December 4

On this day in 1829 British imperialists, intent on maximizing their looting of the subcontinent and of grinding the face of the Indian natives further into the dust, abolished suttee, the Hindu practice whereby a widow is burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. Not content with this brutal imposition of Western values on a rich and ancient culture, the British forced yet more of their middle-class Christian morality on helpless Asian populations: they would go on to wipe out Thugee (ritual murder in service of the goddess Kali which claimed 40,000 victims a year), human sacrifice, infanticide, piracy, head-hunting, foot-binding and slavery. Fortunately for cultural relativists everywhere, the British were eventually driven out of India and suttee has been revived.

On this day in 1974 the doddering existentialist Jean Paul Sartre visited the German anarchist Andreas Baader in prison. In his account of the meeting, Sartre mentions little of what he said to the jailed terrorist, but he might well have chosen to comfort him with this quote from his 1943 masterwork Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.” No doubt buoyed up by this encouraging message, Baader would go on to kill himself in his cell.

On this day in 1977 Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruler of the Central African Empire, crowned himself. This former army sergeant and practicing cannibal was the darling of the government of France which paid $20,000,000 for the day’s festivities, which were modeled on the coronation of that other jewel in the crown of French democracy, Napoleon Bonaparte.

December 3

bayezid-selim

The birth of Bayezid II

In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottoman Turks, thus ending the Christian Roman Empire. Mehmet spent the rest of his life consolidating his gains by expanding into Europe and turning Constantinople into a glorious new capital for his regime. At the early age of forty-nine he died very suddenly; suspicions fell on a poisoner acting for his oldest son Bayezid, born on this day in 1447.

Bayezid claimed the throne but had to deal with the opposition of his brother Çem (or Jem). It was customary for a new sultan to murder all of his brothers and half-brothers so Çem fled to the Knights of St John, fierce enemies of the Turks; the Knights sent Çem to the pope who accepted a bribe from Bayezid to keep him locked up and not interfering in his rule.

Bayezid had a successful reign, warring against the Persians on his eastern border, mopping up more Christian territory, and taking advantage of the Spanish expulsion of their Jewish population. Bayezid sent Turkish ships to Spain to take on Jews wishing to migrate to Ottoman territory, laughing at the folly of Ferdinand and Isabella. “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” he said to his courtiers, “he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” Ironically, the pope held the same opinion and welcomed Jewish refugees into his Italian holdings.

Ottoman politics were often a blood sport. Late in life, Bayezid faced revolts by two of his sons. He defeated the rebellion of Ahmet but was deposed in 1512 by his son Selim (later known to history as “the Grim”). He died very shortly thereafter and is buried in Istanbul.

December 1

1927 Birth of the first bikini model

Micheline Bernardini was an 18-year-old nude dancer at a Paris nightclub when she was chosen by designer Louis Réard to showcase his two-piece bathing suit which he dubbed “bikini” after a recent atomic bomb test site. Réard had been unable to find a reputable runway model to display his suit so he cast an eye on one for whom wearing clothes  was an exciting novelty.

Pictured at a public swimming pool in July 1946, Mademoiselle Bernardini is holding a little box into which her entire costume could be packed.

Beard’s creation was by no means the first two-piece bathing suit but its extreme brevity, particularly on the buttocks, and the clever name choice caused a sensation and spawned a whole industry.

La Bernardini later moved to Australia where she worked at the Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne. She married an American soldier and moved to the United States.

November 25

The Ukrainian Partisan Army was formed in the midst of World War II to fight for an independent nation. As such it was opposed to the Soviet Red Army, the Poles, and the Germans, though it occasionally collaborated with the Wehrmacht is combating Communist forces. The UPA was guilty of ethnic cleansing against Polish civilians and many of its members had earlier aided the Germans in rounding up Jews.

After end of the war, it continued to battle for years as an underground army against the USSR. These Christmas cards emphasize their religious allegiance to Orthodoxy in the face of godless Bolshevism. By 1953 military action and infiltration by the Soviet secret police had ended the UPA’s effectiveness and crushed hopes of an independent Ukraine.

November 20

1863 The OTHER Gettysburg Address

The brief remarks at the Gettysburg battle site by Abraham Lincoln are rightly remembered as one of the greatest speeches in history. Almost forgotten is the address which preceded the President’s, given by Edward Everett, the politician and diplomat whose oratory was so fabled in his day that he was considered the featured speaker on this occasion. If you like two-hour lectures, rich in florid phrases, metaphor, and allusion, this is your baby. 

In the course of 13,000 words, Everett gave a minutely-detailed history of the war to that point, a microscopic analysis of the three days of battle, a salute to women,  and a lengthy constitutional analysis of why the Confederate cause could justly be called a rebellion, ending with a discussion of how a post-war reconciliation was possible. His second-last paragraph (longer than the entirety of Lincoln’s speech) will give you an idea of his style. If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like:

But the hour is coming and now is, when the power of the leaders of the Rebellion to delude and inflame must cease. There is no bitterness on the part of the masses. The people of the South are not going to wage an eternal war for the wretched pretexts by which this rebellion is sought to be justified. The bonds that unite us as one People, – a substantial community of origin, language, belief, and law (the four great ties that hold the societies of men together); common national and political interests; a common history; a common pride in a glorious ancestry; a common interest in this great heritage of blessings; the very geographical features of the country; the mighty rivers that cross the lines of climate, and thus facilitate the interchange of natural and industrial products, while the wonder-working arm of the engineer has levelled the mountain-walls which separate the East and West, compelling your own Alleghanies, my Maryland and Pennsylvania friends, to open wide their everlasting doors to the chariot-wheels of traffic and travel, – these bonds of union are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient. The heart of the People, North and South, is for the Union. Indications, too plain to be mistaken, announce the fact, both in the East and the West of the States in rebellion. In North Carolina and Arkansas the fatal charm at length is broken. At Raleigh and Little Rock the lips of honest and brave men are unsealed, and an independent press is unlimbering its artillery. When its rifled cannon shall begin to roar, the hosts of treasonable sophistry–the mad delusions of the day–will fly like the Rebel army through the passes of yonder mountain. The weary masses of the people are yearning to see the dear old flag again floating upon their capitols, and they sigh for the return of the peace, prosperity, and happiness which they enjoyed under a government whose power was felt only in its blessings.

November 16

1885 Execution of Louis Riel

Four years ago I penned the following op-ed.

How much of a hero do you have to be to warrant a statue? How much of a villain do you have to be to have your name stripped from streets, bridges, or schools? The brouhaha surrounding the memory of Edward Cornwallis and Egerton Ryerson means that Canadians and their governmental representatives need to seriously consider these questions.

At first glance, it would seem obvious that these two men are worthy of honour and praise. Cornwallis was, after all, the founder of Halifax. He arrived in Nova Scotia in 1749 with 2500 settlers, chose the site for a town, and worked to defend and expand his settlement, now the largest city in the Maritimes.

Ryerson had a splendid career in 19th-century Ontario as a Methodist minister, newspaper editor, historian, opponent of oligarchy, founder of Victoria College, but above all, as the architect of the provincial educational system – universal, free, and government-supported — that became a model for every province and territory in Canada.

So why are some demanding that statues to these men be taken down and their names erased from community sites?

Both men, it is claimed, wrought harm on the indigenes of their day. In response to native attacks on his settlers, Cornwallis placed a bounty on Mi’kmac scalps – the same sort of inducement that his French and Mi’kmac enemies regularly placed on the hair of the British they killed. His bounty was ineffective (it may have yielded one scalp) and he quickly rescinded the order, but for the sin of using the same methods as his native opponents, today’s Mi’kmac demand the expunging of Corwallis’s public presence. Ryerson’s present shaming results from him being an architect of the Indian Residential School system, the same crime for which Hubert Langevin has recently and controversially paid a high price.

The problem is that we have two men who made important contributions to their country in the 18th and 19thcenturies, but who also performed deeds that upset some Canadians in the 21st century. Which set of actions outweighs the other? Do we put a tarp over Corwallis’s statue on weekdays but remove it on weekends and Natal Day? Is it Ryerson University during term time, and Mid-Ranked Former Toronto Polytechnic the rest of the year? Or do we obliterate the memory of these fellows altogether?

“Use every man after his desert,” said Hamlet, “and who shall ‘scape whipping?”  No one, no historical figure, no matter how revered, ever lived without flaws. Louis Riel, rightly lauded for his role in the founding of Manitoba, ended his life as a false messiah who wanted to rename the North Star after his sister, and move the papacy to Montreal; a failed leader whose decisions brought ruin on the Métis of the Northwest. Yet we have erected two statues of Riel in Winnipeg and name a public holiday after him. By today’s standards, Winston Churchill was a racist, and made some very disobliging remarks about Islam, but who will deny that he is worthy of our gratitude for having helped save civilization from Hitler? Martin Luther King was a plagiarist and adulterer but he remains an idolized figure in the United States. Tommy Douglas, founder of Medicare, was once a proponent of eugenics and sterilizing and segregating the mentally handicapped, yet his fellow countrymen voted him the title of “The Greatest Canadian”.

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” That may have been a cunning piece of rhetoric for Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, but it is bad advice for a country to take. A nation must have heroes and we must honour the men and women who helped build Canada. An approach that recognizes in each historical figure an overall balance of benefits, of good deeds and bad attitudes, will save us from a ceaseless round of revisionism and endless moaning about the sins of our ancestors.

Sadly, the forces of wokedom prevailed. The names of Egerton and Ryerson were stripped from public buildings, statues were torn down, and a damnatio memoriae proclaimed on their reputation. My opinion remains unchanged.

 

November 13

1002 The St. Brice’s Day Massacre

For centuries Scandinavian warriors had been causing misery in England, carrying off slaves, levying vast amounts of tribute money (Danegeld), and occupying significant part of the country. At the turn of the millennium the raids became increasingly intense and damaging. Prayers and public fasting were directed against the pagan interlopers while a payment of 24,000 pounds was gathered to buy them off.

In 1002 Aethelred II (“the Unready”) decided on a policy of extermination, (iustissima exterminacio). Claiming to have heard of a plot to depose him, he ordered the death of all Danes in the country. Historians estimate that thousands were killed in the territories where Aethelred’s writ ran, possibly including Gunhilde, the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. Aethelred defended this ethnic cleansing in a porclamation explaining why a church in Oxford had to be burned down in the affair.

For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me.

Rather than end the Danish problem, the massacre only prompted more warfare. Sweyn Forkbeard would invade England and depose Aethelred. By 1016 a Danish king, Canute, would rule England.

November 12

1970 A whale explodes

In November 1970 a 45-foot sperm whale corpse was found on a beach near Florence, Oregon. Officials were puzzled about how to dispose of 8 tons of decomposing flesh until one genius from the state’s Highway Division hit upon the idea of surrounding the dead cetacean with explosive material and blowing it to smithereens.

Despite the warning from a local demolition expert that a mere 20 sticks or 8.4 pounds of dynamite would suffice, officials settled on 20 cases (a half-ton). The result was spectacular. Pieces of the unfortunate mammal rained down on horrified spectators. Particularly unlucky was the fellow who had recommended the smaller amount — his brand-new car, just purchased from a dealership offering “A Whale of a Deal”, was flattened by a massive chunk of blubber.

This hilarious disaster might have been forgotten but for a piece by humorist Dave Barry 25 years later. A video of the explosion went viral and made the episode famous.

In 2020, residents of Florence voted to name a new recreational area “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” in honor of the incident.

November 11

1918 The end of the War to End All War

The Great War, or the First World War, was the most hideous conflict yet to plague mankind (though that distinction only lasted 20 years). The millions of casualties had to be gathered, identified, and buried. (A splendid movie dealing with how the French handled the challenge is 1989’s  Life and Nothing But with the great Philippe Noiret.) The British Empire and Commonwealth’s War Graves Commission decided that the bodies should be interred close to where they fell and should be commemorated with a standard headstone, regardless of rank. Families of the dead were invited to add a personal tribute on the memorial. 

Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them by Eric McGeer is a collection of epitaphs from Canadian graves on the Western Front. These are words from another age, written for soldiers born in the 1880s and 1890s to parents born between the 1850s and 1870s. They provide a priceless glimpse at a lost world whose ideas of grief and loss may seem strange to children of the 21st century.

BREAK, DAY OF GOD, SWEET DAY OF PEACE, AND BID THE SHOUT OF WARRIORS CEASE. Sergeant Wellesley Seymour Taylor, 14th Battalion, May 1st 1916 (age 24)

GOD SAID, “THE FIRST BORN OF THY SONS SHALT THOU GIVE UNTO ME.” Lance Corporal Norman McKelvie Parker, 58th Battalion, September 26th 1917 (age 20)

AN ACTOR BY PROFESSION. HIS LAST ROLE, THE NOBLEST EVER PLAYED. Private Griffith Tallesyn Davies, Canadian Army Medical Corps, May 20th 1918 (age 50)

NO HOME CAN NOW BE HOME TO ME UNTIL AGAIN YOUR FACE I SEE WHEN JESUS COMES. MOTHER Sergeant John Moore, 102nd Battalion, April 9th 1917 (age 25)

VOLUNTEER FROM THE U.S.A. TO AVENGE THE LUSITANIA MURDER. Driver Leland Wingate Fernald, Canadian Field Artillery, May 8th 1916 (age 28)

THE BETTER DAYS OF LIFE WERE OURS. THE WORST CAN BE BUT MINE. Corporal Thomas Bourchier Cave, 102nd Battalion, November 11th 1916 (age 27)

AND THERE WENT OUT THAT DAY TO THE GOD OF BATTLES THE SOUL OF A MAN WHO LOVED BATTLES. Lieutenant William Ramsay, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, September 28th 1918 (age 22)

FORTH FROM THE SHADOWS CAME DEATH WITH THE PITILESS SYLLABLE “NOW.” Major Anthony Lavelle McHugh, Canadian Railway Troops, May 19th 1917 (age 53)

HE WOULD GIVE HIS DINNER TO A HUNGRY DOG AND GO WITHOUT HIMSELF. Gunner Charles Douglas Moore, Canadian Anti-Aircraft Battery, September 19th 1917 (age 30)

November 10

1975 The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
 
 
 
 
I can think of few stranger songs that ever reached Number One on the pop music charts than Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“. It is the sort of music that would have been played in taverns in the seventeenth century, a song of hubris, tragedy, and mourning.
 
On November 10, 1975 a fierce gale on Lake Superior sank the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald bound from Superior, Wisconsin to a mill on Zug Island, Michigan. Captain Ernest M. McSorley had a reputation as a skipper who seldom ran for shelter but the storm encountered on that night was particularly severe, producing rogue waves over 30′ high, and forcing the skipper to seek the lee of Isle Royale. As darkness fell, McSorley radioed “I have a ‘bad list’, I have lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in.” At 7:10 he reported “We are holding our own.” That was the last message sent. The Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from radar and went down with the loss of all hands, 29 men.
 
Within weeks of the sinking, Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot penned his tribute to the doomed ship. The 1976 recording, almost six minutes long, raced up the charts in North America. 
 
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
T’was the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said
“Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors’ cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.