January 23: A better day for the red-coats


On January 22, 1879 the British army had been dealt a stinging defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana, losing over 1,000 troops to a Zulu army of 20,000. In the aftermath of the massacre, as Zulu detachments pursued those fleeing the battle, 4 regiments of warriors encountered a British outpost at a medical mission at Rorke’s Drift.

The detachment there consisted of engineers detailed to repair a bridge over the Buffalo River, a cavalry unit, Natal militia and regular infantry there to guard the supplies. Some time after noon, two British refugees from the disaster at Isandlwana brought the news to Rorke’s Drift and the officers in charge had to decide whether to retreat — a dicey proposition moving in daylight through enemy territory, burdened by hospital patients — or to fortify the camp and resist the Zulu force they had been told was coming their way. They decided to stay and fight, a decision which caused the native horse and infantry to desert, leaving about 150 men to face 3-4,000 Zulus.

These Zulu regiments had not fought at Isandlwana, only served as a reserve force, and they may have been looking for a little action, because their commander disobeyed orders. Instead of sweeping past the post to block reinforcements, they attacked the outpost. There they discovered that the British had created high walls out of grain sacks. In 12 hours of hand-to-hand combat the hospital was set on fire and the patients there murdered in their beds, hundreds of Zulus were killed by British rifle fire, and the red-coats suffered 17 dead. On January 23, the Zulus withdrew.

To celebrate the bravery of the men at Rorke’s Drift, and to distract public attention from the defeat at Isandlwana, 12 Victoria Crosses were awarded. Cinematic treatments of the battle and its prelude are Zulu and Zulu Dawn, both well worth watching.

January 22: A bad day for the red-coats


In January 1879 the British Empire went to war against the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa. The alleged cause was the brutish treatment of two women who fled the territory but in fact the British could not tolerate any obstacle to their expansion in the area (as the white Boer republics would soon find out.) Three columns of regular troops, some native auxiliaries and local militia invaded Zululand hoping to bring the Zulu army to a pitched battle where the superior firepower of a modern Western army would crush the spear and shield warriors.

On January 20, the main body of the British force under Lord Chelmsford camped under the mountain known as Isandlwana. Though in enemy territory, he did not take any serious defensive precautions such as creating a wagon fort laager, and, just as foolishly, split his forces, leaving behind some 1,300 men and two artillery pieces to defend the camp. Unbeknownst to them, 20,000 Zulus, superbly disciplined and brave, have marched against the camp; on January 22, they launched an attack into the teeth of rifle fire. The Zulus suffered 1,000 casualties in their charge but succeeded in wiping out the position, taking no prisoners and seriously denting Chelmsford’s invasion plans. The defeat, and several other lesser ones inflicted by Zulu regiments, enraged the British who were in no mood to listen to Zulu King Cetshwayo’s talk of a negotiated settlement. A second invasion defeated the Zulu Kingdom by July.

January 19


1726 Birth of James Watt 

James Watt (1736-1819) was a native of the  small seaport of Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. His grandfather was a teacher of mathematics. His father was a builder and contractor—also a merchant,—a man of superior sagacity, if not ability, prudent and benevolent. The mother of Watt was noted as a woman of fine aspect, and excellent judgment and conduct. When boatswains of ships came to the father’s shop for stores, he was in the habit of throwing in an extra quantity of sail-needles and twine, with the remark, ‘See, take that too; I once lost a ship for want of such articles on board.’ The young mechanician received a good elementary education at the schools of his native town. It was by the overpowering bent of his own mind that he entered life as a mathematical-instrumentmaker.

JAMES WATT Steam EngineWhen he attempted to set up in that business at Glasgow, he met with an obstruction from the corporation of Hammermen, who looked upon him as an intruder upon their privileged ground. The world might have lost Watt and his inventions through this unworthy cause, if he had not had friends among the professors of the University,—Muirhead, a relation of his mother, and Anderson, the brother of one of his dearest school-friends,—by whose influence he was furnished with a workshop within the walls of the college, and invested with the title of its instrument-maker. Anderson, a man of an advanced and liberal mind, was Professor of Natural Philosophy, and had, amongst his class apparatus, a model of Newcomen’s steam-engine. He required to have it repaired, and put it into Watt’s hands for the purpose. Through this trivial accident it was that the young mechanician was led to ‘make that improvement of the steam-engine which gave a new power to civilized man, and has revolutionised the world. The model of Newcomen has very fortunately been preserved, and is now in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow College.

Watt’s career as a mechanician, in connection with Mr. Boulton, at the Soho Works, near Birmingham, was a brilliant one, and ended in raising him and his family to fortune. Yet it cannot be heard without pain, that a sixth or seventh part of his time was diverted from his proper pursuits, and devoted to mere ligitation, rendered unavoidable by the incessant invasions of his patents.

He was often consulted about supposed inventions and discoveries, and his invariable rule was to recommend that a model should be formed and tried. This he considered as the only true test of the value of any novelty in mechanics.

January 13


2012 The wreck of the “Costa Concordia”.

Costa Concordia was a cruise ship operated by Costa Crociere, launched in 2005.

The vessel left Rome on 13 January 2012  for a seven-day cruise. That night at 21:45 on calms seas, the Costa Concordia struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea just off the eastern shore of Isola del Giglio. This tore open a 160 ft gash on the port side of her hull, which soon flooded parts of the engine room, cutting power from the engines and ship services. As water flooded in and the ship listed, she drifted back towards the island and grounded near shore, then rolled onto her starboard side, lying in an unsteady position on a rocky underwater ledge.

The evacuation of the Costa Concordia took over six hours (regulations call for it to take 30 minutes), and of the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew known to have been aboard, 32 died. Francesco Schettino, the ship’s captain at that time, was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter, causing a maritime accident, and abandoning his ship. He climbed he had accidentally fallen into a lifeboat and returned to land where he refused direct orders to return to his post. In his defense, Schettino explained that the sail-by salute (which brought him dangerously close to shore) was intended to pay homage to other mariners and, for business reasons, to present passengers a nice view. He denied that he did this to impress a Moldovan dancer, Domnica Cemortan, whom he had brought to the bridge. She had boarded as a non-paying passenger and later admitted the two were having an affair. He was sentenced to 16 years inprison.

The wreck was salvaged three years after the incident and then towed to the port of Genoa, where scrapping operations began.

January 6

January 6 is Epiphany on the Christian calendar, one of those days when coronations often took place in the Middle Ages. Consider the following:


1017 Cnut (or Canute) is crowned King of England

Cnut (995-1935) is known as Cnut the Great, having formed a North Atlantic empire composed of England, Denmark, and Norway. He was an effective king of England  but his composite kingdom fell apart on his death, leading to a restoration of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty.


1066 Harold II is crowned King of England

Harold (1022-1066) was the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. He succeeded his brother-in-law, the childless Edward the Confessor, but faced two rivals for the throne. The first was an invasion of the Viking Harald Hardrada who was aided by Harold II’s treacherous brother Tostig. Before the decisive battle of Stamford bridge Harold tried unsuccessfully to woo back his brother, but ended up killing him and Hardrada in battle. Harold was less successful against the invasion by William of Normandy, falling to an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings.


1322 Stefan Uroš III is crowned King of Serbia

Balkan politics have always been a blood sport. As a youth Stefan (1285-1331) was sent by his father to be a hostage in the hands of the Mongol Golden Horde. Having survived that he quarrelled with his father who sent him to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, with secret instructions that the Byzantines blind him, rendering him unfit to succeed his father. The blinding was not total and when, on the death of his father, Stefan faced rivals for the throne he was able to win support by claiming that a divine miracle had restored his sight.


1449 Constantine XI is crowned Byzantine Emperor

Constantine (1405-1453) was the last Christian ruler of Constantinople, the last Roman emperor. This Byzantine empire had fallen on hard times and had shrunk to a few holdings in Greece and along the Black Sea coast and the capital itself. In 1453 the Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror stormed the city and Constantine died in the fighting. His body was never recovered and legend says he will return one day and drive out the Turks.

January 2


1791 The Big Bottom Massacre

If you were to observe a historical marker in Morgan County, Ohio, you might read the following:

Big Bottom Massacre
Following the American Revolution, the new federal government, in need of operating funds, sold millions of acres of western lands to land companies. One such company, the Ohio Company of Associates, brought settlement to Marietta in 1788. Two years later, despite warnings of Native American hostility, an association of 36 Company members moved north from Marietta to settle “Big Bottom,” a large area of level land on the east side of the Muskingum River. The settlers were acquainted with Native American warfare, but even so, built an unprotected outpost. They did not complete the blockhouse, put pickets around it, or post a sentry. On Jan 2, 1791, a war party of 25 Delaware and Wyandot Indians from the north attacked the unsuspecting settlers, killing nine men, one woman and two children. War raged throughout the Ohio Country until August 1794 when the tribes were defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

James Patten, along with four other men, was taken prisoner in the raid and spent four years in captivity until being released in a trade. In August 1794, General Anthony Wayne ordered construction of Fort Defiance and on Jan. 29, 1795 an Indian peace envoy went to the fort. The envoy included Patten and other captives. Patten, who was born in 1753 in Bedford, New Hampshire, was released as part of an exchange for Indian prisoners.

January 1


1902 First Rose Bowl Football Game

In the very first Tournament of Roses football game, undefeated Michigan (10-0) met a Stanford team with a record of 3-1-2. The result was a massacre. Going into the match, Michigan had scored 501 points; their opponents had scored none. Stanford would fare no better, losing 49-0 and requesting that the game be mercifully ended with over 8 minutes left on the clock. The game was so lopsided that for the next 13 years, the Tournament of Roses officials ran chariot races, ostrich races, and other various events instead of football.

Rules of the time included the following quirks:

  • The playing field was 110 yards long
  • Touchdowns counted five points, field goals five, and conversions one
  • The game was divided into two thirty-minute halves
  • A team had to make five yards in three downs to make a first down
  • Forward passes were not allowed
  • Substitutions were used infrequently as 11 men usually played the entire game

December 28

catastrophe_du_pont_sur_le_tay_-_1879_-_illustration1879, The Tay Bridge Disaster

On the evening of December 28, 1879 an unexpectedly strong wind struck the bridge over the Firth of Tay in Scotland at the same moment that a passenger train heading north to Dundee was on the structure. The bridge collapsed, sending the train hurtling into the water, killed all of its passengers and crew. Only 46 bodies were recovered but it was feared as there may have been as many as 70 to 75 dead. Subsequent investigations revealed a number of design flaws, particularly regarding wind loading, poor maintenance, and excessive train speed.

Today the disaster is known best for the commemorative piece written in 1880 by William McGonnagal, possibly the world’s worst poet. A section of this masterpiece is included.

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv’ry Tay,
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

December 23

The passing of four notorious characters


1948 Hideki Tojo

Tojo was the unacceptable face of Japanese militarism. A veteran of the campaigns in China, Tojo urged war on the USA when America imposed an embargo on Japan because of its expansion on the Asian mainland. He was Army Minister during the decision to attack Pearl Harbor and eventually rose to the position of Prime Minister and Chief of the General Staff. After Japan’s defeat Tojo was arrested for war crimes but failed in a suicide attempt. He was found guilty and executed on this day in 1948.


1953 Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria

Beria (1899-1953) was a brilliant and much-feared apparatchik in the Stalin regime. At the age of 20 Beria, born a Georgian, joined the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, and participated in the crushing of Georgian independence. He rose through the Party ranks and by 1934 was one of Stalin’s most trusted advisors. As deputy head of the NKVD he helped carry out the purges of the late 1930s and was rewarded with the top NKVD post and a place on the Politburo. He was responsible for the Katyn massacre of the Polish officer class, and aided the success of the anti-Nazi partisan effort, and the development of the Soviet atomic bomb program. When Stalin died, Beria tried to gain popularity by carrying out liberalization but was arrested by his fellows at the top of the Communist Party and shot. He is a central character in the very black comedy The Death of Stalin.


1961 Kurt Meyer

Kurt Meyer (1910-1961) was 20 when he joined the SS, the Nazi elite paramilitary. Attached to its Waffen SS units he served in many major campaigns, steadily winning a series of victories and decorations. An enthusiastic Nazi, he seems to have committed war crimes in the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union, killing Jews and other innocent civilians. In 1944 his regiment was stationed in Normandy during the Allied landings where they massacred Canadian prisoners of war. Meyer was taken prisoner and after the war tried for the murder of those prisoners. He was found guilty and served time in Dorchester prisoner in New Brunswick. On his release he helped perpetrate the myth that the Waffen SS were not murderous fanatics but plain old soldiers with scarcely a blot on their character.


2012 Jean Harris

Jean Harris (1923-2012) was the headmistress of an exclusive private school while she was carrying on an affair with celebrity diet doctor Herman Tarnower. Though she knew that he had often had relations with other women, Harris grew particularly jealous of Tarnower’s latest flame, his much-younger receptionist. On March 10, 1980 she drove to his home and shot him dead. At her trial she claimed that she had intended to commit suicide but in a struggle the gun had accidentally discharged into Tarnower’s body four times. Harris was found guilty of second-degree murder but only served 11 years before being released.

December 22


1095 Birth of Roger II of Sicily

The Normans were a scurvy crew. Essentially Vikings with a haircut, they spread from the territory they had extorted from the King of France in 911 all across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They were banditti, mercenaries, and crusaders, eventually setting up kingdoms in England, Ireland, southern Italy and the Levant. The most glorious of these was the Kingdom of Sicily, wrested from the Muslims who had invaded the island in the 9th century. For a couple of glorious centuries the Normans ran a nation blending the best of Catholic, Byzantine, Jewish, Lombard and Muslim art, law, architecture and statecraft. Its capital at Palermo was the largest city in Europe and visitors today still marvel at churches such as the Cappella Palatina featured above.


The Capella was commissioned by the first king of Sicily, Roger II, whose birthday is today. His state was multi-relgious and tolerant and to his court came scholars, scientists and artists from around the Mediterranean. His armies and fleets warred against the Byzantine empire and against Arab powers, from whom he successfully conquered a section of the North African coastline. He died in 1154.