Princess Caraboo, imposter
  • Princess Caraboo, imposter
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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Oxford Dictionary of National Biography podcast: Princess Caraboo (born Mary Willcocks), an imposter, 1791-1864

"There followed a triumphant summer at Knole. Surrounded by admirers, Caraboo provided examples of the written language of Javasu, performed an exotic war dance involving a gong, showed great skill in archery, cooked a chicken curry, and swam naked in the lake. She had to contend with a Greek manservant who believed her to be a fraud, and was once woken in the middle of the night by shouts of ‘Fire!’ She betrayed no sign of alarm. Her authenticity was proved beyond question by Dr Wilkinson, a polymath from Bath who gave subscription lectures on everything from electricity to washable wallpaper. He considered that incisions on the back of her head could have been made only by oriental surgeons. By showing her Edmund Fry’s Pantographia, a manual of languages, he identified her native dialect as Rejang, spoken in Sumatra.”

The story of Princess Caraboo is one of over 230 episodes available from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s podcast archive. New episodes are released every second Wednesday.

Image: Princess Caraboo, by Edward Bird. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Toda of Navarre (c. 885 – aft. 970)

Toda of Navarre was the queen-consort of Pamplona through her marriage to Sancho I, who reigned 905–925, and was regent of Pamplona, 931–934. Later in life, she ruled a subkingdom created for her.

She was the daughter of Aznar Sánchez, lord of Larraun, paternal grandson of King García Íñiguez of Pamplona, while her mother Onneca Fortúnez was a daughter of king Fortún Garcés. Thus, Toda’s children were also descendants of the Arista dynasty of Navarrese monarchs. She was sister of Sancha Aznárez, wife of king Jimeno Garcés, her husband’s brother and successor, while Toda and Sancha were also aunts of Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III, through their mother’s first marriage to ‘Abdullah ibn Muhammad.

With the death of her husband in 925 and then with that of her brother-in-law Jimeno in 931, she became regent and guardian for her young son, García Sánchez I. In 934 Toda signed a treaty pledging allegiance to her nephew Abd-ar-Rahman III, and released hostages of the Banu Di n-Nun clan, the caliph confirming the rule of her son García (this has sometimes been interpreted as an act of the Caliph to liberate García from his mother’s direct control). This led to the rebellion in Falces by a count Fortún Garcés, an “irascible man who hated Muslims”, the uprising being suppressed with Cordoban arms. Toda violated her treaty in 937, forcing a punitive campaign.

During several stretches she appears in the royal charters of the kingdom to the exclusion of her daughter-in-law, the queen, from 947 to 955, and again in 959. In 958 she was ruling her own subkingdom, in the area of Degio and Lizarra, towns not otherwise identified.

The same year, she took an interest in the health of her Leonese grandson Sancho I, whose obesity was largely responsible for his dethronement. Toda requested the assistance of Abd-ar-Rahman III, the Caliphate of Córdoba being renowned for its physicians. The caliph sent her his Jewish physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who promised to cure Sancho on condition that Toda visit the city of Córdoba. Therefore, Toda, her son García Sánchez I of Pamplona and grandson Sancho I of León, nobles and clergymen arrived in Córdoba, where they were received with full honors and amid much pomp. The arrival of this Christian queen in the capital of an Islamic caliphate enhanced Abd-ar-Rahman III’s prestige among his subjects, and is considered a landmark in the history of medieval diplomacy. Sancho’s medical treatment was successful, and he was “relieved from his excessive corpulence.”

She had been an energetic diplomat, arranging political marriages for her daughters among the competing royalty and nobility of Christian Iberia.

The Roda Codex gives Sancho and Toda six children:

- Oneca, married Alfonso IV of León in 926

- Sancha, married Ordoño II of León, Count Alvaro Herraméliz of Álava, and      Fernán González, Count of Castile

- Urraca, married Ramiro II of León

- Velasquita (or Belasquita), married firstly Munio, count of Vizcaya, secondly Galindo, son of Bernard count of Ribagorza, and thirdly Fortún Galíndez, duke of Nájera.

- Orbita

- García, king of Pamplona

Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper, changed this nation’s perspective on democracy. She worked for political, social and economic equality for herself and all African Americans. She fought to integrate the national Democratic Party, and became one of the first black delegates to a presidential convention. Fannie Lou Townsend was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, in 1917, the youngest of 20 children. By the age of six she was working in the cotton fields. She became known in the civil rights movement as a captivating preacher and singer, inspiring others with her moral and physical courage. In 1962, the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Hamer’s town and encouraged blacks to register as voters. Hamer volunteered, even though she had not previously known that it was a Constitutional Right for blacks to vote.  After registering herself and working with SNCC, she lost her job, received death threats, and was severely beaten by the police in an effort to intimidate her.  Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 because blacks were not allowed in the all-white regular party delegation. Although Lyndon Johnson refused to seat the MFDP, the Democrats agreed that in the future no delegation would be seated from a state where anyone was illegally denied the right to vote. Hamer also worked towards achieving financial independence for blacks. In 1969, she helped to start Freedom Farms Corporation, which lent land to blacks until they had enough money to buy it. She worked with the National Council of Negro Women, organized food co-operatives, and helped convene the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1970. Though Hamer wanted children, a white doctor had sterilized her without permission, so she adopted daughters instead.  In her last years, she received many honors and awards. Engraved on her headstone in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, are her famous words: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

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Did you catch today’s Emmy Noether Google Doodle? Noether, featured in Rachel Swaby’s upcoming Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — And The World, is considered one of the most creative and influential mathematicians of modern times. From the book:

“Following her death, Einstein wrote a letter to the New York Times. ‘Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.’ Today, some scientists believe her contributions, long hidden beneath the bylines and titles of others, outshine even the accomplishments of the ode’s writer.” 

Want to learn more? Headstrong is on sale April 7th!

Audrey Hepburn, film actress
  • Audrey Hepburn, film actress
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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Oxford Dictionary of National Biography podcast: Audrey Hepburn, film actress (1929-1993).

"In childhood Hepburn had shown an aptitude in ballet lessons—maintained with difficulty under the occupation—which helps explain the grace of movement and natural serenity that distinguished her film stardom. Her career-in-waiting was hinted at just before mother and daughter left the Netherlands for London about 1947. Then seventeen or eighteen, she secured a role as an air stewardess in a tourist film, Dutch in Seven Lessons (1948), produced for the Dutch airline KLM. Her charming smile was the first of many on screen. In London she was accepted into the Ballet Rambert but her self-critical sense told her she lacked the precision (and possibly the physique) to succeed in that art. After trying other short-term outlets—as a fashion model, and as a travel clerk—she was hired for the chorus line of Jack Hylton’s musical High Button Shoes, gaining promotion to solo spots in intimate revue. Her radiant personality won her minor roles in several British films (including Laughter in Paradise, 1951, and The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951). Though these were somewhat decorative parts, her photographic charm earned her a three-year contract (at £12 a week) with a major studio, Associated British Picture Corporation. Ironically, she never made a film for her employers."

The story of Audrey Hepburn is one of over 200 episodes available from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s podcast archive. New episodes are released every second Wednesday.

Image: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Gif via Giphy.com.

Gerda Taro (1910 - 1937)

Gerda Taro (born Gerta Pohorylle) was a photographer of war, as well as a work partner and companion of Robert Capa (born Friedmann Endre). She was born in Stuttgart, Germany to a Galician Jewish family belonging to the middle class stratum.Taro is considered as the first woman photojournalist to document war frontlines and dying whilst doing this.

In 1929, Taro and her family shifted to Leipzig, just before the start of the Nazi era. She supported the leftists instead of the Nazis. In 1933, she was detained for campaigning against the Nazi government. Her entire family was forced to find residence in some other country than Germany. She and her family went to different abodes.

Escaping Hitler’s rule over Germany, in 1934 Taro went to Paris. A year later, she met Rober Capa and became his assistant. During this time, she learned much about photography and eventually the two fell in love. Taro then became image editor at Alliance Photo.

Gerda Taro was given her primary credential as a photojournalist in 1936. Friedmann and Taro developed a plan of taking news related photographs and selling it by Robert Capa’s name in order to conveniently get through the increasing political turmoil. However, soon their secret was discovered. Even then, Friedmann took over Robert Capa as alternative professional name and Taro’s real name was Gerta Pohorylle which she changed to Gerda Taro after Tarō Okamoto (artists from Japan). 

Afterwards, Taro refused the Capa’s proposal for marriage and moved on with her career, independently. She became involved with the European anti- fascist intellectuals, such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway

Her unaccompanied photographic documentation of  the bombing in Valencia attained her the most renowned photographs. In 1937 July, her photos were in demand by the press internationally, when Taro was photographically covering Madrid’s region Brunete for the magazine, Ce Soir. At the Battle of Brunete, Taro endured critical and multiple injuries and died. She was 26 years old.