June 8

1776 The Battle of Trois-Rivières

One often hears the phrase “the thirteen colonies” in reference to the American Revolution but little is heard of the attempt by the armies of those rebels to coerce the inhabitants of other British North American possessions to heed the siren call of republicanism and disobedience to the crown. Even in Canada little attention is paid to the battles that thwarted the ambitions of the Continental Congress. One such battle occurred at Trois Rivières (aka Three Rivers), a town on the St Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City. 

The so-called “Continental Army” had invaded Canada in 1775, expecting to be greeted favourably by French-Canadians eager to cast off the British yoke that had been laid on them for more than 25 years. Though the American force found a few anti-clerical and radical inhabitants, the vast majority was indifferent to the intruders or downright hostile. Montreal was captured — and the first printing press in Canada was established by Benjamin Franklin — but the siege of Quebec was a failure. By the spring of 1776 the American army was in retreat. On its way back to New York it encountered what they believed to be a small British force at Trois-Rivières, unaware that the redcoats had been strongly reinforced. A local guide led the Americans into a swamp and when they emerged they found themselves caught between the cannons of a British warship on the river and thousands of British regulars. The result was a nasty defeat for those who stood and fought. Thirty to fifty Americans were killed and over 200 captured. The rest straggled back to safety where the defeat was hotly debated and incompetent officers cashiered.

Many American wounded soldiers were treated at the Ursuline convent in Trois-Rivières. Congress never authorized payment for these services but the convent retained the bill. By the early 21st century, the original bill of about £26 was, thanks to the magic of compound interest, estimated to be equivalent to between ten and twenty million Canadian dollars. On July 4, 2009, during festivities marking the town’s 375th anniversary, American Consul-General David Fetter symbolically repaid the debt to the Ursulines with a payment of C$130.




June 7

1780 The Gordon Riots

On the 7th of June in 1780, London was in the almost unchecked possession of a mob composed of the vilest of the populace, in consequence of a singular series of circumstances. A movement for tolerance to the small minority of Catholics—resulting in an act [The Papists Act,1778] for the removal of some of their disabilities in England, and the introduction of a bill (1779) for a similar measure applicable to the mere handful of that class of religionists in Scotland—had roused all the intolerant Protestant feeling in the country, and caused shameful riots in Edinburgh. A so-called Protestant Association, headed by a half-insane member of the House of Commons—Lord George Gordon [pictured below], brother of the Duke of Gordon —busied itself in the early part of 1780 to besiege the Houses of Parliament with petitions for the repeal of the one act and the prevention of the other.

On the 2nd of June a prodigious Protestant meeting was held in St. George’s Fields —on a spot since, with curious retribution, occupied by a Catholic cathedral—and a ‘ monster petition,’ as it would now be called, was carried in procession through the principal streets of the city, to be laid before Parliament. Lord George had by this time, by his wild speeches, wrought up his adherents to a pitch bordering on frenzy. In the lobbies of the Houses scenes of violence occurred, resembling very much those which were a few years later exhibited at the doors of the French Convention, but without any serious consequences. The populace, however, had been thoroughly roused, and the destruction of several houses belonging to foreign Catholics was effected that night. Two days after, a Sunday, a Catholic chapel in Moorfields was sacked and burned, while the magistrates and military presented no effective resistance.

The consignment of a few of the rioters next day to Newgate roused the mob to a pitch of violence before unattained, and from that time till Thursday afternoon one destructive riot prevailed. On the first evening, the houses of several eminent men well affected to the Catholics and several Catholic chapels were destroyed. Next day, Tuesday, the 6th, there was scarcely a shop open in London. The streets were filled with an uncontrolled mob. The Houses of Parliament assembled with difficulty, and dispersed in terror. The middle-class inhabitants—a pacific and innocent set of people—went about in consternation, some removing their goods, some carrying away their aged and sick relations. Blue ribbons were generally mounted, to give assurance of sound Protestantism, and it was a prevalent movement to chalk up ‘NO POPERY,’ in large letters on doors.

In the evening, Newgate was attacked and set fire to, and 300 prisoners let loose. The house of Lord Mansfield, at the north-east corner of Bloomsbury Square, was gutted and burnt, the justice and his lady barely making their escape by a back-door. The house and distillery of a Mr. Langdale, a Catholic, at the top of Holborn Hill, were destroyed, and there the mob got wildly drunk with spirits, which flowed along the streets like water. While they in many various places were throwing the household furniture of Catholics out upon the street, and setting fire to it in great piles, or attacking and burning the various prisons of the metropolis, there were bands of regular soldiery and militia looking on with arms in their hands, but paralysed from acting for want of authority from the magistrates. Mr. Wheatley’s famous picture, of which a copy is annexed, gives us a faint idea of’ the scenes thus presented; but the shouts of the mob, the cries of women, the ring of fore-hammers breaking open houses, the abandonment of a debased multitude lapping gin from the gutters, the many scenes of particular rapine carried on by thieves and murderers, must be left to the imagination.

Thirty-six great conflagrations raged that night in London; only at the Bank was the populace repelled—only on Blackfriars Bridge was there any firing on them by the military. Day broke upon the metropolis next day as upon a city suddenly taken possession of by a hostile and barbarous army. It was only then, and by some courage on the part of the king, that steps were taken to meet violence with appropriate measures. The troops were fully empowered to act, and in the course of Thursday they had everywhere beaten and routed the rioters, of whom 210 were killed, and 218 ascertained to be wounded. Of those subsequently tried, 59 were found guilty, and of these the number actually executed was twenty.

The leader of this strange outburst was thrown into the Tower, and tried for high treason; but a jury decided that the case did not warrant such a charge, and he was acquitted. The best condemnation that could be administered to the zealots he had led was the admission generally made of his insanity—followed up by the fact, some years later, of his wholly abandoning Christianity, and embracing Judaism. It is remarkable that Lord George’s family, all through the seventeenth century, were a constant trouble to the state from their tenacity in the Catholic faith, and only in his father’s generation had been converted to Protestantism, the agent in the case being a duchess-mother, an Englishwoman, who was rewarded for the act with a pension of £1000 a-year. Through this Duchess of Gordon, however, Lord George was great-grandson of the half-mad Charles Earl of Peterborough, and hence, probably, the maniacal conduct which cost London so much.

See https://georgiasouthern.libguides.com/c.php?g=602478&p=5463809 for an interactive map that charts the mayhem in London.


June 6

1944 D-Day

By 1944 German forces were being pushed back on the Eastern Front and in Italy, but everyone knew that the Allies were preparing an invasion of continental Europe from bases in England. The Germans had constructed the massive Western Wall stretching from Norway to Spain, trusting to its minefields, beach obstacles, gun emplacements, and concrete bunkers to pin any invaders on the beach and deter any progress inland. The Allies relied on deception and air superiority to keep the enemy from knowing where their blow would be struck and from moving in reinforcements.

On the morning of June 6, over 20,000 Canadian, British, and American paratroopers were dropped over the Normandy peninsula to take control of bridges and roads behind the landing zones. A thousand warships then bombarded defenders along a fifty-mile stretch of the coast, and units of the French Resistance were activated on missions of sabotage. Almost 7,000 vessels from 8 Allied navies, from battleships to landing craft, converged on 5 beaches, codenamed Utah and Omaha (the objectives of American forces) and Sword, Juno, and Gold (targets of Canadian and British armies).

Casualties were heavy. Americans suffered the most in terms of total numbers; Canadians lost most proportionately; the paratroop and glider attacks took a heavier toll than any of the beach landings.

None of the initial objectives were reached on the first day, but a successful toehold in France had been achieved and would provide the beachhead for the armies that would soon sweep the Germans out of France.

June 5

St Boniface

Born about 675 as Wynfrith in Anglo-Saxon England, Boniface was a teacher before entering the priesthood at about age 30. He could have become an abbot in his native country but dedicated himself to taking the gospel to the German-speaking peoples of northwestern Europe, first in Frisia, and then Germany, to which Pope Gregory II (who gave him the Latin name Boniface) appointed him a travelling bishop — the largely pagan territory had not yet developed an ecclesiastical infrastructure.

Working with the tepid support of the Frankish regime, which had designs on expanding into more German lands and which welcomed Christianization of the natives, Boniface preached, set up monasteries, and organized dioceses in these border lands. His most storied exploit was the destruction of a pagan shrine in Hesse by chopping down an oak sacred to Thor. (From this came the spurious tale of his inventing the Christmas tree by giving the Germans a conifer in replacement for the oak.)  He was named archbishop of Germany and later papal legate, high titles which disguised the shaky ground that nascent Christianity occupied on the frontier. In 754 he attempted to evangelize the Frisians but was murdered along with his companions by pirates. Among his relics is a book, “On the Advantage of Death” by St Ambrose, bearing the mark of an axe or sword supposedly used in the massacre.

In the estimation of historian Christopher Dawson, Boniface had a deeper influence on Europe than any other Englishman. Boniface is the patron saint of Germany, brewers, tailors, and file-cutters.

June 4


The Montgolfier Brothers make a hot-air balloon ascent

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740 – 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (1745 –  1799) developed a balloon made of sackcloth and paper, propelled by hot air. The younger brother made the first human ascent in a balloon in front of a large crowd of French dignitaries at Annonany in southeastern France. The journey lasted about 10 minutes, with the craft reaching an altitude of perhaps a mile. This led to further, more ambitious attempts. Those interested in this subject will learn almost nothing about it in the Monty Python sketch below.

June 3

1839 Commissioner Lin destroys the opium

In the early 19th century the Qing dynasty ruling China was trying to keep foreigners at bay and closely regulate trade with the outside world. This policy resulted in a balance of payments problem for the British who imported far more Chinese goods than the value of what they could, with difficulty, sell the Chinese. In response to this, the British East India Company hit on the diabolical scheme of smuggling opium into southern China, a technique that soon created a widespread addiction problem among the Chinese and a  profitable harvest of silver for the British.

To remedy this,  Emperor Daoguang sent Lin Zexu as a specially appointed imperial commissioner to end the practice of the opium trade. To stamp out opium, Commissioner Lin used all the powers of the Chinese state: he instituted a public-health program warning of the dangers of addiction; he organized addicts into  five-man mutual-responsibility teams pledged to guarantee that no one in the group would smoke; he rewarded those informing on the drug pushers; he arrested dealers and seized their wares — tons of opium and tens of thousands of pipes.

He moved diplomatically with the foreigners behind the trade, not wishing to start a war he could not win, urging them to stick to their legitimate trade in tea, silk, and rhubarb (he believed this last to be essential to the health of foreigners) and to desist from harming the Chinese people. In a carefully phrased letter to Queen Victoria, Lin tried to appeal to her moral sense of responsibility. “We have heard that in your honorable nation, too,” wrote Lin, “the people are not permitted to smoke the drug, and that offenders in this particular expose themselves to sure punishment…. In order to remove the source of the evil thoroughly, would it not be better to prohibit its sale and manufacture rather than merely prohibit its consumption?” Opium in fact was not prohibited in Britain and was taken— often in the form of laudanum—by several well-known figures, Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them. Many Englishmen regarded opium as less harmful than alcohol, and Lin’s moral exhortations fell on deaf ears.

When the British in Canton refused to give up their opium, or to hand over only token amounts, he blockaded their compound. After six weeks, when the foreigners had agreed to give up over 20,000 chests of opium and Commissioner Lin had taken delivery, the blockade was lifted. Lin  was now faced with the remarkable challenge of destroying close to 3 million pounds of raw opium. His solution was to order the digging of three huge trenches, 7 feet deep and 150 feet long. Thereafter, five hundred laborers, supervised by sixty officials, broke up the large balls of raw opium and mixed them with water, salt, and lime until the opium dissolved. Then, as large crowds of Chinese and foreigners looked on, the murky mixture was flushed out into a neighboring creek, and so reached the sea.

In a special prayer on June 3, 1839, to the spirit of the Southern Sea, “you who wash away all stains and cleanse all impurities,” Lin brooded over the fact that “poison has been allowed to creep in unchecked till at last barbarian smoke fills the market.” He apologized to the spirit for filling its domain with this noxious mixture and, he wrote in his diary, advised it “to tell the creatures of the water to move away for a time, to avoid being contaminated.” As to the foreigners who had lived through the blockade and now watched the solemn proceedings, Lin wrote in a memorial to Emperor Daoguang, they “do not dare show any disrespect, and indeed I should judge from their attitudes that they have the decency to feel heartily ashamed.”

On the contrary, the shameless British appealed to their government who used Lin’s actions as a pretext for the start of the Opium Wars that blasted the doors open to Chinese trade.

June 2


The execution of James Douglas

James Douglas, Earl of Morton (1516-1581) was a Scottish politician at a time when losing favour often meant losing one’s head. During the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, he had sided with Protestant nobles supporting England and frustrating many of the queen’s actions. He had taken part in the murder of Mary’s favourite, David Rizzio, and was part of the army that compelled the queen to abdicate in favour of her baby son James. In 1572 he was named Regent, governing on behalf of James VI but he made enemies in the Scottish church and other noble factions. He was charged with the murder of Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley (who was blown up and strangled in 1567) and was executed by means of a guillotine-like device, nicknamed “The Maiden” which he had imported from England, based on the contraption used in Halifax, Yorkshire.

Holinshed’s Chronicle of 1587 describes the Halifax prototype of the guillotine and the curious law that made one susceptible to its embrace:

There is and hath been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom, at Halifax, that whosoever doth commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confess the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood, of the length of four feet and a half, which doth ride up and down in a slot, rabet, or regall, between two pieces of timber that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height.

In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which, being drawn up to the top of the frame, is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same, after the manner of a Samson’s post), unto the middest of which pin also there is a long rope fastened, that cometh down among the people; so that when the offender hath made his confession, and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see justice executed), and pulling out the pin in this manner, the head block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such a violence, that if the neck of the transgressor were so big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke, and roll from the body by an huge distance. If it be so that the offender be apprehended for an ox, sheep, kine, horse, or any such cattle, the self beast or other of the same kind shall have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they being driven, do draw out the pin whereby the offender is executed.

June 1

1794 “The Glorious First of June”

We should need to bring back the horrors of the first French Revolution to enable us to understand the wild delight with which Lord Howe’s victory, in 1794, was regarded in England. A king, a queen, and a princess guillotined in France, a reign of terror prevailing in that country, and a war threatening half the monarchs in Europe, had impressed the English with an intense desire to thwart the republicans. Our army was badly organized and badly generalled in those days; but the navy was in all its glory. In April 1794, Lord Howe, as Admiral-in-Chief of the Channel fleet, went out to look after the French fleet at Brest, and a great French convoy known to be expected from America and the West Indies. He had with him twenty-six sail of the line, and five frigates. For some weeks the fleet was in the Atlantic, baffled by foggy weather in the attempt to discover the enemy; but towards the close of May the two fleets sighted each other, and a great naval battle became imminent. The French admirals had often before avoided when possible a close contest with the English; but on this occasion Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse, knowing that a convoy of enormous value was at stake, determined to meet his formidable opponent. The two fleets were about equal in the number of ships; but the French had the advantage in number of guns, weight of metal, and number of men. On the 1st of June, Howe achieved a great victory over Villaret, the details of which are given in all the histories of the period.

Thus reads a nineteenth-century account of Howe’s victory. The French, not unnaturally, view the battle differently. Though it was a tactical loss for them, the vital grain convoy made it safely through to France where it was greeted with jubilation and public parades and Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse was promoted.

May 30


Lod Airport Massacre

The next time you fuss about airport security, remember that it was once possible to board an airplane carrying an assault rifle and explosives. On May 30, 1972 three Japanese travellers stepped off a flight from Rome at Lod Airport in Israel, took out their weapons from violin cases and indiscriminately sprayed fire into the crowd. 26 people were killed, most of them Puerto Rican pilgrims, and 80 were injured. Two of the terrorists were killed on the spot but the third was captured.

What were Japanese Red Army communists doing involving themselves in the Palestine-Israeli conflict? It appears that an exchange program had been worked out with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — External Operations, a more radical offshoot of the already pretty radical PFLP, led by Wadie Haddad. Haddad, an associate of Carlos the Jackal, was experienced in airliner terror, having master-minded the Entebbe high-jacking. The PFLP-OE trained the Japanese in Lebanon, thinking, correctly, that they would be less likely to draw suspicion from airline security.

The surviving attacker, Kozo Okamoto, pled guilty to murder charges and was sentenced to an Israeli jail but he was released in a prisoner swap in 1985. He is reported to have converted to Islam and lives in Lebanon, which has resisted calls for his extradition.

May 29

1453 The Fall of Constantinople

Mehmed the Conquerer enters Constantinople

After successfully repelling attacks by Slavs, Persians, Avars, Vikings, Arabs, and Bulgars, the thousand-year-old walls of Constantinople were finally penetrated by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, died defending the city and with him perished the the last remnants of the Roman Empire.

For centuries that empire had been shrinking, losing the Middle East and Levant to the Arabs, southern Italy to the Normans, and Anatolia and the Balkans to the Turks. It was in financial peril, with its trade in the hands of Genoa and Venice; its crown jewels were glass (the real ones having been pawned); and the Catholic powers of Europe demanded that Constantinople abandon Orthodox Christianity before they would give any aid. Though its walls were still formidable, the city inside them was a shrunken husk of former glory, never having recovered from its sack at the hands of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Finally, the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, decided to end the charade. He built a fort to cut off Constantinople from the Black Sea, and brought a huge army and fleet to besiege the city. Massive artillery bombarded the ancient walls, a fleet was hauled on rollers over the hills from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn, and miners tunneled under the fortifications. The vastly outnumbered defenders finally succumbed on May 29, 1453, whereupon Mehmed, ever after known as The Conqueror, gave the city over to three days of rape, massacre, and looting.

In recent years, the Islamist government of President Erdogan has made political capital out of the Conqueror and Turkey’s Ottoman past — television movies have been made about Mehmet II and his descendant Suleiman the Magnificent; a new bridge across the Bosporus has been named after Mehmet — all part of Erdogan’s plan to erase the nonsectarian republicanism of Ataturk.