Weird Armies

Soldiers of the Dutch East India Company. Protecting mercantile interests abroad.

I just discovered, while doing some research, that the Dutch East India Company had a private army. I was surprised to discover that, assuming it had been more like Macy’s meets David Livingston. But it makes sense. Given their acquisitive agenda, coupled with the (quite reasonable) opinion of local people that they would rather keep what was theirs, some bashing was is order.

The Vatican used to have a mercenary army too. Possibly not commensurate with today’s platform of world-peace and the non-use of birth control (the combination of the two doesn’t really bear thinking about).

A flattering bust of Ramesses II (if you believe the reconstructions)

From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are (almost) the only species that uses others to do their dirty work. And we have a lengthy history of it. Back in the thirteenth century BC, Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II used 11,000 foreign mercenaries to augment his troops.The “Medjay” was a generic term given to tribal scouts and light infantry recruited from Nubia from the late Old Kingdom period through that of the New Kingdom. Others included warriors from Libya, Syria and Canaan, The Sherdens from Sardinia appear in distinctive horned helmets on wall paintings as body guards for Ramesses II.

Herald III of Norway, last of the Vikings

Roman and, later, Byzantine Emperors  contracted foreigners especially for their personal corps guard called the Varangian Guard, taken principally from the warlike Viking peoples. Their mission was to protect the Emperor and Empire and since they did not have links to the Greeks, they were expected to be ready to suppress rebellions. One of the most famous guards was the future king Harald III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada (“Hard-counsel”), who arrived in Constantinople in 103. He participated in eighteen battles and became Akolythos, the commander of the Guard, before returning home in 1043. He was killed, famously, by an arrow in the throat, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England in September 1066, when his army was defeated by an English, commanded by King Harold Godwinson (who, less than a month later, later killed during the Norman Conquest by an arrow to the eye. Not a great time to be a king…).

A brooding Charlton Heston in 1961 as the mercenary El Cid, looking, no doubt, nothing like the real person. For a start, I suspect El Cid would not have been wearing Louis Vuitton.

In Italy, the Condottiero was a military chief offering his troops, the condottieri, to city-states. During the ages of the Taifa kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, Christian knights like El Cid could fight for some Muslim ruler against his Christian or Muslim enemies, which must have got somewhat complex.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the colourful German Landsknechte, became the most formidable mercenary force, hired by all the powers in Europe and often fighting at opposite sides. Sir Thomas More in his book Utopia advocated the use of mercenaries in preference to citizens, whose time was taken up with more noble pursuits.

Il Condottiere, by da Vinci 1480

At roughly the same time, Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince argued the exact opposite, on the grounds that the sole motivation of mercenaries is their pay, so they will not be inclined to take the kind of life-threatening risks that could turn the tide of a battle. Additionally a mercenary who failed was incompetent, but one who succeeded might be even more dangerous, which explained the frequent, violent betrayals characteristic of  mercenary/client relations in Italy at the time.

A crab fights for its life against army ants in Gabon. I don’t like its chances. Photo: Axel Rouvin, Lille / Bordeaux, France

There aren’t many armies in nature, unless you consider cooperative foraging, in which case you can find examples among the pack-hunting predators: dolphins, whales, the big cats and dogs, or the great apes (which presumably share behaviours with humans because of the close evolutionary relationship). I’ll skip all of those examples, interesting as they are. They don’t fit in a strictly mercenary fashion. Even the warlike Hymenoperta (ants, bees, wasps and their relatives) are usually going for food or territory. But are humans the only ones to other individuals or other species (like dogs?) in combat? I may have found the answer. Stay tuned…


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