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Volume 18, Number 6November/December 1967

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The Million Dollar Bet

Written and illustrations courtesy of John Brinton

It was a grand night for Dublin, they said later, a grand night. There were fires burning in the hills, the people were cheering in the streets and the tavern keepers were handing out the whiskey as if it were water from a well. But then that was the night Buck Whaley came back from the Holy Land to win a wager worth one million dollars.

Buck Whaley, born Thomas Whaley of Dublin, was a most unusual young man even for an age when unusual young men were really not unusual. It was not merely that he was rich, although with an annual income of $500,000 he could certainly be called rich. Nor was it because he was reckless, although a man who cooly gambles away $100,000 in an evening is indeed reckless. Nor was it because of his impressive wenching and wining either; in 18th century Dublin all the wealthy dandies, or "bucks" as they were known, were more than ordinarily accomplished in such arts. Nor was it even because he did anything useful; he would have scorned that. No, what set Buck Whaley apart, apparently, was simply a capacity for living—a zest for risk, adventure and romance so strong that it led one admirer to extoll him as "the most flamingly spectacular Irishman in a flamingly spectacular 18th century."

One night in Dublin Buck Whaley attended a party at the palatial residence of the Duke of Leister and regaled the guests with lurid tales of bizarre adventures in Europe during a recent trip. Then, asked where he was going next, he said, "Jerusalem," and with an impish smile, sat back to wait for the shocked reaction. It was not long in coming. As he well knew, the Irish of that period were not entirely certain that such a place as Jerusalem still existed, but in any case were bound to think that the fierce Turks who then controlled that part of the world would hardly be inclined to let Buck Whaley come to call.

Sure enough someone challenged him. There is no such place as Jerusalem, he was told. There is, he insisted, adding that if the stakes were high enough he would be willing to go there to prove it. Within minutes, unbelievable as it may seem today, Buck was shaking hands on one of the most fantastic wagers of all time: the equivalent in today's terms of one million dollars that not only did Jerusalem exist, but that he, Buck Whaley, could go there and return, within two years, with "incontestable proof."

Precisely why anyone would have been foolish enough to either offer, or take Buck up on, such a bet seems incomprehensible, since a Frenchman named C. F. Volney had published a very accurate book just a year before about his travels to the Holy Land. It might have been that the English translation of the book had not yet reached Dublin. Or possibly it was because the Irish of the day still tended to cling to legends and myths in preference to fact. It could even have been that sly, well-traveled Buck Whaley, with M. Volney's book tucked away in his cloak, lured them into a trap. Since the source of most information about Mr. Whaley is Mr. Whaley's own memoirs, however, this point must remain a matter of conjecture.

Whatever the reason, the bet was made and on October 8, 1788, Buck Whaley set out for Jerusalem on a chartered yacht to the tune of "Whaley's Embarkation," a rousing melody the ballad singers of Dublin had improvised for the occasion. He brought with him a retinue of servants and a "large stock of Madeira wine" which, he said, he considered imperative for a long sea voyage.

The first stop along the way was Gibraltar. Although it was an unannounced visit, Whaley's reputation was so proverbial that the bored garrison, hoping for a break in the monotony, turned out to give him an enthusiastic welcome. Buck Whaley did not disappoint them. Lured by his reputation, Spanish beauties were soon thronging into the tiny colony. Party followed party, each more unrestrained than the previous one. He explored the stupendous hand-hewn galleries from which British guns looked down at the Mediterranean. At some parties ladies and their officers danced till dawn and at one ball, a Grand Ball for which the governor, Sir Thomas Eliot, opened up his new house, Buck and a lovely dark-eyed belle danced the fandango for three hours. Afterwards they climbed to the top of the Rock, chased the famous Barbary apes and, as the sun came up across the blue sea, breakfasted on wine and Spanish delicacies. One young officer named Moore so enjoyed himself that he asked to join the expedition. When Whaley agreed he immediately started a diary which has also survived to corroborate much of Whaley's story.

From Gibraltar, Whaley, Moore, the servants, and the now considerably depleted stock of Madeira, sailed for Smyrna in Turkey, It was, a stormy passage but when they sailed into the harbor, to the echoes of a 50-gun salute, and set eyes upon the splendors of the city they decided it had been worthwhile.

In the 18th century, Smyrna, now Izmir, was an exciting city. The emporium of trade between East and West, it combined the industriousness of the West with the excitement and pleasures of the East. On the docks lay piles of merchandise from the East: Turkish carpets, raw silk, camel wool and mohair, dried figs and raisins.. Beside them lay the imports from the West; wool, cotton, lead, tin and glass. Along the streets proper Europeans marched side by side with all varieties of people from the Levantine coast, many dressed in the picturesque styles of their age and their land. There were Turkish baths and oriental cafes. There was a European theater and a casino. And there were women, many the wives or daughters of inter-married Europeans and Levantines. They were, Buck noted, unusually handsome. They wore their hair, he said, in long luxurious plaits and dressed in baggy trousers reaching to the ankle and rich embroidered vests lined with velvet and trimmed with fur.

Not surprisingly, Buck and his companion were enchanted. And since wealth, good looks and dash were then the "Open Sesame" to the country's highest circles, Whaley and Moore were soon overwhelmed with invitations. They went to balls where they taught the ladies the latest dance steps of London, They went hunting in lavish splendor in nearby forests. In the evening they plunged into mountainous meals and tried the pleasures of the "tendour." The tendour, Whaley explains, was an unusually pleasant way of keeping warm in drafty and unheated homes during Smyrna's damp, dismal winters. It was no more than a square table with a brazier of hot coals under the center and quilted coverings draped across it and extending onto the floor. When guests sat around the table and pulled the covers over their heads it provided a sort of indoor tent that was warm, cozy and private. It was, Mr. Whaley added innocently, the most frequented spot in every household.

But for all its pleasures, Smyrna was not Jerusalem, and so after a final round of balls and picnics, Buck set out on the next stage of the journey, the overland road to Constantinople. It was a dangerous trip and to help disguise themselves they wore Turkish traveling costumes and strapped on knives and pistols—foreshadowing by 40 years Lord Byron's account in verse of the joys and romance of oriental travel.

On Whaley's 22nd birthday, Buck and Mr. Moore, having survived the hazards of the journey, clattered into the outskirts of dazzling Constantinople and from the hills nearby caught their first glimpse of the famous Bosporus inlet that was called the Golden Horn. It was a vision of palaces and minarets jostling for place on the shores of the Strait, all dominated by the magnificent Seraglio, the palace from which the Sultan of Turkey ruled the vast Ottoman Empire.

The Seraglio, now a museum called Topkapi (recently the setting for an exciting jewel theft film) was then a most mysterious place. It sprawled endlessly across a point of land overlooking the Golden Horn and within its labyrinthian series of courtyards and residences lived and schemed the men who controlled—or tried to control—the widespread Ottoman Empire. Within too, lived the aging debauched head of this empire, Sultan Abdul Hamid I.

As it happened, the Ottoman Empire had in 1773, suffered a major defeat at the hands of Catherine the Great of Russia, as a result of which Turkey had been forced to make a humiliating treaty with Russia. Another result was that Pasha Hassan, Admiral of the Turkish Seas and the real power behind crumbling Abdul Hamid, had begun to strengthen Ottoman ties with England in order to counteract Russian power. Nothing therefore, could have delighted him more than an opportunity to show his friendship to the West—an opportunity that Buck Whaley soon gave him.

As at Gibraltar and Smyrna, Buck got off to a flying start. Striding into the French Tavern, the best hostelry in Constantinople, he and the ever-present Mr. Moore quickly swapped their exotic traveling costumes for their most extravagant European finery and began to make preparations for presentation at the Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman ministries were called. In light of the new friendship between the Porte and Great Britain this was easier to arrange that one would have thought and soon Sir Robert Ainslie, the British ambassador, was bowing Buck and his friend into the presence of Pasha Hassan.

Once again the Whaley charm made its mark; the aging minister—he was then 76—and the young adventurer, just 22, became fast friends. Permits to visit Jerusalem? Of course. Introductions to powerful friends? Certainly. And much more. The mysteries of the Orient, for example, those much whispered delights that few, if any, foreigners had ever seen. "Oh pleasures past, never again to return," wrote Buck the next morning in describing an incredible evening behind the curtains of mystery.

Once exposed to the charms of the East he was insatiable. For the next few weeks he spent his waking hours in dining and hunting. He also wandered through the bazaars buying silks and furs and weapons.

But although his great wager was occasionally made to wait, it was never quite forgotten, and so on January 21, 1789, Buck sailed for the Levant, his pockets stuffed with permits and letters to the governor of the Holy Land. Not long after, he dropped anchor off the coast of St. Jean d'Acre, stronghold of the governor, a local ruler called, somewhat ominously, al-Jazzar, "the Butcher."

Al-Jazzar was then the ruler of all the Levant. A Bosnian, he had won his position by intrigue and murder and was very proud of his title. In 1789 he was at the height of his power.

When the two young gallants went ashore they found al-Jazzar seated under a magnolia tree, the British vice consul kneeling before him in a "humiliating position" and trembling in every limb. But again the Whaley charm prevailed; al-Jazzar invited him to sit at his right and began to tell him the story of his life—the whole story, replete with all the plots and executions. He also made it plain that the Sublime Porte's permits and letters were of no value in the Levant.

"I," he said, "am the Lord and Master here and you are under my protection."

If Buck Whaley had any doubts about his host's reputation, an incident involving a gardener soon dissolved them. There were, he wrote, 300 gardeners working in the gardens around them and one of them accidentally broke the stem of a valuable plant. The Pasha, his eyes ablaze with savage fury, immediately ordered the wretch stripped and bound to a bar of wood. Then, before Whaley's horrified eyes, he took a silver hammer and had raised it to break the gar dener's back when Buck intervened.

For some reason the Pasha accepted Whaiey's intercession and even agreed to spare the man's life. Furthermore, to make up for his display of fury, he suddenly announced that he had a special treat for his visitor. He clapped his hands and to Whaiey's astonishment there appeared a procession of more than 100 women, all garbed, in white and veiled from head to foot. It was al-Jazzar's harem!

With this supreme mark of esteem the ruler gave Buck his blessing and sent him off to Jerusalem marvelling at the ways of the East.

As they rode along the road to Nazareth, en route to Jerusalem, Buck and his friend were amazed to see an abundance of game. They were also surprised to learn that despite the protection of al-Jazzar, bandits still might attack them. To avoid such an attack they traveled the final stretch of road from Nablus to Jerusalem during the night, arriving at last before Jerusalem's gates.

Unlike most pilgrims to Jerusalem, Buck Whaley did not have to worry very much about suitable quarters in the Holy City. Armed with a letter from the Spanish ambassador in Constantinople, he put up at the Convent of the Terra Sancta and set out to explore Jerusalem. And unlike his explorations at Smyrna and Constantinople, those in Jerusalem were beyond reproach. He went to all the Holy Places, questioned his guides rigorously, drew a map of the city and even wrote careful descriptions that showed an unexpected intellectual turn of mind. Then, having first secured a signed certificate from the Superior of the Convent that he, Buck Whaley, had come to Jerusalem, he began the trip home.

The return voyage did not compare with the first phase. At Cyprus Buck did meet another girl, but instead of conquering her he fell in love with her and even contemplated marriage. But since to a "slave of passion" and a "votary of licentiousness" the idea of marriage was "no less horrible than self-destruction," he went on instead, to France. Then via Paris and London, he returned to Dublin and triumphantly collected his fantastic winnings.

In a way the arrival in Dublin was the climax not only of the trip but of Buck Whaiey's life as well. Except for one more extravagant wager he never again did anything of note and at 34 died of a chill. The bet was that he could live on Irish soil without living in Ireland. He won it by shipping enough Irish earth to the Isle of Man to provide a foundation for a mansion. It was called, accurately, "Whaiey's Folly," and it stands to this day as the Fort Man Hotel. But the only trace of the swaggering buck who built it is a small bar called the Buck Whaley Room where, possibly, an occasional traveler may raise a glass to the memory of a spectacular man of a spectacular century.

John Brinton, a collector of rare books on the Middle East, has contributed to several reviews. This is his second article for Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the November/December 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1967 images.