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Basil Zaharoff

Zaharoff, Basil (Meurisse 1928) cropped.jpg
Basil Zaharoff in 1928
Vasileios Zacharias

(1849-10-06)October 6, 1849
Muğla, Ottoman Empire
(modern-day Muğla, Turkey)
Died November 27, 1936(1936-11-27) (aged 87)
Nationality Ottoman, Greek, naturalised French
Occupation Arms dealer, industrialist
Known for Vickers
Nordenfelt submarine Abdülhamid
The Nordenfelt-class Ottoman submarine Abdül Hamid (1886) was the first submarine in history to fire a torpedo whilst submerged. Two submarines of this class, Nordenfelt II (Abdülhamid, 1886) and Nordenfelt III (Abdülmecid, 1887) joined the Ottoman fleet. They were built in pieces by Des Vignes (Chertsey) and Vickers (Sheffield) in England, and assembled at the Taşkızak Naval Shipyard in Istanbul, Turkey.
Sailor operating 10-barrel rifle calibre Nordenfelt gun, with right hand on lever

Sir Basil Zaharoff, GCB, GBE (born Vasileios Zacharias; Greek: Βασίλειος Zαχαρίας Ζαχάρωφ; October 6, 1849 – November 27, 1936) was a Greek arms dealer and industrialist. One of the richest men in the world during his lifetime, Zaharoff was described as both a "merchant of death" and a "mystery man of Europe". His success was forged through his cunning, often aggressive and sharp, business tactics. These included the sale of arms to opposing sides in conflicts, sometimes delivering fake or faulty machinery and skilfully using the press to attack business rivals.

Zaharoff maintained close contacts with many powerful political leaders, including British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

George Bernard Shaw based his character of Andrew Undershaft in his play Major Barbara on Zaharoff. He likely served as a primary inspiration for Ian Fleming's fictional James Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Early life

Vasileios Zacharias was the son and eldest of four children of a Greek merchant, born in the Ottoman Empire town of Muğla in southwest Turkey. His family lived in Russia for over two decades as exiles following the anti-Greek "Easter pogroms" of 1821. While there they adopted the surname Zaharoff. They returned to the Ottoman Empire in the 1840s and, by 1855, had returned to Constantinople's Greek neighbourhood of Tatavla.

Vasileios' first job was as a tour guide in the Galata. It is thought he became an arsonist with Constantinople's fire brigades, who were paid to recover or salvage treasures for their wealthy owners.

He was summoned to court in London due to irregular exports of goods from Constantinople to London. The London Greeks from Constantinople preferred disputes involving members of their community to be settled outside English courts, and he was discharged on the conditions that he paid £100 restitution to the claimant and remained within the court's jurisdiction. Instead, he immediately left for Athens, where the 24-year-old Zaharoff was befriended by a political journalist, Etienne Skouloudis. The eloquent Zaharoff succeeded in convincing Skouloudis of the rightness of his London court case. Skouloudis was a friend of a Swedish captain who was about to leave his job as an agent of arms manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfelt. Skouloudis used his influence to recommend Zaharoff for the role. Zaharoff was hired on 14 October 1877, beginning a spectacular career. The political and military instability in the Balkan states, Turkey and Russia provided an excellent opportunity for the arms sales, as each state spent to match the perceived aggressive intentions of its neighbours, even after the 1878 Treaty of Berlin.

Arms dealing

Zaharoff did not make arms dealing his sole business at first. After Cyprus passed under British control in 1878 he returned to the United Kingdom; by 1883 he was working as a shipping agent in Galway, Ireland, where he recruited local girls for work in American factories. He also had a spell in the United States where he worked as a confidence man, and later as a salesman for a St. Louis railcar business. In 1885, posing as "Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff", he married a Philadelphia heiress, Jennie Billings, and was pursued to Rotterdam by detectives after his previous marriage to a British girl in Bristol in 1872 was exposed.

Zaharoff sold munitions to many nations, including Great Britain, Germany, the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Greece, Spain, Japan and the United States. Despite his reputation for corruption, he was instrumental in marketing military equipment, including various famous weapons and the first working submarine. The British-Swedish Nordenfelt produced a range of anti-torpedo boat guns in Erith, Kent, Stockholm and Spain.

Zaharoff worked for Vickers, the munitions firm, from 1897 to 1927.


From 1886 to 1889, Zaharoff managed to appropriate Isaac Peral's submarine. Zaharoff and Nordenfelt tried at this time to develop a submarine for their own business purposes.

One of the most notorious sales by Zaharoff was that of the Nordenfelt I, a faulty steam-driven submarine model based on a design by the English inventor and clergyman George Garrett, which US Navy intelligence characterized as capable of "dangerous and eccentric movements." Thorsten Nordenfelt had already demonstrated his vessel at an international gathering of the military elite, and whilst the major powers would have none of it, smaller nations, attracted by the prestige, were a different matter.

It was thus that, with a promise of generous payment terms, Zaharoff sold the first model to the Greeks. He then persuaded the Turks that the Greek submarine posed a threat, selling them two. After that, he persuaded the Russians that there was now a new and significant threat on the Black Sea, and they bought another two.

None of these submarines ever saw action. The mechanics, driven by steam propulsion, were completely inadequate for underwater navigation, and failed demonstrably when undergoing sea trials by the respective Navies. Besides the underlying problems of the faulty propulsion system, they were also chronically unstable.

At this time Spanish inventor Isaac Peral designed and built the first submarine capable of navigating underwater with a decent level of control and with the ability to launch torpedoes both submerged and on the surface. This was the first proper submarine, solving the problems of propulsion, stability and armament all at once. Peral's submarine was driven by electric propulsion, and had a periscope, target practice apparatus, compensating compass needle, gyroscope, sliding electric torpedo tube launcher and servomotor (to maintain the stability and the trim of the ship in all circumstances).

Zaharoff found out within no time about this young Spanish Naval officer's invention. Previously in shipbuilding, he had already seen the plans and memorandum reports sent by Peral to the Spanish Navy's HQ at the Defence Ministry.

Later on, during Peral's visit to London, Zaharoff tried meeting with him unsuccessfully, with the help of one of Peral's Spanish Navy fellow officers. Peral refused twice, but after several attempts, he had a meeting with Thorsten Nordenfelt, the company owner, who offered him a deal to purchase the patent of the stability servomotor. Isaac Peral rejected both offers but signed his sentence in that same instant, without knowing it.

Zaharoff used underhand methods, which came to light later, and was able to cause a controversy between the inventor and his own government leading to the Spanish Government's disapproval of this submarine invention, although it would have been a formidable weapon in the conflict with the United States, several years after.

Zaharoff traveled to Spain several times between 1886 and 1890 with three objectives: boycott Peral's submarine, sell weapons to the Spanish Army, and acquire a Spanish munitions factory. He was successful in all three objectives, mainly because his initiation of an amorous relationship with Pilar de Muguiro y Beruete opened many doors for him.

Pilar's father, influential banker Fermín Muguiro, Count of Muguiro, was a close friend of the King, and leader of Spanish Conservative Party. She was a personal friend and niece of Segismundo Moret, a leading Spanish progressive thinker and the Liberal Party Leader's right-hand man. Unhappily married to King Alfonso XII's cousin, the Spanish Grandee, Francisco de Borbón, Duke of Marchena, she had unrestricted access to the Royal Palaces. During one trip, Zaharoff was spotted at the shipyard where the Spanish submarine was being built, but the Spanish authorities "covered up" the matter.

The acquisition of one of the best Spanish armament companies, Euskalduna, located in north Spain and renamed "Placencia de las Armas Co. Ltd" was in large part thanks to his relationship, and through establishing a powerful network among Spanish politicians, journalists and military commanders, who served his business interests well. This influential group of people took his side against the development of Isaac Peral's submarine, and the Spanish Government, despite the astounding success in sea trials, finally pulled the rug from the project.

After "Placencia de Armas Co. Ltd" swindled the Spanish Government by selling useless arms during the 1898 War (also handing Maxim important and "sensitive" information, which reached his government during the conflict), the Sociedad Española de Construcciones Navales in Spain, a branch of Vickers were awarded, by the Spanish Government, exclusive naval construction rights for the Spanish Navy.

In the aftermath of this scandal, accusations of bribery and manipulation flew in the direction of this dangerous trafficker of weapons. A Spanish Navy lawyer denounced the Spanish Government for two alleged crimes of "prevarication." The Spanish Government acted expeditiously and especially cruelly against any naval officers who went public with their discontent. The Central Chief of Staff and the Boss of the Armada Juridic Service were fired, and hundreds of officers were imprisoned and lost their jobs.

Other corrupt business tactics

Zaharoff's power and influence in Spain lasted until his death in 1936, the year in which the Spanish Civil War began.

Also, the 1934 United States Senate Nye Committee Memorandum shows that Zaharoff was paid considerable sums for transactions made between foreign companies and the Spanish Government (for example, he got paid between a 5 and 7% commission for the price of American submarines sold to Spain, throughout all these years).

Although very little could be proved, Zaharoff was viewed as a master of bribery and corruption, but the few incidents that did become public, such as the large bribes received by Japanese Admiral Fuji (is this anachronistically referring to the 1914 Siemens scandal?), indicated that a lot more was going on behind the scenes. In 1890, the Maxim-Nordenfelt association broke up, and Zaharoff chose to go with Maxim. Using his commissions, Zaharoff bought shares in Maxim's company until he was in a position to tell Maxim that he was no longer an employee, but an equal shareholder.

By 1897, the Maxim company had become important enough that it received a buyout offer from Vickers, one of the then giants of the armaments industry. This involved substantial settlements in both cash and shares for Maxim and Zaharoff. From then until 1911, while Maxim's business enthusiasm waned, Zaharoff's enthusiasm grew, and he expanded his portfolio of Vickers shares. After Maxim's retirement, Zaharoff was appointed to Vickers' board of directors.

The 1900s (decade) was a time for many European armies to rebuild and modernize. Germany and the United Kingdom both sought improved naval capability, and Vickers, with Zaharoff, were willing and able to service both sides. After its disastrous defeat by Japan in 1905, the Russian Navy also needed new equipment, but Russia was handcuffed by a wave of protectionism that required domestic industry for the rebuilding. Zaharoff's response was to build a huge Russian arms production complex at Tsaritsyn as a subsidiary of Vickers.

The opening of Russian Tsarist archives after World War I led to some insights into the tactics of the arms industry. One 1907 letter, in particular, was written from the Paul von Gontard Factory (a secretly-controlled Vickers company in Germany) to a Vickers-associate in Paris recommending that press releases be sent out to the French press suggesting that the French improve their military to meet the threat posed by German re-armament. These French newspaper articles were recorded by the Reichstag, and instigated a vote to increase military spending, all of which worked to the advantage of Zaharoff.

World War I

In the years immediately preceding World War I, Zaharoff's fortunes grew in other areas to support his arms business. By purchasing the L'Union Parisienne des Banques (Union Parisienne Bank), which was historically associated with heavy industry, he was better able to control his financing arrangements. By gaining control of Excelsior, the popular French daily newspaper, he could guarantee favourable editorials for the arms industry. To gain public recognition and acclaim, he founded a retirement home for ex-French sailors, while a Chair in Aerodynamics at the University of Paris led to further honours.

In April 1914, Australian newspapers published reports from London dated 25 April that M. Zaharoff had donated £20,000 "in order to enable France to be worthily represented at the forthcoming Olympic Games in Berlin" in 1916. The 1916 Olympic Games were subsequently cancelled because of the war. Zaharoff's donation represented a substantial contribution. On May 10, the French Government announced it would donate £6,000 to its Olympic team, and would distribute £12,000 of Zaharoff's donation among its Olympic teams, with the remaining £8,000 to "the furtherance of the Olympic cause."

On July 31, 1914, coincidentally the same day that the noted antimilitarist Jean Jaurès was assassinated, Raymond Poincaré signed a decree appointing Zaharoff a Commander of the Legion of Honour.

In March 1914, Vickers announced a new dawn of prosperity. During the course of the war, Vickers would produce 4 ships of the line, 3 cruisers, 53 submarines, 3 auxiliary vessels, 62 light vessels, 2,328 cannon, 8,000,000 tonnes of steel ordnance, 90,000 mines, 22,000 torpedoes, 5,500 airplanes and 100,000 machine guns. By 1915, Zaharoff had close ties with both David Lloyd George and Aristide Briand. It is reported that, on the occasion of one visit with Briand, Zaharoff surreptitiously left an envelope on Aristide Briand's desk; the envelope contained a million francs for war widows.

One of Zaharoff's tasks during the Great War was to ensure that Greece joined the war on the Allied side, helping to reinforce the eastern front. On the surface, this seemed impossible since King Constantine was a brother-in-law of the Kaiser. Setting up a press agency in Greece to spread news favourable to the Allies, led, within a few months, to Constantine's deposal in favour of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos.

In 1917 and 1918, on the behest of David Lloyd George he initiated a series of meetings with the Ottoman leadership, the first time on 18 July 1917. The British hoped he could get the Ottoman leadership, like the Young Turk Enver Pasha, to make a separate peace and exit World War I.

By the end of World War I, The Times estimated that Zaharoff had laid out £50 million in the Allied cause.

Post-war dealings

In the years that followed, Zaharoff involved himself in the affairs of the lesser powers, which the Big Four, involved in remaking Europe, could happily ignore. In particular, he set out to ensure that Greece and Venizelos received a proper share from the spoils from the badly weakened Turkey. In 1920, he donated half a billion gold francs to the Greek State for the Greek cause (Megali Idea). Zaharoff convinced Venizelos to attack but, after some impressive initial success, the Greek Army was eventually driven back. In the elections that followed, Constantine's loyalists managed to force Venizelos to flee, but Zaharoff stayed around to persuade the same King that he had to attack Turkey again. But with Mustafa Kemal now in charge of Turkey, this venture was bound to fail. Zaharoff's war adventures were not well received by the press in Paris and London.

Zaharoff was also involved in two more significant financial ventures in October 1920, becoming involved in the incorporation of a company that was a predecessor to oil giant British Petroleum. He foresaw that there was a great future in the oil business.

His association with Prince Louis II of Monaco led to his purchase of the debt-ridden Société des Bains de Mer, which ran the world-famous Monte Carlo Casino and was the principal source of revenue for the principality. He succeeded in returning the casino to profit again. At the same time, Zaharoff had prevailed upon Clemenceau to ensure that the Treaty of Versailles included protection of Monaco’s rights as established in 1641. Louis had noted their gradual erosion over the subsequent three centuries.

Personal life

Zaharoff was fascinated by aviation, and gave money and other support to pioneers in Great Britain, France and Russia. He encouraged Hiram Maxim's attempt to build a flying machine, and claimed he and Maxim were the first men to be lifted off the earth, when Maxim tested his first "flying machine" at Bexley in 1894.

In September 1924, Zaharoff, 74, married María del Pilar Antonia Angela Patrocinio Fermina Simona de Muguiro y Beruete, 1st Duchess de Villafranca de los Caballeros. Previously married to a cousin of the King of Spain Alfonso XII, Lady Zaharoff was reputed to be one of the richest women in Spain.

After about eighteen months after their marriage, she died of an infection. He began selling his business assets and drafted his memoirs. He apparently burnt the manuscript after it was stolen by a valet and recovered by police.

Zaharoff's country house, the Château de Balincourt, at Arronville near Paris, was formerly the property of King Leopold II of Belgium was filled with works of art and one of the most beautiful in France.

Princess Marthe Bibesco claims Basil Zaharoff was an illegitimate son of her maternal grandfather.


Zaharoff was a major financial benefactor to various institutions:

  • Chair of Aviation at the University of Paris (cost: FF 700,000)
  • Chair of Aviation at Saint Petersburg State University
  • Chair of Aviation at Imperial College, London
  • Chair of French Literature at Oxford University
  • Chair of English Literature at the University of Paris
  • Donation of £20,000 to refurbish Paris Zoo's monkey house (initially treated as a hoax by Zoo staff who left the cheque in a drawer for two months)
  • Financial contribution to studying aviation problems in England (cost: £125,000)
  • The construction of a War Hospital at Biarritz (FF 200,000)
  • Donation towards building the Greek Embassy in Paris
  • Help for the earthquake victims at Corinth, Greece
  • Establishing the Institut Pasteur à Athènes in 1919


See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Basil Zaharoff para niños

  • Vickers-Armstrongs
  • Legion of Honour
  • List of Legion of Honour recipients by name (Z)
  • Legion of Honour Museum
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