Basil Zaharoff, the dark intriguer of the arms business who frustrated Isaac Peral’s submarine

«The Commander of the submarine torpedo boat will deliver to the arsenal of the Carraca, under inventory, accumulators, pumps, generators and other effects and ship material». This is the message that the Spanish sailor Isaac Peral received on November 11, 1890, sent by the Minister of the Navy Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. With it, his project to develop an electric propulsion submarine for the Navy came to an end, dismantling the prototype that had been tested in four attack drills. The official reasons given for the cancellation were the failure in one of the tests and the low autonomy of the ship, although today we know that the most powerful was the intervention of an obscure character named Basil Zaharoff.

Zaharoff was an arms dealer always willing to put a hand in any business in the field and, consequently, had tried to buy Peral’s patent, since for the previous decade his company had been working on creating its own submarine without the desired result. Thanks to his contacts, Zaharoff not only found out about the Spanish project but also had the opportunity to personally see the plans and studies.

But Peral wanted his ship for the Navy and refused to negotiate, so the businessman first tried to sabotage the demonstration exercises and then, when the ship emerged unscathed in three of them, he managed to convince commanders and politicians to reject the submarine in exchange for providing war material and buying a Spanish arms factory.

Technical characteristics of Isaac Peral’s submarine/Image: Erlenmeyer on Wikimedia Commons

Who was this shady business shark? Paradoxically, its origins were very modest. He was born as Zacharias Basileios in 1849 in the Turkish city of Muğla (where he was registered under the name Vasil Zaharyas), although his family was Greek and he had adopted the surname during an exile in Russia fleeing the pogroms that struck Constantinople thirty years earlier. . They returned to that city with the boy, who grew up on the street doing various jobs as a guide, firefighter, money changer… Being an only child, when he was older he entered his uncle’s fabric import and export business but sporadically crossing the line of legality, which led him to be accused of embezzlement in London, where he had gone in 1866 to pursue higher studies and now represented the family business.

From the British capital he left – after paying a fine – to Athens. There a friend put him in contact with the Nordenfelt arms company, whose representative had just left the post. Zaharoff achieved it in 1877, proving to be the perfect man for that activity at a time when wars were the usual continuation of politics by other means, in the words of the Prussian soldier Carl von Clausewitz, and where the always hot Balkans continued to be a natural market for that economic niche.

The Abdül Hamid, one of the two submarines that Zaharoff sold to the Turks/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Thus began a meteoric career that led him to work in many places, one of them being the United States, where he starred in another of his tricks by posing as a prince to marry a rich heiress in 1885… until it was discovered that he actually already had English wife since 1872 and was accused of bigamy, having to flee the country. But those colorful incidents didn’t change the fact that he was a sales ace, selling ammunition and assorted military equipment to all the great powers.

It was then that he had his first contact with the world of submarines. This type of ship had existed for decades and even recorded the first sinking of an enemy during the Civil War, but it was still primitive and unstable (and that was the great advantage of Peral’s design, considered the first modern submarine). . Nordenfelt was working on one with a steam engine that the US Navy and other major navies had rejected as unsafe. However, the model interested Greece, which alarmed its traditional adversary, the Ottoman Empire, which hastened to also acquire a couple of units; the chain was continued by Russia, which saw its position of strength in the Black Sea threatened. The fact is that, except for Zaharoff, it was bad business for everyone because the ships had to be withdrawn from service after one of the Turkish ships destabilized and sank when firing a torpedo during a test (the first in history that fired a submersible).

In 1886 the American engineer Hiram Stevens Maxim presented a new type of machine gun that worked automatically instead of manually and promised to be a revolutionary weapon. A danger, then, for the most obsolete model offered by Nordenfelt; something that Zaharoff set out to remedy, first by hindering the personnel tasked with making a public demonstration in Italy and then by directly sabotaging the machine gun during another exhibition in Vienna from which the tender for the Austrian army was to emerge. Unable to compete against those tricks that were sarcastically called the Zaharoff System (bribes, commissions, scams…), in 1888 Maxim decided to accept the offer to join Nordenfelt to form the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company and manufacture his weapon with Rothschild support. The owner, the Swedish industrialist and inventor Thorsten Nordenfelt, would go bankrupt two years later, leaving his two partners alone in charge.

Advertisement for the Nordenfelt submachine gun/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

East affaire of the machine gun was developed parallel to that of the Peral submarine that we explained before and in which Zaharoff prevented the Spanish Navy from having an extraordinary technological advance (at the cost of sinking the career of the sailor, who, disappointed, asked to leave to dedicate himself to the company private). A fundamental role in this was played by the lover that Zaharoff had: María del Pilar de Muguiro y Beruete, wife of the Duke of Marchena and daughter of a banker very well connected to the best of the Spanish political class, among other reasons because she was a niece. of Segismundo Moret and he cousin of King Alfonso XII. Thanks to these contacts, the government was convinced to shoot down the submarine; in exchange, it is assumed that with commissions involved, he acquired the company Euzcalduna, which in 1909 he renamed The Placencia de las Armas Co. Ltd.

Of course, this company became a supplier to the armed forces, despite the deficient material it produced and the allegations of corruption (which ended badly for the complainants), preceding others such as the Spanish Society of Shipbuilding, which was established as a subsidiary of Vicker Lts. This, which obtained a monopoly in the Navy shipyards after the war with the US in 1898, was a British military construction company that made warships (including submarines) as well as cannons and, later, tanks and airplanes (the great Zaharoff’s passion, by the way). It was bought by him and Hiram Maxim after separating from Nordenfelt in 1890, which is why Vickers’ flagship product became the homonymous machine gun, which was actually nothing more than a Maxim perfected.

Hiram Maxim with his machine gun in 1914/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Vickers was enormously successful thanks to the conflicts at the beginning of the century, such as the Russo-Japanese War or the arms race of the European powers in the face of international tension that would shortly lead to the outbreak of the First World War. By then Maxim had retired but Zaharoff continued to enrich himself and also wrapped in an aura of prestige that earned him, for example, the French Legion of Honor (he obtained nationality in 1913) or the title of baronet British, in attention to the fortune invested in the allied cause during the war.

At the end of this he continued with his dealings trying to get Greece to benefit from the dispossession of the Ottoman Empire; However, these were new times and her former allies were no longer amused that she altered the status quo tax in the region.

In 1924, he married his Spanish mistress, since she had been widowed the previous year and he had been a widow for decades, although they were married. de facto since the duke was admitted to a Parisian sanatorium. The link did not last long; María del Pilar died in 1926 and Zaharoff did so in 1936, at the age of eighty-seven. It was rumored, probably without foundation, that his death came to him while he was intriguing in the Spanish Civil War.


Men of wealth (John T. Flynn)/zanies. The world’s greatest eccentrics (Jay Robert Nash)/Isaac Pearl. Story of a frustration/Wikipedia

Back to top button