Mercenaries – During the Middle Ages

The “Saubannerzug”, an irregular military formation carrying a wild boar and a club on its banner, aproaching the City of Bern in 1477 A.D.

Professional soldiers (or sailors) who fought for pay or plunder, not for any national or religious cause or because they were conscripts. Mercenaries have been found garrisoning forts or on the battlefield almost as long as men have made war: they marched alongside Roman Legions as auxiliaries, and fought against them; Song emperors deployed mercenaries in China in distant garrisons and used them in field armies from the 12th century; they guarded the great trans-Saharan trade routes for the African slave empires of Mali and Songhay; they fought for the Crusader states of the Holy Land, as well as against them in several Muslim armies. The Aztec Empire was built in blood by a ruthless people who began as tributary soldiers in the paid service of a more advanced and wealthy city-state, Tepaneca, in the Central Valley of Mexico. In parts of Medieval Europe primogeniture ensured that many young men were forced to turn to arms to earn a living. This produced the necessary forces to eventually defeat the great waves of invasions over some 600 years by Vikings, Mongols, Arabs, and other warlike raiders. A growing surfeit of warriors produced by a whole society structured for war but with a newly rising population was then sent off to fight the Crusades, while others went mercenary and fought ever closer bound to the king’s war chest at home.

The collapse of the monetary economy in Western Europe following the fall of Rome left just two areas where gold coin was still used in the 10th century: southern Italy and southern Spain (al-Andalus). Ready gold drew mercenaries to wars in those regions as carrion creatures draw near dead flesh. Also able to pay in coin for military specialists and hardened veterans was the Byzantine Empire, along with the Muslim states it opposed and fought for several centuries. The rise of mercenaries in Western Europe in the 11th century as a money economy resumed disturbed the social order and was received with wrath and dismay by the clergy and service nobility. Early forms of monetary service did not necessarily involve straight wages. They included fief money and scutage. But by the end of the 13th century paid military service was the norm in Europe. This meant that local bonds were forming in many places and a concomitant sense of “foreignness” attached to long-service soldiers. Mercenaries were valued for their military expertise but now feared and increasingly despised for their perceived moral indifference to the causes for which they fought. Ex-mercenary bands (routiers, Free Companies) were commonplace in France in the 12th century and a social and economic scourge wherever they moved during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Their main weapon was the crossbow, on land and at sea. In the galley wars of the Mediterranean many Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian crossbowmen hired out as specialist marine archers. Much of the Reconquista in Spain was fueled by the mercenary impulse and concomitant necessity for armies to live off the land. The hard methods and cruel attitudes learned by Iberians while fighting Moors were then applied in the Americas by quasi-mercenary conquistadores. Mercenaries- “condottieri,” or foreign “contractors”-also played a major part in the wars of the city-states of the Italian Renaissance.

French “gen d’armes” and Swiss pikemen and halberdiers fought for Lorraine at Nancy (1477). By the start of the 15th century Swiss companies hired out with official Cantonal approval or as free bands who elected their officers and went to Italy to fight as condottieri. With the end of the wars of the Swiss Confederation against France and Burgundy, Swiss soldiers of fortune formed a company known as “das torechte Leben” (roughly, “the mad life”) and fought for pay under a Banner displaying a town idiot and a pig. Within four years of Nancy some 6,000 Swiss were hired by Louis XI. In 1497, Charles VIII (“The Affable”) of France engaged 100 Swiss halberdiers as his personal bodyguard (“Garde de Cent Suisses”). In either form, the Swiss became the major mercenary people of Europe into the 16th century. “Pas d’argent, pas de Suisses” (“no money, no Swiss”) was a baleful maxim echoed by many sovereigns and generals. Mercenaries of all regional origins filled out the armies of Charles V, and those of his son, Philip II, as well as their enemies during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. By that time Swiss mercenaries who still used pikes (and many did) were largely employed to guard the artillery or trenches or supplies. Similarly, by the late 16th century German Landsknechte were still hired for battle as shock troops but they were considered undisciplined and perfectly useless in a siege.

In Poland in the 15th century most mercenaries were Bohemians who fought under the flag of St. George, which had a red cross on a white background. When Bohemian units found themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield they usually agreed that one side would adopt a white cross on a red background while their countrymen on the other side used the standard red-on-white flag of St. George. In the Polish-Prussian and Teutonic Knights campaigns of the mid-15th century the Brethren-by this point too few to do all their own fighting-hired German, English, Scots, and Irish mercenaries to fill out their armies. During the “War of the Cities” (1454-1466) German mercenaries were critical to the victory of the Teutonic Knights at Chojnice (September 18, 1454). When the Order ran out of money, however, Bohemian soldiers-for-hire who held the key fortress and Teutonic capital of Marienburg for the Knights sold it to a besieging Polish army and departed, well paid and unscathed by even a token fight.

The social and economic dislocations caused by confessional ferocity during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) forced many men into the profession of arms, especially if they came from the fringe peoples of Europe or borderlands such as Scotland, Ireland, or the Balkans, where wars of raid and counter-raid were endemic. Thus, when a “Swedish” army assaulted Frankfurt- on-the-Oder a Scots Brigade made the attack against a defending “Imperial” Army made up wholly of Irishmen under Colonel Walter Butler. In fact, the great bulk of European armies during the first half of the 17th century were comprised of mercenaries who owed little ethnic, class, or religious loyalty to the causes for which they fought. This was because kings and great captains owed such men little more than pay, out of which soldiers were expected to buy their own food, weapons, clothing, and provide shelter. In some armies musketeers were even expected to buy their own black powder, so of course they were loathe to spend it on combat. Even this primitive system was subject to great abuse and corruption as quartermasters and colonels skimmed payrolls, troops exposed themselves to minimal danger, and captains used their tactical skills to escape rather than win battles. One result was a tendency for armies to maneuver constantly, eating out enemy territory rather than seeking out combat. The mercenary presence on the battlefield thus led to fewer pitched battles but much longer wars, conditions which best satisfied the interest of military professionals in prolonged but also cautious and relatively non-sanguinary service. During the Thirty Years’ War many top officers were mercenaries, notably on the Habsburg side under Wallenstein. Not all were Catholics-Wallenstein himself was an agnostic mystic. They came from Scotland, England, Ireland, the Swiss cantons, and the many overrun and warring German states. In 1500 most European armies contained about one-third mercenary troops. Shortly after Gustavus Adolphus intervened in the Thirty Years’ War 130 years later his “Swedish Army” had become, through casualties and new recruitment, 80 percent foreign mercenaries wrapped around a core of Swedish veterans.

Among the most important effects of large numbers of greatly skilled, highly mobile, and utterly disloyal mercenaries, combined with the lethality of the cannons and firearms they employed, was to so threaten any self-respecting sovereign that it became essential to establish standing armies to protect the dynasty and realm. The answer to the anarchy, terror, and destruction caused by “Free Companies” of heavily armed and homeless men all over Europe thus became the law of kings. This was then enforced by soldiers in royal service who dressed in the king’s colors, were paid regularly and sheltered year-round in barracks, who had stables for their mounts, magazines full of shot and powder, and national foundries and small arms industries to supply military needs. In short, the answer to mercenary anarchy was the modern state.

Suggested Reading: S. Brown, “The Mercenary and his Master,” History, 74 (1989); K. A. Fowler, Medieval Mercenaries, Vol. 1 (2001); M. E. Mallett, Mercenaries and Their Masters (1974); J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1977); David Worthington, Scots in Habsburg Service, 1618-1648 (2004).


The Black Army

Knight of the Black Army

Under King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (r. 1458–1490), the Black Army was a highly skilled mercenary force but it became too expensive for the country to support. Federico da Montefeltro was not only one of the most successful mercenaries of the Italian Renaissance but was also a famous patron of the arts: his study, finished in 1476, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The success of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Nancy (1477) encouraged more European leaders to hire them. The failure of other mercenaries, during the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, to kill Lorenzo de Medici led to their own deaths. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I formed the mercenary Landsknecht regiments in 1487; they would eventually displace Swiss mercenaries on the battlefield.

The term “Black Army,” coined after the death of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443–1490), refers to his foreign mercenary forces, which consisted chiefly of Bohemians, Poles, and Germans.1 There are various theories about the origin of this unusual name. The first recorded references to a “black army” appear in memoranda written immediately after Matthias died. His death occurred when his soldiers were pillaging Hungarian and Austrian villages because they had not been paid; they may have sewed a black stripe on their uniforms as a sign of mourning. If so, it is not clear today whether they were mourning their lost leader, their lost pay, or both.

The foundations of this highly skilled mercenary army were laid by the father of Matthias in the early 1440s. The concept of a professional standing army of mercenaries, however, is said to have come to young Matthias himself—when he was reading about the life of Julius Caesar. The eventual result of this creative idea was that the soldiers of the Black Army would be well-paid, full-time mercenaries who were devoted to perfecting their military skills. At its peak strength in 1487, this army could field some 28,000 men, i.e., 20,000 horsemen and 8,000 infantrymen. Moreover, as noted earlier in this book, every fifth soldier in the infantry had an arquebus—an unusually high ratio at the time.

As Matthias’ income increased, he was able to hire more and more mercenaries. Contemporary records differ on the numbers involved because these changed from one battle to another and because some soldiers were employed only for the duration of a given campaign. Nevertheless, if all the nobility’s Banners (military units), all the mercenaries, all the soldiers of conquered Moravia and Silesia, and all the troops of allied Moldavia and Wallachia are added up, Matthias might have had as many as 90,000 men at his disposal.

Managing this force was not child’s play. The major disadvantage of having troops who were paid periodically or only rarely was that if they did not receive their pay, they would simply leave the battlefield or even, in some cases, they would revolt. Such revolts had to be put down by the king, but since these rebels were well-trained, disciplined, men-at-arms they were very hard to suppress.

The good news, from the king’s point of view, was that since only a relatively small number of his troops revolted at any given time, their captains could often be encouraged to return to the fold simply by offering them lands and castles, which they could then mortgage and use the proceeds to pay their troops. If this ploy did not work, however, Matthias would resort to military force, tempered by mercy. In 1467, for example, his troops captured a rebel garrison. After the captured men had watched some other prisoners being hung, they begged for mercy—which Matthias kindly granted. He even made one captured rebel officer a captain in the Black Guard because he was such a good fighter.

In 1481, Matthias himself summed up the battlefield duties of his infantry in a letter to Gabriele Rangoni, bishop of Eger. The description, disposition, and tactics of this unit follow closely the actual practices of the Italian mercenary armies. Matthias writes:

The third force of the army is the infantry, which divides into various orders: the common infantry, the armored infantry, and the shield-bearers…. The armored infantry and shield-bearers cannot carry their armor and shields without pages and servants, and since it is necessary to provide them with pages, each one of them requires one page per shield and armor….

Then there are handgunners [i.e., soldiers carrying primitive hand-held firearms known as hand cannons] … They are very practical, set behind the shield-bearers at the start of the battle, before the enemies engage, and in defense. Nearly all of the infantry and the handgunners are surrounded by armored soldiers and shield-bearers, as if they were standing behind a bastion. The large shields set together in a circle present the appearance of a fort and are similar to a wall in whose defense the infantry and all those among them fight almost as if from behind bastion walls or ramparts and at a given moment break out from it.

Before Matthias died in 1490, he had asked his officers to support his son, John Corvinus, as the new king, but Hungary soon collapsed into rival factions struggling for power. Moreover, in about 1492, because some Black Army mercenaries had not been paid they switched sides and joined the army of the Holy Roman Empire, which was then invading Hungary. Another Black Army unit was not paid, either, so it survived by looting the nearest monasteries, churches, villages, and manors.

The failure to pay mercenaries arose because the king simply could not afford to support such a large number of hired troops. Indeed, it has been calculated that out of an annual income of about 900,000 ducats, the king had to set aside 400,000 ducats to pay these men. Revolts by the mercenaries finally led the Black Army itself being disbanded in 1494. Its surviving members were either integrated into local garrisons or, as in the case of some who had turned traitor, were arrested for treason, were locked up, and were quietly allowed to starve to death.

Swiss Mercenaries in the 15th and early 16th centuries

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”



In Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5, Shakespeare has the king call out: “Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.” Here Shakespeare is referring to the famous Swiss mercenaries, whose courage, reliability, and battlefield skills made them the most sought-after mercenaries during the Late Middle Ages. Their discipline and training even allowed them to withstand cavalry charges. Because they were so good at their work, it is worth saying something here, very briefly, about their abilities.

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.

Habiru/Apiru Mercenaries

Throughout history it has always been difficult for governments to find enough good soldiers. A soldier’s life was and is often very hard, and there is the ever-present danger of loss of life, so for many a military life was not desirable. Warfare in the period from 4000 to 1000 BCE generally involved either local disputes or in some cases wars waged far from home. For example, Thutmose III (ca. 1504-1450 BCE) waged 17 military campaigns outside of Egypt during his reign. Military life for the Egyptian soldiers at this time included long periods away from home and away from their families and professions. Life in the military was often not popular, and many societies in the ancient world suffered shortages in personnel.

Conscription was one obvious way to deal with the shortage, and many ancient cultures adopted it. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms (ca. 2600-1780 BCE) Egypt conscripted 1 in every 100 men into the army, and by the time of Ramses II (ca. 1279-1212 BCE) 1 in 10 men were being conscripted. This was very unpopular, and many Egyptians avoided conscription by hiding or running away. The only way for Egypt and other societies to gain enough soldiers to maintain a large enough standing army was by hiring mercenaries. The period from 4000 to 1000 BCE was premonetary, so mercenaries were not paid in coinage but instead were often given grants of land and a share in the loot from the battle. A military career in Egypt, whether as a mercenary or a regular soldier, was one of the only ways for a peasant or commoner to increase his status and fortune in life.

The first solid references to mercenaries are from the reign of King Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia and date to ca. 2350 BCE. Sargon employed perhaps as many as 5,000 mercenaries, mostly recruited from the edges of his empire. These mercenaries also sometimes saw regular police duty and were often used to put down internal riots and revolts. Since they were far from home, they would have no connection with the people they had to control, and Sargon did not have to make his soldiers use violence toward their own people. This allowed Sargon to see his will done without much unrest developing within his military. The Egyptian pharaohs often used the famous Medjay Nubian mercenaries in a similar way. By the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom, the Medjay were unoffcially known as the Egyptian police force.

The most notable force of mercenaries in the ancient world were the Habiru. This group or culture was known across the ancient Middle East and appears in the documents of many cultures from 2500 BCE through to about 1000 BCE. Its origin is unknown, and there were groups of Habiru in many regions. The ancient texts note that they were sometimes hired for domestic purposes but most often as mercenaries. By the fourteenth century BCE the Habiru had become very successful as mercenaries, and their population had grown to the extent that they were able to take control of various towns and cities in the Levant, including Hazor and Byblos.

The Canaanite kings supplemented their forces with hired freebooters called apiru (sometimes known as habiru). The apiru were a class of outcasts, debtors, outlaws, and restless nomads who formed themselves into wandering groups of raiders, often hiring themselves out to princes and kings for military duty. These wandering brigands were a serious threat and often had to be brought to heel by the Canaanite princes by force of arms. One of history’s greatest generals, David, was an apiru. When forced to leave Saul’s court for fear of being killed, David returned to his old mercenary occupation by raising a force of 600 “discontented men” and hiring his soldiers out to one of the Philistine kings. The size and military sophistication of these brigand groups could present a considerable threat to public order. A record from Alalakh tells of a band of apiru comprising 1,436 men, 80 of which were charioteers and 1,006 of which were shananu, probably some kind of archer. Another text records the capture of the town of Allul by a force of 2,000 apiru.

However, with the collapse of the great city-states at the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1050 BCE), the Habiru disappear from history. It is possible that in all the upheaval of the period they were incorporated into what remained of society after the fall of the elite polities of the period

Bibliography Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage Books and Random House, 1994. Yalichev, Serge. Mercenaries of the Ancient World. London: Constable and Company, 1997

Gonzalo Pizarro marching with a thousand dogs!

Gonzalo Pizarro y Alonso was a Spanish conquistador and younger paternal half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire.

Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco, brought as many as a thousand dogs with him in an expedition begun in Peru in 1541. This may be the largest assembly of attack dogs in history, but the Spanish had dogs they could use in battle against the natives.

Gonzalo Pizarro received the news of his appointment to the government of Quito with undisguised pleasure; not so much for the possession that it gave him of this ancient Indian province, as for the field that it opened for discovery towards the east,—the fabled land of Oriental spices, which had long captivated the imagination of the Conquerors. He repaired to his government without delay, and found no difficulty in awakening a kindred enthusiasm to his own in the bosoms of his followers. In a short time, he mustered three hundred and fifty Spaniards, and four thousand Indians. One hundred and fifty of his company were mounted, and all were equipped in the most thorough manner for the undertaking. He provided, moreover, against famine by a large stock of provisions, and an immense drove of swine which followed in the rear.

It was the beginning of 1540, when he set out on this celebrated expedition. The first part of the journey was attended with comparatively little difficulty, while the Spaniards were yet in the land of the Incas; for the distractions of Peru had not been felt in this distant province, where the simple people still lived as under the primitive sway of the Children of the Sun. But the scene changed as they entered the territory of Quixos, where the character of the inhabitants, as well as of the climate, seemed to be of another description. The country was traversed by lofty ranges of the Andes, and the adventurers were soon entangled in their deep and intricate passes. As they rose into the more elevated regions, the icy winds that swept down the sides of the Cordilleras benumbed their limbs, and many of the natives found a wintry grave in the wilderness. While crossing this formidable barrier, they experienced one of those tremendous earthquakes which, in these volcanic regions, so often shake the mountains to their base. In one place, the earth was rent asunder by the terrible throes of Nature, while streams of sulphurous vapor issued from the cavity, and a village with some hundreds of houses was precipitated into the frightful abyss!

On descending the eastern slopes, the climate changed; and, as they came on the lower level, the fierce cold was succeeded by a suffocating heat, while tempests of thunder and lightning, rushing from out the gorges of the sierra, poured on their heads with scarcely any intermission day or night, as if the offended deities of the place were willing to take vengeance on the invaders of their mountain solitudes. For more than six weeks the deluge continued unabated, and the forlorn wanderers, wet, and weary with incessant toil, were scarcely able to drag their limbs along the soil broken up and saturated with the moisture. After some months of toilsome travel, in which they had to cross many a morass and mountain stream, they at length reached Canelas, the Land of Cinnamon. They saw the trees bearing the precious bark, spreading out into broad forests; yet, however valuable an article for commerce it might have proved in accessible situations, in these remote regions it was of little worth to them. But, from the wandering tribes of savages whom they occasionally met in their path, they learned that at ten days’ distance was a rich and fruitful land abounding with gold, and inhabited by populous nations. Gonzalo Pizarro had already reached the limits originally proposed for the expedition. But this intelligence renewed his hopes, and he resolved to push the adventure farther. It would have been well for him and his followers, had they been content to return on their footsteps.

Continuing their march, the country now spread out into broad savannas terminated by forests, which, as they drew near, seemed to stretch on every side to the very verge of the horizon. Here they beheld trees of that stupendous growth seen only in the equinoctial regions. Some were so large, that sixteen men could hardly encompass them with extended arms! The wood was thickly matted with creepers and parasitical vines, which hung in gaudy-colored festoons from tree to tree, clothing them in a drapery beautiful to the eye, but forming an impenetrable network. At every step of their way, they were obliged to hew open a passage with their axes, while their garments, rotting from the effects of the drenching rains to which they had been exposed, caught in every bush and bramble, and hung about them in shreds. Their provisions, spoiled by the weather, had long since failed, and the live stock which they had taken with them had either been consumed or made their escape in the woods and mountain passes. They had set out with nearly a thousand dogs, many of them of the ferocious breed used in hunting down the unfortunate natives. These they now gladly killed, but their miserable carcasses furnished a lean banquet for the famishing travellers; and, when these were gone, they had only such herbs and dangerous roots as they could gather in the forest.

At length the way-worn company came on a broad expanse of water formed by the Napo, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon, and which, though only a third or fourth rate river in America, would pass for one of the first magnitude in the Old World. The sight gladdened their hearts, as, by winding along its banks, they hoped to find a safer and more practicable route. After traversing its borders for a considerable distance, closely beset with thickets which it taxed their strength to the utmost to overcome, Gonzalo and his party came within hearing of a rushing noise that sounded like subterranean thunder. The river, lashed into fury, tumbled along over rapids with frightful velocity, and conducted them to the brink of a magnificent cataract, which, to their wondering fancies, rushed down in one vast volume of foam to the depth of twelve hundred feet! The appalling sounds which they had heard for the distance of six leagues were rendered yet more oppressive to the spirits by the gloomy stillness of the surrounding forests. The rude warriors were filled with sentiments of awe. Not a bark dimpled the waters. No living thing was to be seen but the wild tenants of the wilderness, the unwieldy boa, and the loathsome alligator basking on the borders of the stream. The trees towering in wide-spread magnificence towards the heavens, the river rolling on in its rocky bed as it had rolled for ages, the solitude and silence of the scene, broken only by the hoarse fall of waters, or the faint rustling of the woods,—all seemed to spread out around them in the same wild and primitive state as when they came from the hands of the Creator.

For some distance above and below the falls, the bed of the river contracted so that its width did not exceed twenty feet. Sorely pressed by hunger, the adventurers determined, at all hazards, to cross to the opposite side, in hopes of finding a country that might afford them sustenance. A frail bridge was constructed by throwing the huge trunks of trees across the chasm, where the cliffs, as if split asunder by some convulsion of nature, descended sheer down a perpendicular depth of several hundred feet. Over this airy causeway the men and horses succeeded in effecting their passage with the loss of a single Spaniard, who, made giddy by heedlessly looking down, lost his footing and fell into the boiling surges below.

Yet they gained little by the exchange. The country wore the same unpromising aspect, and the river-banks were studded with gigantic trees, or fringed with impenetrable thickets. The tribes of Indians, whom they occasionally met in the pathless wilderness, were fierce and unfriendly, and they were engaged in perpetual skirmishes with them. From these they learned that a fruitful country was to be found down the river at the distance of only a few days’ journey, and the Spaniards held on their weary way, still hoping and still deceived, as the promised land flitted before them, like the rainbow, receding as they advanced.

At length, spent with toil and suffering, Gonzalo resolved to construct a bark large enough to transport the weaker part of his company and his baggage. The forests furnished him with timber; the shoes of the horses which had died on the road or been slaughtered for food, were converted into nails; gum distilled from the trees took the place of pitch; and the tattered garments of the soldiers supplied a substitute for oakum. It was a work of difficulty; but Gonzalo cheered his men in the task, and set an example by taking part in their labors. At the end of two months a brigantine was completed, rudely put together, but strong and of sufficient burden to carry half the company,—the first European vessel that ever floated on these inland waters.

Gonzalo gave the command to Francisco de Orellana, a cavalier from Truxillo, on whose courage and devotion to himself he thought he could rely. The troops now moved forward, still following the descending course of the river, while the brigantine kept alongside; and when a bold promontory or more impracticable country intervened, it furnished timely aid by the transportation of the feebler soldiers. In this way they journeyed, for many a wearisome week, through the dreary wilderness on the borders of the Napo. Every scrap of provisions had been long since consumed. The last of their horses had been devoured. To appease the gnawings of hunger, they were fain to eat the leather of their saddles and belts. The woods supplied them with scanty sustenance, and they greedily fed upon toads, serpents, and such other reptiles as they occasionally found.

This is not the place to record the circumstances of Orellana’s extraordinary expedition. He succeeded in his enterprise. But it is marvellous that he should have escaped shipwreck in the perilous and unknown navigation of that river. Many times his vessel was nearly dashed to pieces on its rocks and in its furious rapids; and he was in still greater peril from the warlike tribes on its borders, who fell on his little troop whenever he attempted to land, and followed in his wake for miles in their canoes. He at length emerged from the great river; and, once upon the sea, Orellana made for the isle of Cubagua; thence passing over to Spain, he repaired to court, and told the circumstances of his voyage,—of the nations of Amazons whom he had found on the banks of the river, the El Dorado which report assured him existed in the neighborhood, and other marvels,—the exaggeration rather than the coinage of a credulous fancy. His audience listened with willing ears to the tales of the traveller; and in an age of wonders, when the mysteries of the East and West were hourly coming to light, they might be excused for not discerning the true line between romance and reality.

He found no difficulty in obtaining a commission to conquer and colonize the realms he had discovered. He soon saw himself at the head of five hundred followers, prepared to share the perils and the profits of his expedition. But neither he, nor his country, was destined to realize these profits. He died on his outward passage, and the lands washed by the Amazon fell within the territories of Portugal. The unfortunate navigator did not even enjoy the undivided honor of giving his name to the waters he had discovered. He enjoyed only the barren glory of the discovery, surely not balanced by the iniquitous circumstances which attended it.

One of Orellana’s party maintained a stout opposition to his proceedings, as repugnant both to humanity and honor. This was Sanchez de Vargas; and the cruel commander was revenged on him by abandoning him to his fate in the desolate region where he was now found by his countrymen.

The Spaniards listened with horror to the recital of Vargas, and their blood almost froze in their veins as they saw themselves thus deserted in the heart of this remote wilderness, and deprived of their only means of escape from it. They made an effort to prosecute their journey along the banks, but, after some toilsome days, strength and spirits failed, and they gave up in despair!

Then it was that the qualities of Gonzalo Pizarro, as a fit leader in the hour of despondency and danger, shone out conspicuous. To advance farther was hopeless. To stay where they were, without food or raiment, without defence from the fierce animals of the forest and the fiercer natives, was impossible. One only course remained; it was to return to Quito. But this brought with it the recollection of the past, of sufferings which they could too well estimate,—hardly to be endured even in imagination. They were now at least four hundred leagues from Quito, and more than a year had elapsed since they had set out on their painful pilgrimage. How could they encounter these perils again!

Yet there was no alternative. Gonzalo endeavored to reassure his followers by dwelling on the invincible constancy they had hitherto displayed; adjuring them to show themselves still worthy of the name of Castilians. He reminded them of the glory they would for ever acquire by their heroic achievement, when they should reach their own country. He would lead them back, he said, by another route, and it could not be but that they should meet somewhere with those abundant regions of which they had so often heard. It was something, at least, that every step would take them nearer home; and as, at all events, it was clearly the only course now left, they should prepare to meet it like men. The spirit would sustain the body; and difficulties encountered in the right spirit were half vanquished already!

The soldiers listened eagerly to his words of promise and encouragement. The confidence of their leader gave life to the desponding. They felt the force of his reasoning, and, as they lent a willing ear to his assurances, the pride of the old Castilian honor revived in their bosoms, and every one caught somewhat of the generous enthusiasm of their commander. He was, in truth, entitled to their devotion. From the first hour of the expedition, he had freely borne his part in its privations. Far from claiming the advantage of his position, he had taken his lot with the poorest soldier; ministering to the wants of the sick, cheering up the spirits of the desponding, sharing his stinted allowance with his famished followers, bearing his full part in the toil and burden of the march, ever showing himself their faithful comrade, no less than their captain. He found the benefit of this conduct in a trying hour like the present.

I will spare the reader the recapitulation of the sufferings endured by the Spaniards on their retrograde march to Quito. They took a more northerly route than that by which they had approached the Amazon; and, if it was attended with fewer difficulties, they experienced yet greater distresses from their greater inability to overcome them. Their only nourishment was such scanty fare as they could pick up in the forest, or happily meet with in some forsaken Indian settlement, or wring by violence from the natives. Some sickened and sank down by the way, for there was none to help them. Intense misery had made them selfish; and many a poor wretch was abandoned to his fate, to die alone in the wilderness, or, more probably, to be devoured, while living, by the wild animals which roamed over it.

At length, in June, 1542, after somewhat more than a year consumed in their homeward march, the way-worn company came on the elevated plains in the neighborhood of Quito. But how different their aspect from that which they had exhibited on issuing from the gates of the same capital, two years and a half before, with high romantic hope and in all the pride of military array! Their horses gone, their arms bioken and rusted, the skins of wild animals instead of clothes hanging loosely about their limbs, their long and matted locks streaming wildly down their shoulders, their faces burned and blackened by the tropical sun, their bodies wasted by famine and sorely disfigured by scars,—it seemed as if the charnel-house had given up its dead, as, with uncertain step, they glided slowly onwards like a troop of dismal spectres! More than half of the four thousand Indians who had accompanied the expedition had perished, and of the Spaniards only eighty, and many of these irretrievably broken in constitution, returned to Quito.

The few Christian inhabitants of the place, with their wives and children, came out to welcome their countrymen. They ministered to them all the relief and refreshment in their power; and, as they listened to the sad recital of their sufferings, they mingled their tears with those of the wanderers. The whole company then entered the capital, where their first act—to their credit be it mentioned—was to go in a body to the church, and offer up thanksgivings to the Almighty for their miraculous preservation through their long and perilous pilgrimage. Such was the end of the expedition to the Amazon; an expedition which, for its dangers and hardships, the length of their duration, and the constancy with which they were endured, stands, perhaps, unmatched in the annals of American discovery.

Battle of Tagliacozzo, 23 August 1268


Defeat for Conradin, son of Conrad IV (HRE), the last Hohenstaufen in Sicily. He invaded the kingdom of Sicily with German and Spanish allies in 1267, seeking to make good his claim against Charles of Anjou. Suppporters revolted against Charles in Sicily. The battle was fought in central Italy as Conradin advanced south. Charles took position behind the River Salto. Conradin’s men failed to take the bridge but others crossed further up and attacked the Angevins on the flank. Then the bridge was crossed. Charles recovered by leading a charge with a hidden reserve when many of the enemy, thinking victory theirs, pursued Angevins off the field. He then defeated the returning enemy. It was largely a cavalry battle, a costly victory: `never was victory so bloody, for nearly his whole army had fallen’. Conradin fled but was captured and executed in Naples in October. It ended German Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily, leaving the Angevins in control.

Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens, together with Frederick of Baden, was in command of 5-6,000 cavalry, mainly Germans and Italians but also including Castilians as well as Sicilians. He found his road blocked by an opposing force of some 3-5,000 French horse under Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily. The French drew up behind the River Salto in three divisions; two formed into column by a bridge while the third, including Charles himself, was secreted behind a fold in the ground about a mile from the flank. Henry of Cousances, commanding the second column, wore the royal surcoat and bore Charles’s standard in order to trick the enemy in to believing the entire French family was in view. Conradin’s army also drew up in three battles.

The Van, led by Henry of Castile, stormed the bridge, while the second and third, under Calvano Lancia and Conradin respectively, managed to ford the river downstream and then wheeled to attack the flank of the enemy battle. Henry of Cousances was finally slain and the French, badly mauled, broke in flight. The royal standard was seized in the confusion. Conradin held some of his men, but most chased after the French and set about looting their camp. It was now that Charles, having impotently observed the rout of his main force, charged up with his division and scattered the few troops who surrounded Conradin. When the imperial looters saw their commander in flight, they also took to their heels. Henry of Castile managed to rally a number of horsemen and advanced against the Angevins. However, 40 French knights feigned flight to draw out the enemy. As they broke ranks they were attacked by Charles’ battle, while the 40 knights wheeled to strike their flank. Despite a rally, they could not hold off the Angevins, and fled. Conradin, Frederick and Galvano were caught a few weeks later and, like those taken in the battle, were executed. Henry of Castile was imprisoned for 23 years.

Brother of St Louis. He conquered the Norman kingdom of Sicily and ruled it as Charles I from 1266. In 1246 he married Beatrice heiress to Provence. The papacy offered Sicily to Charles against the descendants of Frederick II. He invaded and was crowned in 1266. He defeated Manfred at Benevento and Conradin at Tagliacozzo. He suppressed revolts in Sicily. He developed Mediterranean interests. He took Corfu in 1267 but failed to recover the Byzantine Empire for the Franks. He was involved in St Louis’ crusade to Tunis in 1270. He was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1278 and became Prince of Achaea. He developed interests in northern Italy, becoming Imperial Vicar in Tuscany and Senator of Rome in 1268. He was defeated by the Genoese in 1273, and in 1275 at Roccavione. His greatest setback followed the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 with the French loss of Sicily. His fleet was defeated off Naples by the Genoese in 1284. He died on 7 January and was succeeded by his son Charles II. His descendants ruled in Naples and Hungary.

Son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad IV who died in 1254 and descendant of Frederick II, He was named Duke of Swabia, King of the Romans, and King of Sicily from 1254 though his position was challenged by his uncle Manfred. He was named as King of Jerusalem but never ruled there. After the invasion of Sicily by Charles of Anjou, Conradin tried to recover his kingdom in 1268. He was defeated at Tagliacozzo, captured and executed on 29 October.


Mercenaries have earned a dubious name for themselves throughout history; their object, as a rule, has been to obtain maximum pay for minimum risks, with the result that those hiring them rarely get value for money. Mercenaries, usually white and recruited from the former colonial powers, became familiar and generally despised figures in Africa during the post-independence period. They were attracted by the wars, whether civil or liberation, that occurred in much of Africa during this time and, as a rule, were to be found on the side of reaction: supporting Moise Tshombe in his attempt to take Katanga out of the Republic of the Congo (1960–63); in Rhodesia fighting on the side of the illegal Smith regime against the liberation movements; in Angola; on both sides in the civil war in Nigeria; and in other theaters as well.

The Congo

In the chaos of the Republic of the Congo (1960–66) mercenaries were labeled “les affreux.” In Katanga under Tshombe, they were first used to stiffen the local gendarmerie; later they were organized in battalions on their own, numbering one to six commandos, as a fighting force to maintain Tshombe’s secession. There were originally 400 European mercenaries in Katanga during the secession; this number rose to 1,500 during the Simba revolt, which affected much of the Congo. These mercenaries came from a range of backgrounds: British colonials, ex-Indian Army, combat experienced French soldiers from Algeria, World War II RAF pilots from Rhodesia and South Africa, and Belgian paratroopers. The troubles that began in the Congo immediately after independence in July 1960 provided the first opportunity for mercenaries to be employed as fighting units since World War II. These white soldiers fighting in black wars, both then and later, became conspicuous military/propaganda targets in an increasingly race conscious world.


The Nigerian civil war (1967–70) witnessed the use of white mercenaries on both sides, and stories of mercenary involvement and behavior were a feature of that war. Three kinds of mercenary were used: pilots on the federal side; pilots and soldiers on the Biafran side; and relief pilots employed by the humanitarian relief organizations assisting Biafra. Memories of savage mercenary actions in the Congo were still fresh in African minds when the Nigerian civil war began and at first, there was reluctance to use them. Despite a great deal of publicity, the mercenaries played a relatively minor role in the Nigerian civil war, except for air force pilots. French mercenaries led a Biafran force in a failed attempt of December 1967 to recapture Calabar. In Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, the mercenaries were well aware of the low esteem attached to them and were careful not to put themselves at risk of capture. The Nigerian Federal Code (for the military conduct of the war) said of mercenaries: “They will not be spared: they are the worst enemies.” Although both sides in Nigeria were reluctant to use mercenaries, both did so in the end for what they saw as practical reasons, especially because of the shortage of Nigerian pilots. In this war, British mercenaries fought for the federal side against French mercenaries on the Biafran side to perpetuate existing Anglo–French rivalries in Africa; it was the first time since the Spanish civil war of 1936–1939 that contract mercenaries had faced each other on opposite sides.

Mike Hoare, who had become notorious as a mercenary in the Congo, offered his services to each side in Nigeria in turn, but neither wished to employ him. The capacity of Biafra to resist against huge odds was prolonged because Ulli Airport was kept open to the last moment in the war; had it been destroyed, Biafra would have collapsed, but the mercenaries on either side had engaged in a “pact” not to destroy the Ulli runway, since to do so would have put the pilots on both sides—those bringing in supplies to Biafra and those supposedly trying to stop them for the federal government—out of a job. At least some mercenaries in Biafra were involved in training ground forces and helping to lead them, and some of these became partisan for Biafra, though that is unusual. The French government supported the use of its mercenaries in Biafra, since it saw potential political advantage to itself if the largest Anglophone country on the continent should be splintered. Apart from the pilots, however, Biafra got small value for money from the mercenaries it employed.

Why Mercenaries Were Employed

As a rule, the mercenaries offered their services in terms of special skills—such as weapons instructors or pilots—that were in short supply among the African forces at war. The need for mercenaries in most African civil war situations has arisen from the lack of certain military skills among the combatants and the belief that mercenaries are equipped to supply these skills. What emerges repeatedly in the history of the mercenary in Africa—whether in Nigeria, Angola, or elsewhere—is the fact that mercenaries charged huge fees (to be paid in advance) for generally poor and sometimes nonexistent services. As a rule, they were simply not worth the money. The mercenaries always sought maximum financial returns and minimum risks and in Nigeria, for example, helped destroy the notion that white soldiers were of superior caliber to black ones. This was simply not true. Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda notably described mercenaries as “human vermin,” a view that had wide credence in Africa, so that their use by any African combatant group presented adverse political and propaganda risks. An assumption on the part of many mercenaries was that they were superior soldiers and would stiffen whichever side they were on; many, in fact, turned out to be psychopaths and racists whose first consideration, always, was money. In general, mercenary interventions in African wars were brutal, self-serving, and sometimes downright stupid and did more to give whites on the continent a bad name than they achieved in assisting those they had supposedly come to support. The desperate, that is the losing, side in a war, would be more likely to turn to mercenaries as a last resort, as happened in Angola during 1975–1976.


The mercenaries, who became involved in Angola during the chaos that developed as the Portuguese withdrew in 1975, appeared to have learned nothing from either the Congo or Nigeria. As the Frente Nacional da Libertação de Angola (FNLA)/National Front for the Liberation of Angola was being repulsed by the Movimento Popular para a Libertação de Angola (MPLA)/Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and its Cuban allies, the American CIA decided to pay for mercenaries and proceeded to recruit 20 French and 300 Portuguese soldiers for an operation in support of the anti-Marxist FNLA. The CIA recruited French “hoods” for Angola and the French insisted that the CIA should use the services of the notorious Bob Denard. He had already worked for Joseph Désiré Mobutu in the Republic of the Congo. It was thought that French mercenaries in Angola would be more acceptable or less offensive than Portuguese mercenaries. Despite this, the Portuguese, having lost their colonial war, allowed and encouraged a mercenary program of their own in Angola, in opposition to the newly installed MPLA government. In fact, the use of mercenaries in Angola in 1975 proved a fiasco. By January 1976, for example, over 100 British mercenaries were fighting for the FNLA in northern Angola. They were joined by a small group of Americans.

One of the most notorious of these British mercenaries, a soldier by the name of Cullen, was captured by the MPLA and executed in Luanda. In February 1976, 13 mercenaries including Cullen were captured by MPLA forces in northern Angola: four were executed, one was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and the others got lesser though long terms of imprisonment.

Later Mercenary Interventions

In 1989, white mercenaries under the Frenchman Bob Denard seized power in the Comoros Islands following the murder of President Ahmad Abdallah. At the time, South Africa was paying mercenaries to act as a presidential guard in the Comoros. As the Mobutu regime in Zaire collapsed during the latter part of 1996 and 1997, senior French officers were recruiting a “white mercenary legion” to fight alongside Zaire’s government forces. In January 1997, it was reported that 12 or more French officers with a force of between 200 and 400 mercenaries—Angolans, Belgians, French, South Africans and Britons, Serbs and Croats—had arrived in Zaire. As Laurent Kabila’s forces advanced on Kisangani there was a mass exodus of the population, including the Forces Armées du Zaire (FAZ)/Armed Forces of Zaire troops of Mobutu and many of the mercenaries who had been recruited by the Zaire government. These latter then quit the country.

In summary, mercenaries in Africa, by their brutal behavior and racism, have done great damage to the white cause on the continent; they have proved less than able soldiers; they have often quit when their own lives were in danger rather than do the job for which they had been paid; and with one or two exceptions, the combatants would have been better off without using them.