May 8

1942 The Cocos Islands Mutiny

During the Second World War, millions of troops from the Indian and African colonies of Great Britain served in the wars against the Axis powers. The reason that the contribution of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was so small can be found in this little-remembered mutiny.

The Cocos Islands are an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, half-way between Ceylon and  Australia. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan it was deemed to be an important communications link, garrisoned by units of the Ceylon Defence Force and the King’s African Rifles under two British officers. Among the Ceylonese artillerymen were a number dissatisfied with the colonial status of their homelands and who were willing to betray the Union Jack. One of these, Gratien Fernando, conceived a plan whereby he and his anti-imperialist comrades would turn their guns on their officers and any loyal soldiers while signalling to the Japanese that they would surrender the islands to them. (At this time many Asians looked to the Japanese to drive their European occupiers out of the continent. The Japanese were particularly successful in recruiting captured Indian soldiers and turning them into a puppet Indian National Army.)

On the night of May 8, 15 mutineers seized the heavy guns and began their rebellion. It was soon put down by their fellow countrymen in the Ceylonese Light Infantry, but not before one loyal soldier had been killed [his headstone is above]. Quick courts-martial condemned seven to death. At his trial, Fernando spoke of his motives: “I am not so much anti-British as anti-white. I do not have the least grudge against Captain Gardiner personally. would have done the same to any white man. I felt that if I succeeded [in the mutiny] I might do things that would revolutionise the war effort in the East. I wanted to try and get Japanese help. I am in sympathy with the Japanese war aims.” Fernando and two others were hanged in August, the only three Commonwealth soldiers executed for mutiny during World War II.

This outburst of Ceylonese nationalism alarmed the British who took steps to keep that colony, strategically vital and an important source of rubber, happy and well-garrisoned. No Ceylonese combat troops were ever employed by the British after the affair on Cocos Islands.

May 7

1824 Premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

The last, and perhaps greatest, of the symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) is his Ninth, completed and debuted in Vienna in 1834. It was the first ever choral symphony, combining voice and instruments. Its reception by the 1,000 attendees was rapturous with many standing ovations and waving of handkerchiefs and hats so that the deaf composer could see the approval of the crowd. A critic proclaimed that “inexhaustible genius revealed a new world to us.”

The most memorable part of the symphony was the choral section, “Ode to Joy”, based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Its optimism and jubilation have inspired millions and it has become the European anthem.

Whoever has been lucky enough
to become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!


Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.

Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.

Recently, Baltimore-based rapper and musician [interesting how those are two separate categories] Wordsmith created an original adaptation of “Ode to Joy” for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Wordsmith was hoping to encourage “gender equality, cultural acceptance, and living a purpose-driven life”. Here is his chorus:

Live and love with open mind let our cultures intertwine.
Dig deep down, show what you’re made of, set the tone, it’s time to shine.
We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.
While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.
We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.
While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.

May 5

1260 Kublai Khan becomes Mongol Emperor

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea. Thus did Samuel Coleridge, in one of the greatest drug-induced poems of the 19th century, describe the summer palace of Kublai Khan, Mongol emperor and founder of the Yuan dynasty that ruled China for for the next century.

Kublai was the grandson of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, born in 1215. Though Mongol military genius would create an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific and encompass a fifth of the land on the planet, its primitive political structure created civil war and fracture every time a ruler died. After a period of strife with rival princes, Kublai achieved pre-eminence in 1260 as Great Khan and set out to add to his empire by conquering China. He defeated the forces of the Song dynasty and made China, sophisticated, populous and rich, his centre of operations — this vexed the western Mongols who complained that Kublai was becoming sinified and forgetting the good old Mongol ways. Rebellions by ambitious Mongol princes were quashed and the leaders were smothered to death in heavy carpets (to avoid the taboo of shedding royal blood).

As a Mongol leader, Kublai was hooked on ever-more conquest; he succeeded in subduing Korea and Burma but his attempts to invade Vietnam, Java, and Japan ended in disaster. His reign in China saw the strengthening of the state, the repair of infrastructure damaged in war, progress in military technology and science, and contact with Europe. He used Muslims, Christians (including the Venetian Polo family) and other minorities in his civil service but he tended to persecute Daoists and forbade some Muslim and Jewish ritual practices.

Kublai died, gouty and obese, in 1294 but the founder of a unified China with its capital at Beijing.

Sluggards Beware

Home / Today in History / Sluggards Beware

Sluggard-wakers and dog-whippers

On the 17th April 1725 , John Rudge bequeathed to the parish of Trysull, in Staffordshire, twenty shillings a year, that a poor man might be employed to go about the church during sermons and keep the people awake; also to keep dogs out of church. A bequest by Richard Dovey, of Farmcote, dated in 1659, had in view the payment of eight shillings annually to a poor man, for the performance of the same duties in the church of Claverley, Shropshire. In the parishes of Chislet, Kent, and Peterchurch, Herefordshire, there are similar provisions for the exclusion of dogs from church, and at Wolverhampton there is one of five shillings for keeping boys quiet in time of service.

Pictured above is a sluggard-waker and his pole with which he prodded the drowsy parishioners.

March 27

Home / Today in History / March 27

1625 Accession of Charles I

There are good kings and bad kings. And then there are disastrous kings, ones who provoke discord in their own country, engender civil war, lose their heads, and bring down an entire monarchy with them. Such a one was Charles Stuart (1600-49), the first of that name to rule Scotland, Ireland, and England.

Charles was born a Scottish prince, a younger son with no great prospects, child of  James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. In 1603, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, died without issue, and James succeeded her on the throne of that much richer country to the south. It was expected that his heir would be his oldest son, Henry (b. 1594) who was popular and trained for the job, but the young man died of typhoid in 1612, leaving shy, stammering Charles as the future ruler of three kingdoms.

Charles’s father was not the best man from whom to learn the arts of ruling. James constantly quarrelled with his political class, showed little interest in military affairs, and allowed policy to be guided by a number of homosexual lovers. From him, Charles seems to have imbibed a contempt for Parliament, and a stubborn streak that would prove fatal. Parliament, always fearful of a return of Catholic influence, demanded that the prince be given a safely Protestant bride but Charles, aided by the Duke of Buckingham, James’s paramour, unwisely courted the daughter of the King of Spain and received a humiliating rebuff. Stung by this personal insult, Charles demanded that his father declare war on Spain.

When James died in early 1625, the new king unwisely chose another Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France. It was the first of a series of mistakes that would lead Charles to the block, his queen and her sons to exile, and England to a republic.

It must be said that there are fans of Charles, including a loyal reader of this blog, who would remind us that Charles is viewed as a martyr and a saint by the Church of England. 

March 26

Home / Today in History / March 26

A story too sad not to be retold: 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicide cult discovered

One of the most persistent beliefs in history is the notion that our body is only the temporary form of our true self — the soul, or spirit, which lives on after the physical corpus dies. For many religions, the purpose of life is to escape one’s prison of flesh and bone and be reunited with the Universal One or be reanimated in a perfected body. The faithful of most of these religions are content to wait until one’s natural death for the parting of body and soul to take place, but there have been some sects who have encouraged suicide in order to hasten the process: thus the perfecti of medieval Catharism, or the techno-cultists of America’s Heaven’s Gate.

On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 members of the group were found by San Diego police in the mansion where they had lived and earned their livings as IT consultants. All had committed suicide; all were wearing new Nike runners with black shirts and sweat-pants; all had $5.75 in their pockets. All had taken phenobarbital medication mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka; all but two had plastic bags tied around their heads. Astonishingly, their suicides had taken place in waves, with three groups in turns dying over three days. The purpose of their deaths was to evacuate their bodies, freeing their spirits to be picked up by an alien spacecraft lurking behind the Hale-Boppe comet. They would then advance to a higher level of existence in bodies that were purer, sexless and vegetarian. All who remained behind on Earth were to die from an imminent planetary cleansing.

The chief loon behind this tragedy was Marshall Applewhite (1931-97), aka “Bo” or “Do”, former music teacher, wandering prophet, and voluntary eunuch. He had been able to recruit followers to his esoteric beliefs with promises of an end-times apocalypse that could be escaped only by those with the knowledge he imparted. His teachings were a mixture of Gnosticism, Biblical interpretation through a lens of UFOlogy, and sundry New Age touches. Like the medieval Cathars they shunned sex, with Applewhite and seven of his male disciples travelling to Mexico to be castrated.

The fate of their souls and the alien spacecraft are unknown; their bodies were cremated.

March 16

Home / Today in History / March 16

1906 Birth of Henny Youngman

Henry “Henny” Youngman was born to a family of Russian Jews in England but moved to New York as a child. Working with a jazzband called the Swanee Syncopaters, he began to tell jokes between numbers and developed a reputation as a comedian. Working in radio from the late 1930s he developed a style of rapid-fire one-liners with an occasional riff on the violin he always carried as a prop. He worked in nightclubs, on television, and in the movies – in fact, anywhere people would pay him. Only his death in 1998 ended his performing career. Here are some of Youngman’s innumerable jokes, amny at the expense of his wife Sadie, to whom he was actually devoted:

My wife said to me, ‘For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.’ I said, ‘Try the kitchen!’

I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back.

My wife will buy anything marked down. Last year she bought an escalator.

We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops.

My wife told me the car wasn’t running well. There was water in the carburetor. I asked where the car was, and she told me it was in the lake.

My wife and I went to a hotel where we got a waterbed. My wife called it the Dead Sea.

My wife is on a new diet. Coconuts and bananas. She hasn’t lost weight, but can she climb a tree.

Last night my wife said the weather outside was fit for neither man nor beast, so we both stayed home.

 I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother.

If you’re going to do something tonight that you’ll be sorry for tomorrow morning, sleep late.

I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.

My son complains about headaches. I tell him all the time: ‘When you get out of bed, it’s feet first!’

March 5

Home / Today in History / March 5



Stalin orders the Katyn Massacre

World War II began in Europe with the German invasion of Poland. This unprovoked attack was made possible by a secret pact between the Nazis and the USSR, an agreement which allowed the Soviets to annex the eastern part of Poland. This partition brought tens of thousands of Polish prisoners under the rule of Joseph Stalin who, at the urging of his secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, determined to use the opportunity to exterminate Poland’s leadership class. On this date in 1940, six members of the Politburo (Stalin, Kaganovich, Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoyan and Kalinin) signed an order condemning imprisoned “nationalists and counterrevolutionaries” — the captive officers and intelligentsia — to death.

In April, 1940, 22,000 Poles were taken from their prison camps and dispatched to killing zones where they were shot and secretly buried. About half of the Polish officer class were killed — an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 non-coms, 7 chaplains (including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army), and 200 pilots, but also government officials, landowners, university professors, physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers and journalists. The purpose was to eliminate anyone who might be a leader in a future Poland.

After June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the USSR began to think of creating an anti-German army out of its remaining Polish prisoners, questions began to be asked about the fate of the missing officers. The Soviets were able to dodge awkward questions until early 1943 when the occupying German army was alerted to mass graves containing the corpses of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest. Sensing a propaganda coup, the Nazis brought in a team of neutral experts to examine the bodies and determine the date of their execution. Despite their findings that the men had been killed at a time when the Soviets were in control of the area, the USSR continued to blame the Germans.  Shamefully, it was in the interests of Allied cooperation with the Soviets to agree to go along with the lie during the war. 

When I was a grad student in London in the 1970s, I went on a march to the Soviet Embassy, which had objected to a Katyn memorial being erected with the date 1940 inscribed on it. Communists were still insisting that the Germans had carried out the massacre in 1941 during their occupation of  the western USSR. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did Russia acknowledge that the atrocity had been carried out by the Soviet secret police.

An excellent fictional account of the 1943 discovery is Philip Kerr’s A Man Without Breath.


February 22

Home / Today in History / February 22

The Great White Way has seen its spectacular successes over the years. We are still humming the tunes from Broadway musicals such as Showboat, Camelot, The Music Man, Annie, and Phantom of the Opera. (On request, I believe I could produce creditable renditions of most of the songs from Finian’s Rainbow.) Comedies such as The Producers or Barefoot in the Park and dramas such as Death of a Salesman, Come From Away and Amadeus are the stuff of legends.

Legendary too are the great flops – shows that were badly-cast, ill-conceived, overly-ambitious, or just too expensive to stage. Rockabye Hamlet, for example; a 1976 attempt to put the Prince of Denmark to music with lines such as this piece of advice from Polonius to Laertes: “Good son, you return to France/Keep your divinity inside your pants.” It lasted 7 performances, which is two more than Carrie: the Musical managed to stage in 1988. Apparently there was less of an audience for pig’s blood showers than the producers anticipated.

Fancy a dramatic investigation of the Shroud of Turin? Into the Light was turned off after six performances in 1986. The Broadway version of the Odyssey, entitled (wait for it) Home Sweet Homer, starring Yul Brynner closed after a single show – the producers had wanted to avoid putting it on altogether but Brynner’s contract stipulated that at least on performance was required. Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark might have continued had not the production cost $75 million before opening and requiring $1,000,000 a week to keep the lights on.

But when Broadway mavens gather around the campfire and tell chilling stories about truly desperately bad shows, talk always turns to The Moose Murders, a “mystery farce” which opened (and closed) on this day in 1983. Trapped by a storm in a wilderness lodge, the characters play a murder mystery game. Killings, flaccid slapstick, failed gags, incest, and a kick in the groin to a man in a moose costume made for a deathly silence from the audience and a closing after the first night. Movie and radio legend Eve Arden was to star but withdrew when it became obvious she could no longer memorize lines. (She did send a gracious note to the cast.)

Critics were not kind. It has been called “the golden standard of awfulness against which all theatre is judged.” The New York Times writer Frank Rich said it was “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage”. In fact, in a magazine’s list of Great Disasters of the Twentieth Century the play ranked Number Five (just behind New Coke). The play’s author Arthur Bicknell did manage to make a bit of money from it by penning  Moose Murdered, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Broadway Bomb.

February 18

Home / Today in History / February 18

1900 The Battle of Paardeberg Drift begins

This engagement, fought during the Second Anglo-Boer War, was the first time that men in Canadian uniform, fighting in a Canadian unit, made war overseas. Troops from The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry under William Otter (who had taken part in putting down the Northwest Rebellion in western Canada in 1885) helped pin down some 4,000 Boers. Advancing by night towards the enemy lines, quietly digging trenches on high ground 65 yards from the Boer lines, they forced the enemy kommando to surrender.

It was the first significant British victory of the war, despite the blundering of British officers such as General Kitchener who insisted on frontal attacks on entrenched Boer positions — always a recipe for disaster. Hundreds of men on both sides, including 31 Canadians, died at Paardeberg.