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.

November 6

644 The Assassination of Caliph Umar

The death of Muhammed, the founder of the Islamic faith, in 632 led to a period of succession quarrels within the young movement. The claims of Ali, nephew and son-in-law of Muhammed, were set aside in the election of the first three caliphs”, or “Successors”. Abu Bakr, Muhammed’s father-in-law, was the first chosen; he was successful in expanding Islam throughout the Arabian peninsula. By the time he died in 634, he had appointed Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb as the next caliph.

Umar was born c. 583 in Mecca and initially resisted Muhammed and his new religion. After his conversion in 616, he became a firm follower and was among those who migrated from his home town to Medina in 622. He rose high in the estimation of the Muslim elite and helped secure the choice of Abu Bakr. As caliph he proved an excellent administrator; under his guidance Islam continued its rapid expansion.

While worshipping in a Medina mosque, Umar was attacked by Abu Lu’lu’a Firuz, a Persian slave who stabbed him seven times with a poison knife before committing suicide. The motives for the killing are still a subject of debate. In some accounts the assassin was a resentful Christian; in others he was a “fire-worshipper” or Zoroastrian. Some say he was the tool of a larger group of conspirators; others say he hated Umar for supporting the confiscation of too large a proportion of his wages; still others say that Persian animosity to Arabs propelled the deed.

The death of Umar did not end the turbulence of early Islamic politics. The next two caliphs, Uthman and Ali, were also murdered.

November 5

Britain abandons France

On the 5th of November 1800, it was settled by the privy-council, that in consequence of the Irish Union, the royal style and title should be changed on the 1st of January following—namely, from “George III, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith;” to “George III, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith.” And thus the title of king of France, which had been borne by the monarchs of England for four hundred and thirty-two years—since the forty-third year of the reign of Edward III —was ultimately abandoned.

It was the Salic law [forbidding a female to inherit or pass on a claim to the French throne] which had excluded Edward from the inheritance of France; but Queen Elizabeth I claimed the title, nevertheless, asserting that if she could not be queen, she would be king of France. During the war between England and Spain, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, commissioners were appointed on both sides to discuss peace. The Spanish commissioners proposed that the negotiations should be carried on in the French tongue, observing sarcastically, that “the gentlemen of England could not be ignorant of the language of their fellow-subjects, their queen being queen of France as well as of England.” “Nay, in faith, gentlemen,” drily replied Dr. Dale, one of the English commissioners, “French is too vulgar for a business of this importance; we will therefore, if you please, rather treat in Hebrew, the language of Jerusalem, of which your master [Philip II] calls himself king, and in which you must, of course, be as well skilled as we are in French.”

Despite the abandonment of the claim to France the motto of the British monarch outside of Scotland (where the motto is different) is in French – “Dieu et mon droit” – as is the motto of the Order of the Garter – “Honi soit qui mal y pense”.

November 2

1818 Death of Sir Samuel Romilly

Samuel Romilly was born in London in 1757 to descendants of French Protestants who had fled the persecutions of Louis XIV. He entered the legal profession in which he rose to renown and wealth. Romilly’s sympathies were always on the side of reform. During the 1780s he made the acquaintance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot and he had high hopes for the French Revolution but its increasing radicalism and violence ultimately dismayed him.

Romilly’s brilliance and oratorical skills won him the patronage of influential politicians and when he entered Parliament in 1808 he was made Solicitor General. He was a fierce opponent of the slave trade and a firm supporter of the attempts by William Wilberforce to abolish that institution but his main contribution as a reformer was to amend laws to which the death penalty was attached.

Since the sixteenth century England had passed legislating mandating execution not just for crimes of murder or treason but for far more trivial offences. By 1800 there were over 200 offences for which death was the mandatory sentence: theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, wrecking a fish pond, cutting down a young tree, keeping the company of gypsies, or impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner. Romilly’s efforts resulted in a gradual abolition of many of these statutes. (Britain’s last execution was in 1964 though the death penalty was abolished only in 1998.)

In October 1818 Romilly’s wife Anne died and a few days later, in a paroxysm of grief, he cut his own throat.

November 1

2008 Death of Yma Sumac

Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo was born in 1922 to mixed-race Peruvian parents. She chose a career in singing South American folk music and after limited success in that field she was discovered by an American impresario who marketed her as an Incan princess with a phenomenal vocal range. Her stage name Yma Sumac became synonymous with exotic sounds and backdrops. She appeared in film, on Broadway, and in night clubs with extensive foreign tours to her credit.

Sumac’s vocal range may have been 6 octaves and she was revered for her vocal athleticism as much as for her interpretation and glamorous appeal. The clip below demonstrates her virtuosic novelty.