair.

Carmen Sylva, for the role she played in encouraging and facilitating the love affair, was banished by King Carol from the court for two years.

3.) As soon as Nando and Missy married, Carmen Sylva instantly ditched her encouragement of Nando and the commoner woman, and became very, ‘NANDO AND MISSY 4EVA’, because she was fickle and romantic like that. To put it in internet parlance, she just desperately wanted someone or something to ship.

4.) “If Missy shrank from Carmen Sylva’s outlandish theatricality at these salons, the same could be said when Elisabeth set her sights on dispensing charity. For she excelled at presenting herself here too in the most absurd light. It was not out of character to find the queen sitting dramatically on a palace windowsill in plain view of the public below her, ready to mete out help to those who approached their benevolent sovereign. Crown Princess Marie often cringed at the spectacle, sensing  that many of Elisabeth’s audience laughed behind her back.

“Carried away by her own monologues, the poetess queen would ‘speak of her soul, of her most sacred and intimate belief . . . of the real and imaginary slights . . . of the non-comprehension . . . of her husband’. It was pointedly obvious that thanks to Carmen Sylva’s outrageous theatricality, the court of King Carol and Queen Elisabeth took on a decidedly bizarre atmosphere” (64).

5.) When Missy had children shortly after her marriage, Carmen Sylva, whose only child died at three years of age, did everything in her power to take the children from Missy and raise them as her own. Missy and Nando had a really unhappy marriage, so Carmen Sylva exploited Missy’s many, many love affairs to encourage servants, Nando, and the King to join in her effort to separate Missy from the children.

6.) When Nando grew dangerously ill with typhoid fever, “the drama held strange appeal for Carmen Sylva‘s disordered personality. She almost gloated at every detail of Nando’s declining condition. Understandably, the crown princess [Missy] was horrified to find the queen standing by the palace windows, ‘with tragic face and finger on lip, pantomime the news to those waiting below‘ (82).

7.) Despite being a queen, Carmen Sylva was of a highly Republican sensibility and believed that monarchy should be abolished in favor of a more democratic form of government. She complained about this in her diary pretty much every week, saying in one instance:

‘I must sympathize with the Social Democrats, especially in view of the inaction and corruption of the nobles. These “little people”, after all, want only what nature confers: equality. The Republican form of government is the only rational one. I can never understand the foolish people, the fact that they continue to tolerate us‘.

8.) Carmen Sylva was known for her obsession with spiritualism and the occult. She spent a great deal of her childhood conducting seances and visiting lunatic asylums.

When King Carol died, “Queen Elisabeth [Carmen Sylva] moved to the bishop’s residence at Curtea de Arges in order to be near the burial site of Carol I. It was a logical move for a woman who believed in communicating with the dead. Though she continued to exasperate Queen Marie [Missy] because of her staunch German sympathies and her peculiar rants about frequent talks with the Archangel Raphael, Marie treated the widowed Carmen Sylva with kindness and understanding. In a gesture of peace and magnanimity, she sought oheal the wounds that had set the two women at loggerheads with each other – wounds that were largely of Carmen Sylva’s making. Queen Elisabeth’s peaceful widowhood was short-lived. She died in early March 1916 from pneumonia caught while taking in the freezing cold air, a habit of the old queen because she feared being suffocated. She was buried next to Carol I” (224), presumably to annoy him for all eternity.

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Yaa Asantewaa

Way back in they day I did a series of “Badass Women” posts about understudied nineteenth-century hellions, including Isabella Bird, Mary Fields, Mother Jones, Mary Kingsley, Belle Starr, Belle Boyd, Si Mahoud, Mrs. Cheng, and others. I’ve decided that since I’m going to be cutting way back on my weekly posts, I might as well make an effort to blog about something I enjoy! So for the next few weeks, I’ll do a few of these. A new one out every Friday.

Today we’re going to talk about Yaa Asantewaa, the nineteenth-century queen mother of the Ashanti Confederacy, an extremely sophisticated kingdom in what is present-day Ghana. She’s famous for many things, including leading a mass revolt against British colonialism. The war in question is named after her, Yaa Asantewaa’s War, also known as the War of the Golden Stool.

Born in 1840 in central Ghana, Yaa Asantewaa led a pretty normal life, with the exception that her brother, Afrane Panin, was the chief of a community called Edweso. During his reign, she and Afrane saw a lot of turmoil, including four wars between their people and the British. Her brother named her ‘Queen Mother’, and she inherited a matrilineal throne from her grandmother and mother, as well. When her brother, died she used that power to nominate her own grandson to take over after Afrane.

The British then demanded not only the total surrender of the Asante Confederacy, but also their Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante people and the throne of the Confederacy. This latter demand was apparently made by British governor Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, who didn’t quite realize the significance of the object.

Unsurprisingly, it caused a flipping uproar. That night, Yaa Asantewaa declared that they would no longer be paying the British taxes and, brandishing a gun and firing it in the air, vowed to rebel against imperialism in any way she could.

The British exiled her grandson/king pretty much immediately, along with some other local rulers. In their absence, she became the regent for the area. Participating in a secret council, whose goal it was to try to bring the rulers back, Yaa Asantewaa gave her famous speech:

‘Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opuku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to the Chief of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.

Apparently the men were too cowardly, because they elected her the war leader of their fighting force. This is the first and only time a woman was given that role in the entire Asante history.

She also urged women to refuse sex with their husbands until they joined the fight and to march around everywhere and participate in victory ceremonies to build morale. It worked.

In 1900, she raised troops and led them to siege a fortress where the British had sought refuge. Her battles and skirmishes were extremely clever. She used a great number of decoys to trap the British, and also fed them bad information about the state of the Asante military.

She also used talking drums to her benefit (which, if you’ve ever read any Victorian or Edwardian imperial literature, were considered very scary by the British; drums were an efficient way of communicating great distances, whereas the British and other imperial forces had the arduous task of setting up telegraph poles and stations to achieve anything comparable). She used one beat on the drum to say, ‘Prepare to die‘, three beats to say, ‘Cut the head off‘, and four beats to say, ‘The head is off‘. It freaked the British the hell out.

The siege went on for several months and finally caused British military leaders to send a force of 1,400 soldiers to break the siege. During this time, Yaa Asantewaa and some of her advisors were captured and sent into exile, the siege was broken, and the Asante empire was made a protectorate of the British crown.

Yaa Asantewaa became known (at least in the west) as Africa’s Joan of Arc. She died in exile about twenty years later, and her body was returned to its homeland.

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Félix Carvajal and the 1904 Olympics

I first heard of this story on Knowable here, and it seemed so crazy that I had to check it out for myself. Turns out it was true.

Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto, known as Félix Carvajal or Andarín Carvajal (March 18, 1875 – January 27, 1949) was a Cuban postman and athlete who competed in the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri. His journey there and competition were . . . rather fraught.

Known in Cuba for his walking and running feats (including traversing the entire length of the island), he traveled from his home country to compete in the upcoming Olympic marathon. His journey got off to an extremely bumpy start when his boat docked in New Orleans and he promptly lost all of his money gambling.

Now with no other way to reach the marathon, Félix was forced to hitchhike the 700 miles to St. Louis, and he only just made the start time. I’m not sure if he didn’t come prepared with the proper equipment, or if he also lost his possessions gambling, but Félix did not have appropriate marathon attire. Wearing only street clothes, he hastily chopped some of the length off his trousers to give him pseudo-shorts and began the race. According to the Smithsonian magazineFélix was only five feet tall and made quite a striking contrast to most of the other tall, leggy competitors.

The day was extraordinarily hot, and a former Boston marathon runner competing in the marathon had to drop out after running only two blocks. It wasn’t just that it was hot, either. The terrain was a nightmare. One Olympic official said it was “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”, as the marathon track was laid out over several steep hills, was incredibly dusty, and was strewn with loose rock that made footing on the hilly terrain actually quite dangerous. The track also intersected with busy roads, so runners had to dodge traffic frequently. There were also only two places on the entire 26.2 mile course where runners could get water–once at mile six, and once at mile twelve. They were forced to run the remaining fourteen miles on a blisteringly hot day on possibly the world’s most difficult marathon track without any chance for hydration.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, “James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.”

Great. So even the organizers wanted them dehydrated. Jesus wept, y’all.

Félix seemed to cope alright, and he even stopped on a few occasions to have a bit of a chat with some of the spectators and to eat fruit. He stole some peaches from a spectator’s car, and later ate some apples from a nearby tree. The apples turned out to be rotten and gave him a stomach ache, so he decided to take a nap in the middle of the race.

When he woke from his nap, he continued the race and finished fourth.


According to Wikipedia, “Carvajal returned to St. Louis the following year to run in the inaugural All-Western Marathon, where he finished third, in a time of 3:44.

“Carvajal was selected to represent Cuba in the 1906 Olympic Marathon at Athens, Greece, with his expenses funded by the Cuban Government. However, he disappeared after landing in Italy, and never arrived in Athens. He was thought to be dead, and his obituary was published in the Cuban newspapers, but he later returned to Havana on a Spanish steamer. He then turned professional and would go on to defeat American distance runner Henry W. Shelton in a six-hour race in 1907.”

But if you think that’s all the excitement the 1904 Olympics had, then you are woefully mistaken. In addition to Félix, some other unorthodox marathon runners included:

-Ten Greek men who had never run a marathon before.

-Two men of the South African Tsuana tribe who were there as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit; they shocked people by turning up at the starting line barefoot.

-Len Tau, one of the South African competitors, was chased by wild dogs more than a mile off course.

-Fred Lorz, an American bricklayer whose participation in the marathon was sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union, was initially in the lead but then got cramps at the nine-mile mark. So he decided to hitch a ride with one of the accompanying vehicles and waved at spectators and fellow runners while he took a rest for eleven miles. He eventually got out of the car and continued running. One of the officials saw him cheating and ordered him off the marathon course, by Lorz ignored him and finished in just under three hours, “winning” the race.

All the American spectators started cheering that an American won, and Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice even placed a wreath on his head. She was just about to put the gold medal around his neck when officials caught up with him and exposed the cheating. The crowd turned furious and started booing Lorz, who tried to save face by saying that he only finished the race for a laugh and never intended on accepting the honor. Despite the fact that the gold medal was just about to go over his head. People were pissed.

-Earlier this year I wrote another post about Thomas Hicks, one of the early favorites to win the marathon, whose trainers not only refused to give him water during the race, but instead fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites to keep him going (with small doses of strychnine being commonly used as a stimulant at the time). This was the first known example of “doping” in the Olympics, but since there were no rules against performance-enhancing substances, it wasn’t a problem for anyone except Hicks, who almost died from strychnine poisoning.

Upon hearing that Lorz had been disqualified, Hicks’s trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, and made him wash it down with brandy. He seemed to pick up the pace, but then started hallucinating and nearly collapsed several times. His trainers had to carry him over the finish line. He was still the first person to cross the finish line legally.

It took four doctors about an hour to get him in a fit enough condition to even leave the race track. Hicks had lost eight pounds over the course of the race. Eight pounds in about three and a half hours. I hope he fired the shit out of those trainers.

He went on the next year to win the Boston marathon with precisely zero performance-enhancing substances.

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BizarreVictoria Update

Hi, guys, a bit of sad (?) news–due to work-related stuff, I’m going to have to reduce my posting schedule from three times per week to once per week. For the first year of this blog I wrote a post every single day but that was completely unsustainable. For the last few years I’ve been on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, which worked well for a while, but I’m starting to become completely swamped under with work from my day job.

I really, really don’t want the blog to start to feel like a chore (it’s still grand fun, but I could see myself getting fatigued pretty soon if I don’t lighten up my workload), so for the foreseeable future I’ll do one post every Friday. I’m hoping that this means I can write more quality posts, instead of a bunch of quick reblogs.

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Regency Slang – Section D

I found this list of vocabulary and slang from The Regency Assembly Press, here. I’m only picking a few excerpts, so visit their site for the full list.

Dairy–A woman’s breasts, particularly one that gives suck–She sported her dairy; she pulled out her breast.

Dance Upon Nothing–To be hanged.

Dark Cully–A married man that keeps a mistress, whom he visits only at night, for fear of discovery.

Death Hunter–An undertaker, one who furnishes the necessary articles for funerals.

Dells–Young buxom wenches, ripe and prone to venery, but who have not lost their virginity, which the Upright Man claims by virtue of his prerogative; after which they become free for any of the fraternity–Also a common strumpet-.

Devil Drawer–A miserable painter.

Diddies--A woman’s breasts or bubbies.

Dilberries–Small pieces of excrement adhering to the hairs near the fundament.

Dingey Christian–A mulatto; or any one who has, as the West-Indian term is, a lick of the tar-brush, that is, some negro blood in him.

Dining Room Post–A mode of stealing in houses that let lodgings, by rogues pretending to be postmen, who send up sham letters to the lodgers, and, whilst waiting in the entry for the postage, go into the first room they see open, and rob it.

Dirty Puzzle–A nasty slut.

Dishclout–A dirty, greasy woman–He has made a napkin of his dishclout; a saying of one who has married his cook maid–To pin a dishclout to a man’s tail; a punishment often threatened by the female servants in a kitchen, to a man who pries too minutely into the secrets of that place.

Divide–To divide the house with one’s wife; to give her the outside, and to keep all the inside to one’s self, i.e–to turn her into the street.

Dog’s Soup–Rain water.

Doodle Sack–A bagpipe.–Also the private parts of a woman.

Double Jugg–A man’s backside.

Dowse on the Chops–A blow in the face.

Doxies–She beggars, wenches, whores.

Drab–A nasty, sluttish whore.

Dropping Member–A man’s penis with gonorrhoea.

Drunk As A Wheelbarrow –Very drunk.

Duck Fucker–The man who has the care of the poultry on board a ship of war.

Duke of Limbs–A tall, awkward, ill-made fellow.

Dumplin–A short thick man or woman–Norfolk dumplin; a jeering appellation of a Norfolk man, dumplins being a favourite kind of food in that county.

Dutch Concert–Where every one plays or signs a different tune.

Dutch Feast–Where the entertainer gets drunk before his guest.

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CSS Shenandoah

Just another quick reblog today. I found this on Futility Closet’s blog here.

“The Civil War didn’t quite end with Lee’s surrender. The Confederate man-of-war CSS Shenandoah was in the Arctic Ocean at the time, and kept attacking Union ships for four more months.

“By the time it stopped, the Shenandoah had carried the Confederate flag completely around the world. It sank or captured 38 ships, two-thirds of them after the war ended, and took close to a thousand prisoners. Oops.”

Despite the unreliability of newspapers, ‘commerce raiders’ were not given the same amnesty deal that Confederate soldiers were given. The ship’s captain was therefore hesitant to surrender and return home when he found out that the war was over. He was afraid that they would be tried and hanged by Union officers for piracy, as they continued to sink and capture ships after the war was over. He therefore surrendered the ship in Liverpool, England, where he would not immediately have to face Union authorities.

As many of the crew were British ANYWAY, an investigation showed that they did not break the law and everyone was released. The ship was turned over the US government.

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Regency Slang – Section C

I found this list of vocabulary and slang from The Regency Assembly Press, here. I’m only picking a few excerpts, so visit their site for the full list.

Cackling Farts–Eggs


Canterbury Story–A long roundabout tale.

Caps – Pull Caps–To quarrel like two women, who pull each other’s caps.

Carvel’s Ring–The private parts of a woman–Ham Carvel, a jealous old doctor, being in bed with his wife, dreamed that the Devil gave him a ring, which, so long as he had it on his finger, would prevent his being made a cuckold: waking he found he had got his finger the Lord knows where [i.e. her vagina].

To Cascade–To vomit.

Cast Up One’s Accounts–To vomit.

Catch Fart–A footboy; so called from such servants commonly following close behind their master or mistress.

Cautions–The four cautions: I–Beware of a woman before.—II–Beware of a horse behind.—III–Beware of a cart side-ways.—IV–Beware of a priest every way.

Cheeser–A strong smelling fart.

Chicken-Breasted–Said of a woman with scarce any breasts.

Chicken Nabob–One returned from the East Indies with but a moderate fortune of fifty or sixty thousand pounds, a diminutive nabob: a term borrowed from the chicken turtle.

Chimney Chops–An abusive appellation for a negro.

Christening–Erasing the name of the true maker from a stolen watch, and engraving a fictitious one in its place.

Churchyead Cough–A cough that is likely to terminate in death.

Cit–A contemptuous Term for a member of the merchant class, one who works in or lives in the City of London, i.e–the central business area of London.

Clap–A venereal taint–He went out by Had’em, and came round by Clapham home; i.e–he went out a wenching, and got a clap.

Cloth Market–He is just come from the cloth market, i.e–from between the sheets, he is just risen from bed.

Cloven, Cleave, or Cleft–A term used for a woman who passes for a maid [i.e. virgin], but is not one.

Cock Alley or Cock Lane–The private parts of a woman.

Cock Pimp–The supposed husband of a bawd.

Collar Day–Execution day.

Colt’s Tooth–An old fellow who marries or keeps a young girl, is said to have a colt’s tooth in his head.

Coming! So is Christmas–Said of a person who has long been called, and at length answers, Coming!

Commodity–A woman’s commodity; the private parts of a modest woman, and the public parts of a prostitute.

Convenients–Women of easy virtue.

Corporal–‘To mount a corporal and four’; to be guilty of onanism [i.e. masturbation]: the thumb is the corporal, the four fingers the privates.

Covent Garden Ague–The venereal disease–He broke his shins against Covent Garden rails; he caught the venereal disorder.

Covent Garden Nun–A prostitute.

Creepers–Gentlemen’s companions, lice.

Cribbage-Faced–Marked with the small pox, the pits bearing a kind of resemblance to the holes in a cribbage-board.

Crinkums--The foul or venereal disease.

Croaker–One who is always foretelling some accident or misfortune: an allusion to the croaking of a raven, supposed ominous.

Crow Fair–A visitation of the clergy–See Review of the Black Cuirassiers

Crusty Beau–One that uses paint and cosmetics, to obtain a fine complexion.

Cundum–The dried gut of a sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection; said to have been invented by one Colonel Cundum.

Cupboard Love–Pretended love to the cook, or any other person, for the sake of a meal–My guts cry cupboard; i.e–I am hungry

Curtain Lecture–A woman who scolds her husband when in bed, is said to read him a curtain lecture.

Cushion Thumper, or Duster–A parson; many of whom in the fury of their eloquence, heartily belabour their cushions.

Cut, Cut Direct–To cut someone is to refuse to recognize that person socially–The cut direct was the most blatant way — one would look the other person directly in the face but pretend not to know him–The cut indirect involved simply looking another way, the cut sublime involved looking up at the sky until the person passed, and the cut infernal involved looking at the ground or stooping to adjust one’s shoes.

Cut Up My Peace–Disturb me.

Cyprian–A woman of who gives sexual favors in exchange for payment; a mistress or courtesan–Named for the island of Cyprus, famous for the worship of Aprhrodite, goddess of love.

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