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Was John Smith A Liar?
One lady, he said, saved his head from the block; now another is rescuing his reputation
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
∗ See Dr. Striker’s article, “Lewis L. Kropf on Captain John Smith’s True Travels,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography , January, 1958; and Dr. Striker’s contribution to Captain John Smith, His Life and Legend , by Bradford Smith.
What were the essential features of the Hungarian story, and how much of it can be checked against the existing record?
Smith claimed that he went to Hungary in 1601, hoping to fight against the Turks. When he got to Graz, Austria, he found an English Jesuit who introduced him to “Lord Ebersbaught.” Impressed by Smith’s mastery of a pyrotechnical signal system, “Ebersbaught” introduced him to “Baron Kissell,” who in turn gave him a hearing with “Henry Volda, Earl of Meldritch.” These were the chief actors in Smith’s dramatic story.
Because he could find mention of none of these people in the archives, Kropf had called Smith a liar. But Dr. Striker, more meticulous and ingenious in her scholarship, has located them all. The English Jesuit, she discovered, was William Wright. “Ebersbaught” was Carl von Herbertsdorf. “Kissell” was Hanns Jacob Khisl, Baron of Kaltenbrunn, court war counselor of the Archduke Ferdinand. “Volda” was actually Folta—one of a number of noble families which had been given domains near the place where the battles Smith described were fought. In 1602, wrote Smith, “Volda” completed his twentieth year in military service—and Dr. Striker has found confirmation of this. Smith knew what he was talking about, even to the smallest detail. The people he names did indeed exist. The truth was that Smith, like so many Englishmen before and since, had a genius, if not a passion, for misspelling foreign names.
Smith tells how “Ebersbaught” was besieged by the Turks at “Olumpaugh” (Oberlimbach). When “Kissell” came forward to break the siege, claims Smith, he was able to use pyrotechnics and get this message across: “On Thursday night I will charge to the East. At the Alarum, salley you.” Another of Smith’s fireworks tricks made the Turks think they were being attacked on the left. When they rushed troops there, “Kissell” attacked on the right, and the Turks were overrun.
All this sounded to Kropf like pure fiction. Not so. As the re-examination of the case continued, Dr. Franz Pichler, counselor of the Styrian Archives, decided to re-enact the event on the terrain, and with pyrotechnics, such as Smith might have used. So far as he could determine, it would have been quite possible for Smith to have done just what he claimed.
Later on, when he went with “Volda” into Transylvania, Smith says he reported not to the Austrian but to the Transylvanian commander, Sigismund. Why the “unexplainable” switch in loyalty? Dr. Striker has explained it. “Volda’s” estates were in Protestant Transylvania. The Austrians were fanatically proCatholic, and Protestants were not allowed to fight in the Imperial Army. It seems not at all unreasonable that “Volda” might have had a grudge against the Austrians, thrown in his lot with Sigismund, and taken his new friend, Smith, with him.
Next comes the most puzzling detail of all. Smith says that under Sigismund he and “Volda” fought “some Turks, some Tartars, but most Bandittoes, Rennegadoes, and such like.” How could this be, when the enemies of Sigismund’s Transylvanians were not the Turks, but the Austrians?
Again Dr. Striker has been able to disentangle the confusing skein of Hungarian history. Sigismund had made a special agreement with the Austrian General Basta to drive out of the country an army of Hajdus, a people of Turkish-Hungarian stock whose polyglot mercenary troops were plaguing the region. Unable to control them himself, Basta promised Sigismund a truce if he would do the job. Kropf failed to find proof that this agreement existed, and concluded that Smith was a liar. Actually, Smith knew enough to place these Hajdus in exactly the right spot and at the right time, as the documents proved.
Unable to dislodge the Hajdus from their fortress, Sigismund’s troops camped outside the walls, from which their enemies taunted them. Finally, a Hajdu fighter sent a challenge for a trial at arms. Smith met the warrior, defeated him, and cut off his head. He did the same to two others. When the heads were presented to the General, Smith was rewarded with a “faire horse richly furnished, a Semitere, and belt worth three hundred ducats.” He even got a coat of arms for his valor.
Highly improbable, Smith’s enemies have always declared. Ridiculous, said Kropf. Yet a seventeenthcentury chronicler named Szamoskoezy (just think what Smith might have done with a name like that!) wrote a description, hidden for centuries in manuscript form, which jibes exactly with Smith’s description of the duels!
Having overcome the Hajdus, Sigismund attempted to get control of Transylvania. He was unable to do so, and most of his troops were slaughtered. John Smith related that he himself was left for dead on the field, restored to strength because he looked worth ransoming, and sold as a slave into Turkey. From there, his account continues, he was taken to the Crimea, and eventually escaped and got back to England. After a short rest he was ready to stretch his incredible luck by setting out for the New World.
“He could not possibly have written as he did about Hungary without having lived through the events he described,” Dr. Striker has concluded. “It is time we gave him full credit for being not only a valiant fighter, but an acute historian and chronicler as well.”