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30 June 2008

On this day in history: Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on tightrope, 1859

The great circus performer known as Charles Blondin was born as Jean-François Émile Gravelet near St. Omer in France on 28th February 1824. His father, André Gravelet, was himself a tightrope walker as well as a veteran of Napoleon's grande armée. From the age of five, when he became spellbound watching a group of visiting entertainers, Jean-François wanted to be a tightrope walker. After receiving tuition from a former sailor, he convinced his parents to enrole him at the École de Gymnase, the famous school for acrobats in Lyon. Within months he made his professional debut as "The Little Winder" and at the age of seven appeared before the King of Sardinia in Turin.

Tragically he became an orphan when he was only ten-years-old and after finishing his schooling he found a surrogate families in the circus troupes he travelled around Europe with for the next eighteen years. In 1851 he joined the Ravel Family of acrobats with whom he travelled to the United States to work for the leading circus impresario of the age: Phineas T. Barnum. While sailing across the Atlantic, Blondin (as he was now known) saved the life of a young nobleman who fell overboard during a storm.

In 1858, three years after arriving in America for the first time, Blondin conceived the feat that was to make his name: crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He planned the stunt meticulously but still had convincing his agent and prospective investors of the feasibility of the plan. Nevertheless, in spite of not being able to cross at his preferred location but with the support of a local newspaper, the Niagara Falls Daily Gazette, and a small amount of financial backing, he finally set a date for his exploit.

In the late afternoon on 30th June 1859, Charles Blondin stepped out on to the three-inch-wide,
1100-foot-long rope which spanned the falls 160 feet above the water. Between 10,000 and 25,000 spectators watched on as he carried his 30-foot-long 40lb balancing-pole to the middle of the rope, where he had a lie down and a drink from a bottle that he hoisted up from a boat moored below. He then completed the crossing. In all the spectacle lasted around seventeen minutes to the acclaim of the crowds. As the bands on both sides of began to pack up, he announced that would make a return journey, which he completed in around seven minutes.

Blondin crossed the Falls many more times, always with some sort of gimmick to attract the crowds: carrying a passenger; cooking an omlette half-way across; crossing on stilts. His celebrity status achieved, Blondin, his wife, and their five children toured the world making a firtune with his act before returning to Great Britain, which he became a subject of in 1868. Following some sort of financial disaster he was forced out of retirment in 1880 and his last performance was in Belfast in 1896 when he was seventy-one years of age. He died of diabetes the following year and was buried in Kensal Green

The Niagara Falls Public Library web site has a number of images of Blondin available from their Historic Niagara Digital Collections.

29 June 2008

On this day in history: Cisalpine Republic created, 1797

In April 1792, France declared war on Austria beginning the French Revolutionary Wars, which lasted until 1802. Following initial defeats, the French army started to make gains against the coalition of nations that opposed them, in part due to the institution of the levée en masse (mass conscription) but also due to the tactical skills of the French generals. In 1796, one general in particular made a name for himself with a series of victories in northern Italy: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Following decisive victories at the Battle of Montenotte over the armies of Sardinia and Austria, and the defeat of the Austrians at the Battle of Lodi, Bonaparte captured Milan and Mantua. The Papal forces had little choice but to sue for peace, which he accepted in February 1797. With no belligerents left in northern Italy, Napoleon was free to take his army into Austria, but before he did so he created a two republics in captured territories as client states of France - the Cispadane Republic to the south of the River Po, and the Transpadane Republic north of the river. These republics comprised part of the Republic of Venice, the Romagna, the former duchies of Milan, Modena, and Parma, along with the Papal legations of Bologna and Ferrara

On 29th June 1797, Bonaparte merged the province of Novara with these two republics to form the Cisalpine Republic, which, although nominally independent, was effectively ruled from France. The promulgation of a constitution the very next month created a republic that followed the French model: they adopted the Republican calendar; the territories were divided up into departments; a minority of the populace elected representatives to two councils who chose an executive. Nevertheless, the commander of the occupying French forces retained ultimate authority. By the end of 1797, the Austrians had capitulated and signed the Treaty of Campo Formio by which they recognised the legitimacy of the Cisalpine Republic.

The fate of the Republic became intimately linked to that of its founder. Following his seizure of power in France, the Cisalpine Republic became the Italian Republic in 1802, with Bonaparte as its President. The year after Napoleon became Emperor of the French he added Venetia to the Republic to create the Kingdom of Italy and took the crown for himself. The Kingdom was broken up by the Congress of Vienna after his final defeat in 1815.

If you wish to learn more about Bonaparte and the Cisalpine Republic, Project Gutenberg has a copy of John Holland Rose's The Life of Napoleon I (London, 1910)

28 June 2008

On this day in history: Battle of Berestechko begins, 1651

In the mid-seventeenth century, one of the largest and most populace states in Europe was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (also known by the rather the delightful name of Most Serene Commonwealth of the Two Nations). This elective monarchy extended from Poznan in the west to Smolensk in the east; it included Latvia and much of modern day Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine. As such the Commonwealth's population consisted of many ethnic groups, not all of whom were content to be ruled by a Polish-Lithuanian monarch.

In 1648, a number of ethnic groups within the Ukraine rebelled against the Roman Catholic King John II Casimir. Initiated by Cossacks the war of liberation soon attracted their fellow Orthodox Christians: Ukrainian peasants and Crimean Tatars. The rebels - commanded by Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, a Zaporozhian Cossack who gave his name to the uprising - managed to drive the Polish nobles, Catholic priests, and Jewish leaseholders from their land in the first few months of the insurgency - massacring those who did not flee. Meanwhile, the King was building an army to take back the Ukraine.

On 28th June 1651, the largest battle of the seventeenth century began when approximately 140,000 rebels engaged just over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers under the command of the king at Berestechko in the western Ukraine. The battle lasted for three days by the end of which between forty- and seventy-thousand rebels lay dead (including women and children at their camp), while the Polish-Lithuanian army had lost less than one-thousand men. The rebels were forced to capitulate and signed the Treaty of Bila Tserkva on 28th September.

In spite of the defeat, Khmelnytskyi (aka Chmielnicki) had not given up hope of forcing the Commonwealth out of the Ukraine, but he realised that he needed allies to do so. Initially he approached the Ottoman Sultan who offered the rebels vassal status; however, the Ukrainians were not keen on a Muslim overlord. So it was that Khmelnytskyi signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, making the Ukraine a vassal state of the coreligionist Russian Tsar, finally ending Polish-Lithuanian domination of the Ukraine.

Herman Rosenthal's article on gives a Jewish perspective of the Cossacks' Uprising.

One-hundred posts and an award

The Modern Historian now boasts over one-hundred posts and has recently received...

The Arte y Pico Award
This honour was conferred on the Modern Historian by Mrs Mecomber at New York and so I would like to extend my thanks to her and to the originator of the award at the Arte y pico blog.

Recipients of the award pick five blogs that they wish to pass this honour on to.

Each award has to have the name of the author and also a link to his or her blog to be visited by everyone.

Each award winner has to show the award and put the name and link to the blog that has given her or him the award itself.

The recipient and the one who has given the prize have to show the link of “Arte y Pico” blog, so everyone will know the origin of this award:

So without further ado, I would like to award the following:-

Geek Mom Mashup for a delightfully designed blog matched by well-written and interesting material that shows the world that moms can be geeky too

Cellobella's blog on Red Sultana for her inspiring blog, which not only boasts a sleek, simple design, but also contains readable posts that offer a window into her life

Gundam and Robot Anime for amazing me with the variety of paper craft models that this blog focuses on - I don't engage in this pass-time myself, but respect those with the dexterity and patience to turn a sheet of paper into a three dimensional figure

Blogger Buster for indispensable news about, and tutorials, templates and tools for the Google Blogger platform

The Ivory Tower for JohnGuru's erudite posts on a variety of topics - while relatively new to blogging, the author has taken to the medium like a duck to water and never fails to post thought provoking material

27 June 2008

On this day in history: Czech reformist manifesto published, 1968

On 27th June 1968, the Czechoslovak writer and journalist, Ludvík Vaculík, published his progressive manifesto The Two Thousand Words. The text called upon the Czechoslovak people to demand greater openness and decentralisation from the Communist Party, which had already started making reforms under the influence of Alexander Dubček, who had become First Secretary of the party in January 1968. The article was accompanied by sixty signatures when it appeared in the journal Literarny Listy, which Vaculík was an editor of (the other editors distanced themselves from the text), as well as two other journals.

Over the next few months The Two Thousand Words became a petition which attracted thousands more signatures; however, not everyone supported Vaculík's programme. While progressives from the lower ranks of the Communist Party and other reform-minded intellectuals, writers and workers wrote letters in support of the manifesto, senior part officials and hardliners denounced Vaculík and set in motion the procedures for banning him from the party. As well as polarising opinion at home, the manifesto caused disquiet in other parts of the Soviet Bloc, particularly in Moscow where the Soviet hierarchy were becoming increasingly concerned by Dubček's reform programme, concerns that would eventually result in Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia.

An English translation of The Two Thousand Words is available at ThinkQuest.

26 June 2008

On this day in history: First Victoria Crosses presented, 1857

During the state opening of Parliament in 1854 Queen Victoria praised her forces currently engaged in the Crimean War leading Capt. G.T. Scobell, M.P, to suggest...

[...] that an humble address be presented to Her Majesty to institute an 'Order of Merit' to be bestowed upon persons serving in the Army or Navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry during the present war and to which every grade and individual... may be admissible.

In March 1855 the Government announced that such an order of merit would be instituted. Queen Victoria herself had a role in approving the text of the Warrant and the design of the medal, which was finally settled upon in March 1856. Mr C.F. Hancock, a London jeweller, was given the appointment to produce 106 specimens. The medal was to be made from the bronze of Chinese cannons seized from the Russians at the siege of Sebastopol in 1855 (although analysis confirms that through the years different sources of metal have been used).

The first presentation was made in Hyde Park on 26th June 1857 where Queen Victoria decorated 62 servicemen for showing valour "in the face of the enemy" during the Crimean War. The first recipient was Commander Henry Raby RN who was recognised for his part in rescuing a wounded soldier while under fire during an attack on the Redan on 18th June 1855. Fourth in line was Charles Davis Lucas, a mate in the Royal Navy who, three years earlier, had thrown a live shell overboard after it landed on deck of his ship, the HMS Hecla. This act of bravery was the earliest to have been rewarded with the medal. The VC remains the highest military decoration awarded in the United Kingdom.

The Victoria Cross Society website includes a biography of Charles Lucas on its page of sample journal articles.

25 June 2008

On this day in history: First doctorate conferred on a woman, 1678

On 25th June 1678, the University of Padua conferred the first ever doctorate on a woman: Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia. She was born in the Palazzo Loredano, Venice, on 5th June 1646 to John Baptist Cornaro-Piscopia, Procurator of San Marco, and his wife Zanetta Giovanna Boni. At the age of seven Elena began her studies under the mentorship of the Aristotelian John Baptist Fabris. Fabris persuaded Elena's father to do all he could to further his daughter's education. Having the money and influence to do so he recruited Professor Alexander Anderson of Padua, Professor Luigi Gradenigo - the librarian at San Marco, and other tutors to school Lady Elena in a variety of disciplines. She became fluent in at least seven languages, including ancient greek and latin, and because of this became known as Oraculum Septilingue. She also studied mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and theology - the latter two being her favourites.

In 1672 Lady Elena's father sent her to the University of Padua to complete her studies. Initially she had no intention of attaining academic qualifications, rather she simply wanted to continue learning. Nevertheless, because of her father's insistence and in spite of the resistance of some academics and churchmen, who would not permit a woman to become a Doctor of Theology, she was eventually allowed to prepare for the examination for Doctor of Philosophy with Professor Carlo Rinaldini as her tutor.

Six years later, the Cathedral in Padua hosted the public ceremony in which Lady Elena received the doctoral insignia: the laurel wreath placed on the head; the ring on the finger; and the ermine cape over her shoulders. In attendence were the professors of the University of Padua, invited academics from the Universities of Bologna, Ferrara, Perugia, Rome, and Naples, as well as other notable scholars and many of Venetian politicians.

Elena turned her back on the life of privilege and devoted herself to charitable works, becoming a Benedictine oblate. On 26th July 1684, eight years after receiving the doctorate, and at only thirty-eight years of age, Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia died of what is believed to have been tuberculosis. The whole city of Padua mourned the loss of this remarkable woman who continues to be remembered: a year after her passing the University of Padua struck a special medal in her honour; a statue of her still stands outside the University; and further afield, Vassar College, New York, has a stained glass window that depicts her presenting her thesis on that day Cathedral of Padua when she became the first woman to receive a doctorate.

24 June 2008

On this day in history: Münster Rebellion ends,1535

In the sixteenth century a number of increasingly vocal critics of the practices and beliefs of the Catholic church emerged. These criticisms, taken as a whole, became known as the Protestant Reformation, the effects of which were felt across Europe as new churches emerged. Switzerland, in particular, was a hotbed of religious reform being birthplace of Calvinism and the Anabaptist faith, although some historians maintain that the latter also had roots in Holland and the Rhineland.

The Anabaptists were so called because they deferred baptism until somebody is old enough to chose to enter the faith. Not only did Anabaptists want religious reform but also formed a social reform movement, which became increasingly radicalised during the Peasants' War, a series of popular revolts that flared up across the Holy Roman Empire in 1524 and 1525. The princes and bishops restored order, re-established the status quo, and in some places, they made conditions even harsher for the common people, many of whom were radicalised and so became Anabaptists.

One place where the seeds of radical religious and social reform took root was the German of Münster. Ruled by a bishop, Franz von Waldeck, and council of guild leaders, the citizens looked to religious leaders to bring about social change. The Anabaptist pastor Bernhard Rothmann declared that a new prophet would soon arrive to liberate the people of the city. This 'prophet' was a Dutch baker called Jan Matthys, who along with Rothmann and Jan Bockelson, a tailor from Leyden, whipped up such religious sentiment within the populace that in February 1534 they managed to drive the council and bishop from the city and install their own mayor, Bernhard Knipperdolling, a guild leader and Anabaptist convert.

In easter of that year, Matthys set out to conquer the rest of the world believing that the Day of Judgement was at hand, but he and his thirty followers died at the hands of the bishop's beseiging army. Bockleson took over as religious and political leader and instituted a number of social reforms including the legalisation of polygamy and instituting the community of goods. He claimed to be a descendent of King David and as such was the absolute ruler of the new 'Zion'.

Nevertheless, this new 'Zion' was not to last. On the night of 24th June 1535, the bishop's forces finally gained entry to the city using information gained from Heinrich Gresbeck, who had been a guard on the city walls and was captured while trying to flee. The bishops forces quickly took the city, capturing the Anabaptist leaders and killing almost all of the male population. Bockelson and Knipperdolling were tortured and eventually executed in January 1536, their mutilated bodies were displayed in cages hung from the steeple of St. Lambert's Church, which are still there today.

The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has a more detailed account of the Münster Anabaptists.

23 June 2008

On this day in history: France goes to the polls, 1968

In response to the growing crisis in France caused by the strike and occupy movement inspired by students and taken up by workers, on 30th May 1968, President De Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly with elections to take place within forty days. A gamble that he hoped would provide him with the mandate he needed to take any actions he deemed necessary to defend the Fifth Republic.

The Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, masterminded the campaign for De Gaulle's party, Union pour la défense de la République (UDR - 'Union for the Defence of the Republic'). Pompidou called upon the "silent majority" to be heard to prevent the violent seizure of power by the Communist Party and its allies. These tactics were designed to alarm the French middle-classes in spite of the fact that the student radicals and striking workers demonstrated as much disgust for the Parti communiste français (PCF - 'French Communist Party') as they had for the Gaullists. Nevertheless Pompidou's rhetoric enabled his conservative coalition to squeeze the moderate vote by portraying the election as a straight contest between Gaullism and communism.

In contrast, the left wing opposition was divided: the Communist Party were annoyed that the leader of the Fédération de la gauche démocrate et socialiste (FGDS - 'Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left'), François Mitterrand, had not consulted them before announcing his candidacy for the next presidential elections at the height of the crisis in May. Furthermore, the far-left denounced the socialist parties for their inaction and opposition to the strike and occupy movement.

The French people went to the polls for the first round of voting on 23rd June 1968. The small swing to the right gave the Gaullists 58.1% of the popular vote. Any seat where no candidate received a majority of the votes was contested again between the two leading candidates in a second round of voting a week later. When all the ballots had been counted it emerged that De Gaulle's gamble had paid off, not only had his conservative coalition won, but his own party, the UDR, now occupied the majority of seats in the National Assembly - the first time that this had ever happened.

With this ringing endorsement for the President, the 1968 French revolution was over. Nevertheless, the students and workers had forced the government to institute reforms in education and achieved wage rises and improved working conditions. Furthermore, the Gaullists did not emerge from the crisis untarnished. The events of May had created ill feeling between De Gaulle and Pompidou leading the latter to resign only one month after his election victory, and in April 1969 the President also resigned after losing a referendum on reform of the Senate.

22 June 2008

On this day in history: Caribbean immigrants arrive on the Empire Windrush, 1948

The Second World War had left the United Kingdom with a labour shortage, just when it needed as many workers as possible for the task of reconstruction. To alleviate this shortage the Royal Mail Lines placed an advertisement in the Jamaica's Daily Gleaner newspaper in April 1948. The advertisement offered a ticket Kingston, Jamaica to England for only £28 and 10 shillings on the ex-German troopship Empire Windrush, which was due to dock in the Caribbean on its journey from Australia back to the Britain.

Many of the 492 people that took up this offer were ex-servicemen - mostly from the Royal Air Force - who either hoped to rejoin the RAF or wanted to take up the promise of work and a better life in their "mother country". Many Britons were not pleased at the thought of immigrant workers, and Parliament debated the matter while the ship was crossing the ocean. Nevertheless, many of the passengers had served during the war for "King and Country" and all carried British passports, so there was no legal cause to turn them away.

On 24th May 1948, the Empire Windrush set sail on her month long journey across the Atlantic, which ended on 22nd June when she docked at Tilbury in Essex. On arrival, just under half of the West Indians received temporary accommodation at the Clapham South deep shelter in London - built as an air-raid shelter during the war beneath the underground railway station.
Over two hundred of them found work straight away, mostly in the newly instituted National Health Service and with London Transport. The nearest labour exchange (office where they could find work) was in nearby Brixton, an area where many of them found homes, bestowing upon that area its multi-racial heritage.

During the Parliamentary debates on immigration, the politicians who promoted imported labour suggested that the workers that the foreign workers would only stay for a short while, and indeed many of the West Indians thought the same. Nevertheless, many chose to stay and raise families in their new home. The journey of the Empire Windrush marked the beginning of a new - and as is often the case, troubled - era of multiculturalism in Britain.

The BBC History website has a number of pages devoted to the Empire Windrush generation, including the memories of some of the ship's passengers.

21 June 2008

On this day in history: Mechanical reaper patented, 1834

In the early nineteenth-century, a Virginian called Robert Hall McCormick spent his time developing various inventions on his farm in Rockbridge County. In 1831, he passed the development of one such invention, a mechanical reaper, to his son, Cyrus, who was still in his early twenties but showed an aptitude for business. Cyrus improved upon his father design and received a patent for the McCormick Reaper on 21st June 1834. The machine required only two men to operate it: one rode the horse that pulled the machine; the other raked the cut grain from the platform on which it collected. In one day two men using the reaper could cut as much grain as over a dozen men working with scythes.

In spite of the labour-saving potential of the machine, initials sales were not promising; by the end of 1846 he had sold fewer than one hundred machines. Undaunted he moved to Chicago, the following year, where he found success by using original marketing techniques - such as sending out trained salesman to demonstrate the machines - and by benefiting from the city's status as an industrial centre and railway hub, which aided manufacture and distribution. Not long after relocating his brothers, William and Leander, joined him as partners in the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.

The McCormick's continued to develop the machine, as well as other farming machinery, which they sold around the world. Sales undoubtedly benefited from the awards and honours bestowed upon Cyrus and his machine: the reaper won a gold medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition, in London; and the French Academy of sciences elected Cyrus as a corresponding member.

Cyrus died in 1884, passing the company to his grandson Cyrus Hall McCormick III. It was he who, two years later, presided over the darkest event in the company's history: the Haymarket Affair of 4th May 1886. Neverthless, the McCormick's company went from strength to strength, staying at the forefront of the manufacture and sale of not only farming equipment but also non-agricultural vehicles, weapons, and domestic appliances.

You can download a pdf copy of the original 1834 patent document from

20 June 2008

On this day in history: The Tennis Court Oath, 1789

On 5th May 1789 the Estates General of France met at Versailles for the first time in 175 years to ratify various proposed reforms that the King's ministers hoped would end the financial crisis that France found itself mired in. Rather than discuss the new taxes, the representatives of the third-estate were more interested in discussing the organisation of the Estates General. Their concern was that whilst they represented the vast majority of the nation, the other two estates - the clergy and the nobility - would vote together against them since each estate only had one vote.

Attempts at diplomacy between the estates failed, and on 17th June the representatives of the third-estate - by then calling themselves les communes ('the commons') - and a number of delegates from the other two estates who had joined them renamed themselves the National Assembly. They defiantly declared that that since they represented most of the French people then national sovereignty resided with them; although, initially at least, they still recognised the authority of King Louis XVI whose consent they would seek in order to pass any new laws.

Louis, however, was not about to be dictated to. Rather, on 19th June, he chose to go to the National Assembly, annul any degrees it had made, command the clerical and noble delegates to return to their respective orders, and then draw up popular legislation to bring the third-estate back into the fold. He ordered that the hall in which the National Assembly met be locked and a guard be placed there to prevent them meeting while he met in session with leading courtiers to plan how to proceed.

Consequently, on 20th June 1789 the National Assembly found itself without a place to meet. The delegates commandeered an indoor-tennis court that was close by. Once gathered inside, the recalcitrant deputies took a collective oath in defiance of the King to continue meeting until an acceptable constitution be established for the French nation. This act of unity and defiance that consolidated the revolution enjoyed widespread popularity in France. As a result Louis had little choice but to order the remaining delegates of the first- and second-estate to join the National Assembly.

The History Guide site has a page with the full text of The Oath of the Tennis Court.

19 June 2008

On this day in history: Rosenbergs executed, 1953

In 1936 Julius Rosenberg met Ethel Greenglass through the Youth Communist League. They both lived in New York and came from working-class Jewish families. Three years after their first meeting they were married. That same year Julius gained a degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York.

Following the United States' entrance into the Second World War, Julius joined the Army Signal Corps and worked on radar equipment. A year later, in 1943, the Rosenbergs stopped publicly endorsing communism and cancelled their subscription to the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA. Nevertheless, the pair were still in contact with leading American communists through whom they made the acquaintance of Alexandre Feklisov, a Soviet spy.

By chance, in 1944 Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, started working on the United States' nuclear weapon programme, the Manhattan Project. Towards the end of that year, the Rosenbergs allegedly persuaded him to pass technical details of the programme to the Soviets to help them also develop a nuclear weapon. According to Feklisov, Julius also recruited a number of other people with access to information on top secret projects to spy for the Russians.

In early 1950, British Intelligence arrested Klaus Fuchs, another scientist working on the Manhattan Project, on charges of espionage. Eventually, the trail of spies and couriers led back to David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs, all of whom were arrested. In January 1951, the US Grand Jury indicted the three of them and the trial of the Rosenbergs began in March that year. Following a guilty verdict on the charge of conspiring to commit espionage, the presiding Judge, Irving Kaufman, sentenced them both to death. Greenglass, who testified against his sister and brother-in-law, received a fifteen year sentence, of which he served ten years.

On 19th June 1953, a special session of the US Supreme Court finally dismissed requests for a stay of execution. So, that evening, first Julius and then Ethel were executed by electrocution at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility at Ossining, New York. They left behind two orphaned sons, Robert and Michael, who were finally adopted by the songwriter Abel Meerpol - famous for writing the Billie Holliday song 'Strange Fruit' - and his wife Anne. Controversy still surrounds the Rosenberg's (particularly Ethel's) role in the spy ring, as well as their trial and execution.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law host a complete transcript of the Rosenberg Trial on their website.

18 June 2008

On this day in history: First Europeans sight Tahiti, 1767

In August 1766, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Dolphin set sail under the command of Samuel Wallis, on her second journey of discovery and circumnavigation. Following victory in the Seven Years' War, three years earlier, the Royal Navy hierarchy decided to explore the Pacific Ocean in order to develop new trade routes and possibly find a new route to the all-important East Indies. Hence Commodore John Byron's journey of circumnavigation, on the Dolphin, which was the first to be completed in less than two years.

In Dolphin, Wallis knew he had a ship that was up to the task; however, he would be accompanied on his voyage by HMS Swallow, a sloop that was far from ship-shape, under the command of Philip Carteret. The two ships became separated after sailing through perilous Straits of Magellan. In spite of the decrepit condition of his craft, Carteret managed to complete his mission arriving back in England three years after setting sail, having discovered various new landmasses including Pitcairn Island and a series of atolls that now bear his name.

After losing contact with the Swallow, Wallis directed his crew to sail across the South Pacific; but scurvy and ill favoured winds forced him to head northwards. In the warmer seas he also discovered a number of islands then unknown to Europeans and on 18th June 1767 he sighted Tahiti, where the Dolphin and her crew remained for the next five weeks. In the first few days saw sporadic attacks by Tahitians on the crew, but these stopped after many locals were injured or killed by cannon fire.

Wallis could do little to quell the disturbances because he had been stricken with fever even as the health of his men improved. Indeed, when the Dolphin returned to England in May 1768, her commander's health was still in a poor state in spite of his efforts to maintain the health of his crew by using a three shift rotation so that the sailors could have more rest, maintaining stores of fruit and vegetables, and by keeping clothes and bedding as clean and dry as possible - innovations that were all used by the famous Captain Cook during his voyages of exploration.

To learn more about the voyages of Byron, Cateret, Wallis and Cook the National Library of Australia's web site hosts a hypertext version of John Hawkesworth (Ed.), Account of the Voyages ... in the Southern Hemisphere (London, 1773), Vol 1 and Vol 2 & 3

17 June 2008

On this day in history: Mumtaz Muhal dies, 1631

On 17th June 1631, the third wife of the Islamic ruler of India, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, died during childbirth. Mumtaz would probably have been lost to posterity had it not been for the mausoleum that the Emperor had built in her honour. One of the greatest buildings of the world and a testament to love: the Taj Mahal.

Mumtaz Muhal was born Arjumand Banu Begum in April 1593. Her father was a Persian noble and brother of the wife of the Emperor Jahangir. At the age of fourteen she was betrothed to marry Prince Khurram Shihab-ud-din Muhammad, but the court astrologers delayed their marriage for five years until the most conducive date for a happy marriage in 1612.

Whether by craft or coincidence the astrologers were proven right: the couple were inseparable. Arjumand - now renamed Mumtaz Muhal ('Chosen One of the Palace') - accompanied Khurram on his travels across the Mughal Empire even travelling with his entourage on some of his military campaigns. After ascending to the Peacock Throne in 1628, Prince Khurram - now Shah Jahan ('King of the World') - gave Mumtaz his imperial seal, because he loved and trusted her so.

Three years later, while accompanying her husband on a campaign in the Deccan Plateau, Mumtaz went into labour in the town of Burhanpur but died during the birth of their fourteenth child, a daughter called Gauhara Behum. According to contemporary accounts Shah Jahan was heartbroken: he mourned in solitude for a year after which he emerged a broken man. He set about having a tomb built that would be a suitable memorial to their love. The result was the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The plinth and tomb took twelve years to build, and further buildings were added over the next ten years. Following the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan's third son by Mumtaz, Aurangzeb, seized power and confined him to the nearby Agra Fort. When Jahan died, eight years later he was interred alongside his beloved Mumtaz.

16 June 2008

On this day in history: First woman in space, 1963

Immediately after the Soviet Union's success in putting the first man into space in 1961, the head of cosmonaut training on the Russian space programme, Nikolai Kamanin, suggested to his superiors that it was their patriotic duty to again beat the Americans by being the first to put a woman into space. Chief Designer Korolev agreed and in October 1961 the search began for likeable woman who was an avowed Communist with experience of parachuting - piloting skills were not required as the Vostok spacecraft flew automatically. Five women received the call to train as cosmonauts, including Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, a textile worker and daughter of a war hero.

The five women began the exhaustive period of training and testing: centrifuge rides; isolation tests; rocket theory; parachute jumps; piloting jet fighters, physical exercise; and, weightless flights. In spite of being the least qualified - the other four had received higher education, and included engineers and test pilots - Tereshkova faired better in front of the Communist selection board than the other finalist, Valentina Ponomareva, who had excelled in all the other tests. Since the flight was essentially a propaganda exercise, Korolev nominated Tereshkova, and Premier Krushchev - who had the final say - agreed.

On the morning of 16th June 1963, Vostok 6 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with the call sign "Seagull". While in space Tereshkova kept a log and took photographs, while the ground staff monitored her physical condition. Controversy surrounds the flight: some reports claimed that she became emotionally distraught, and she certainly vomited during the flight; however, the flight lasted longer than initially intended leaving her nothing to do with no support from the ground staff; she claimed that rather than the weightlessness it was the poor food she had been given that made her sick; and - as was later confirmed - she noticed that there had been an error in the automatic orientation of the capsule, which the ground crew confirmed and corrected.

Tereshkova's ordeal did not end until she safely returned to earth. After ejecting out of the capsule during its final descent (as all cosmonauts did) she noticed that she was parachuting towards lake that was to large for her to swim to the edge of in her state of exhaustion. Fortunately the wind blew her back over dry land. Nevertheless, from a propaganda point of view the mission was a complete success. Tereshkova's flight had a longer duration than all the American space-flights, thus far, put together. She was also significantly younger than all the NASA astronauts. The Soviet hierarchy quashed any attempts to discredit her, whether based in fact or chauvinism.

After the flight, Tereshkova married another cosmonaut, Andrian Nikolayev (an event which was again used for propaganda purposes leading some to think it had been contrived by the Soviet leadership), graduated as a engineer, and became a prominent politician and international representative of the USSR.

To read a biography of Valentina Tereshkova see the Encyclopedia Astronautica site.

15 June 2008

On this day in history: Josiah Henson born, 1789

The man who partly inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's character of Uncle Tom was born into slavery on 15th June 1789 in Charles County, Maryland, on the farm of Francis Newman. Newman owned his father and leased his mother from Dr. Josiah McPherson. As a child Josiah witnessed his father receiving one-hundred lashes followed by the cutting off of his ear. The punishment was meted out because his father attacked a white overseer for assaulting Josiah's mother. Later, Newman sold Josiah's father to a new owner in Alabama, never to be seen by his family again.

After the sale, Josiah and his mother returned to the estate of Dr. McPherson who named the young slave after himself. According to Henson, the doctor was a kindly man but a drunkard who was found drowned in a stream that he was apparently too inebriated to cross safely. McPherson's estate was sold off by his heirs, the sale included Josiah's mother and five older siblings. Josiah was initially sold to a tavern keeper called Robb, he was neglected and became sickly. As a result he was sold at a bargain price to his mother's new owner, Isaac Riley, after Josiah's mother begged Riley to let her tend for her youngest child.

Josiah repaid Riley's kindness by working hard on his land, eventually becoming the farm manager. While on the estate of Riley's brother, Amos, in Kentucky, he became a Methodist preacher and raised a family of his own. Nevertheless, he yearned for freedom and in 1829 gave his owner the $350 he had saved from preaching to buy his freedom, only to learn that Amos Riley had increased his price from the agreed $450, with $350 initial cash payment, to one-thousand dollars. His hopes of manumission dashed, he later learnt that he and his family might be sold again so he resolved to escape to freedom.

Henson, his wife and children crossed the Niagara River in October 1830, setting foot in the Province of Upper Canada where they effectively became free. Wishing to help his fellow escaped slaves, Josiah used money he had raised in the four years after arriving in Canada to found a two-hundred acre self-sufficient community in Dawn Township, near Dresden in Kent County. Over five hundred people lived at the Dawn Settlement, which exported black walnut to the United States and Britain.

He travelled to England a number of times to promote the community's wares and also to speak at meetings. In 1851 he travelled across the ocean to show his wares at the Great Exhibition. When Queen Victoria passed his display she asked whether he was indeed a fugitive slave, since his works carried the legend: "This is the product of the industry of a fugitive slave from the United States, whose residence is Dawn, Canada."

Josiah Henson died on 5th May 1885, in Dresden Ontraio, aged 94. Since his death he has received many honours: he was the first black man to appear on a Canadian stamp; his home and other buildings on the site of Dawn Settlement are preserved; and, in 1999 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared him a National Historic Person and installed a plaque outside his relocated and restored cabin.

The University of North Caroline hosts a hypertext version of "Uncle Tom's Story of his life." An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom"). From 1789 to 1876.

14 June 2008

On this day in history: Ottomans conquer Kingdom of Sennar, 1821

The Kingdom of Sennar was created at the dawn sixteenth-century when the Funj people led by Amara Dunqas conquered much of modern day Sudan. About twenty years later the Amara Dunqas converted from a fusion of Christianity and animism to Islam and took the title Sultan. Later that century Sennar reached its peak, having conquered many of its neighbours and posing a credible threat to Ethiopia to the south and Egypt to the north.

The seventeenth century was a period of slow decline for the Sultanate, as the monarch lost control of the economy, due to an influx of foreign currency, and the law, as Islamic legal scholars asserted their authority. Between 1769 and 1788 the Sultans were merely puppets of the Hamaj who following a successful revolt held the reigns of power as regents. As the sultans struggled to re-establish their rule and the regents fought to maintain their hold over the running of the country, the country became weakened and a target for the imperial ambitions of foreign powers.

In 1821, the army of general Ismail bin Muhammed Ali, son of the khedive of Ottoman Egypt, invaded Sennar. The forces of the sultan, Badi VII, offered no resistance and on 14th June surrendered to Ismail, offering gifts and then having to watch the Ottoman troops loot his capital. Badi was restored as nominal rule of his lands, which were henceforth part of the Ottoman Empire.

13 June 2008

On this day in history: Queen Victoria takes the train, 1842

On Wednesday 13th June 1842, Queen Victoria became the first reigning British monarch to travel by railway. The Great Western Railway (GWR) built her a special royal coach to convey her from the station at Slough in Berkshire to London Paddington station. The idea for the journey had originated with the Queen whose officials contacted the authorities at Paddington the previous Saturday. The staff at the GWR quickly drew up plans for the trip in the utmost secrecy, possibly in response to an attempt on the Queen's life the month before while she travelled in a carriage through St. James' Park, London.

The royal party, consisting of Victoria, her husband Prince Albert, and her cousin Count Mensdorf, arrived at Slough station at just before midday and the train, consisting of the Royal saloon and six other coaches, left promptly at 12:00pm. The Firefly class locomotive called Phlegethon, which hauled the train was driven by Daniel Gooch, the GWR's chief mechanical engineer (who designed the Firefly class locomotives), accompanied by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the chief engineer of the GWR.

After a twenty-five minute journey, the train arrived at the Paddington terminus where the Queen was received by the directors and officers of the railway company and their wives, a detachment of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars, and a crowd of cheering onlookers. Following the reception the royal carriage conveyed the royal party to Buckingham Palace, where she arrived at 1pm.

Queen Victoria continued to use the railways regularly, and even bore some of the cost for one of the royal carriages from her own purse. A particular favourite with the royal family was the annual train journey up to Balmoral in Scotland, which they undertook each autumn. The Queen required that the speed of the train not exceed 40 mph during the day nor 30 mph at night, and would have to halt completely if she chose to eat. In spite of her reticence about some elements of travel by train, Victoria's approval of that system of transport must surely have done much to make it popular not only with the less fortunate, but also with the ruling classes of Britain.

12 June 2008

On this day in history: French Government banned student organisations, 1968

The events of 30th May 1968 marked a turning point in the struggle between radical and conservative in France. The President's defiant speech, the march held by his supporters and (probably most importantly) the promise of support from the army gave the government the morale boost they needed to suppress the revolt.

Early in the morning of 6th June, over one-thousand police arrived at Renault's factory in the village of Flins near Yvelines with orders to end the worker's occupation. They proceeded to clear the plant of strikers and later that morning escorted back to work around half the number of workers due on that shift(750 - most of whom were supervisors) . The strikers responded by forming a picket line to prevent workers from entering the factory and by requesting that students and other workers join them as reinforcements. That night, the police set up roadblocks and arrested three-hundred people travelling to Flins who they suspected of answering the worker's call.

Despite the efforts of the police, between four- and five-thousand workers and students gathered at Flins on Friday 7th June, some formed the picket line whilst others clashed with the police. These skirmishes escalated into street battles, and as in the Latin Quarter in May many local residents became involved: some were hostile to the police; others - including a mayor from a nearby town who was trying to act as a mediator - were caught up in the police's dragnet. The fighting continued in the village and surrounding area over the weekend. On the Monday only five-hundred workers arrived for their shift while thousands of police focused on locating, chasing and arresting young activists.

That day, one such chase ended in tragedy. Seventeen-year-old school-child Gilles Tautin, was part of a group fleeing across fields from the police. They found their path blocked by the River Seine and some - including Gilles - jumped in. The police caught up with them as they struggled to stay upright in muddy shallows and started to beat them with their batons until Gilles failed to resurface. On the same day that Gilles drowned, police shot two strikers at the Peugeot factory at Sochaux both of whom died.

These deaths resulted in a change of tactics by both the authorities and protesters. The former decided that prevention was better than cure: demonstrations would be prevented, so stopping the violent cycle of protest and repression. On the 12th June, the government also banned certain student radical organisations, making membership a criminal offence. Possibly as a result of this clamp-down, the national union of students declared that they would stop calling on its members to take to the streets to prevent any further loss of life.

These measures along with successful negotiations with trades unions effectively ended the revolutionary mass movement in France; however, a hardcore of radicals continued with their campaign through the summer.

11 June 2008

On this day in history: Lowest innings total in first-class cricket, 1907

On 11th June 1907, Gloucestershire resumed batting on the second day of their English County Cricket Championship match against Northamptonshire at the Spa Ground in Gloucester. At the end of a rain affected day-one the home side had scored a meagre twenty runs for the loss of four wickets. They went on to score a total of sixty runs before they were bowled out. After a short break the teams took to the field for Northamptonshire's first innings. The Times newspaper report of 12th June detailed what happened next:

In the course of 40 minutes [...] Northamptonshire were got out by [Edward] Dennett [pictured] and Mr. [Gilbert] Jessop for 12 runs. The ground, of course, greatly favoured the bowlers; but no men could have used the opportunity better than this pair did. While Mr. Jessop kept a perfect length and so kept the runs down, Dennett got rid of his opponents in startling fashion. Before a wicket fell six were scored from him, but afterwards only three more were hit off his bowling, while he claimed eight wickets.

Jessop took the remaining two wickets. Gloucestershire scored 88 in their second innings, and Northamptonshire reached 40 for 7 at the end of the second day's play, with Dennett taking all the wickets with only twelve runs scored off his bowling. The weather prevented any play on day-three so this historical match ended in a draw.

The scorecard for this match is available at

10 June 2008

On this day in history: First execution in Salem witch trials, 1692

Between February 1692 and May 1693, the fear of witchcraft drove the communities of three counties in the colonial state of Massachusetts into a panic that cost the lives of at least twenty-five people.

The hysteria began when two young cousins, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (aged nine and twelve respectively) began to suffer from uncontrollable fits and behave in an unruly manner. Soon other girls in Salem village began behaving in a similar manner. With no obvious explanation for this behaviour, the villagers suspected that it was the work of witches.

Initially, three women had accusations levelled against them. Each woman lived on the margins of the dominant puritan society: Tituba a servant of non-European ethnicity who accused the other two while under interrogation; Sarah Good, who relied on charity to survive; and, Sarah Osborne, who married her indentured servant and rarely attended church.

Over the next few months, a spate of accusations resulted in a series of arrests in Salem and nearby villages. Those arrested included two churchgoing women: moral propriety was no longer a protection against accusation. By the end of May, the magistrates held sixty-two people in custody. Early the next month the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem to prosecute the cases.

The first case brought before the Chief Magistrate, William Stoughton, was that of the fifty-nine year old Bridget Bishop, who had a reputation for being outspoken and dressing in a flamboyant manner by puritan standards. Her trial took place on 2nd June without a counsel for the defence. She was found guilty the same day and sentenced to execution by hanging.

On the 10th June 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged - the first of fourteen women and four men to suffer that fate before the hysteria had run its course. In October 1711, the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (the grand title of the state legislature) passed an act exonorating twenty-two of the executed, but not Bridget Bishop. 1957 another act exonerated the rest of those executed as a result of the witch trials, but only one - Ann Pudeator
- was named. Finally, in 2001 the Court passed an act declaring all the accused to have been innocent.

The University of Virgina hosts the web pages of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project - an excellent collection of primary source materials.

9 June 2008

On this day in history: Raid on the Medway, 1667

The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 did not mean an end to all of the policies of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth, especially with regard to trade. At that time the United Provinces of the Netherlands dominated world trade, a position that the English regarded with jealous eyes. Trade disputes - mainly caused by restrictions on foreign trade to English ports brought about by the Navigation Act of 1651 - and the English use of privateers to search Dutch merchantmen brought the two countries into open conflict during Cromwell's reign.

The First-Anglo Dutch War lasted from March 1652 to May 1654. Fought entirely at sea it resulted in an English victory. As part of the Treaty of Westminster, the Dutch reluctantly recognised the Navigation Act; however, the underlying issues that brought the countries to war had not been resolved. The Dutch response to a series of diplomatic incidents and English attacks on Dutch colonies and shipping provided the pretext for the English to declare war on 4th March 1665.

As with the first war, the fighting was limited to naval engagements; mostly confined to the North Sea. The initial English successes did not provide the decisive victory required to force another capitulation from the Dutch. Indeed, the strength of the reconstructed Dutch navy and their financial might meant that as the war dragged on into 1667, the English King, Charles II, struggled to find the money to maintain his navy. As a result of this, he decided to moor his largest ships at Chatham Docks, on the River Medway, while he negotiated with the Dutch and conducted secret negotiations with the French for extra funds. Meanwhile, the Dutch made plans to end the war with a decisive blow: an amphibious assault on Chatham Docks.

The plan was hatched by the Dutch statesman, Johan de Witt, whose brother Cornelis accompanied the force with the sealed orders for the attack - secrecy being of the utmost importance. Late in the day on 9th June 1667, the English sighted thirty Dutch ships entering the Thames Estuary. The attacking fleet carried around one-thousand marines, who captured strategic positions at Canvey Island and Sheerness on either side of the mouth of the river. Over the next few days the Dutch fought their way up the Thames and then the Medway removing the ships sunk by the English to impede their progress. On 12th June, the Dutch engaged the Royal Navy ships defending the chain at Gillingham, which protected the docks. Once the Dutch captured the HMS Unity and destroyed the Matthias and Charles V with a fireships, the docks were at their mercy.

In response, the Royal Navy sank the ships further up the river to prevent their capture - in total they sank thirty of their own ships during the raid. The Dutch continued to fight their way into the docks until their withdrawal on the 14th June. The mission was a complete success, the Dutch destroyed fifteen ships and sailed away with two more, including the pride of the English fleet: HMS Royal Charles. With his Navy in tatters, King Charles II was left with little choice but to sue for peace. A month later his representatives signed the Treaty of Breda, which granted the Dutch possession of some of the territories they captured during the war, concessions regarding the Navigation Act, and also freed up their forces just as the French invaded the Spanish Netherlands to their south.

You can read a contemporary account of the raid in the Diary of Samuel Pepys available at Project Gutenberg.

8 June 2008

On this day in history: Catastrophic volcanic eruption in Iceland, 1783

During the mid-morning of 8th June 1783, a Lutheran priest in southern Iceland called Jon Steingrimsson witnessed the first results of one of the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in history:

[In] clear and calm weather, a black haze of sand appeared to the north of the mountains. The cloud was so extensive that in a short time it had spread over the entire area and so thick that it caused darkness indoors. That night, strong earthquakes and tremors occurred. [1]

The earth had ripped apart along a sixteen-mile fissure later called the Laki volcano. This fissure intermittently continued to spew lava over the next eight months until its last eruption on 7th February 1784. The results of this eruption were felt across Europe, parts of North America and reportedly as far afield as Asia and North Africa. Understandably, the effects were worst in Iceland where an estimated quarter of the population died as a result.

Diaries and letters of the time help the historian trace the impact of the volcano. In Norway, on the 10th June, Johan Brun (also a Lutheran priest) wrote in his diary about black ash that had fallen from the sky causing plants to whither. Over the next week the dust cloud reached Prague and Berlin. An apparent change in direction of the prevailing winds, meant the 'dry fog' then passed over France on the 18th before it arrived over Britain on the 22nd.

Wherever the cloud appeared, those people who worked the land became ill. As the English poet William Cowper wrote in a letter to Rev. William Unwin in September 1783:

[S]uch multitudes are indisposed by fevers in this country, that the farmers have with difficulty gathered in their harvest, the labourers having been almost every day carried out of the field incapable of work; and many die. [2]

The climactic impact of the eruptions were felt for many years, and may have contributed to the poor harvests across Europe in 1788, which are often seen as a key cause of the French Revolution.

To learn more about the Laki eruptions and their environmental impact, see this excellent article on The Economist web-site.

[1] J. Steingrimsson, K. Kunz (trans.), Fires of the Earth: The Laki Eruption 1783-1784 (Reykjavik, 1998)
[2] W. Cowper, The works of William Cowper Vol. III (London, 1854) - available at
Google Books

7 June 2008

On this day in history: Australian Prime Minister visits Vietnam, 1968

The first Australian troops arrived in South Vietnam in August 1962 in response to a request for military aid from the country's President, Ngo Dinh Diem. Initially only thirty military advisers called the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) were deployed, to help train the South Vietnamese army. Three years later, an infantry battalion and support staff also arrived in Vietnam. The next year, the Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, announced that the country's deployment would increase to a 4350, including conscripted troops and air support. In 1966, Australian forces defeated Viet Cong and other North Vietnamese in the Battle of Long Tan. The following year the Australian government commits a further 1700 troops backed up by a squadron of tanks.

In November 1967, Holt goes missing while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria. He is presumed drowned and his body is never found. After a short period with a caretaker Prime Minister, the Liberal Party elects John Gorton as their leader and he takes the reigns of power in January 1968. The very next month Gorton announces that the Australian government will not increase its military commitment to the defence of South Vietnam; however, he did not favour a withdrawal of those forces currently deployed, but he was willing to visit them there as part of his tour of South-East Asia.

Australian soldiers meet Prime Minister John Gorton at Nui Dat,
South Vietnam, in June 1968 (Source National Australian Archives)

On 7th June 1968, Prime Minister Gorton arrived in Vietnam for a three day visit, during which he met with Australian troops at their base at Nui Dat. In spite of this visit, the Vietnam conflict was becoming increasingly unpopular with the Australian people: a 1969 pole finding that 55% of Australians wanted their troops brought home. In response, as the 1970s dawned, the slow process of withdrawal began, with servicemen who had completed their tour of duty not being replaced with fresh troops. Nevertheless this was not enough for the 120,000 Australians who marched in anti-war demonstrations in May 1970.

In March 1971, Gorton stood down as Prime Minister to be replaced by Sir William McMahon, who five months later announced the withdrawal of the bulk of Australian forces from Vietnam. Only a group of trainers remained until December 1972 when they were recalled by the newly elected Labour government.

The web-site of Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia has a number of educational documents pertaining to their role in the conflict.

6 June 2008

On this day in history: YMCA founded, 1844

The industrialisation of Britain the nineteenth century brought many young men from their homes in the country to the towns and cities. Religious organisations provided a salve for the loneliness these young men felt, having left family and friends behind. George Williams, was one such young man. He had been born into a well-to-do Somerset farming family in 1821, attended a local dame-school at Dulverton and a grammar school in Tiverton before moving to Bridgwater to work as an apprentice to the draper Henry William Holmes. Holmes attended the town's Zion Congregational Chapel, which Williams also started attending, becoming an avowed evangelist and teetotaller.

In the early 1840s, Williams moved to London to work as a buyer for Hitchcock, Rogers & Co., based at St Paul's Churchyard. In 1842, he began to worship at the King's Weigh House Chapel in the City of London. He became active in the schools and missionary works of Weigh House and other nonconformist evangelical chapels in London, but was soon ready to set up a new organisation himself.

On 6th June 1844, Williams and a group of like-minded young men met for the first time in a room above Hitchcock's premises. This group was known as the Young Men's Christian Association. Their initial intent was to form a Christian evangelical network of drapers and other tradesmen in London. This network soon reached beyond the limits of capital, benefiting from the quick affordable travel that the newly created railway networks offered. After spreading throughout Britain, the YMCA soon had members abroad. In 1851 there were YMCA groups in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Australia, Switzerland, and even as far afield as Canada, and the United States.

At some point in the 1850s, Williams converted to evangelical Anglicanism, underlining that the YMCA was a non-denominational organisation. In 1863, Hitchcock died and Williams took over as sole proprietor of Hitchcock, Rogers & Co., which he restructured as a wholesaling enterprise. He remained active in the YMCA, becoming London treasurer and influencing the creation of National and International councils.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the association, in 1894, Williams was granted the freedom of the City of London and received a knighthood from Queen Victoria. He also involved himself with a plethora of Christian and puritan organisations, for which he either provided financial support or acted as president, right up until his death in 1905. He was granted the final honour of an impressive funeral and burial in the crypt at St Paul's Cathedral, London.

The YMCA website includes a page detailing the history of the association.

5 June 2008

On this day in history: Bobby Kennedy assassinated, 1968

In March 1968 the incumbent President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, declared that he would not be seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party in the upcoming presidential elections. Although he did not say so at the time, he made this decision because of his failing health. This move left three front-runners in the race for nomination: Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who announced his candidacy following Johnson's withdrawal ; Senator Robert F. Kennedy, former At tourney General and brother of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963; and Senator Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with the anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy) who voiced opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Humphrey decided to focus on securing delegate votes from states that did not hold primaries, leaving Kennedy, McCarthy and the other remaining candidates to fight for the delegate votes from the thirteen states that held primaries. Johnson had won the New Hampshire primary before his withdrawal and another two candidates won the primaries in their home states: Senator George Smathers in Florida and Senator Stephen M. Young in Ohio.

On 4th June 1968, three states held their Democratic primaries: California, New Jersey and South Dakota - with California being seen as a key battleground between Kennedy, who had so far won two primaries, and McCarthy, who had taken four. McCarthy added New Jersey to his tally but Kennedy won in South Dakota and California where he had been campaigning that day.

Just after midnight on the 5th June, Kennedy made his through a crowd in the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. These supporters had just listened to his victory speech; however, one man had a different motive for being there. As Kennedy shook the hand of a busboy, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant, drew a .22 caliber Iver-Johnson Cadet revolver and fired repeatedly at the presidential candidate. Kennedy had been hit once just behind his right ear, and twice behind his right arm-pit. Despite the best efforts of medical staff at two Los Angeles hospitals he died from his injuries around twenty-six hours after the shooting.

Onlookers had wrestled Kennedy's assassin to the ground before he was arrested. Sirhan was born in Jerusalem where he was raised as a Maronite Christian before emigrating to America where he became an anti-Zionist, blaming Kennedy for supporting Israel in the Six-day-War the year before. In 1969 he was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment in 1972.

In the end, Humphrey won the Democratic candidacy for the presidential elections, which he lost to the Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon.

Along with his brother, Bobby Kennedy remains an iconic figure. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial web site attests to his legacy and includes a biography page.

4 June 2008

On this day in history: Montgolfier Brothers first public balloon flight, 1783

Before the pioneering balloon flights of Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, the Montgolfier family of Vidalon, near Annanoy in south-eastern France, were best known as owners of a successful papermaking business. The twelfth of fifteen children, Joseph was a dreamer and the first to consider constructing flying machines. His youngest brother Étienne provided the technical knowledge and skill to make Joseph's dreams a reality.

In November 1782, while living in Avignon, Joseph started experimenting with small models made of wood and taffeta under which he lit a small fire. When the model rose, Joseph concluded that the smoke from the fire contained 'Montgolfier Gas' that had a special property he called 'levity'. This phenomenon had been known since 1709 when a Brazilian priest, Bartolomeu de Gusmão, made a ball rise to the ceiling of the hall of the Casa da India, Lisbon, in the presence of King John V of Portugal. Despite being made a professor at the University of Coimbra, de Gusmão never developed a large scale lighter-than-air-ship.

Encouraged by his initial results, Joseph Montgolfier sent for Étienne, who had trained in Paris as an architect and thus had the ability to take Joseph's experiments forward. Indeed, within a month of the initial experiment, the brothers had constructed a device with twenty-seven times the volume of the original model which flew with such force that they could not maintain control of it. They eventually found their experiment around two kilometres away.

On 4th June 1783, the brothers were ready for their first public demonstration. They readied their balloon in the marketplace at Annanoy. The balloon was made from sackcloth, lined on the inside with layers of paper and had a volume of 28,000 cubic feet. The enormous device drew a sizeable crowd, including local dignitaries, who watched the ten minute flight. The brothers became famous overnight.

Étienne went to Paris to conduct further demonstrations in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, the famous wallpaper manufacturer. The result was the Aerostat Réveillon, which flew in September 1783 carrying a sheep, a rooster and a duck aloft watched by King Louis XVI, his Queen, Marie Antoinette, and an enormous crowd gathered at Versailles. The royal palace was also the setting for the next flight, conducted a month later, which carried a humans into the air for the first time in recorded history. The first two aeronauts were Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes, and while their names are little remembered, the name Montgolfier looms large in the history of flight.

3 June 2008

On this day in history: Andy Warhol shot, 1968

Valerie Solanas was born in Ventnor City, New Jersey in 1936. Throughout Valerie's childhood her father subjected her to sexual abuse, before divorcing her mother in the 1940s. Valerie moved to Washington D.C. with her mother who remarried following their relocation. After clashing with her stepfather Valerie left home at the age of fifteen, but nevertheless managed to complete high-school and gain a degree in psychology from the University of Maryland.

In 1966 she gravitated to Greenwich Village where she wrote a play called Up Your Ass about a man-hating prostitute, which (according to some accounts) may be based on Solanas' own experiences. The next year, Solanas had a fateful encounter with the artist Andy Warhol, who agreed to look at the play with a view to producing it; however, he later said that he was wary that Solanas may have been a police officer attempting to entrap him because the play was so pornographic and the police had already shut down filming on some of his other movies on the grounds that they were obscene.

It was at this time that Solanas wrote the satirical radical feminist tract the SCUM Manifesto. SCUM being an acronym of Society for Cutting Up Men. Later in 1967, she demanded that Warhol return the script of her play. When Warhol said that he could not do so (because he has lost it), she demanded payment for the work. In compensation Warhol offered her a small role in one of his movies, I, A Man. Solanas took the role but was far from satisfied.

At around 4:15pm on 3rd June 1968, Solanas took the elevator with Warhol up to his artistic headquarters, the Factory. She had been waiting there most of the day, taking the same lift up there to see the artist in order to get money for the play. Paul Morrissey, one of Warhol's associates, had rebuffed her on every occasion and again demanded that she leave or he would have to throw her out. Solanas then took a .32 automatic pistol from a paper bag, which she fired at Warhol three times, hitting him with the third attempt. She then fired twice at the art critic Mario Amaya - one bullet finding its target - before putting the gun to the head of Warhol's manager, Fred Hughes. The pistol jammed just as the elevator arrived and Hughes suggest that she take it, she agreed and departed.

Warhol barely survived the shooting. The bullet had struck both his lungs as well as his spleen, stomach, liver, and esophagus. He never made a full recovery and in order to prevent the wounds worsening, he had to wear a corset for the rest of his life. Solanas turned herself in to police that evening saying
"He had too much control of my life." The police charged her with attempted murder along with other offences. Pleading guilty, Solanas received a three year sentence. After release, she made threatening telephone calls to Warhol as well as others and was arrested again in November 1971. She spent time in psychiatric institutions (she may well have been suffering from some form of mental disorder at the time of the shooting) before drifting into prostitution in San Francisco, where she died of emphysema and pneumonia at the age of 52, in 1988.

The SCUM Manifesto is available for download in pdf format from the Sunrisedancer Library Catalog.

2 June 2008

On this day in history: Belgrade student revolt, 1968

In the late 1960s, student dissatisfaction was not solely confined to capitalist countries. Many students in Yugoslavia shared similar concerns with their fellows at universities in France, the United States, and other countries that had seen campus revolts. The students of the New Belgrade campus resented the privileges of the party élite, and this resentments boiled over on the night of 2nd June 1968.

A popular theatre company were booked to play the university. The students requested that they perform at the university's large open-air amphitheatre but instead authorities arranged for them to play a smaller venue and only make seats available to youth members of the ruling Communist party. On the night of the show, a large group students gathered outside the theatre and attempted to force their way in. When the police drove them out again they reacted by throwing stones at the theatre windows and smashing its doors.

The police responded by sending in a fire-engine to clear the streets, but the students managed to turn it over and set fire to it. They also started turning cars over to form barricades, as they had seen done by Parisian students on the television news. As the police pressed forward the retreated to the university campus where they discussed how to proceed.

The next day, around four thousand students decide to march on the centre of Belgrade to air their grievances: their disgust with the inequalities of the socialist state; their concerns about unemployment; their demand for establishment of real democracy. Halfway along the route, they find their way blocked by thousands of armed police, who fire into the crowd. The ensuing battle creates around seventy casualties.

That afternoon about ten thousand students occupy the Philosophy and Sociology Faculty on the New Belgrade campus and draw up a list of demands. Meanwhile, the streets of Belgrade fill with riot police instructed to squash any further demonstrations. Over the following days many of professors and other faculty staff join with the students in their occupation. Tensions rise - the press demands swift and merciless action against the students and on the 9th June police surround the university. But then, to widespread surprise, President Tito intervenes.

In a television address, he welcomes the students' criticism of the state and endorses their programme of reform. His words defuse the situation, the media performs a volte-face and the riot police disappear. The majority of students are jubilant, but a small hardcore of student activists continue to express their concerns and following another speech Tito, in which he denounced extremism, riot police moved in and cleared the Philosophy and Sociology Faculty on the 20th June. Slowly and surely the status quo was restored.

1 June 2008

On this day in history: First expedition reaches the North Magnetic Pole, 1831

In the seventeenth century, an Elizabethan courtier called Sir William Gilbert proposed that the Earth acted like a giant magnet, prior to that accepted wisdom suggested that there was a body - such as an island or mountain - that attracted compass magnets, located somewhere in the far north. Gilbert was also the first to define the North Magnetic Pole as the point where the planet's magnetic field pointed downwards: a definition still used today.

In May 1829, a Liverpool steamship called Victory sailed from London to explore the Arctic captained by a Scottish Royal Navy officer, John Ross. His nephew, James Clark Ross, was second-in-command and would later find fame exploring the Antarctic. The expedition was made possible by funds obtained from the Gin distiller Felix Booth, who was a friend of Ross'. The main purpose of the expedition was to find the Northwest Passage - a route to the Bering Strait through the Arctic pack ice - which Ross had sought on previous expeditions. After a brief stop in Scotland and with enough provisions to last one thousand days the Victory set off across the North Atlantic before heading up the west coast of Greenland into the Arctic Circle.

Later that year, Ross located the HMS Fury, which had been abandoned by William Edward Parry four years earlier in 1825. The crew of the Victory took on extra provisions from the Fury and sailed on in search of the Northwest Passage. The Victory found a body of water to the east of Baffin Island, which became known as the Gulf of Boothia (in honour of the expedition's patron). While sailing through this gulf, on 1st June 1831, James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic Pole for the first time with the instruments he had taken aboard his uncle's ship.

The following winter disaster struck the expedition. The Victory became ice-bound and had to be abandoned. In the spring of 1832, Ross led his crew north to the Fury repaired her boats and in the summer they rowed south in an attempt to meet up with the whaling fleet. Unable to do so they returned to the Fury and saw out the winter in the building they had previously constructed there, Somerset House. In August 1833, a route opened finally through the ice and the set off again. After 12 days of rowing Ross' crew caught sight of the whaler, the Isabella, which rescued them and returned them to Stromness in Scotland in October.

In spite of the discovery of the North Magnetic Pole, the expedition had not achieved its main goal and had cost the lives of three men and the eyesight of another. Nevertheless, John Ross received a hero's welcome back in London where he became a celebrity. He received many honours: the freedom of the cities of London, Liverpool and Bristol; a £5000 award from Parliament, and in 1834, a knighthood. He went on to become British consul in Stockholm. King William IV also received James Clark Cook at the same time as his uncle, and in 1843 he received his own knighthood after leading an expedition to the Antarctic.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography includes a page dedicated to 'Sir John Ross' and another to his nephew 'Sir James Clark Ross'.