September 20

1793 Death of a mutineer

Clark Gable. Marlon Brando. Mel Gibson. Hollywood heart-throbs have thrice portrayed the English seaman who led a rebellion aboard His Majesty’s Ship Bounty in 1789.

Fletcher Christian was born in 1764 to a middling English family which fell into debt forcing him to take to a life in the navy. Despite his late start to his career at sea he proved to be a capable sailor and rose to the rank of master’s mate, a junior officer. Several times he served under Lieutenant William Bligh who asked him in 1787 to join the crew of Bounty on a mission to transport a thousand breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies where they would be grown to serve as food for the slave labour on plantations.

Unfortunately, the Bounty’s sailors found life on Tahiti with its tropical breezes, laidback lifestyle, and sexually complaisant women to be more attractive that the lash, hard labour, and salt beef that the navy offered. After five months of relative bliss they resented being called back to their duties, particularly resenting Bligh’s methods of discipline. On April 28, 1789 Fletcher Christian led a mutiny which captured Bligh and forced him and 18 loyalists into an open ship’s boat before sailing away.

Christian’s hope was to find an island where he and his men could hide from the Royal Navy. His revisit to Tahiti lost him half his men who preferred to remain there but he recruited (or, rather, kidnapped) a  number of male and female Tahitians to join him in founding a colony — somewhere. He chose remote Pitcairn Island where he landed on January 23, 1790. After stripping Bounty of any useful items, Christian ordered the ship to be burnt to the waterline, making escape impossible.

Though Pitcairn was a tropical paradise, the behaviour of the mutineers was bestial. With a few years all of the sailors except one, and all of the Tahitian men had died, most of them murdered. Christian was cut down by a group of Tahitians while tending his garden. His descendants survive on the island to this day.

September 19

1356 The Battle of Poitiers

The Hundred Years War was one of the nastiest and most unnecessary conflicts in European history, waged on the flimsiest of pretexts and conducted, by the English at least, as a money-spinning proposition. It pitted a small and not-terribly-prosperous country against the richest and largest nation on the continent but England did surprisingly well for so long because of French disunity and, at critical moments, the superiority of dismounted bowman against heavy feudal cavalry.

One such moment occurred on this date in 1356 when an English army, led by Edward, “the Black Prince, heir to the throne, blundered into a much larger French force when returning from a raid. The result was the Battle of Poitiers and disaster for France.

The disparity in the size of the armies made Prince Edward look for a negotiated way out. The English offered to restore all the towns and castles which they had taken in the course of this campaign, to give up, unransomed, all their prisoners, and to bind themselves by oath to refrain for seven years from bearing arms against the king of France. But King Jean II, confident of victory, insisted on the Black Prince and a hundred of his best knights surrendering themselves as prisoners, a proposition which Edward and his army indignantly rejected.

When battle was joined the English longbow men repulsed charges by French knights, sending them into disarray and causing a large body of other cavalry to retreat without having seen action. Edward then charged with his own armoured horsemen and achieved victory by capturing Jean and one of his sons.

Jean was taken back to comfortable captivity in the Tower of London while an extortionate ransom was being negotiated. In the meantime France fell into chaos, peasant rebellions, and noble disunity from it took decades to recover.

September 18

1939 Germany calls

The Axis powers of World War II were famous for their use of English-speaking radio personalities such as Lord Haw-Haw and Tokyo Rose as disseminators of propaganda. What is less well-known is the use of jazz and swing music by the Nazis in attempts to demoralize Western troops and civilian audiences.

Joseph Goebbels used the radio programme “Germany Calling”, first broadcast on this day in 1939, as a means of mocking enemy leaders and sowing discontent. In order to attract listeners in America and Britain he sanctioned musical numbers that were otherwise banned in Germany as being “Negermusik”, “degenerate”, “African”, or “Jewish”. He hired jazz musicians who had performed in underground clubs to do their patriotic duty on radio as “Charlie and His Orchestra”.

Here are the lyrics of Charlie’s version of “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, 1940.

Here is Winston Churchill’s latest tearjerker:
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy!
thought I had brains,
But they shattered my planes.
They built up a front against me,
It’s quite amazing,
Clouding the skies with their planes.

This first clip is an early broadcast. The second two date from 1944 as the invasion of western Europe drew closer.

Announcers like Lord Haw-Haw were treated harshly after the war because they tended to be citizens of Allied powers but the musicians of Charlie’s orchestra went on to have successful careers in post-Hitler Germany.

September 17

1743 Birth of the Marquis de Condorcet 

A rather flamboyant account by a nineteenth-century English writer of the fall of Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet, French philosopher and mathematician:

Condorcet was born in Picardy in 1743. Early in life he distinguished himself as a mathematician, and his labours in the development of the differential and integral calculus, will preserve his name in the history of science. Associating with Voltaire, Helvetius, and D’Alembert, he became a sharer in their opinions, and a social reformer with an almost fanatical abhorrence of the present and the past, and with an invincible assurance in a glorious destiny for humanity in the future. The outbreak of the revolution was to him as the dawn of this new era when old wrongs should pass away and justice and goodness should rule the world. He wrote for the revolutionary newspapers, and was an indefatigable member of the Jacobin club, but he was less effective with his tongue than his pen. A cold and impassive exterior, a stoical Roman countenance, imperfectly expressed the fiery energy of his heart, and caused D’Alembert to describe him as ‘a volcano covered with snow.’

When the rough and bloody business of the revolution came on, he was unable, either from timidity or gentle breeding, to hold his own against the desperadoes who rose uppermost. During the violent struggle between the Girondist and Mountain party, he took a decided part with neither, provoking Madame Roland to write of him, ‘the genius of Condorcet is equal to the comprehension of the greatest truths, but he has no other characteristic besides fear. It may be said of his understanding combined with his person, that he is a fine spirit absorbed in cotton. Thus, after having deduced a principle or demonstrated a fact in the Assembly, he would give a vote decidedly opposite, overawed by the thunder of the tribunes, armed with insults and lavish of menaces. Such men should be employed to write, but never permitted to act.’ This mingling of courage with gentleness and irresolution caused him, says Carlyle, ‘to be styled, in irreverent language, mouton enrage’—peaceablest of creatures bitten rabid.’

Robespierre, in July 1793, issued a decree of accusation against Condorcet. At the entreaty of his wife he hid himself in an attic in an obscure quarter of Paris, and there remained for eight months without once venturing abroad. He relieved the weariness of his confinement by writing a treatise on his favourite idea, The Perfectibility of the Human Race; and had he been able to endure restraint for a few months longer, he would have been saved; but he grew anxious for the safety of the good woman who risked her life in giving him shelter, and the first verdure of the trees of the Luxembourg, of which he had a glimpse from his window, brought on an over-powering desire for fresh air and exercise. He escaped into the streets, passed the barriers, and wandered among thickets and stone-quarries in the outskirts of Paris. Wounded with a fall, and half-dead with hunger and fatigue, he entered. a cabaret in the village of Clamart, and asked for an omelet. ‘How many eggs will you have in it?’ inquired the waiter. ‘A dozen,’ replied the starving philosopher, ignorant of the proper dimensions of a working man’s breakfast. The extraordinary omelet excited suspicion. Some present requested to know his trade. He said, a carpenter, but his delicate hands belied him. He was searched, and a Latin Horace and an elegant pocket-book furnished unquestionable evidence that he was a skulking aristocrat. He was forthwith arrested, and marched off to prison at Bourg-la-Reine. On the way, he fainted with exhaustion, and was set on a peasant’s horse. Flung into a damp cell, he was found dead on the floor next morning, 24th March 1794. He had saved his neck from the guillotine by a dose of poison he always carried about with him in case of such an emergency.

Condorcet’s works have been collected and published in twenty-one volumes. The Marquise de Condorcet long survived her husband. She was one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her day, and distinguished herself by an elegant and correct translation into French of Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments.

September 16

1919 The birth of a hierarchiologist

Laurence J. Peter (1919-90) was a Canadian educator known best for his studies on bureaucratic incompetence. Born in Vancouver, Peter worked as a teacher in British Columbia before receiving his doctorate in education and moving to the United States. While at the University of Southern California, he published (with Raymond Hull) his groundbreaking The Peter Principle which seems to explain so much about what we experience at the hands of institutions. Briefly stated: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … In time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Peter’s book spawned much critical thinking in businesses and organizations. The truth of his observations have long been recognized but solutions for the problem he discerned have not been notably successful. Other of his maxims include:

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it.

The only valid rule about the proper length of a statement is that it achieve its purpose effectively.

The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to where they can do the least damage: management.

Super competence is more objectionable than incompetence .. [it] disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.

September 15

1940 Climax of the Battle of Britain

The attempt by the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force in order to win air superiority over the English Channel and pave the way for the invasion code-named Operation Sea Lion reached its peak in mid-September, 1940.

On September 15, the Germans launched a massive series of raids on London using 500-bombers, hoping to draw the RAF into a decisive combat with their 620 accompanying fighters. The plan was not a success; the disappointing results and high casualties would persuade the Germans to shift from targeting the RAF to night-time attacks on cities.

The above graphic has some interesting data. The contribution by the British Dominions to the supply of fighter pilots was significant but so was the role played by European exiles such as the Czechs and Poles. But why was the Belgian contingent so much higher than the French (who scarcely outnumbered American pilots whose country was not even at war)? Why were there so many New Zealanders in the air over London compared to Australians? Where was the RAAF at that time?

September 15 is still celebrated as Battle of Britain Day in the U.K.

September 14

1950 Birth of a disgraced prosecutor

In 2006 American tabloids broadcast the story of a horrific sex crime committed by three white students, members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Black psychology student and part-time stripper Crystal Mangum claimed that at a drunken house party thrown by team members, where she had been hired to perform, she had been raped. The racial angle and class differences between the accuser and the accused made this story raw meat for sensationalist reporting and too good for ethnic activists and an ambitious district attorney to miss.

Michael Byron “Mike” Nifong was born in Wilmington, North Carolina and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina. He avoided serving in Vietnam by claiming conscientious objector status. He rose in the legal profession to be appointed acting district attorney for Durham County in 2005 and, in the next year, ran for election to the post full-time. It was during this election campaign (which he won) that he became a zealous and publicity-minded leader of the case against the three accused students, giving dozens of interviews proclaiming their guilt, alleging a racial  motive, and calling them “hooligans”.

Even before his election, Nifong could see the wheels falling off his case. Crystal Mangum gave wildly varying testimony, no DNA evidence could be adduced, and no witnesses backed the accuser’s story. At least one alibi was rock solid, the photo array shown to Mangum contained only pictures of Duke lacrosse players, and the other stripper at the party denied that any  assault could have taken place. Moreover, defence lawyers claimed that Nifong and the head of the DNA lab had agreed to hold back exculpatory evidence. On December 22, Nifong dropped the rape charges but kept the kidnapping and sexual offence cases open. Six days later the North Carolina Bar filed ethics complaints against Nifong, and piled more accusations of violations of legal norms in January. He was called a “rogue prosecutor”.

The accused students were pronounced innocent and won large legal settlements from their university; Nifong was forced to resign, serve a brief term in jail, was disbarred, and lost multi-million dollar civil suits for his misconduct. Crystal Mangum was later convicted of murder. Other casualties of Mangum and Nifong’s actions included the Duke lacrosse coach who was fired and the reputation of 88 Duke faculty members who had published an ad shortly after the arrests criticizing their university for fostering an atmosphere of racist sexual violence that resulted in the assault of Ms Mangum. One beneficiary of Nifong’s missteps in 2006 was Darryl Howard, a convicted murderer who had been prosecuted by Nifong and was able to argue for his release based on similar withholding of DNA evidence.



September 13

1759 The Fate of New France is Sealed

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham occupies an interesting spot in the historical memory of Canadians. One might think that this decisive British victory which led to the virtual end of French rule in North America – absolutist, feudal, and Catholic – and prepared the way for a religiously-plural democracy would be celebrated as a national founding event: the equivalent of the Battle of Yorktown or the Fall of the Bastille. To think that is to underestimate the Canadian propensity for guilt, self-abnegation, and ambiguity.

The Seven Years War was the world’s first global conflict, fought in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, one of those dynastic tiffs that were so common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those struggles in a minor theatre of operations in the western hemisphere was known (to Americans at least) as the French and Indian War.

For over a century the armies of New France and their native allies had made war on the British colonies and their native allies to the south. The key to defeating New France lay in taking the two main fortresses of Quebec City and Louisbourg on Cape Breton. Louisbourg fell after a scandalously poor defence in 1758 and in 1759 a British army under James Wolfe sailed up the St Lawrence River to lay siege to Quebec. Wolfe conceived of a risky plan whereby a small force would climb a steep and lightly defended path up the cliffs to secure an easier landing spot farther upstream for the entire army.

This worked and the Marquis de Montcalm, the French general, awoke to find an enemy outside the city walls on the Plains of Abraham. He foolishly chose to march out and confront the British forthwith, trusting to his 2 to 1 superiority in numbers. In the ensuing fight both generals were mortally wounded and the French were forced back into Quebec. Montcalm’s successor decided his position was untenable and withdrew leaving the British in command of the city. A French attempt to retake Quebec in 1760 failed.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended most of the world-wide fighting and in the negotiations the French were given the choice of retaining Canada or keeping one of their Caribbean sugar islands. Louis XV chose Guadeloupe over (as Voltaire put it) a few acres of snow.

English Canadians were once allowed to sing proudly of this conquest:

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast, our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

But a plan to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the battle was met with threats of violence by French-speaking Quebecers and the event was cancelled as smacking too much of triumphalism. The motto of Quebec is “Je me souviens” which seems to translate as “I resent”.

September 12

1683 The Siege of Vienna Reaches a Climax

For centuries the Ottoman Turks had wanted to penetrate deeper into Europe. In the 14th century they had crossed the Dardanelles, taken much of Greece, and beaten the Serbs; in 1453 they captured Constantinople, and in 1526 they smashed Hungarian resistance at Mohács. A failed siege of Vienna in 1529 was only a temporary setback. In the Mediterranean their navies terrified the coasts of Spain and Italy and sealed off the Levant.

In 1683 the Turks were at it again. During their 20-year truce with the Holy Roman Empire, they had been strengthening the infrastructure necessary for an invasion of central Europe, building bridges, roads, and fortresses, and encouraging dissident Christian ethnic groups who held grudges against the Catholic Church. Emperor Mehmet IV launched an army of 150,000 men against Vienna and by July his siege lines were circling the city. So dismal were the city’s chances thought that the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold fled Vienna along with tens of thousands of citizens.

The defenders of the imperial capital numbered only about 16,000 but they were led by Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg who had overseen strengthening the walls and torn down the suburbs to give his cannon clear lines of fire. Leading the motley army of Turks, subject Christians from Romania and Hungary, and wild Crimean Tatar horsemen was the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

By early September the Viennese garrison was starving, sections of the wall were crumbling and it was expected that defenders would soon have to retreat into the strongholds of the inner city. They were saved by the timely intervention of an imperial relief force of infantry and Polish heavy cavalry led by John Sobieski which caught the Turks off guard.

The largest cavalry charge in history threw the Polish “winged hussars” into the battle; the smashed the Ottoman army and looted their camp. The Turks fled in disarray. Their defeat at the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683 was the first step in the disintegration of their European holdings: Hungary and parts of the Balkans were not long after yielded to the Holy Roman Empire. The 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz signalled the end of Turkish expansion and the beginning of an Ottoman decline into status as the Sick Man of Europe.

September 11

1862 Birthday of O. Henry

William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pen-name O. Henry, was born in North Carolina where he trained as a pharmacist. He spent time in Texas and worked in various jobs, some agricultural, and some clerical before he landed a position at a bank in Austin. There he was discovered to have embezzled some $854 and, fearing conviction, he fled to to Central America before returning to see his dying wife. Porter spent three years in prison; upon being freed he moved to New York where his writing career flourished. He died in 1910 of alcohol abuse leaving behind hundreds of stories and an enduring reputation, Here are some representative snippets of his writing:

His necktie was the blue-gray of a November sky, and its knot was plainly the outcome of a lordly carelessness combined with an accurate conception of the most recent dictum of fashion. – O. Henry, “From Each According to His Ability”, The Voice of the City, 1908

Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningly ejaculates the one word, “parallelogram!” and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder. That would be pure adventure. Would you accept it? Not you. You would flush with embarrassment; you would sheepishly drop the roll and continue down Broadway, fumbling feebly for the missing button. This you would do unless you are one of the blessed few in whom the pure spirit of adventure is not dead. – O. Henry, “The Green Door”, 1906

He had just come from a feast that had left him of his powers barely those of respiration and locomotion. His eyes were like two pale gooseberries firmly imbedded in a swollen and gravy-smeared mask of putty. – O. Henry, “Two Thanksgiving Gentlemen”, 1907

His raiment was splendid, his complexion olive, his mustache fierce, his manners a prince’s, his rings and pins as magnificent as those of a traveling dentist. – O. Henry, “A Philistine in Bohemia”, 1908

“What’s the matter, Bob, are you ill?”

“Not at all, dear.”

“Then what’s the matter with you?”


Hearken, brethren. When She-who-has-a-right-to-ask interrogates you concerning a change she finds in your mood answer her thus: Tell her that you, in a sudden rage, have murdered your grandmother; tell her that you have robbed orphans and that remorse has stricken you; tell her your fortune is swept away; that you are beset by enemies, by bunions, by any kind of malevolent fate; but do not, if peace and happiness are worth as much as a grain of mustard seed to you — do not answer her “Nothing.” – O. Henry, “The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Highball”, 1918