This blog post is part of the global Steampunk Hands Around the World event. Follow that link to discover more facets of the global steampunk community during this month-long event.
As steampunk’s cultural impact continues to grow, we see more and more historical and alternate-world fiction set during the 19th and early 20th centuries. While an increasing segment of this library is drifting further from Anglo-centric and subject matter, many authors are only familiar with a short set of historical figures.
Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, Marie Curie, Jule Verne, and Michael Faraday are all well-known and well-featured in contemporary steampunk fiction, but fascinating figures span the century from across the globe. Here are a few potentially lesser known historical figures who would make excellent characters in any steampunk or historical fiction.
Antonio Maceo Grajales, the Bronze Titan
Lt. General José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales was a hero of the Cuban War of Independence and one of Latin America’s most brilliant guerrilla leaders. He spent his early life as a farmer and, later, a Freemason, and was known to possess a strict moral code.
His military career began at the age of 23, in 1868, when he, his father, and his brothers joined in the Cuban revolt against Spain. It only took five months for him to earn promotion from private to Lieutenant Colonel. Over the next five years his bravery and tactical acumen carried him through hundreds of battles and promotion up to the rank of Brigadier General.
It was during this time that his men nicknamed him “the Bronze Titan” for his exceptional physical strength and resistance to the over 25 injuries he sustained over his career.
Ten Years War era Maceo makes an excellent protagonist or a terrifying antagonist for stories taking place in Cuba between 1868 and 1878. He’s physically powerful, charismatic, a tactical genius in the arts of guerrilla warfare, and in a steampunk world you can take the nickname “Bronze Titan” more literally. A Grajales who has been systemically been replacing injured body parts with superior prosthesis of brass and steam is a compelling visual.
Cuban War of Independence
Less than a decade later, Maceo served as Lieutenant General in the Cuban Liberation Army, defeating the numerically superior force of Spaniards in a matter of months through a campaign of open and guerrilla warfare.
His end came in an almost mythic last stand in 1896, when Maceo and two dozen men took intense fire from a strong column of Spanish troops. Lieutenant Francisco Gomez, the son of the General in Chief, stayed with his fallen comrade-in-arms to protect the body until he had been shot several times and cut down with machetes.
The Cuban struggle against Spain is exemplary of the class struggle that was sweeping the world in the 19th century, and as a backdrop it serves as an excellent way to put the ‘punk’ in steampunk. Maceo was a powerful man and brilliant tactician, held back only by racist sentiments by his overwhelmingly white fellow officers and prejudice against his humble origins. To his men, he was the Bronze Titan. To the Spaniards, he was the Great Lion. To history, he is one of the most noteworthy guerrilla leaders and a warrior for the freedom of his people.
Heinrich Schliemann was an archaeologist. He was not a good archaeologist. Oh, sure, he discovered Troy, but he was excavating with dynamite, destroying never-to-be-known historical artifacts, including what was probably the level that was the Troy of the Iliad.
The son of a Protestant minister, in 1836 at age 14 Heinrich had to leave his private school for a vocational one after his father was accused of embezzling church funds and drummed out of his church. He worked as an apprentice grocer, where his passion for classical Greek literature was inspired when he heard a drunk reciting Homer. At 19 he burst a blood vessel lifting a heavy barrel incorrectly, and left to become a cabin boy on a steamer bound for Venezuela.
There is no proof that Schliemann had anything to do with the ship’s sinking, but he washed up in the Netherlands with the other survivors, and took work with an import/export firm.
In 1851 he moved to California, starting a bank to speculate on the California gold fields, buying and selling over a million dollars of gold dust in just six months. This career ended when the local Rothschild agent complained about short-weight consignments, leading him to sell his business and flee to Russia.
He married in Russia and got into the indigo dye business, further increasing his fortune as an arms dealer during the Crimean war, selling saltpeter, sulfer, and lead to the Russian government, and by 1858 had amassed fortune sufficient to retire upon.
He began to travel, purportedly for the purpose of finding Troy. When his wife refused to join him in Paris in 1869, he falsified an Indiana residency to obtain a divorce by the state’s relatively lenient laws.
Also in 1869 he submitted a dissertation in Ancient Greek that Hissarlik was the site of ancient Troy, a topographical analysis that consisted of translations of another author’s work, and was awarded a PhD for his efforts. He teamed up with local expert Frank Calvert to excavate Hissarlik, and hired a young local girl as an assistant. Within months the 47 year old Schliemann had married the seventeen-year-old Sophia Engastromenos. They had two children, whom he allowed to be baptized on the condition that he be allowed to place a copy of the Iliad on their heads while reciting hexameters from it.
In 1873 the excavation uncovered a cache of gold and jewelery, which the dedicated professional archaeologist promptly gave to his wife. The Turkish government revoked his dig rights and sued him for a share of the gold. Schliemann and Calvert smuggled the treasure out of Turkey to “protect it from corrupt local officials”, and the items remain a subject of international dispute to this day.
A Noble Death
In November of 1890 Schliemann underwent an operation for an ear infection, which became painfully inflamed. In defiance of his doctors’ advice, he traveled to Berlin, Paris, and Pompeii, where he lapsed into a coma and died.
Like any historical figure, a steampunk Schliemann-inspired character can be interpreted in many ways. Maybe he’s a light-hearted trickster with big dreams. Or maybe he’s an opportunistic manipulator willing to sacrifice others for his ambitions. One thing we can say for sure: You probably shouldn’t perform archaeological excavations with explosives.
Kaúxuma Núpika, the Manlike Woman
Everything we know of Núpika comes from the journals of early pioneers David Thompson and Sir John Franklin. We have no other accounts, so please take the brevity of this entry as due to a paucity of information.
According to Thompsons 1809 and 1811 entries, the Ktunaxa tribeswoman Núpika served as a second wife to one of his men. He portrayed her as a loose woman, one who had to be sent from the camp for causing discontent among his expedition.
He next mentions Núpika several years later as having set up as a shaman who had gained influence among the natives for the interpretation of dreams.
According to Thompson, Núpika had told the Ktunaxa people that the whites had changed her sex, and adopted the masculine name of Water Sitting Grizzly.
He mentions Núpika again in an 1811 entry, describing him as “a young man, well dressed in leather, carrying a bow and quiver of arrows, with his wife, a woman in good clothing.” He had fallen into disfavor with his adopted Chinook tribe for predicting disease.
Sir John Franklin, on an expedition to seek the Northwest passage, mentions encountering someone who may be the same figure in 1827. According to his second-hand account, the “Manlike Woman” was believed to be supernaturally gifted for exhibiting traits of both genders.
The Two-Spirited and their roles in Native American spirituality and shamanism is a fascinating subject. If your steampunk setting does include magic, there may be some truth to the belief that they have a stronger connection to the spirit world. Either way, enigmatic figures — named or not — can add to whatever plot you’re writing, especially to characters from cultures lacking strong archetypes relating to mixed gender roles.