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Buck Whaley: The stakes were high when the Gambler met the Butcher

Buck Whaley was one of Irish history’s most colourful and eccentric characters, writes David Ryan.

David Ryan Author

This is an extract from Buck Whaley: Ireland’s Greatest Adventurer by David Ryan, which is published by Merrion Press.

1789, THE RUTHLESS warlord known as ‘the Butcher’ was probably the most feared man in the Middle East.

Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar ruled much of Syria and the Holy Land on behalf of the Ottoman Empire.

Notorious for his brutality, he was definitely not a man to be trifled with. So when the madcap Irish adventurer Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley turned up on his doorstep, there was no telling what would happen.

Whaley was one of Irish history’s most colourful and eccentric characters, so much so that 200 years later he even had a nightclub named after him on Dublin’s Leeson Street.

When he met al-Jazzar he was on his way home from Jerusalem, having undertaken an epic journey from Dublin on the back of a £15,000 wager.

In the course of the expedition, Whaley had been caught in a hurricane in the Sea of Crete, troubled by pirates in the Dodecanese, nearly killed by plague in Constantinople, and waylaid by bandits near Nablus.

Before leaving the Holy Land he had decided to call on the fearsome al-Jazzar in hopes of acquiring a much-coveted possession. Whaley knew that the Butcher maintained a large stud and hoped that he might present him with an Arabian stallion. Although he had already had many extraordinary adventures, as a new book reveals, his encounter with ‘the Butcher’ was the most memorable.

Buck Whaley: Ireland’s Greatest Adventurer describes how Whaley and his travelling companion Hugh Moore were granted an audience with al-Jazzar at his palace in the Mediterranean port of Acre.

Moore described the Butcher’s appearance vividly. Aged around fifty, he was 5 feet 10 inches in height and built ‘like an Hercules’. He had the face ‘of an assassin, his neck short, his eyes black, small, and sunk in his head … his features most strongly expressive of the barbarous ferocity of his mind’.

This description is borne out by a portrait of the time, in which al-Jazzar stares menacingly from the canvas with heavy-lidded eyes.

However, he welcomed his guests pleasantly enough, making sure to inform them that ‘all Europe will wonder at this mark of my regard and will envy you the honour of this interview’.

As he spoke the Butcher seemed to shake off his grim demeanour. He was strangely animated and ‘even condescended to smile’. Encouraged by his host’s friendly demeanour, Whaley decided to ask him for an Arabian stallion, saying he wanted to present it to the Prince of Wales.

But to his shock and surprise, al-Jazzar refused him bluntly. He explained that the Sultan himself had also asked him for a horse, but he had turned him down. As a result, he could hardly oblige a Christian. With this matter put to bed, Al-Jazzar turned the conversation back to his favourite subject: his own achievements and military greatness, boasting of the number of men he had killed.

As Whaley took his leave he reflected ‘with indignation on the savage cruelty of this monster’. He and Moore regarded al-Jazzar as a remorseless tyrant who having ‘attained the summit of human atrocity and villainy, ignorantly conceived himself to be one of the greatest and most eminent of mankind’.

What they did not know was that al-Jazzar was yet to perform his greatest deed. In 1799 a French army commanded by a brilliant young general laid siege to al-Jazzar in Acre.

The Butcher held out against the French for two months, killing over 1,000 of them. Eventually, the young general was forced to abandon the siege and retreat ignominiously to Egypt. Thus did the ageing Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, ten years after Whaley’s visit, become the first man to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte in battle. And Whaley? He completed his journey home and returned to Dublin in triumph later that year, having won his £15,000 bet.

Fame and adulation followed and Whaley rubbed shoulders with the good and the great, from the Prince of Wales to the Duchess of Devonshire. But his gambling spiralled out of control.

In a strange twist of fate one his fellow bettors was Arthur Wesley, later to become Duke of Wellington and, of course, the last man to defeat Napoleon, at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

To escape his gambling debts Whaley fled to France, where he had many more adventures. After nearly being killed while climbing Mont Blanc he got caught up in the French Revolution, came up with a hare-brained plan to rescue King Louis XVI from the guillotine and tried to fight a duel on the Champs Elysees.

When he died in 1800 at the age of 34 he had squandered an astronomical £400,000 (around €100 million) ‘without ever purchasing or acquiring contentment or one hour’s true happiness’.

But Whaley’s fame lived on for many years after his death. His Jerusalem wager may even have inspired Phileas Fogg’s bet in Around the World in Eighty Days. Now, for the first time, the full story of his extraordinary life and adventures is told.

David Ryan was born in Galway and holds an MA degree in history from NUI Galway. David currently works as a television producer and scriptwriter, specialising in history and archaeology documentaries.

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