July 4

As citizens of the United States of America celebrate their Independence Day, it is time for my annual lament over the success of their 18th-century rebellion from the crown. Americans, and the world, would have been better served by remaining subjects of His Britannic Majesty George III. A democratic trans-Atlantic empire, free of slavery and with an unwritten evolving constitution, might well have been in the cards.

In 1776 the aforementioned king directed the Church of England to pray for the success of efforts to put down the ill-advised tumult in the thirteen errant colonies. Here are two prayers uttered to that end.

O Lord God of our salvation, in whose hands are the issues of life and death, of good and evil, and without whose aid the wisest counsels of frail men, and the multitude of an host, and all the instruments of war are but weak and vain; incline thine ear, we pray thee, to the earnest and devout supplications of thy servants, who, not confiding in the splendour of any thing that is great, or the stability of any thing that is strong here below, do most humbly flee, O Lord, unto thee for succour, and put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. Be thou to us a tower of defence against the assaults of our enemies, our shield and buckler in the day of battle, and so bless the arms of our gracious Sovereign, in the maintenance of His just and lawful rights, and prosper His endeavours to restore tranquillity among His unhappy deluded subjects in America, now in open rebellion against His Crown, in defiance of all subordination and legal government, that we being preserved by thy help and goodness from all perils and disasters, and made happily triumphant over all the disturbers of our peace, may joyfully laud and magnify thy glorious Name; and serve thee from generation to generation in all godliness and quietness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O Blessed Lord, who hast commanded us by thy beloved Son to love our Enemies, and to extend our charity in praying even for those, who despitefully use us, give grace we beseech thee, to our unhappy fellow subjects in America, that seeing and confessing the error of their ways, and having a due sense of their ingratitude for the many blessings of thy Providence, preserved to them by the indulgent care and protection of these kingdoms, they may again return to their duty, and make themselves worthy of thy pardon and forgiveness: Grant us in the mean time not only strength and courage to withstand them, but charity to forgive and pity them, to shew a willingness to receive them again as friends and brethren, upon just and reasonable terms, and to treat them with mercy and kindness for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

July 3

Saint Thomas’s Day

We know more about the relationship between Jesus and Thomas than we do with many of the other Apostles. It was Thomas who boldly declared that he and his companions should follow Jesus into danger in Judaea. Thomas it was at the Last Supper who declared that he did not understand the words of his master that He was going to prepare a place for them and was told that Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life. His doubt at Christ’s resurrection gave him his nickname and the opportunity to cry out later “My Lord and my God!”

Numerous legends, including an apocryphal gospel, tell stories of Thomas’s travels. He is said to have evangelized in Persia and then reached India in 52. There exists in southern India today a community of Christians who trace their spiritual origin to Thomas. He suffered martyrdom near Chennai (once Madras) in 72, speared to death by order of the local king. The location of his relics is a matter of controversy as a number of places claim them. A basilica in Chennai, with a wonderful neon-lit altar, still exhibits what it claims to be the body of the saint and the spear that killed him.  Some churches observe December 21 as St Thomas Day.

July 2

1867 Anti-Confederation sentiments

The enthusiasm of four British North American colonies for Confederation was not shared by others on the continent. Prince Edward Island with a tiny population was worried about being swamped by numbers if they joined Canada East, Canada West,  Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick in a Canadian nation. They had no interest in a trans-Canadian railway and, though they had hosted the critical Charlottetown Conference, they declined to sign on to Confederation in 1867.

It was a close-run thing as well in Nova Scotia where Joseph Howe called for staying out but the most vociferous opponents of union were in Newfoundland, the oldest of all British colonies. Here are the lyrics to a rousing anti-Canadian anthem.

Prince Edward Island finally gave into the siren song of the promise of a steamer connection to the mainland and capitulated in 1873. Despite a vain attempt at independence fail during the Depression of the 1930s, Newfoundland stayed outside Canada until a dodgy referendum of 1948 brought the Rock in.

July 1

1867 The birth of Canada

A Happy Dominion Day to my Canadian reader. 

I have always said that it was a sad day in Canadian history when the dark powers that ruled the nation changed the name of our national celebration to Canada Day. What a weak tea of a term, barren of meaning and historical weight. Pfui! I fart in its general direction.

June 30

More tough love

Both my readers will recall an entry a few days ago which chronicled the parenting skills of on Don Alonso Guzman who lent a knife to an enemy threatening to kill Alonso’s son. Today we consider the maternal feelings of one of the Renaissance’s most embattled women, Caterina Sforza.

Caterina (1463-1509) was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan and was married at age a very early age to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, lord of a pair of cities in the Romagna, Forli and Imola. She became well known for her intelligence and beauty and quickly gained a reputation for a strong-willed courage which her husband lacked.

In 1488, her husband was murdered and their castle of Forli was under siege. Her children had fallen into the hands of the enemy, the Orsi family, and they in true Italian Renaissance style, threatened to kill the kids of Caterina did not surrender. According to one account, she taunted her foes, exposed her genital, and shouted “Fatelo, se volete: impiccateli pure davanti a me … qui ho quanto basta per farne altri!” (“Do it, if you want to: hang them even in front of me … here I have what’s necessary to make others!”) The Orsis were over-awed and her children were spared.

Caterina was no saint. She ordered murders, dealt with Machiavelli, and went on to endure much more — siege, treason, the murder of yet another husband, rape, and dungeons. She deserves to be better remembered than she is. Those interested should read The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev.

June 29

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

Visitors to the magnificent ruins of Ephesus often take time to visit the ancient city’s other religious sites, particularly one of the number of houses each purporting to be the last domicile of the Virgin Mary. They might also drop by a fenced-off hole where, it is said, in the third century seven Christian youths either sought refuge from persecution or were deliberately walled in on the order of pagan officials. These young men then fell into a miraculous sleep from which they only awakened over a century later, by which time the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity. They were able to tell their story to the local bishop before dying. A church was built over the site and locals revered the godly youths. It is said their remains were taken to a church in France.

June 28

1292 Tough love

With Father’s Day in the recent past, it is time to consider Francis Bacon’s observation that he who has a wife and children “hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

In the 13th century a welter of kingdoms in Spain, both Muslim and Christian, were at war with each other. King Sancho IV of Castile had taken the castle of Tarifa (at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula) from the Moors and placed its command in the hands of Don Alonso Perez de Guzman who moved into the fortress with his family, all except his son who was in care of the king’s brother John. 

John was a bit of weasel who had already rebelled his brother and been forgiven but in 12921 he turned again on the king. This time he called in Muslim troops from North Africa and besieged Tarifa, John believed that he had, in the son of Don Alonso, a key to an easy surrender of the castle. He had used the threat to kill a child hostage before to great effect and so, showing the bound child to the defenders, shouted “Alonso Perez de Guzman! Know that unless you yield this stronghold to me immediately, you shall behold the death of your own son at my hand!”

Looking down at the prince, the besiegers, and his weeping son, Alonso replied, “I did not beget a son to be made use of against my country, but that he should serve her against her foes. Should Don Juan put him to death, he will but confer honour on me, true life on my son, and on himself eternal shame in this world and everlasting wrath after death. So far am I from yielding this place or betraying my trust, that in case you should need a weapon for your cruel purpose, here is my own knife!” And he threw down his dagger at John’s feet.

John promptly picked up the knife and cut the boy’s throat. His Berber allies were disgusted and eventually the siege was abandoned. Prince John became a pariah and could find no refuge in Christian Spain, living in exile in Muslim Granada.

Don Alozonzo was heaped with honours by his king and his descendants became the Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, the greatest house of Spanish nobility.

June 27

The last of the Last Words offerings (for a while):

“It is better to perish here than to kill all these poor beans.” — The ultra-vegetarian Pythagoras, Greek philosopher and mathematician (495 BC), refusing to escape from an angry mob with his students through a fava bean field.

And, Master Kyngston, had I but served God as diligently as I have served the king, he would not have given me over in my gray hairs. But this is my just reward for my pains and study, not regarding my service to God, but only my duty to my Prince.” — Thomas Wolsey, English archbishop, statesman and cardinal (29 November 1530). Henry VIII was a monster whose favour was always short-lived and fatal.

“Stand by me, Tom, and we will die together.”
— Robert Catesby, leader of the Gunpowder Plot to effect the largest mass murder in English history (8 November 1605). Catesby and Thomas Percy were shot by armed men sent to arrest them after the failure of the Catholic uprising. Their fate was easier compared to the hideous tortures visited upon those plotters, like Guy Fawkes, who were captured.

“More weight.”
— Giles Corey, American farmer (19 September 1692), being pressed to death during the Salem witch trials. If one were accused of a crime where the death penalty was thought to be unavoidable, a refusal to plead either innocent or guilty could protect one’s property from seizure after death. The problem was that refusal to plead would led to the peine forte et dure or being loaded with ever-greater weight until one either pled or died. It took the 82-year-old Giles Corey three days to die.

“So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right…but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”
— Reginald Dyer, British army officer (23 July 1927). In April 1919, the city of Amritsar was rocked by Hindu mob violence aimed at Sikhs and Europeans. People were killed, banks looted, and, worst of all in the eyes of the British occupation, a white woman missionary was beaten and left for dead. The police were unable to stem the disorder and so the Army was called in. General Reginald Dyer proclaimed — with great publicity —  that all large gatherings were forbidden and when thousands gathered in defiance of the decree, he ordered his troops (mostly Ghurkas from Nepal) to open fire on a crowd in an enclosed market place. After 15 minutes of firing, 379 people were dead and over 1,200 were wounded. Dyer was praised by local Sikhs and the British public; Indian and British intellectuals were appalled. The massacre led to increased native pressure for independence and a weakening of British resolve to keep India.

June 26

The recording industry has a long history of one-hit wonders, artists who produced only a single moment of musical glory and who then faded back into obscurity, “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung”. “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians; “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by Baha Men; “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley will ring distant bells in the minds of my generation.

The same can be said for public speakers. Beyond the “Checkers” speech, who remembers the oratory of Richard Nixon? Can anyone recall one line in the rhetorical career of Dwight Eisenhower beyond his “military-industrial complex” warning? Will Greta Thunberg make it into the Verbal Eloquence Hall of Fame on only the strength of “How dare you!”?

Let us, therefore, honour today the contribution of not-quite-immortal Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, a one-term Mississippi legislator whose 1952 farewell address will live on the annals of He Only Gave One Speech but It Was a Doozy. The subject was the state regulation of the liquor trade.

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, this is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

June 25

Even more last words in history

“I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” – Leonardo da Vinci, 2 May 1519

“I desire to go to hell, and not to heaven. In the former place I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings, and princes, while in the latter are only beggars, monks, hermits, and apostles.” – Niccolò Machiavelli, 21 June 1527

“All my possessions for a moment of time.” – Elizabeth I, 24 March 1603

“Oh, would to God I had never reigned! Oh, that those years I have spent in my kingdom I had lived a solitary life in the wilderness! Oh, that I had lived alone with God! How much more secure should I now have died! With how much more confidence should I have gone to the throne of God! What doth all my glory profit, but that I have so much the more torment in my death?” – Philip III of Spain, 31 March 1621

I would never have married had I known that my time would be so brief. If I had known that, I would not have taken upon myself double tears.” – Alexis of Russia, 8 February 1676. For his two marriages Alexis held a Bachelorette-type competition, something that Byzantine emperors had occasionally done. Out of a hundred or so daughters of nobility, Alexis gave a handkerchief and ring to a young woman not favoured by his advisors. They diagnosed the poor girl with epilepsy and hustled her and her family off to Siberia. 

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” — John Brown, 2 December 1859