February 23

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The battle of the Alamo begins

For years American migrants had been arriving in the north of the new Mexican Republic, in the  province of Texas. These colonists remained a largely foreign element, making little effort to adapt to the local culture and resentful of Mexican decrees that outlawed slavery. In 1835 war broke out between the Texians (English-speaking immigrants) and Mexican troops. At first the Texians were successful in driving out the Mexican army but it returned in strength under President Santa Ana.

Santa Ana had declared that the rebels would be treated as pirates and subject to immediate execution — there would be no prisoners of war. On February 23, 1836 2,000 Mexican troops surrounded a makeshift fort that had been constructed around an old Spanish mission near San Antonio, called the Alamo. It was garrisoned by around 200 Texians who had unwisely decided to stay and fight. Their ranks include newly arrived volunteers from the United States, among them famed Indian-fighter and Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett.

The Mexicans began the siege by raising a blood-red flag indicating that no quarter would be given in battle. The Texans tried to negotiate an honourable surrender but were told that only an unconditional surrender and no promise of safety was on the table. The fighting lasted for ten days during which time the defenders appealed urgently for help. The commander William Travis sent out a letter, addressed “to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world”:

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World:

Fellow citizens & compatriots—I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country—Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis

On March 6 a Mexican assault overwhelmed the defenders and all of them, except black slaves, women and children, were killed.

The defeat at the Alamo turned into a propaganda victory and in less than two months Santa Ana’s army had been defeated and an independent Texas Republic had been secured.

Despite Travis’s talk of Liberty, the new republic decreed:

  • Persons of colour who had been servants for life under Mexican law would become property.
  • Congress should pass no law restricting emigrants from bring their slaves into Texas.
  • Congress shall not have the power to emancipate slaves.
  • Slaveowners may not free their slaves without Congressional approval unless the freed slaves leave Texas.
  • Free persons of African descent were required to petition the Texas Congress for permission to continue living in the country.
  • Africans and the descendants of Africans and Indians were excluded from the class of ‘persons’ having rights.

February 21

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The publication of The Communist Manifesto

1848 was the Year of Revolutions. All across Europe rebellions of national and liberal varieties broke out against the monarchies and multinational empires of the Continent. All of these flared up and failed, but one little revolutionary publication, scarcely noticed at the time, survived to become one of the most influential political tracts ever written.

The Communist League (born a decade earlier as the League of the Just) was a little-regarded, loosely-connected potpourri of socialist malcontents, one of a myriad of left-wing collectives, much better at philosophizing and arguing with each other than they were at bringing down the established powers. Among its members were two German exiles, the journalist Karl Marx and the rich man’s son Friedrich Engels, who had pledged to draw up a statement of the League’s beliefs. After many false starts and much procrastination, The Communist Manifesto arrived just in time to have no influence whatsoever on the revolutions of that year.

The little book’s great impact was to occur in the decades to come as it inspired revolutionaries with its claims of a truly scientific analysis of human history. The present economic state of a mass of underpaid labourers oppressed by the great industrialists was soon to be over. The dialectic of history had been decoded by Marx and Engels who predicted that the proletariat would soon overcome the bourgeoisie and usher in a classless state of equality and freedom from want or alienation. Despite numerous  attempts at producing such a heaven on earth on the national level, Marxism has been successful only in winning over academics in the social sciences and Grievance Studies.

February 19

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1594 Birth of Henry Prince of Wales

Henry Frederick Stuart was the oldest son of King James VI of Scotland who in 1603 became James I of England. His death in 1612 left second son Charles as the heir. It was the fate of Charles to prompt the English Civil War and be executed for  treason in 1649, prompting the founding of an English republic. Chambers in his Book of Days laments the death by typhoid of Henry and the course that English history might have taken:

It is blessed to die in promise, rather than after all the blots and mischances of performance. We naturally credit the young dead with much which might never have been realized. Nevertheless, in the early death of Henry Prince of Wales there is no room to doubt that the national bewailment was just. All accounts concur in representing him as a youth of bright talents, most generous dispositions, and the noblest aspirations. At sixteen, he had the figure, the proportions, and the sentiments of a full-grown man. With the love of study which belonged to his father, he possessed what his father entirely lacked, a love of manly military exercises. In riding, in archery, in the use of arms, he was without a superior. He studied shipbuilding and the whole art of war with as much zeal as if he had had no taste for elegant learning. When, at Christmas 1609, the romantic spectacle called his Barriers was presented in the Banqueting House at Whitehall,—when he and six other youths met each in succession eight others, at pike and sword play,—all clad in the beautiful armour of the period,—Henry was remarked, to the surprise of all, to have given and received thirty-two pushes of pike and about three hundred and sixty strokes of sword, in one evening.

It was in the midst of active study and exercise, and while the nation was becoming fully aware of the promise he gave as their future ruler, that this accomplished prince was seized with a fever, the consequence, apparently, of the too violent fatigues to which he occasionally subjected himself. What immediately affected him to a fatal illness, seems to have been his playing at tennis one evening without his coat. In the simple act of stripping off and laying aside that coat, was involved an incalculable change of the current of English history; for, had Henry survived and reigned, the country would probably have escaped a civil war—and who can say, in that event, how much our national destinies might have been changed, for good or evil? During the twelve days of the prince’s illness, the public mind was wrought up to a pitch of intense anxiety regarding him: and when, on one occasion, he was thought to have yielded up the ghost, the cry of grief went out from St. James’s Palace into the street, and was there repeated and spread by the sympathising multitude. All that the medical skill of that age could do was done to save so valuable a life, including some applications that sound strangely in our ears: for example, pigeons applied to the head, and a split cock to the feet. Sir Walter Raleigh sent from his prison in the Tower a ‘quinteseence’ which he believed to be of wonderful power: and it did give the prince the only approach to a restoring perspiration which he had had. But all was in vain. Henry died on the 6th of November 1612, when three months less than nineteen years of age. As a historical event, his death ranks with a very small class in which deceased royalty has been mourned by the nation’s heart.

The national admiration of this young prince is shown in some quaint lines, hitherto inedited, in the Burleigh MSS.:

Loa where he shineth yonder, 
A fixed star in heaven:
Whose motion heere came under 
None of your planets heaven.
if that the moone should tender 
The sunne her love, and marry, 
They both would not engender
Soe great a star as Harry.

February 16

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1804 Americans burn the USS Philadelphia

The civilized world was plagued for centuries by the pirates of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. They terrorized the shores of the Christian Mediterranean and sailed into the Atlantic as far north as Iceland to take slaves — over a million Europeans were taken captive from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Countries either paid protection money or suffered the constant assaults on their shipping and coastal towns. The newly-independent United States began by paying the extortion — amounting to 16% of the American federal budget — but finally, under Thomas Jefferson, the USA had had enough. The officials with whom the Americans had negotiated told them their piracy was a religious duty:

“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

So in 1801 began The First Barbary War against these pirate nests. In October 1803 the frigate USS Philadelphia while engaging in this campaign went aground near the city of Tripoli and its crew taken prisoner by the local Muslim pirate king. The ship was too dangerous a prize to be left in the hands of the Bey of Tripoli, so Commodore Edward Preble ordered Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to try and repossess the ship or destroy it.

Sir, you are hereby ordered to take command of the prize ketch Intrepid. It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli, enter the harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her and make good your retreat … The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance. I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it.

The Intrepid, previously named Mastico, had been captured from the Tripolitans, and Decatur disguised the ship as a merchant vessel run by a small Arab-speaking crew; Decatur and most of the men hid below deck. Under the ruse that the ship had lost its anchor, permission was sought to tie up to the Philadelphia. When the two ships were aside one another, Decatur and the other men burst out and onto the Philadelphia, easily overcoming the crew aboard. In a matter of minutes, 20 of the enemy were dead and others had jumped ship. The Americans then proceeded to send the ship up in flames and quickly retreat to the Intrepid.

British Admiral Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

February 15

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1493

Columbus issues a letter

Shortly before making landfall on his return from his first Voyage to the Indies, Columbus wrote this letter, excerpted below:

Since I know that you will be pleased by the great victory which Our Lord has given me on my voyage, I am writing you this letter, from which you will learn how in twenty days I crossed to the Indies with the fleet which the King and Queen, our most illustrious sovereigns, gave me. I found there very many islands inhabited by people without number, and I have taken possession of them all on behalf of Their Highnesses by proclamation and by unfurling the royal standard, and I was not contradicted.

To the first island I found I gave the name San Salvador in memory of His High Majesty who miraculously has given all this; the Indians call it Guanahaní. To the second I gave the name the island of Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabela; to the fifth, the island of Juana, and so on, to each a new name.

When I reached Juana I followed the coast to the west and I found it to be so large that I thought it must be the mainland, the province of Cathay; and since I found no towns or villages on the coast except small settlements with whose inhabitants I could not speak because they all immediately fled, I continued on that course thinking that I could not fail to find great cities or towns.

After many leagues, having seen that there was nothing new and that the coast was carrying me northwards, which was not the course I wished to take because winter was now drawing on and I proposed to make to the south, and as moreover the wind was carrying me forward, I decided to wait no longer and I turned round and made for a fine harbour. From there I sent two men inland to find out if there was a king or any great cities. They travelled for three days and found an infinite number of small villages and countless people, but no sign of authority; for which reason they returned. I understood well enough from some other Indians I had already taken that the whole of this coast was an island; and so I followed the coast one hundred and seven leagues to the east to where it ended.

I sighted another island to the east, eighteen leagues distant, to which I then gave the name Español… Española is a marvel; the sierras and the mountains and the plains and the fields and the land are so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing, for raising all kinds of cattle, for building towns and villages. The harbours are beyond the belief of anyone who has not seen them, and the many great rivers give good waters of which the majority bear gold. There are great differences between the trees and fruit and plants and those of Juana. On this island there are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals.

All the people on this island and all the others I have found or have learned of go naked, men and women alike, just as their mothers bear them, although some women cover themselves in one place with a leaf from a plant or a cotton garment which they make for the purpose.

They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they that way inclined, not because they are not well built and of fine bearing, but because they are amazingly timid. They have no other weapons than those made from canes cut when they are in seed, to the ends of which they fix a sharp stick; and they dare not use them, for many times I have happened to send two or three men ashore to some town to speak to them and a great number of them have come out, and as soon as they see the men coming they run off, parents not even waiting for children, and not because any harm has been done to any of them; on the contrary, everywhere I have been and have been able to speak to them I have given them some of everything I had, cloth and many other things, without receiving anything in exchange; but they are simply incurably timid.

The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it. They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked; rather, they offer it willingly and with such love that they would give their hearts, and whether it is something of value or of little worth, they are happy with whatever they are given in return, however it is given …. I gave them thousands of pretty things I carried with me so that they would be well disposed and, moreover, would become christians, inclined to the love of Their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help us by giving us the things they have in abundance and of which we have need.

They knew no sect and were not idolaters, except that they all believe that power and good come from heaven, and they believed very firmly that I and these ships and crew came from heaven and in this belief they received me everywhere, once they had overcome their fear. And this is not because they are ignorant; rather, they are of subtle intelligence and can find their way around those seas, and give a marvellously good account of everything; it is only because they have never seen men clothed or ships of that kind. When I arrived in the Indies, at the first island I found I took some of them by force so that they could learn and give me information about what there was in those parts, and in that way they soon understood us and we them, whether by word or by sign; and they have been very useful to us. I still have them with me, and they still insist that I come from heaven, in spite of all the exchanges they have had with me, and they were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others would run from house to house and to the nearby towns shouting: “come, come and see the people from heaven.” In this way they all flocked in, men and women alike, great and small, once they were confident about us; none were left behind, and they all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with marvellous affection….

So I have found no monsters, nor heard of any except on an island here which is the second one as you approach the Indies and which is inhabited by people who are held in all the islands to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh. These people have many canoes in which they sail around all the islands of India robbing and stealing whatever they want; they are no more malformed than the others except that they wear their hair long like women and they carry bows and arrows made from the same cane stems with a small stick at the end for want of iron which they do not have. They are ferocious with these other people who are excessively cowardly, but I take no more account of them than of the rest.

In conclusion, to speak only of what has been achieved on this voyage, which was very rapid, Their Highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they require if Their Majesties will give me only a very little help; as much spice and cotton as Their Majesties may order to be shipped, as much mastic as they may order to be shipped, which until now has only been found in Greece, on the island of Chios, and the Genoese government sells it for whatever it likes, and as much aloe as they may order to be shipped and as many slaves as they may order to be shipped, and who will be from among the idolaters. I believe that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon and that I will find a thousand other things of value which the men I have left there will have discovered; for I have not delayed at any point whenever the wind gave me the opportunity to sail, except at the town of Navidad for as long as I might leave it safe and secure. And in truth I could have done a great deal more if the ships had served me as reason demanded.

That is enough. Eternal God, our Lord, gives to all those who follow His path victory over things which appear impossible, and this was a very notable example. For, although these lands may have been spoken or written of, that was all conjecture, without eye-witness, and those who heard the stories listened to them and judged them more as fables than as having the least vestige of truth. Therefore, since Our Redeemer gave to our most illustrious King and Queen and to their famous kingdoms this victory in such great matters, the whole of Christendom should be joyful and hold great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the great exultation they will have when so many people return to our holy faith and for the temporal benefits which will bring solace and profit not only to Spain but to all christians. This is a brief account of what has been achieved.

Dated on board the caravel, off the islands of the Canaries, 15 February in the year 1493.

Your obedient servant. The Admiral.

February 2

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962 The first Holy Roman Emperor

Some consider Charlemagne’s coronation on Christmas Day 800 as the first creation of a Holy Roman Emperor, but credit should really go to Pope John XII crowning German king Otto I. Otto the Great united Germany, added other conquests, sparked the Ottonian Renaissance and saved Europe from barbarian invasion by defeating the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld.

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1857 The first celebration of Groundhog’s Day

Growing out of immigrant German customs in Pennsylvania, the first official Groundhog’s Day is observed in Punxsutawney. Promoted by Clymer H. Freas, the editor of the local Punxsutawney Spirit, the town’s annual celebration is still the biggest of its kind and the model for the immortal Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog’s Day.

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1943 Germans surrender at Stalingrad

From August 1942 to February 1943 almost two million men contested control of the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River. Hitler’s 6th Army wished to seize the area as part of the German plan to control the oil supplies of the Caucasus; Stalin’s troops fought to keep Volga river traffic open and prevent a propaganda coup in losing a city named after their Supreme Leader.

In November Soviet counterattacks succeeded in surrounding the city and creating what the Germans called “the kettle”. Hitler refused permission for his men to withdraw believing that they could be supplied by air and that his other forces could break the encirclement. It was not to be. Out of food and ammunition, 95,000 German and Romanian troops surrounded on this date. Only 5,000 of them, mostly officers, ever saw their homes again.

January 27

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1640, the burial of a melancholy author

One of the most interesting books of the 17th century is The Anatomy of Melancholy, a massive treatise on mental illness, particularly depression. It is the work of the Oxford scholar Robert Burton (1577-1640). According to Dr Samuel Johnson, it was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.

Of his own mental condition Burton said:  “a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of and could imagine no fitter evacuation than this … I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business”. In his view, melancholy was “a disease so frequent … in our miserable times, as few there are that feele not the smart of it”, and he said he compiled his book “to prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universall a malady, an Epidemicall disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind.”

Here are some of his observations:

“He that increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow.”

“What cannot be cured must be endured.”

“Wine is strong, the king is strong, women are strong, but truth overcometh all things.”

“Let thy fortune be what it will, ’tis thy mind alone that makes thee poor or rich, miserable or happy.”
“It is an old saying, ‘A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword’; and many men are as much galled with a calumny, a scurrile and bitter jest, a libel, a pasquil, satire, apologue, epigram, stage-plays, or the like, as with any misfortune whatsoever.”
“Now go and brag of thy present happiness, whosoever thou art, brag of thy temperature, of thy good parts, insult, triumph, and boast; thou seest in what a brittle state thou art, how soon thou mayst be dejected, how many several ways, by bad diet, bad air, a small loss, a little sorrow or discontent, an ague, &c.; how many sudden accidents may procure thy ruin, what a small tenure of happiness thou hast in this life, how weak and silly a creature thou art.”

January 26

 

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1885 The death of General Gordon 

Charles George Gordon, aka “Chinese” Gordon, aka “Gordon of Khartoum” (1833-1885) was a charismatic and controversial military leader during the explosion of European imperialism in the last half of the 19th century.

Gordon was born into an English military family and joined the British army as an engineering officer. He saw action in the Crimean War at the siege of Sebastopol and then was sent to China which was then in the midst of the worst civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion. He won lasting fame serving with the Chinese army against the rebels, building a reputation for incorruptibility, charismatic leadership and bravery. He led a mercenary force called the “Ever Victorious Army” to a number of victories, winning honours from the Chinese emperor, promotion from the British army, and a world-wide reputation.

In 1874 he entered the service of the Khedive of Egypt, on paper an official of the Turkish government, in his own mind the ruler of an independent Egypt, and to the British, a puppet ruler through whom they could control the Suez canal. The Egyptians wished to expand their control down the Nile, through Sudan toward equatorial Africa which was rife with the Arab slave trade in black natives. Gordon as Governor-General on the upper Nile, worked to suppress the slave trade and keep the corruption of the Egyptian army and officials to a minimum. In 1880 he returned to England.

About that time a remarkable rebel leader arose in the Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad (1844-85), who declared himself the Mahdi, a figure in Muslim eschatology who was expected to usher in the End Times.  Using messianic expectations he raised an army that scoured the countryside and threatened to cut off the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. He proclaimed: “I  am the Mahdi, the Successor of the Prophet of God. Cease to pay taxes to the infidel Turks and let everyone who finds a Turk kill him, for the Turks are infidels.”

Gordon was sent by the British government with instructions from Prime Minister Gladstone to evacuate British and Egyptian troops and civilians from Khartoum. However, after successfully extracting the majority of evacuees Gordon announced he would stay and defend Khartoum. The Mahdi’s army laid siege to the city and greatly outnumbering their enemies they took Khartoum, killed Gordon and beheaded him. His head was stuck on a tree “where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above.” A relief army sent to his rescue arrived two days too late and finding only a massacred garrison in a destroyed city withdrew. The news was received with enormous anger in Britain and Queen Victoria publicly chastised Gladstone.

The Mahdi died a few months after his conquest of Khartoum and the harsh rule of his fundamentalist regime led to the sending another British army in 1898 under General Kitchener. The Mahdist caliphate was destroyed and the Mahdi’s body dug up and thrown into the Nile.

January 23: A better day for the red-coats

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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

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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.