Sir Basil Zaharoff (original name Basileios Zacharias) was an international armaments dealer and financier. Reputedly he was one of the richest men in the world, he was described as a “merchant of death” and the “mystery man of Europe” and also as "the wickedest man in Europe."
According to a 2012 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Zaharoff was born “in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849.” Other articles suggest he was Armenian, Greek, Jewish or even Russian by birth.
Certainly he spoke many languages and took full advantage of that in his scandalous career, which apparently included stints as a brothel tout, a bigamist and arsonist – as well as the “profession” he was in when he first started his under-the-radar work for the British government, that of a wildly successful arms dealer.
During World War I Zaharoff became an Allied agent working on the highest levels. Following the war, France recognized his services by making him a grand officer of the Legion of Honour, and Britain honoured him with a knight grand cross of the Order of the Bath.
But before WW1 he was mostly known as a wealthy and an extremely well connected and successful arms dealer. His success was forged through his cunning, often aggressive and sharp business tactics, not to mention outright fraud.
His arms deals included the sale of arms to opposing sides in conflicts, and even sometimes knowingly delivering fake or faulty weapons, machinery and even submarines.
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 Rev 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 convinced the Ottoman empire that the Greek submarine posed a direct threat to them and sold them two. After that, he went to the Russian empire and persuaded the Russians that there was now a new and significant threat on the Black Sea represented by the Greek and Ottoman submarines. The Russian became extremely alarmed by this new and unknown threat posed to their black sea navy, and immidiatly bought two submarines of their own to counter it.
None of these submarines ever saw action, or even worked properly for that matter.
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.
Pictured here is the submarine Zaharoff sold to the Ottoman Empire, the "Abdul Hamid", 1887.
However, this did not stop him from continuing to become probably the most successful arms dealer in history, and he was estimated to have made a fortune of over $1.2 billion from selling arms in WW1 alone.
He was reputed to have personally funded Greece’s war with Turkey over Smyrna, and was still, the American press excitedly reported, “believed to be the wealthiest man in all Europe.”
During his later life, Basil Zaharoff used his immense fortune to fund newspapers and other other media outlets to ensure universities and historians would write his horrific legacy out of the history books. This was achieved in terms of donations and 'philatrophic' gestures with this aim in mind.
Yet, after his death, the cash seemed to melt away, vanishing just as surely as the further “tons of documents” that servants hastily burned at his château.
Zaharoff’s will was proved at just £193,103, rather less than $1 million at the time, leaving us to wonder: Was his money hidden? Was it spent? Or were all those reports of a billion-dollar fortune merely the last of the great myths that Zedzed happily allowed to circulate?
"Man of Arms: The Life and Legend of Sir Basil Zaharoff", Anthony Allfrey.