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31 May 2008

On this day in history: Samuel Pepys` last diary entry, 1669

From 1660 to 1669 the Naval administrator, Samuel Pepys, kept a diary that provides historians with an insight into Restoration London. Pepys was born on Fleet Street, London, in February 1633 to John Pepys, a tailor, and his wife Margaret, the daughter of a butcher. He attended Huntingdon Grammar School while staying with Huntingdonshire relations. He returned to London to continue his education at St Paul's School before enrolling at Magdalene College, Cambridge from which he graduated in 1654.

Pepys first job was as secretary to Edward Montagu, councillor of state for Oliver Cromwell's protectorate. In 1655 he married Elizabeth St Michel, the fourteen-year-old daughter of an impoverished Frenchman. A few years later Pepys began working part-time as a teller in the Exchequer while still working for Montagu who had become a general-at-sea.

Following the restoration of the monarchy, Montagu became the Earl of Sandwich and a Knight of the Garter. With this influence he secured a post for Pepys at the Navy Board as clerk of the acts. By this time Pepys eyesight was failing and as a result he had to stop writing the diary that was to secure his place in posterity. He wrote his last entry on 31st May 1669:

And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and, therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear: and, therefore, resolve, from this time forward, to have it kept by my people in long-hand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know; or, if there be any thing, which cannot be much, now my amours to Deb. are past, and my eyes hindering me in almost all other pleasures, I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add, here and there, a note in short-hand with my own hand.

And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!

In spite of his inability to see, Pepys' administrative ability secured him the promotion to Secretary to the Admiralty Commission in 1673. By then he had also become a member of the Royal Society, received the freedom of the city of Portsmouth, and that same year he became Member of Parliament for Castle Rising in Norfolk. Three years later he was elected as a Master of Trinity House (the body that administered England's lighthouses) and in 1679 he became M.P. for Harwich in Essex.

A loyal supporter of King James II, he resigned his posts at the Admiralty following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Over the next two years he was twice jailed in the Tower of London on suspicion of conducting treasonable correspondance with the exiled court in France. Following his release he retired from public life, and lived the last few years of his life outside the city in Clapham before his death on 26th May 1703.

Project Gutenberg includes the complete text of the Diary of Samuel Pepys.

30 May 2008

On this day in history: Conservative reaction in France, 1968

On 30th May 1968, tens of thousands of French people marched up the Champs-Elysées, not in the cause of revolution or even of reform, but rather in support of President De Gaulle and his embattled administration.

At 4:30pm that same day, De Gaulle made a televised speech to assert his authority over the French nation. He had decided to dissolve the National Assembly, and call elections within forty days, but he would remain President for the rest of his mandated term. He also hinted that he would use any means at his disposal to preserve the Fifth Republic against the 'totalitarian communism' threatened by the students and striking workers.

The day before De Gaulle had a meeting with leading army generals in Baden-Baden to confirm that he had their support. They agreed to remain loyal to the President in return for the release of Raoul Salan. Salan was a French army officer, ringleader of the Algiers Putsch and chief of the Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS), the far-right nationalist organisation responsible for many atrocities during Algeria's independence. Initially sentenced to death for treason, on his arrest in 1963 the authorities commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. He was released from prison a few weeks later along with other OAS leaders.

The International Herald Tribune website now includes an article by Peter Steinfels entitiled "Paris, May 1968: The revolution that never was." The site also includes a timeline, links to pdf files of Herald Tribune front-pages from the time, as well as other material.

29 May 2008

On this day in history: First English club to win European Cup, 1968

On the evening of 29th May 1968, Manchester United faced the Portuguese club Benfica in the final of the major association football club competition in Europe. Manchester United were the first English side to make to a final, but not the first British side. The previous year the Glasgow Celtic team had defeated Inter Milan to win the trophy in Portugal, earning themselves the nickname of the 'Lisbon Lions'. The Manchester side had an extra advantage since their final took place at Wembley Stadium in London.

The score stood at 1:1 at the end of normal time: United had scored first through England striker Bobby Charlton's header in the 53rd minute; however, midflielder Jaime Graça scored for the Lisbon club in the 75th minute. The hard-tackling Benfica could have won the match had it not been for the heroics of the United goalkeeper Alex Stepney who managed to prevent the great Eusébio from scoring before the end of the ninety minutes.

In extra-time, Manchester United found the net three more times, another goal from Charlton, and one each for Brian Kidd and George Best, who later that year received the acolade of European Footballer of the Year.

Below you can see a British Pathé News report with the highlights of the final.

28 May 2008

On this day in history: Golden Gate Bridge opened, 1937

In 1916, the editor of The San Francisco Call & Post, James Wilkins, started a campaign to revive the idea of a bridge to span the Golden Gate - the strait that connects San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean - in order to cut congestion on the ferry. The editorials caught the eye of the City Engineer, Michael M. O'Shaughnessy, who requested feasibility studies from across the United States. Most engineers said that the costs would be prohibitive, some saying that it could cost as much as one-hundred million dollars. Yet, one engineer from Ohio, Joseph Baermann Strauss, claimed that the project could be completed for less than thirty million dollars.

Strauss submitted preliminary sketches to O'Shaughnessy who then had the difficult task of persuading the local government that the bridge would finance itself through toll charges but without much luck. In 1922, the bridge's proponents came up with the idea of creating a district a quasi-governmental authority to administer transportation between six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. The idea received official sanction the next year when the California state legislature passed the "Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District Act."

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District incorporated in 1928 just in time for the stock market crash of 1929 to hamper their attempts to raise funds to start construction. The District lobbied for a thirty-five million dollar bond issue, which received approval in 1930. Finally, on 5th January 1933, work began on the bridge.

At that time, no suspension bridge in the world had a longer span, so Strauss had his work cut out as head of the project he had fought for. He developed a system of moveable safety nets under the point of constuction, which saved the lives of nineteen workers; however, near the end of completion, ten men did lose their lives when the net failed under the wait of the scafolding that fell with them. In April 1937, the construction was completed, $1.3 million within budget.

On 28th May 1937, President Roosevelt pressed a button in Washington D.C. to signal that the bridge was now open for vehicle traffic - the day before, 200,000 people had crossed the bridge by foot or on roller-skates to mark the beginning of the week-long festivites to celebrate the opening of the bridge.

To find out more about the financing and contruction of the bridge see 'Golden Gate Bridge Changes Engineers' Reasoning' by Kathleen Elliott at the California Historian site.

27 May 2008

On this day in history: Foundation of Saint Petersburg, 1703

For the first twenty years of the eighteenth century Russia and Sweden fought a war for supremacy over the Baltic Sea. On 1st May 1703, the forces of the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, captured Nyenskans, a Swedish fortress that protected the mouth of the Neva river on the coast of the Gulf of Finland. To further protect this strategically important location, Peter decided to build a fortress city further down the river at Zayachii ostrov (Hare Island).

Work on the Peter and Paul Fortress started a few weeks later, on 27th May 1703. Initially comprising six bastions constructed of earth and timber it was later replaced by a stone building. This citadel never saw military action, but rather became the centre of the city of St. Petersburg - named after the apostle Peter.

The Tsar conscripted serfs from across Russia to work on the city, which quickly grew around Trinity Square on the right bank of the Neva. The city was the centrepiece of Peter's modernisation programme and as such he made it his capital in 1712, an honour the city enjoyed for over two hundred years, except for one four-year period (1728-32) when Peter II made Moscow his capital.

To learn more about the city see the English translation of 'The History of St. Petersburg' pages on the Official Portal of the City Government of St. Petersburg.

26 May 2008

On this day in history: Discovery of first commercial oil field in the Middle East, 1908

In 1901, the British financier William Knox D'Arcy secured the rights to "search for, obtain, exploit, develop, render suitable for trade, carry away and sell natural gas, petroleum, asphalt and ozokerite throughout the whole extent of the Persian Empire (Iran) for a term of 60 years" from the Persian ruler, Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, in return for £20,000, shares in the venture and 16% of all future revenue. D'Arcy hired the son of a Vice-Admiral, George Reynolds, as field engineer, and he began by prospecting near the border with Ottoman-ruled Mesopotamia (Iraq). Reynolds began drilling late in 1902 but had to abandon his test wells two years later.

The enterprise was in financial difficulties and D'Arcy was forced to approach the Burmah Oil Company seeking investment in order to continue the expedition. D'Arcy accepted 170,000 shares in Burmah, in return for the rights to exploit Persian oil. Reynolds received instructions from his new bosses to start prospecting in south-west Persia where he spent two unproductive years before finally getting the chance to try the location he thought most likely to produce commercial wells: Masjed-e-Suleiman.

By this time Burmah was also suffering financially, as such its directors told Reynolds to abandon drilling if he didn't discover oil above a depth of 1500 feet. On 26th May 1908 - possibly in defiance of an order to cease operations and return home - Reynolds struck an enormous quantity of oil at a depth of 1180 feet. He had discovered the first of the great Middle-Eastern oil fields. The discovery enabled the foundation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) later that year as a subsidiary of Burmah Oil Company and forerunner of today's British Petroleum (BP). Volume production of oil started five years later following the construction of the Abadan Refinery. As prospectors found other massive deposits of oil in the region, the economic and strategic importance of the Middle-East was ensured, continuing to the present day

To learn more about the later history of the petroleum production in the region read Dr. Mohammed Malek's article 'Oil in Iran between the Two World Wars' on the Iran Chamber Society web site.

25 May 2008

On this day in history: Richard Cromwell resigns as Lord Protector, 1659

Following the death of his father Oliver on 3rd October 1658, Richard Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. There was no mechanism for succession to the position of Lord Protector under the constitution, so Richard Cromwell's appointment was a subject of controversy, not least from the military. The grandees of the army, which was instrumental in keeping Oliver Cromwell in power, were wary of Richard because he had no experience as a commander in the field of battle.

Apart from the suspicions of leading military officers, the other major problem facing Richard was a financial crisis. He decided to call a Parliament to find a resolution to the economic problems but due to his lack of influence on the election, the voters returned a majority of moderate candidates. Some MPs secretly wanted a restoration of the monarchy.

Parliament and army were soon at odds, with Cromwell in the middle. The army petitioned for increased taxation to ensure that soldiers were paid. Parliament responded by passing legislation that army officers could not assemble without permission of the Lord Protector. The affronted army officers demanded that Cromwell dissolver parliament. When he refused they sent troops to St. James's Palace (where Parliament met). Richard eventually relented, dismissed the Third Protectorate Parliament and recalled the Rump Parliament.

Richard's position had become untenable. He accepted parliamentary calls for his resignation on 25th May 1659 in return for the settlement of his debts and payment of a pension. The power vacuum that the resignation created resulted in the eventual restoration of the monarchy in 1660. That year Richard Cromwell left for France under the assumed name 'John Clarke'. His exile lasted for twenty years, after which he quietly returned to England. Initially, he lodged with a merchant in Finchley, Middlesex (now in London) and then moved to Cheshunt, Hertfordshire where he lived until his death in 1712.

David Plant's informative British Civil Wars site includes a biography of Richard Cromwell.

24 May 2008

On this day in history: U.S. consulate in Quebec City bombed, 1968

In 1963 a radical group of French-speaking Canadians broke away from Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale, an organisation that sought independence for the Canadian province of Quebec by democratic means. These radical separatists, called the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), decided to take more extreme measures. Drawing inspiration from Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries they hoped to bring about a revolution in Quebec, to this end they produced propaganda and engaged in a bombing campaign.

Before the year was out, the original active members of the FLQ were all under arrest. But, as is often the case with such groups, whilst many see them as terrorists, some will see them as freedom fighters, and a few of these will be compelled to continue the revolution. Over the following years a series of FLQ inspired groups (called Felquistes) formed. By the mid-1960s many of these had joined together and stepped up the bombing campaign. The Canadian authorities responded, making many arrests and forcing the Felquiste leaders into exile.

In 1968, the worldwide wave of revolutionary sentiment and riots also broke across Canada. This resulted in another Felquiste group forming. Again, they employed the dual tactic of propaganda and bombing campaign. They exploded fifty-devices before the end of the year, including one on 24th May 1968, which they planted at the U.S. Consulate in Quebec City, which damaged the building but did not result in any fatalities. Within twelve months, the authorities had enough members of FLQ under arrest to end their campaign.

In spite of the frequent arrests, the ideal of an independent Quebec continued to inspire groups to engage in violence to further their aims. During 1969 a new group of Felquistes formed, as before their main weapon was the bomb; however, they also tried a new tactic: kidnapping. In October 1970, they abducted James Richard Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, and Pierre Laporte, Vice-Premier of Quebec and Minister of Labour. The kidnappers killed Laporte when the Canadian government rejected their demands, but the FLQ released Cross after two months in return for safe passage to Cuba for the kidnappers. From this point on the FLQ's influence declined, possibly due to diminishing public support. Nevertheless, individual Felquistes and small groups occasionally engage in revolutionary violence.

The Marxist Internet Archive includes a number of FLQ propaganda texts as well as other articles about the Felquistes.

23 May 2008

On this day in history: First session of Finnish Parliament, 1907

In 1809, following occupation by Russian forces during their war against Sweden, the four estates of Finland (clergy, aristocracy, burghers and peasants) pledged loyalty to the Russian Tsar Alexander I, who became the Grand Duke of Finland. He granted the territory a degree of autonomy and their own legislative assembly, which became known as the Diet of Finland.

This assembly met infrequently and became dominated by two parties: one representing the Finnish speakers; the other, those who spoke Swedish. This domination marginalised the liberal parties and hampered constitutional reform. Hope of reform were further eroded by increasing Russification of Finland at the end of the nineteenth century, which brought the country under imperial rule, weakening the power of the Diet. The Finns reacted to this increasing oppressive Russification by calling a general strike during Russia's disastrous war with Japan. The Emperor responded by returning powers to the Diet and promised regular parliaments, elected by universal suffrage.

Around a year and a half months later, on 23rd May 1907 the Parliament of Finland met for the first time. This unicameral legislature was the first in the world elected under a system that granted full political rights to women. Not only did women have the same voting rights as men, they also had the right to stand for election. Indeed, of the two hundred members elected to the first Parliament, nineteen were women.

Tsar Nicholas II limited the powers of the Parliament during a second phase of Russification. When the February Revolution forced the abdication of the Tsar, the Finnish Parliament took its chance and declared independence in 1917. Nevertheless, Finland was far from united: republicans and monarchists fought a bitter civil war a year after independence. The result of which was the foundation of the Republic of Finland in 1919.

The Parliament of Finland website includes pages about the History of the Finnish Parliament and also offers a variety of brochures for download in pdf format including one on its history.

22 May 2008

On this day in history: Nuclear submarine sinks, 1968

On 29th July 1960, the United States Navy commissioned their latest nuclear-powered submarine, the 3500-ton Skipjack class USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Scorpion (the sixth US Navy ship to carry that name) served in the Atlantic Ocean, completing various missions and taking part in exercises, particularly those relating to the development of tactics for engagements between nuclear submarines.

In 1967, she received emergency repairs at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and sent back to sea rather than receiving the scheduled extensive overhaul she was due. Later that year, Commander Francis Slattery took command of Scorpion. In February 1968, boat and crew departed for a tour of duty in the Mediterranean. During the assignment, which lasted until May of that year, Scorpion had several mechanical problems.

After a short assignment observing Soviet naval activity near the Azores. While travelling back to the United States after completing her surveillance mission she ran into difficulties. On the night of 20th/21st May her crew repeatedly attempted to contact US Naval Station Rota, Spain but only managed to contact a communications station near Greece. Six days later she had still not arrived at her home-base at Norfolk, Virginia, so naval personnel reported her overdue and began a search.

On 5th June 1968, the US Navy declared Scorpion and her crew of 99 hands "presumed lost." Later that year, the crew of the Navy's oceanic research ship Mizar discovered parts of the submarine's hull 740km south-west of the Azores. To date the US Navy has not confirmed a precise cause of the sinking of USS Scorpion.

In the absence of an official explanation, various theories have surfaced as to the causes of the tragedy, some suggest a darker scenario as this 1998 report from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shows.

21 May 2008

On this day in history: Charles Lindbergh arrives in Paris, 1927

At 10:22pm on 21st May 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Aerodrome, Paris completing the first ever non-stop solo transatlantic flight. Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, New York at 7:52am the day before in a Ryan NYP monoplane. The aircraft was called 'The Spirit of St. Louis' in honour of the home city of the major investors in the flight. These businessmen raised around $16,000 in loans and donations to add to Lindbergh's savings of $2,000 in the hope of claiming the $25,000 Orteig Prize. This prize - sponsored by the french born owner of the Lafayette Hotel in New York, Raymond Orteig - had already claimed the lives of six aviators in the attempt of making non-stop flights between New York and Paris.

Following his flight Linbergh became a celebrity on both side of the Atlantic. The French President, Gaston Doumergue, bestowed the Légion d'honneur on him, and the Ministère des Affaires étrangères (French Foreign Office) flew the flag of the United States in his honour - the first time a foreign flag had been flown for anyone who was not a head of state. Back in the United States, Lindbergh received the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Calvin Coolidge on the same day that the U.S. Post Office Department issued a stamp depicting his plane in honour of his flight. The city of New York also honoured Lindbergh with a ticker tape parade and banquet.

Yet fame also brought tragedy for Lindbergh. In 1932, an intruder abducted his baby son Charles Jr. and demanded a ransom. The Lindbergh's paid $50,000 in return for information about the location of their child; however, the information proved false and the baby's body was found in woods near the Lindbergh's home. Police traced one of the kidnappers, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, using the gold certificates that made up part of the ransom money. He was tried and found guilty of kidnapping and murder and sentenced to the death penalty, with the offer of commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment if he identified his accomplices; he chose not to and received his sentence of electrocution in 1936.

To learn more you can listen to 'Lindbergh story' at The American Storyteller website.

20 May 2008

On this day in history: Blue jeans patented, 1873

On 20th May 1873 two immigrants were granted the patent for that quintessential American garment: the blue jeans. Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria in 1829 from where he emigrated to New York in 1847; Jacob Davis (r.n. Jacob Youphes) was born in Riga, Latvia in 1834 and moved to New York in 1854. Levi worked with his elder brothers in their dry goods business, before moving to San Francisco, California during the Gold Rush to make his fortune; Jacob also moved to California, then to Canada, before he set up a tailoring business in Reno, Nevada.

Jacob bought bolts of hard-wearing denim fabric from Levi, who imported them from Europe. With this cloth he made trousers for working men, which he strengthened by using copper rivets at the points of greatest stress on the fabric. Realising he had developed a winning product, but without the funds to arrange a patent for his invention, Jacob wrote Levi a letter in 1872 suggesting that Strauss pay for the necessary paperwork in return for joint rights. Levi responded enthusiastically and the next year they received patent #139,121.

Davis joined Strauss in San Francisco to run the Levi Strauss & Co. factories that produced the "waist overalls" as jeans were called at the time. He continued in this position until his death in 1908. Strauss also continued to run his business until he died in 1902, but his company and his name lived on.

The Levi Strauss & Co. website has a history page with pdf documents about Strauss, Davis and the history of denim available for download, as are other resources for teachers and students.

19 May 2008

A few additions

I have added videos to two 'On this day in history' posts on this site:

I also added both videos to the VodPod at the bottom of the site.

I finally got around to adding some more links to the list of web-sites containing primary sources. The new links all relate to English history: one will take you to a collection of constitutional documents; the other two lead to collections of ballads.

On this day in history: England declared a republic, 1649

From the beginning of his reign, King Charles I's relations with the Parliament of England were strained. In 1625, he married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV of France: an unpopular move with many of his subjects. The next year he dismissed Parliament after MPs tried to have his chief minister, George Villiers, removed from office - only to recall it later when he needed money for his war against France and Spain. In 1628, Parliament drew up a Petition of Right detailing their grievances with the King, which included regular Parliaments and their approval of any new taxes. The next year, Charles had an MP arrested for not paying a tax that had not been approved by MPs and then dissolved Parliament declaring his divine right to rule.

Charles then ruled the country for the next eleven years without calling a Parliament. In this time he imposed a tax called Ship Money on the whole country, which previously only the residents of coastal towns paid to fund the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, even with this extra income Charles did not have sufficient funds to finance a campaign against rebellious Scots. As a result he finally recalled Parliament in 1640.

In return for new taxes, the Commons made a number of demands, including an end to the collection of Ship Money. The King responded by dismissing them after only a few weeks, but relented and recalled them later that year. In the summer of 1641 another rebellion broke out; this time in Ireland. Parliament criticised the King's ability to control the Scots and Irish and suggested that they be responsible for the security of the realm rather than him.

In 1642 matters reached a head. The King issued warrants for the arrest of one peer and five members of the House of Commons on charges of treason. When Parliament refused to accept the charge, Charles ordered troops to the Commons to arrest the accused, who, forewarned, had already fled. The King then sent his wife to the Catholic monarchs of Europe to request military aid against the parliamentarians, who responded by taking control of the militias. Finally, on 22nd August 1642, King Charles I raised his standard at Oxford, declaring war on Parliament.

Civil war raged for nearly four years before the King finally surrendered on 6th May 1646 to the Scottish army (which fought on the side of Parliament). He managed to escape from custody the next year, but his intransigence had sealed his fate: following a purge of Parliament to remove any last vestiges of support for the King, he was tried and found guilty. On 30th January 1649 at Whitehall Palace, he was executed.

Those Members of Parliament that remained following the purge - known as the Rump Parliament - started to create the legislative framework and institutions to rule without a monarch. This culminated when they passed An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth on 19th May 1649. The text of which is as follows:

Be it declared and enacted by this present Parliament and by the Authoritie of the same That the People of England and of all the Dominions and Territoryes thereunto belonging are and shall be and are hereby constituted, made, established, and confirmed to be a Commonwealth and free State And shall from henceforth be Governed as a Commonwealth and Free State by the supreame Authoritie of this Nation, the Representatives of the People in Parliament and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as Officers and Ministers under them for the good of the People and that without any King or House of Lords.

Britain continued without a monarch for the next eleven years until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 ended what had effectively become a military dictatorship. Nevertheless, Parliament had asserted its power and set a precedent of removing an individual from the Throne. England was never going to be an absolutist monarchy.

See David Plant's excellent British Civil Wars site for more details of the Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate.

18 May 2008

On this day in history: Frankfurt Parliament convened, 1848

1848 was a year of revolutions: the Sicilian Revolution of Independence from the Bourbon monarchy; elsewhere in Italy - the Roman and Venetian republics; the Hungarian Revolution against Habsburg rule; the Polish uprising against Prussian rule; the Revolution against the July Monarchy in France; the Romanian uprising in Wallachia; the Praieira revolt against the Brazilian Empire; and the March Revolution in various German lands.

The March Revolution of 1848 was a liberal revolution within the German Confederation, which was the loose federation of thirty-eight states created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the south and west of the country a rise of nationalist sentiment and demands for liberal reform crystallised in mass demonstrations and the formation of popular assemblies. A group of these reformers from across Germany met in Heidelberg, in the state of Baden, on 5th March to plan elections for a German national assembly. Later that month liberal reformers met up in a 'Preparliament' in St. Paul's church in Frankfurt to formulate guidelines for the first ever national elections in Germany with the blessing of the leaders of the various states of the Confederation

The states held elections in late April through to early May that year (with some variation in suffrage between states, due to the vague requirement that the voters be 'independent' male adults). Then, on 18th May 1848, around eight-hundred delegates to the Frankfurt Parliament convened their first session. So many of the delegates were professors, teachers or at least university graduates that the assembly became known as the Professorenparlament ('Professors Parliament'). The delegates then embarked on the process of writing a constitution for a unified German nation.

Over the next year, problems dogged this process of nation building: a lack of a national bureaucracy and military; weak leadership; a resurgent aristocracy; and a lack of support from Prussia (arguably the most powerful state in Germany). This last problem effectively ended the dreams of the parliamentarians when Prussia's King, Frederick William IV, refused the title of Emperor of Germany in 1849. The ensuing constitutional crisis resulted in the majority of states recalling their delegates from the Parliament, the rump of which reconvened in Stuttgart and was finally dispersed by troops and police on 18th June 1849, bringing an end to the dream of a German unification.

The German Notes History site has a page dedicated to the Frankfurt Parliament as well as the German governments of other periods.

17 May 2008

On this day in history: The Catonsville Nine, 1968

In May 1968, while students clashed with police outside, representatives of the United States and North Vietnam began peace talks in Paris to try bring about an end to the Vietnam War. In spite of increased military activity, the United States was no nearer winning the war, which was becoming increasingly unpopular at home. Many Americans believed their Government's prosecution of the war immoral, and some decided to act upon these beliefs.

On 17th May 1968, two women and seven men entered the Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore in the state of Maryland. They headed straight for the Selective Service office on the second floor where they grabbed hundreds of draft records while the staff looked on in surprise. With the records stuffed into wire baskets they left the building and walked to the parking lot where they doused the records in homemade napalm and set fire to them watched by bemused onlookers and members of the press, who the nine had alerted about their intended actions. A few minutes later the police arrived and arrested all nine of them.

All nine of the anti-war protesters were devout Catholics including one priest, Father Daniel Berrigan; two former priests, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Melville; and a former nun, Mary Moylan. The others were David Darst, John Hogan, Tom Lewis and Marjorie Bradford Melville (wife of Thomas).

The trial of the nine began in September 1968 at the Federal court in Baltimore while protestors gathered outside. All nine were found guilty of destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967. Philip Berrigan and Tom Lewis received three-and-a-half-year sentences; Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Melville, and George Mische were sentenced to serve three years; the other four faced two-year terms. Of these only Hogan and the Melvilles went to jail; Durst died in a car accident; the others went underground. Most were captured over the next couple of years, but Moylan remained at large until she surrendered herself in 1978.

There is an excellent web site dedicated to the Catonsville Nine called 'Fire and Faith: the Catonsville Nine File' hosted by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

16 May 2008

On this day in history: Collapse of Ronan Point, 1968

At around 5:45 in the morning of Thursday 16th May 1968, in flat 90 of the newly completed Ronan Point high-rise housing block in Newham, east London, a 56 year old woman called Ivy Hodge struck a match to light the gas stove for her early morning cup of tea. The flame ignited the gas that had collected in the room due to a leaky connection to the cooker. The explosion blew out a load bearing wall causing the complete collapse of one corner of the building as the four flats above Ivy's came crashing down.

Ivy survived both the collapse because she was blown clear by the explosion; however, four people died in the collapse and another seventeen received injuries. The death toll would certainly have been higher if all the flats in the newly opened building had been occupied. The building was repaired and strengthened to avoid a repeat of the tragedy, which prompted the Government to tighten up building regulations.

© Daily Telegraph (1968)

The disaster at Ronan Point along with the increasing social problems endemic in many of the prefabricated high-rises built to provide cheap housing tarnished the modernist dream of 'villages in the sky' leading to an eventual move away from tower blocks, many of which were pulled down while they were still viable buildings: Newham Council demolished Ronan Point itself in 1986. More recently, the need for housing in London and other British cities has resulted in flats in ex-Council high-rise flats becoming popular with young professionals.

To learn more about Ronan Point and other iconic British buildings of the twentieth century, visit the Open University's From Here to Modernity web pages.

15 May 2008

On this day in history: First machine-gun patented, 1718

The son of a merchant of the same name, James Puckle was born sometime in or before 1667. He inherited his father's estate in 1690 to add to the wealth he accrued as a notary public and a stockjobber. He published pamphlets on trade and a series of prose dialogues describing various members of a fictitious club, which was republished many times after his death in 1724. But it is his design for a portable breech-loading machine gun for which he is best remembered.

On 15th May 1718 he took out a patent for the weapon, which was fired by flintlock, was mounted on a tripod (making it portable), and could have various six-chambered breeches attached so that it could fire round bullets at Christian targets, and - for some reason - square bullets at Turks. The firer rotated a the breech with a handle, very much like the later Gatling Gun.

Like so many inventions that came before their time, Puckle's Defence Gun was lampooned and failed to attract investment, even though it was successfully demonstrated. According to the London Journal of 31st March 1722, ‘one man discharged it 63 times in seven minutes’ in the pouring rain. The second duke of Montagu took two of the machine-guns to St. Lucia during his failed attempt to take control of the island.

If you wish to learn more about the Defender Gun, the Wedmore family history web site has a page with details of the patent , and the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds has an example of the machine-gun in its collection.

14 May 2008

On this day in history: Sud-Aviation workers` strike and factory occupation, 1968

On 14th May 1968, young workers at the Sud-Aviation's Bourguenais factory near Nantes took inspiration from the actions of students who they had joined on a march the day before and decided to go on strike and lock the plant's manager in his office. Other supervisors joined him there where they submitted them to revolutionary songs played full-blast through a loudspeaker, which was so loud that workers soon complained and had it switched off. The strikers decided to stage a continuous occupation of the factory (much like students were doing in the Sorbonne and other universities not only in France but also elsewhere in Europe).

Sympathisers supplied the workers with blankets and food while they constructed watch towers on the wall surrounding the plant. Some students from the University of Nantes joined the workers in their occupation. Nantes had a history of bad labour relations and a large working class population, so it is little surprise that it was arguably the most revolution minded city in France during May and June 1968. School children had stormed the railway station on the 11th of May. On 24th May road access to the city fell under the control of the Central Strike Committee, which was soon the main city authority.

Meanwhile, the 'strike and occupy' movement had spread across the country. The day after the Sud-Aviation workers took control of their factory, Renault employees followed suit with a similar unofficial grass-roots action. By 17th May around 200,000 workers were on strike; by the next day over two million workers had withdrawn their labour; a week later ten million workers were on strike. France was on the verge of a revolution.

13 May 2008

On this day in history: French workers joined student protest, 1968

Whereas the 'Night of the Barricades' (10th/11th May) brought the students of Paris widespread sympathy for their plight from across France, the events of 13th May illustrated a deeper dissatisfaction with the country's hierarchical, technocratic, bureaucratic, social order. Many had grievances with those in power, whether they be university authorities, the Government, leading politicians, or even the leaders of trades unions. This latter group responded slowly and reluctantly to the student protests, eventually calling a one-day general strike for Monday 13th, the tenth anniversary of the Algiers putsch, which was a key event in the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the installation of de Gaulle as President of the Fifth Republic.

Workers also took part in a march organised by students on that day to again call for the release of all students held in custody and for the removal of the police from the Sorbonne. The demonstrators, numbering between 800,000 and one-million, set off from the Gare de l'Est, crossed the Seine, marched up the Boulevard St Michel, finishing at the Place Denfert-Rochereau where the workers dispersed at the request of their leaders (possibly because these were the scenes of the earlier clashes between police and students).

A group of students, twenty- or thirty thousand strong - set off for the Champs-de-Mars, and at the foot of the Eiffel Tower they heard that Prime Minister Pompidou had ordered the police to withdraw from the Sorbonne. Joyously, the students set off for the University and occupied the buildings, which were to be the headquarters for an attempted revolution over the next few weeks.

12 May 2008

On this day in history: First university founded in Americas, 1551

On 12th May 1551 King Charles I of Spain (also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) signed a Royal Decree at Valladolid establishing the first university in the Americas at Lima in Peru. The university, named Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (National University of San Marcos) was the brainchild of the Dominican Fray Thomas de San Martín, himself a scholar of some repute. Teaching commenced two years later: the first lecture taking place at the Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary.

On July 25th 1571 Pope St. Pius V issued a Papal bull recognizing the University - the text of which is available (in Latin) at the University of Salamanca site. Initially providing teaching in theology and the literature, the University later diversified to include faculties of law and medicine by the end of the seventeenth century, and Mathematics and Science during the nineteenth century.

If you wish to learn more about the University (and can read Spanish) see the History of San Marcos page on the University's web site.

11 May 2008

On this day in history: HMS Beagle launched, 1820

On 11th May 1820, at Woolwich dockyard in London, one of the most famous ships in history was launched. Costing £7,803, the ten-gun Cherokee-class brig-sloop carried the name HMS Beagle and entered service with the Royal Navy as a military vessel. In July of that year she took part in in the naval review to celebrate the coronation of King George IV, having the honour of being the first ship to sail fully-rigged under the new London Bridge. Surplus to requirement the Beagle was put in reserve: moored afloat but with no masks and rigging.

Five years later the Royal Navy found a use for the HMS Beagle. She returned to Woolwich where the shipwrights refitted her as a survey barque to explore the southern oceans. With four cannon removed and an extra mast added for added manoeuvrability she set off on the first voyage of discovery to South America captained by Commander Pringle Stokes on 22nd May 1826.

The Beagle returned in October 1830 with a new captain, Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy; her former captain having committed suicide due to depression two years earlier. FitzRoy commanded the second expedition, inviting a young naturalist called Charles Darwin to accompany him - an act which fixed the name HMS Beagle in history. Again the ship and crew set off to explore South America, leaving in December 1831 and returning in October 1836.

The final survey voyage of the Beagle took the ship to Australia. Under the captaincy of Commander John Clements Wickham, the mission lasted from 1837 to 1843 after which the Coast Guard took possession of the Beagle. In 1870 she was sold for scrap and probably broken up. Although in 2004 marine archaeologists found evidence of the final fate of the Beagle. You can read about what they discovered in Robin McKie's article from the Guardian newspaper.

10 May 2008

On this day in history: Night of the Barricades, 1968

Following the initial confrontation between Parisian students and police on Friday 3rd May 1968, on the following Monday (6th) twenty to thirty thousand students and other young people (depending on which figures you trust) marched on the Sorbonne, which the police had made out of bounds for students. The demonstrators demanded the release of their fellow students, the re-opening of the Sorbonne and the withdrawal of the police from the Latin Quarter. As the crowd approached and scuffles broke out, the police around the university forced the students back with tear-gas.

The students staged another demonstration on Friday 10th May. Even though the authorities removed of the police from the Sorbonne and environs, the students still wanted the release of all their fellows still held in custody. They gathered at the square in Denfert-Rochereau, on the Left Bank, where Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the other spokespeople for the students asked them where they wanted to go. They decided to march on the building of ORTF, the state broadcasting network, in response to the biased and insulting reports about the student demonstrations.

The police surrounded the march on the Boulevard Saint Michel, halting the demonstrators' progress. The students decided to occupy and defend the Latin Quarter, they spread into neighbouring streets and quickly started constructing barricades out of anything they could find. Many sympathisers - young and old - flocked to the Latin Quarter to join in the student revolt after listening to their exploits on independent radio stations. A passing builder demonstrated the use of a pneumatic-drill to students who were trying to dig up the cobblestones (the soon-to-be infamous pavées) from the street to add to their arsenal.

Many local residents provided support for students as the police attempted to storm the barricades, giving sanctuary to those escaping the police and medical aid to the injured. They too became caught up in the violence which raged until the morning of the next day, many fell under baton blows from the police, who also fired tear-gas grenades into the apartment buildings they suspected of containing students.

These actions and the perceived over-aggression of the police, turned public opinion against the authorities. As one radio commentator said at the time: 'This cannot be true, the CRS [police] don't do things like that!' What started as a student demonstration against the paternal authoritarianism of the universities had grown into something larger.

After the students had dispersed and the police had re-occupied the Latin Quarter the clean-up operation began. But the troubles were far from over, in a radio interview Daniel Cohn-Bendit calls for a national strike. The "strike and occupy" movement had begun.

9 May 2008

On this (yester)day in history: first Italian football championship, 1898

The first official Italian football - as in soccer - competition was played in entirety on 8th May 1898. The newly formed Italian Football Federation (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, or FIGC) endorsed the event.

The city of Turin hosted the competition and supplied three of the four competing teams: FBC Torinese, Ginnastica Torino, and Internazionale Torino. The fourth team and winners of the competition, the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, included three Englishmen, one player from the Island of Guernsey and another from Switzerland.

To learn more about the story of Italian football see the FIGC history pages.

On this day in history: Kray Twins arrested, 1968

During the 1960s, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, dominated organised crime in the East End of London, but following an extensive investigation Inspector Leonard "Nipper" Read of Scotland Yard arrested the twin brothers and sixteen members of their gang on 9th May 1968.

Both brothers had careers as professional boxers before turning their energies towards criminal activity. Starting out running protection rackets from a run down snooker club in Bethnal Green they were soon organising armed robberies and hijackings. The brothers invested the proceeds of these crimes in property including West End night clubs where they mixed with celebrities. They even achieved celebrity status themselves, being photographed by David Bailey - including the iconic image seen above.

In 1969, a trial that lasted nearly six weeks found the 35 year old brothers guilty: Ronnie for the murders of Jack "the Hat" McVitie (one of their own gang) and George Cornell (a rival gangster); Reggie was also found guilty of the murder of McVitie and as an accessory for the killing of Cornell. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ronnie died 1995 while still incarcerated in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital. Reggie was released in August 2000 and died a couple of months later.

The Kray twins are popular characters with some people even today, in spite of their violent criminal activities. There is an official website for the twins and their elder brother Charlie. For a different evaluation of their activities see the history page about the Krays at the Metropolitan Police Service web site.

7 May 2008

On this day in history: Stockholm Castle fire, 1697

In the afternoon of 7th May 1697, fire broke out in the Tre Kronor (three crowns) castle in Stockholm, seat of the royal family of Sweden. The fire spread quickly; according to one eye witness the entire building was ablaze within half an hour. In spite of this, guards, officials and servants managed to save much of the contents of the castle, including the body of King Charles XI, who had died only a month earlier. Unfortunately, many records and other historical documents were lost, as were around three quarters of the collection of books in the Royal Library, and of those books saved from the flames many were damaged by being thrown out of the windows when the stairwells became impassable.

Within days a court was convened to discover who was at fault for the fire. Three men were found guilty of neglect of duty: the fire marshall, Sven Lindberg; and the two soldiers on fire watch, Mattias Hanson and Anders Andersson (who was away from his post running an errand for Lindberg's wife). Initially, Lindberg and Hanson received the death sentence, but the king commuted this sentence to running the gauntlet seven times followed by six years hard labour. Andersson ran the gauntlet five times. Lindberg died from the wounds he received from running the gauntlet, which involved running between two rows of soldiers who rained blows upon the guilty party.

To find out more about this subject see 'The Stockholm Castle fire of 1697' at the web site dedicated History of the Codex Gigas (a historical copy of the Bible).

6 May 2008

On this day in history: India elects first Muslim President, 1967

On 6th May 1967, the electoral college of the Republic of India voted for their new President. Votes were cast by the Members of the Indian Parliament and the Members of the State Legislative Assemblies. Each Member of Parliament had 576 votes, but number of votes cast by each Member of the State Legislative Assemblies varied, depending on the state's population.

On 9th May Dr. Zakir Hussain was declared the winner and he became president on 13th May 1967. Born in Hyderabad in 1897, Dr. Hussain attended Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College. While studying for his Masters he helped found a National Muslim University near Delhi called Jamia Millia Islamia.

In the 1920s Dr. Hussain studied in Germany receiving his doctorate in Economics from the University of Berlin. In 1948, he became Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (as the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College had been renamed). He became a member of for the Upper House in the Indian parliament in 1956 and then Governor of the State of Bihar from 1957 to 1962 when he was elected Vice-President of India.

Dr. Hussain died in May 1969 while still serving as the third President of India and the first Muslim to hold that post.

For more information on elections past and present in the largest democracy in the World see the Election Commission of India's web site.

On this (yester)day in history: French Estates-General meet, 1789

The deepening financial crisis in France at the end of the eighteenth century led the king to appoint a series of finance ministers. Two of these Charles Alexandre de Calonne and Jacques Necker suggested that the required reforms would need the assent of the French nation, or at least those represented by the Estates-General.

This body, similar to a parliament, had not assembled since 1614, as a succession of French monarchs exercised absolute rule. The Estates-General consisted of three groups: the First Estate represented the clergy; the Second Estate represented the aristocracy; and the Third Estate represented (in theory) the remaining 97% of the nation, although they were only voted for by the wealthier of the bourgeoisie. This latter group demanded double representation to prevent the first two estates voting together and effectively silencing them, in order that the Estates-General go ahead the king acquiesced.

The three estates convened at Versailles on the 5th May 1789 with much pomp and ceremony. Yet, within the days the Third Estate discovered that their double representation was a sham and the assembly reached an impasse. A breakaway by the Third Estate in June 1789 to form a National Assembly was a major factor in bringing about revolution in France and ending hopes of peaceful reform.

If you want to learn more about the Estates-General and the events that followed from an eighteenth century perspective, you can download François Mignet's History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 (1824) from Project Gutenberg.

4 May 2008

On this day in history: Haymarket Affair, 1886

In the late nineteenth-century workers' groups around the world agitated for an eight hour working day. To this end, in October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a general strike of all federated members in the United States and Canada from 1st May 1886.

In early May, Striking workers held rallies across the countries. In Chicago the striking workers included employees of the McCormick Reaper Works who had been locked out since February of that year, and replaced with strikebreakers. Each day, hundreds of Chicago police officers provided protection for the strikebreakers. On May 3rd, some of the strikers approached the factory gates to confront the 'scabs' at the end of the working day. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing six workers.

The next evening - 4th May 1886 - outraged Chicago workers attended a rally organised by anarchists near Haymarket Square. After the final speaker had addressed the crowd, and as they began to leave, the police moved in to disperse the meeting. As they did so, somebody in the crowd threw a bomb into the police ranks, killing one officer immediately and injuring several others. Shots rang out as the police fired on protesters, who - according to some accounts - returned fire.

In all, seven police officers died in the fire fight with one dying later from his wounds. There are no records of how many strikers died, as any bodies were removed from the scene by their comrades. Eight men were arrested for the murder, all were anarchists, and had connections - direct or indirect - with the organisers of the rally. All were found guilty.

Of the convicted, four were hanged, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, August Spies; Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison; Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment on appeal.

The tragedy near the Haymarket sharply divided opinion at the time, and continues to do so today. To find out more visit the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection on the Chicago Historical Society site, or the The Haymarket Massacre Archive at Anarchy Archives.

3 May 2008

On this day in history: Student Revolt in Paris,1968

In March 1968, a group of radical students at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris demonstrated against what they saw as the oppressively paternalistic rules under which the university operated. These young adults had to contend with restrictions on their behaviour that workers of their age were not subject to, such as the dormitory rules that forbade students moving furniture in their rooms, forbade cooking in their rooms, banned political activities on campus, and placed severe restrictions on visits by male students to female student’s rooms.

Over a period of weeks this group of student radicals, which became known as the March 22nd Movement, held demonstrations and occupied various university buildings and when the police arrived to arrest them they were driven from the campus by other students who had just left their lectures. In response, the dean of the university closed the campus on May 2nd, and the student radicals moved their demonstrations to central Paris and the Sorbonne.

Around three-hundred students held a meeting on the 3rd May 1968 to protest the closure of Nanterre. This core of left-wing student activists were nervous, fearing an attack by a right-wing student group called Occident. To allay these fears some students guarded the entrances to the meeting armed with truncheons. For the university authorities this act of defiance was unacceptable and they decided to take action.

At around 5pm the police arrived. Representatives from the students negotiated a deal with the police for their dispersal. The students would lay down their weapons and leave the area. The women would depart first, and then the men, both in groups of twenty-five. In return there would be no arrests. Instead, after the women had left the police moved in, arrested the men and forced them into the back of waiting police vans.

The onlooking students, who had not attended the meeting, were enraged. They responded by shouting at the police. As the police attempted to leave, the swelling crowd blocked their path. The police responded with tear gas. More and more young people joined the crowd and eventually the a paving stone smashed through a window of one of the vans. This was to be the first of many. The fighting continued up and down the Boulevard St Michel until darkness fell.

Seventy-two policemen and innumerable students had received injuries. Around six hundred students were under arrest. The French student revolt of May 1968 had begun.

The events of May and June 1968 in France have long been the subject of debate. The Sens Public site has an essay by Chris Reynolds called May 68: A Contested History in which he analyses these debates.

1968: Forty Years On

1968 was turbulent year. A year of protest: against the Vietnam War; against racial inequality; and, against the authoritarian state. The year when Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The year when Soviet tanks poured into Czechoslovakia. The Summer of Love was a distant memory.

This blog will include a number of posts to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of this formative year starting today with this introduction and the 'On This Day in History' post about the start of the student revolt in Paris.

Other web-sites are also marking the anniversary; although, a quick survey shows that there is less interest in 1968 than there was in 1967 last year.

  • BBC Radio 4 present a web site - 1968 - Myth or Reality? - which includes details of the season of shows about that year, as well as a place where you can share your memories of 1968.
  • The Goethe-Institute have a site called The Global Revolt. These pages provide information about the events of 1968 and give details about various academic conferences and symposia that mark the fortieth anniversary.

2 May 2008

On this day in history: Hudson`s Bay Company incorporated, 1670

In 1668 two English ships sailed for Hudson Bay to evaluate trade opportunities in the area. The expedition was instigated by two French fur traders called Médard des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson who had discovered from the Cree that the area was good for furs. After approaching a group of Boston businessmen, the two traveled to England where they commissioned the vessels.

Following a successful trade mission, on 2nd May 1670 King Charles II granted a Royal Charter to incorporate the The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay (commonly called the Hudson's Bay Company) at the instigation of the King's cousin, Prince Rupert who became the first governor of the company. The Charter granted the Company a monopoly of trade with the indigenous populations in any area where rivers flowed into the Bay. This area, covering approximately one and a half million square miles, was named Rupert's Land in honour of the first governor.

The Hudson's Bay Company is still in existence. You can find out more about its history at the Company's web site.

1 May 2008

On this day in history: First World`s Fair, 1851

On 1st May 1851, Queen Victorian opened the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, in Hyde Park, London. Unlike the 1844 French Industrial Exposition, the Great Exhibition included exhibits from other nations - although British industrial developments enjoyed pride of place - setting the template for all future World's Fairs.

The building that housed the exhibition, designed by Joseph Paxton, was nicknamed the Crystal Palace. After being dismantled at the end of the exhibition, the building was re-erected in an enlarged form at Sydenham, in south London where it remained until destroyed by fire in 1936.

The exhibition attracted an estimated six million visitors (equivalent to around a third of the population of Great Britain at that time), who ensured that the exhibition made a profit of £186,000. This surplus was used to establish the Victoria and Albert Museum, which, along with the Science Museum, acquired many of the exhibits.

For more information on the 1851 Exhibition see the Great Exhibition Overview pages at The Victorian Web.