June 17, 1631 A Love Story

Paralyzed with grief and wracked by uncontrollable fits of weeping, Emperor Shah Jahan went into secluded mourning. He emerged a year later with back bent and beard turned white. Then began a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden: a tribute worthy, of his Queen of the World.

The Mughal state was an early modern Empire ruling first over northern India and later, much of South Asia. Founded by military conquest in 1526, the Mughal Emperors ruled for 200 years marking much of the period, before the rise of the British Raj.

Prince Khurram was born on January 5, 1592, the son of Rajput princess Jagat Gosaini and the fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir.

Literally born to the throne, the infant prince was taken from his mother at the age of six days by the baby’s grandfather Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor who ordered the baby be raised by his first wife and chief consort, the childless Ruqaiya Sultan Begum.

Khurram was given the education befitting a Mughal prince and enjoyed a close relationship with his surrogate mother.

According to the later memoirs of his father Jahangir, the barren Empress loved his son Khurram, “a thousand times more than if he had been her own [son]”.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble and niece to Nur Jahan, the 12th wife of Emperor Jahangir believed by many to be the real power behind the throne. Arjumand and Khurram were betrothed in early 1607 when she was 14 and he, a year older.

In an age of politically arranged marriages, theirs was a love match though the marriage would wait, another five years. Five years was an unusually long engagement for the time but court astrologers had deemed the date propitious, and so it was.

Meanwhile, Khurram ascended to the throne and adopted the regnal name, Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan married the Persian Princess Kandahari Begum with whom he had a daughter, but this was a political marriage. So it was with his other eight wives.

Political relationships with women who themselves enjoyed the status of royal wives but it was his second, Arjumand Banu, with whom the Emperor was inseparable. He called her “Mumtaz Mahal”, Persian for “the chosen one of the Palace”. At the royal court and on military campaign she was his constant companion and advisor. She was his ‘Malika-i-Jahan’ the “Queen of the World”, with whom he fathered 14 children in nineteen years.

It was on campaign on the Deccan Plateau where Mumtaz Mahal went into labor with the couple’s 14th child. The delivery was a terrible trial for the Empress Consort, a 30-hour ordeal resulting in uncontrolled postpartum hemorrhage.

Shah Jahan’s Queen of the World died on June 17, 1631.

Mumtaz Mahal was buried in a walled pleasure garden called the Zainabad. Paralyzed with grief and wracked by uncontrollable fits of weeping the Emperor went into secluded mourning. He emerged a year later with back bent and beard turned white. Then began a twenty-two year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable for the Queen of the World.

That child who would never know her mother grew to be the Princess Jahanara who, at the age of seventeen, began to distribute gemstones to the poor. A plea for divine intervention on behalf of the woman who had died, giving her birth. Meanwhile, a grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor rose along the southern banks of the river Amuna.

English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”

20,000 artisans were employed on the project at a cost equivalent to 70 billion modern rupees, equal to $956 million, today. The ivory marble mausoleum was the centerpiece of a 42 acre complex including a great reflecting pool, a mosque and guest house, all set within a formal garden and surrounded on three sides by crenellated walls.

Years later, Shah Jahan would rejoin the love of his life in her final resting place. A treasure of Islamic art and architecture in India, one of the seven “Modern Wonders of the World” we know, as the Taj Mahal.

June 15, 1904 Earth’s Purest Children, Young and Fair

The all but forgotten disaster of June 15 1904 stole the lives of 1,021 innocents, mostly women and children. No one could know it at the time but the flaming wreck of the General Slocum would kill their community, as well.

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world save for Berlin, and Vienna.

General Slocum token

It was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300 or so children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

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The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered.”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island just off the Bronx’ shore, as the wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into a holocaust.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion and then jumped overboard with her newborn, to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

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Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye. His feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

General Slocum Casualties

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned this day in 1904.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history. Only 321 lived to tell the tale.

Six month old Adella Liebenow was the youngest survivor of the disaster. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial to the calamity which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters were among the unidentified dead.

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Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There followed more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-close community as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them anymore, in this place.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

The East Village Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library was originally bilingual, with half its collection in German and the other half, in English.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9-foot stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside these words:

“They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

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Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

June 11, 1775 Bad Little Falls

“Of balsam & blueberries, lobsters & lighthouses, puffins & whale watching, sunsets over the bay…”. Thus does its own website describe the tiny downeast town of Machias Maine. It’s not the kind of place where you’d expect the first naval combat, of the American Revolution.

Five hours and 15 minutes drive from Boston, the small town of Machias sports a campus for the University of Maine, a municipal airport and, even today, a year-round population barely exceeding 2,000. In the Passamaquoddy tongue, the name translates into “bad little falls”, a reference the river running through the place.

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Machias-area residents who discussed downtown revitalization Tuesday evening said the Bad Little falls was the town’s most distinctive element. (KATHERINE CASSIDY PHOTO)

It’s not a spot where you’d expect the first naval combat of the American Revolution.

In 1775, the modern state of Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Machias itself, a small fishing village on the “Downeast” New England coast was a thorn in the British side, since the earliest days of the Revolution.   That February, a local pilot intentionally grounded the coastal patrol schooner HMS Halifax, in Machias Bay.  The place also served as a base from which privateers preyed on British merchant shipping.

Machias by JFW des Barres

In April, a British foray from the occupied city of Boston culminated in the Battle at Lexington Green.  While the King’s troops held the ground in the wake of the early morning skirmish, the decision of the afternoon’s battle at nearby Concord was quite different.  The colonial’s response to this incursion of “Regulars” was that of a swarming beehive, resulting in a Patriot victory and a British retreat under fire, all the way back to Boston.

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Boston was all but an island in those days, connected to the mainland only by a narrow “neck” of land.  A Patriot force some 20,000 strong took positions in the days and weeks that followed, blocking the city and trapping four regiments of British troops, about 4,000 men, inside of the city.

For General Thomas Gage in charge of all those troops, the best hope for resupply was by water.

Concerned lest they fall into rebel hands, Royal Navy Admiral Samuel Graves wanted the guns from the wreck of the Halifax.  Gage needed lumber as well, with which to build barracks.  So it was the wealthy merchant and Tory loyalist Ichabod Jones was enlisted to help, blissfully unaware of the dim view in which his activities were held by fellow colonials.

Jones arrived at Machias on June 2 aboard the merchant ships Unity and Polly, under guard of the armed schooner HMS Margaretta commanded by Midshipman James Moore.  They had come to trade food for lumber but the townspeople were split, and voted against doing business with Jones.  This provoked a threat from the Margaretta, which moved into range to bombard the town.  The action resulted in a second vote and the trade was approved, but Jones’ response was ham-fisted.   The merchant would only do business, with those who had voted with him in the first place.

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HMS Margaretta

Local militia leader Colonel Benjamin Foster conceived a plan to seize the merchant. He saw his opportunity on June 11, when Jones and Moore were in church.  They almost had the pair too, but Jones saw some twenty men approaching, and fled for the woods.  Moore was able to get back to the Margaretta, but events soon spun out of control.

The following day Colonel Foster and his brother, a man with the delightful name of Wooden Foster, seized the Unity.  A group of thirty began to construct breastworks to serve as protection, while others commandeered the coastal packet Falmouth.   There was about to be a fight.

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A group of Machias men approached Margaretta from the land and demanded her surrender, but Moore lifted anchor and sailed off in attempt to recover the Polly.  A turn of his stern through a brisk wind resulted in a boom and gaff breaking away from the mainsail, crippling the vessel’s navigability. Unity gave chase followed by Falmouth.

Musket fire was exchanged from both sides and hand grenades thrown onto the decks of the Unity.   Margaretta was soon boarded from both sides, the fighting hand to hand.

So began the “Lexington of the Sea”. The little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution, and ended in victory for the Patriot side.  Four Royal Navy seamen were killed outright and another ten wounded including Moore himself. He received a musket ball to the chest and died, the following day.

Patriot losses amounted to ten killed and another three wounded.

HMS Margaretta served the remainder of the Revolution as the renamed Machias Liberty.  British payback came on October 18 when Falmouth, the modern-site of Falmouth Maine and not to be confused with Falmouth Massachusetts, was burned to the ground.

British forces attempted a second assault on Machias, with an amphibious landing of 1,000 troops over the 13th – 14th of August, 1777.  The attempt was beaten back by local militia aided by Passamaquoddy and Penobscot allies, with both sides claiming victory.  The nearby village of Castine would be occupied in 1779 as would Machias itself during the War of 1812.  On both occasions, captured territories were re-dubbed the Crown Colony of “New Ireland”, a refuge for Loyalists and a base for future military operations.

The Crown Colonies of New Ireland survived for four years in the first instance and eight months in the second.  The failed Penobscot expedition of 1779 to retake the colony would result in the most catastrophic defeat suffered by American Naval forces until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 162 years later, but that must be a story for another day.

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Britain defending New Ireland from the Penobscot Expedition by Dominic Serres

June 10, 1944 Village of the Damned

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It was D+4 following the invasion of Normandy, when the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS passed through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” carried orders to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance fighters in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off nearby Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly oblivious to their own confusion between two different villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population was there plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up.

SS soldiers aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before Nazis lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they fled for their lives.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some bushes where she managed to hide, until the next morning.

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642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in just a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby. The child had been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the old village remain as it stood,  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malign influence of collectivist thinking.

Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but it didn’t matter.  Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre were themselves dead within the next few days, killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

And on.  And on.  And on.

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The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War” narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: 

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Sir Laurence Olivier

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

June 9, 1772 The Road to Revolution

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground. What followed was one of the earliest acts of rebellion, of the American Revolution.

The Seven Years’ War of 1756-’63 was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering. Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit after all, had it not?

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In the 1760s, several measures were taken to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  For decades now, the colonies had been left to run their own affairs.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures now being taken by revenue and customs agents. In Rhode Island, the Sugar Act of 1764 was particularly egregious as the distillation of rum from molasses, was a main industry. Rhode Islanders took control of Fort George on Goat Islands and fired several cannon shots at the HMS St. John.  The Royal Navy vessel managed to escape harm as did her aggressors, with the approach of the 21-gun HMS Squirrel.

Ten years later, the first distinctly American flag in history unfurled some 27 miles up the road in in Taunton, Massachusetts. Even now the “Liberty and Union” flag proclaimed the desire for autonomy…and union. Liberty and Union but that first open act of rebellion, was already ten years in the past.

Back in 1769, colonists burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold before the Custom House, on King Street.

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The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. On June 9 she was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water when she ran aground near the modern-day Gaspée Point, near the town of Warwick.

Local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There the co-conspirators concocted a plot. They would set fire to the Gaspée, and spent the evening hours casting bullets for the enterprise.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of its own military vessels. Treason charges were prepared. Planning commenced to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

Lexington Reenactors

A few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the April Battles at  Lexington & Concord and the conflict at a place called Bunker Hill, that June.

One eighth of all the British officers to die of wounds in the American Revolution fell that day, on a nearby hill owned by Ephraim Breed. The fuse had been lit, to an American Revolution.  This flame was not to be put out, easily.

June 12, 1970 No-Hitter

“I really didn’t see the hitters, all I could tell is if they were on the right side or the left side. The catcher had tape on his fingers to help me see signals. But I was high as a Georgia pine.”

In the sport of baseball, a “no-hitter“ is a game in which nobatter is able to get on base, in the usual manner. Players may still get on base through a walk, an error or being hit by a pitch, but not by hitting the ball.

The talent to pitch 27 or more outs without surrendering a single hit is nearly as scarce, as hen’s teeth. Nearly a quarter-million Major League games have been played in this country between 1876 and 2021. Only 311 have ended, with no-hitters.

No fewer than six Major League ball clubs have recorded but a single no-hitter, in their entire existence. The number of pitchers to throw more than one, are precious few. Those who did it while tripping on acid number…precisely…one.

This is dated. Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove threw San Diego’s first no-hitter in April, this year

At his best, Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis was one of the best there was. Former ESPN announcer and San Diego Padres infielder, Dave “Soup” Campbell once said “I’ve always been asked who the toughest guy I ever faced was, and I always say Dock. His fastball had such great late movement, always seemed to be in one place when I’d start my swing and then move in another direction. It could sink, move in on my hands, or sail away like Mariano Rivera’s cutter.”

And then there were those times…

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn repeatedly ordered the man to refrain from wearing curlers, on the field. He once burned a pre-game pitch list in the locker room and set off the sprinkler system. The man literally went ‘hunting’ Cincinnati batters one day in 1974, striking the first three men in the lineup: Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dan Driessen. The next two were a little too quick dodging one head shot after another until Ellis was pulled, from the game.

Lest anyone think that was by accident, permit me to put the matter to rest. He said he’d do it, before the game. I believe Dock Ellis still holds the record for most consecutive batters, hit by a pitch.

Dock Ellis could be one of the best in the game, but never seemed to keep the focus to stay that way. Flamboyant, vocal and quick to anger, Jackie Robinson himself once praised Dock Ellis for advancing the rights of black players and criticized him, for talking too much.

And then there were the drugs. Ever mindful of his “can’t miss” status as a prospect, Ellis was never without a bit of chemical assistance. He later said he never pitched a major league game, without amphetamines.

And those were the days he was working.

June 11, 1970 was a Thursday, the day before a double header between the visiting Pirates, and the San Diego Padres. Ellis wasn’t pitching that day and drove to Los Angeles, to visit a friend.

Father Time moved on. The earth revolved on its axis and night followed day but Dock Ellis, knew none of it. “Two or three” LSD tabs took care of that. And then it was Friday. Game day. Ellis crushed another tablet and snorted the thing. Two hours later his host asked, aren’t you playing tonight? Ellis didn’t believe that it was Friday, asking “what happened to Thursday? She had to show him a sports page with the day’s date. June 12, 1970.

It was 2:00pm. He was scheduled to pitch at 6:08.

The rest of that day? Who knows. There was that frenzied trip to the airport, the flight and the pitcher’s arrival, just in time. Sometimes the ball seemed so big he later said, and sometimes, it was small. There was a plate up there or was it several, and why did it (they) keep moving? Years later he said he couldn’t see the batters, just which side of the plate they were on. Catcher Jerry May had to wear reflective tape on his fingers, so Ellis could see the signals.

At 8:18 it was over, the most unlikely no-hitter, in history. Pitching was so erratic the Padres had a man on base, in every inning.

“I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.”

Dock Ellis

In 1993, San Francisco’s “proto-punk” singer songwriter Barbara Manning and the SF Seals, a group named after the city’s one-time minor league ball club, released what may be the first and only baseball themed EP in the history, of indie pop.

Manning’s trilogy included a cover of Les Brown’s “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” the “Ballad of Denny McLain” and “Dock Ellis”, the psychedelic ballad of a Major League no-hitter, once pitched while tripping on acid.

June 4, 1629 The Secrets of Wallabi Island

Three months after the original shipwreck, rescuers would discover a horror for the ages.

During the colonial period, European powers formed joint-stock companies to carry out foreign trade and exploration, to colonize distant lands and conduct military operations against foreign adversaries.

Such organizations may be chartered for a single voyage or for an extended period of time, and were much more than what we associate with the modern “company”. These organizations could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrongdoers and largely functioned outside the control of the governments which formed them.

The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), better known as the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, was the world’s first formally listed public company, an early multi-national corporation paving the way to the corporate-led globalization of the early modern period.

On October 27, 1628, a Dutch East India Co. merchant fleet departed the Dutch West Indies bound for the south Pacific Moluccan Islands to trade for spices. Among these vessels was the 650-ton ship Batavia, embarked on her maiden voyage.

On board were enormous stockpiles of gold and silver coinage and a complement of 341 passengers and crew, including men, women and children.

Among ship’s officers were the bankrupt pharmacist Onderkoopman (junior merchant) Jeronimus Cornelisz, in flight from the Netherlands due to his heretical religous beliefs, and skipper Ariaen Jacobsz. While underway, the two conceived a plan to mutiny, and start a new life somewhere else. All that specie in the hold would make for a very nice start.

A small group of men were recruited and a plot was hatched, to molest a ranking female member of the passenger list. The plotters hoped to provoke a harsh act of discipline against the crew, which could then be used to recruit more men to the mutineers. Lucretia Jans was assaulted as planned but, for whatever reason, Opperkoopman (senior merchant) Francisco Pelsaert never made any arrests.

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Perhaps the man was ill at the time but, be that as it may, the die was cast. The conspirators now needed only the right set of circumstances, to put their plans in motion.

Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course and away from the rest of the fleet. He got his ‘right set of circumstances’ on the morning of June 4, 1629, when Batavia struck a reef off the west coast of Australia.

Forty people drowned before the rest could be gotten safely to shore, swimming or transferred to nearby islands in the ship’s longboat and yawl.

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With no source of fresh drinking water, the situation was dire. A group comprising Captain Jacobsz, Francisco Pelsaert, several senior officers and crew members plus a few passengers set out in a 30-foot longboat.  The group performed one of the great feats of open boat navigation in all history, arriving after 33 days at the port of Batavia in modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia.

Boatswain Jan Evertsz was arrested and executed for negligence in the wreck of the Batavia, his role in the conspiracy never suspected.

Pelsaert was immediately given command of the Sardam by Batavia’s Governor General, Jan Coen.

Pelsaert’s rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

Left alone in charge of the survivors, Cornelisz and several co-conspirators took control of all the weapons and food supplies, then carried out plans to eliminate potential opposition.

A group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes was tricked into being moved to West Wallabi Island, under the false pretense of looking for water. Convinced there was none, Cornelisz abandoned the group on the island to die.  The psychopath and his dedicated band of followers,  were now free to murder the rest at their leisure .

Author Mike Dash writes in Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny: “With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children”.

Like some neo-Mansonian psychopath, Cornelisz left the actual killing to others though he did attempt to poison one infant, who was later strangled.  No fewer than 110 men, women and children were murdered during this period.  Women left alive were confined to ‘rape tents’.

Meanwhile, Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers found water and, unaware of the butchery taking place on Beacon island, began to send smoke signals, according to a prearranged plan.  The group would only learn of the ongoing massacre from survivors, who escaped to swim for their lives.

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Makeshift ‘fort’ built by Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers, on West Wallabi Island

With their own supplies dwindling, Cornelisz & Co. assaulted the soldiers on West Wallabi Island, now in possession of crude handmade weapons and manning makeshift fortifications. Pitched battles ensued, pitting muskets against sticks and spears. The bad guys almost won too, but the better trained and (by this time) better fed soldiers, prevailed.

Pelsaert’s arrival triggered a furious race between Cornelisz’s men and the soldiers. Fortunately for all, Hayes won the race. A brief but furious battle ensued before Cornelisz and his company were captured. After a brief trial, Cornelisz and the worst of the conspirators were brought to Seal Island, their hands chopped off and the rest of them, hanged.

Two judged only to be minor players were brought to the Australian mainland and marooned, never to be seen again.

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The hangings on Long Island as illustrated in the Lucas de Vries 1649 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie.

The remaining conspirators were brought back to Batavia and tried. Five were hanged. Jacop Pietersz, second-in-command, was broken on the wheel, a hideous remnant of medieval justice and the worst form of execution available, at that time. Captain Jacobsz resisted days of torture and never did confess. What became of him is unknown.

Francisco Pelsaert was judged partly responsible for the disaster, due to his failure to exercise command. Senior Merchant Pelsaert’s assets were confiscated.  He would die penniless in less than a year, a broken man.

The exact number of those buried in mass graves on Beacon Island, remains unknown.  Of the 341 who departed the West Indies that day in 1628, 68 lived to tell the tale.  Archaeologists labor an land and at sea but, three centuries later, the Wallabi Islands remain jealous of their secrets

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“Archaeologists recovering Batavia timbers from the wreck site”.  H/T, HuffPo for this image

May 26, 1907 Little Duke

The Wedge is a spot at the end of Balboa Peninsula in southern California. Located at the east end of Newport beach the place is a surfer’s paradise and a spot anyone with any sense, would stay out of the water.

The Wedge is a spot at the end of Balboa Peninsula in southern California. Located at the east end of Newport beach the place is a surfer’s paradise and a spot anyone with any sense, would stay out of. When conditions are right, a steeply rising sandy bottom causes waves to rise to 30-feet and more. Great, curling monsters breaking onto the shore with such force the outgoing water alone creates a surf and a backwash so powerful as be a danger, to the strongest of swimmers.

Wally O’Connor was a four-time Olympiad, a competition swimmer and water polo player inducted in 1976, into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame. Long before that, he stood at the entrance of Newport Harbor admiring The Wedge, and what may have been some of the biggest waves he had ever seen.

O’Connor turned to his friend Marion and said I’ll take the first pass. “Watch and learn”.

O’Connor stood at the crest of a wave of his own at this time, a craze that was sweeping the west coast surfing crowd. Body surfing. The man didn’t invent the sport but his strength and skill was capable of drawing crowds on the beach.

Marion hated that name. As a boy, he was rarely seen outside the company of his best buddy, a large Airedale terrier, named Duke. Local firefighters took to calling him “Little Duke” and the name stuck.

Now years later on that day at Newport Beach, Marion Mitchell lit another Camel, and watched. It was easy to see why Wally had won Olympic gold in Paris, back in 1924. Powerful strokes brought his friend out to 100 yards where, diving into the face of an oncoming wave, he sprang from the bottom to emerge at the curl of a giant breaker, not on the crest but in it, speeding to the shore like Superman with one arm out straight and the other, tucked behind.

Wally was flying, not on but of the water, his body staying just ahead of the thunderous crash that hurled him forward like a spear where he glided, grinning, onto the sand. Like a seal.

For Duke, that ride was heart pounding. Electric. An upper Midwest kid who had moved with his family to southern California where he now played football, on a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Duke was well accustomed to the adrenaline, the bone crunching action of college football but this, was something different. This looked like human flight itself and no power on earth was going to keep him from it.

Though himself powerfully built, Duke wasn’t the swimmer that Wally was. The water wasn’t his home but, there he was, strong if ungraceful strokes bringing him out to where Wally had launched that virtuoso performance.

Waiting for a wave as big as Wally’s he too dove into its towering base, springing from the bottom to emerge from the crest and, for a moment, to fly.

And that is where the similarity, ends. One must have exquisite timing to do this at this level, to be at just the right place where the thundering crash of the water hurls you forward and not down, toward the bottom.

Duke hit solid ground with the force of a car wreck. He could literally hear his collarbone break, feel the shoulder dislocate with the terrific force, of that impact.

The other thing he could almost hear was the sound of a football scholarship, crashing to an end. Of the end of USC and the promising law career that would never be.

Duke emerged alive from the water that day but not so, his future plans. With the end of that scholarship he was left no choice but to drop out. Duke left USC never to return and took a job. A prop man, at 20th Century Fox.

There, Director Raoul Walsh saw Marion moving studio furniture and thought, this guy would be better in front of the camera, than behind it.

So it is, one of the great leading male actors of the age of film, met with reporters some 35 years later, in the living room of his Encino home. He spoke with them of his lung cancer, only four days out of major surgery, though he didn’t call it that. With four ribs and a lung removed and stitches pulling loose even now he called it “The Big C”, assuring reporters it was no big deal. Soon, he’d be back in the saddle.

That he did, going on to appear in 24 feature films over the next 12 years until finally, the Big C returned. This time there would be no encore. The man who shot Liberty Valance born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, died on June 11, 1979, at the age of 72.

So it is we remember his name, the man the LA Times once called a “$35-a-week prop department flunky” who performed in over 200 feature films, all because of a body surfing accident, in 1926.

Happy birthday, John Wayne.

Los Angeles, USA – September 8, 2012: John Wayne memorial on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Hat tip Mike Rowe for this story and his excellent podcast, The Way I Heard It.

May 25, 1738 Mason Dixon Line

The problem with King Charles II’s land grant to William Penn is that it overlapped with that of his father King Charles I, to Lord Baltimore.

Agree or disagree with US government policy, that’s your business, but what we do in this country, we do as a nation. It would seem absurd to us to see the President raise an army to go to war with the Congress, and yet that’s just what happened in 17th century England.

The period 1639-’51 saw a series of intertwined conflicts within and between the three kingdoms, including the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and ’40, the Scottish Civil War of 1644–’45; the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Confederate Ireland, 1642–’49 and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649, collectively known as the Eleven Years War or Irish Confederate Wars and finally, the first, second and third English Civil Wars.

An officer in the British Royal Navy, William Penn served on the side of the Parliament during the first English Civil War of 1642-46′, a conflict which would lead to the execution of the King himself, in 1649. England and Wales came to be governed as a Commonwealth under “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell, later followed by Ireland and Scotland.

The experiment proved to be a failure, the interregnum lasting 11 years. In 1660, the dead King’s son was invited to rule as Charles II, King of Scotland, England and Ireland.

One might think an officer’s support of the Parliament would have cost him his head, but William Penn had a gift for landing on his feet. When he died in 1670, King Charles II owed the man money.

Penn’s son, also named William, was a dedicated pacifist, and a Quaker. The younger Penn had utopian ideas he wanted to try out, in the new world. Thus the Charter of 1681 came to be, granting a slice of the forested lands of North America in exchange for money, owed to Penn’s late father. That land came to be called “Penn’s Woods” or, in Latin, Pennsylvania.

It’s why so many Philadelphia streets, are named after trees.

Pennsylvania Charter of 1681, page 1 of 4.

The King’s Charter specified a southern boundary for the new colony to begin at “A circle drawne at twelve miles distance from New Castle Northward and Westward unto the beginning of the fortieth degree of Northern Latitude, and then by a streight Line Westward“.

The problem comes about when you realize that 40° north latitude is north of Philadelphia. Well into territory granted to Lord Baltimore by King Charles I and controlled by Maryland and Delaware.

What is this “Pennsylvania” of which you speak?

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The Maryland colony insisted on the boundary as drawn by Charles II’s Charter, while Pennsylvania proposed a boundary near 39°36′, creating a disputed zone of some 28 miles.

In 1726, Quaker minister John Wright began a ferry service across the Susquehanna River. Starting as a pair of dugout canoes, “Pennsylvania Dutch” farmers were soon settling the Conejohela Valley on the eastern border between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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Business was good.  By 1730, Wright had applied for a ferry license. With Lord Baltimore fearing a loss of control in the area (read – taxes), Maryland resident Thomas Cresap established a second ferry service up the river. Maryland granted Cresap some 500 acres along the west bank, serenely unconcerned that much of the area was already inhabited by Pennsylvania farmers.

Cresap went to these farmers to collect “quit-rents”, an early form of property tax, for the government in Maryland. Pennsylvania authorities responded by issuing “tickets” to settlers which, while not granting immediate title, amounted to an “IOU” of title under Pennsylvania jurisdiction.

Then came the day when Cresap and his ferry worker were thrown overboard by two Pennsylvanian farmers, probably over a debt. Cresap took the matter to Pennsylvania authorities for justice. The magistrate informed the plaintiff he couldn’t expect justice in his court because he was a “liver in Maryland”. Incensed, Cresap then filed charges with Maryland authorities claiming that, as a Maryland resident, he was no longer bound by Pennsylvania law.

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Cresap and his allies began to confiscate York and Lancaster county properties as early as 1734, handing them over to his supporters. Maryland militia crossed colonial borders twice in 1736, and Pennsylvania militia were quick to respond.

CLancaster county Sheriff arrived with a posse to arrest Cresap at his home, when Cresap fired through the door, mortally wounding deputy Knowles Daunt.

When Daunt died, Pennsylvania Governor Patrick Gordon demanded that Maryland arrest Cresap for murder. Samuel Ogle, Governor of Maryland, responded by naming Cresap a captain in the Maryland militia.

Cresap resumed and expanded his raids, destroying barns and shooting livestock. Sheriff Samuel Smith raised a posse to arrest him in November. When the Pennsylvanians set his cabin on fire, Cresap ran for the river. Grabbing him before he could launch a boat, Cresap shoved one of them overboard, shouting, “Cresap’s getting away!”, whereupon the other deputies proceeded to pound their colleague with oars until one of them discovered the ruse.

Cresap was taken to Lancaster, where he decked the blacksmith who had come to put him in shackles. He was finally subdued and hauled off to Philadelphia in chains, but even then the man was anything but broken. “Damn it”, he said, looking around, “this is one of the prettiest towns in Maryland!”

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Maryland authorities petitioned George II, King of Great Britain and Ireland, imploring the King to restore order among his loyal subjects. King George’s proclamation of August 18, 1737 instructed the governments of both colonies to cease hostilities.

When that failed to stop the fighting, the Crown organized direct negotiations between the two. Peace was signed in London on May 25, 1738, the agreement providing for an exchange of prisoners and a provisional boundary to be drawn fifteen miles south of the southernmost home in Philadelphia and mandating that neither Maryland nor Pennsylvania “permit or suffer any Tumults Riots or other Outragious Disorders to be committed on the Borders of their respective Provinces.”

So ended the “Conojocular War”, the bloody eight-year conflict between Philadelphia and surrounding area and sometimes referred to as “Cresap’s War”.

In 1767, descendants of the Penns and Calverts hired surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to establish a boundary. That original line extended westward, becoming the demarcation between northern “free” states, and Southern “slave” states. The Mason-Dixon line came to renewed prominence during the Missouri Compromise period of 1820 and again, during the Civil War. The Virginia border originally made up part of the line and thus the northern boundary of the Confederacy, until West Virginia seceded to rejoin the union.

Today, the Mason-Dixon line is more of a loose separation, delineating the culture and politics of the South, from those of the North. The area of Cresap’s original conflict is now part of York County, Pennsylvania.

Afterward

During the French & Indian Wars of the 1750s, Thomas Cresap and a party of 100 pursued an Indian war band over the modern-day Savage Mountain and onto the next ridge. Along with the party marched a free black man, a frontiersman known only as “Nemesis”. A fierce fight ensued on May 28, 1756.  Nemesis, described as “large and powerfully built”, fought bravely, but lost his life.

The painting “Shades of Death” by artist Lee Teter, depicts Colonel Thomas Cresap comforting the mortally wounded, heroic frontiersman.

He was buried on the site, the story goes, where Cresap named the mountain in his honor. “Negro Mountain”, the long ridge of the Allegheny Mountains stretching from Deep Creek Lake in Maryland north to the Casselman River in Pennsylvania, stands to this day as his monument. 

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Eventually, someone took offense at the name. Rosita Youngblood, a Philadelphia politician of African ancestry, said in 2007: “Through a school project, my son and granddaughter first informed me of the name of this range and I found it to be disparaging that we have one of our great works of nature named as such… I find it disheartening for tourists who visit this range to see the plaque with the name Negro Mountain displayed on the mountainside.”

Professor Christopher Bracey is a law professor and associate professor of African and African-American studies at Washington University. Bracey also descends from African ancestors. He contends that: “I must confess I have a slightly different take on it than [Youngblood]… Here we have a mountain, whose name was intended to be a testament to Negro bravery. It seems rather crass and unsophisticated to name it Negro Mountain, but the intentions were strong.”

Measures to rename Negro Mountain and Polish Mountain alike were voted down in the Maryland state senate. As of this writing, road signs have been removed by the Maryland State Highway Administration, citing concerns over “racial sensitivity”.

May 24, 1883 First Across

For 11 years she studied higher mathematics, catenary curves, materials strength and the intricacies of cable construction, all while acting as the pivot point on the largest bridge construction project on the planet and nursemaid, to a desperately sick husband.

Focused as he was on surveying, the engineer should have paid more attention to his surroundings. The year was 1869. Civil engineer John Roebling had begun the site work two years ago, almost to the day. Now just a few more compass readings, across the East River. Soon, work would begin on the longest steel suspension span in the world. A bridge connecting the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Roebling was working on the pier with his 32-year old son Washington, also a civil engineer. As the ferry came alongside, the elder Roebling’s toes were caught and crushed so badly, as to require amputation.

brooklyn-bridge-caisson-granger“Lockjaw” is such a sterile term, it doesn’t begin to describe the condition known as Tetanus. In the early stages, the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium Tetani produces tetanospasmin, a neurotoxin producing mild spasms in the jaw muscles. As the disease progresses, sudden and involuntary contractions affect skeletal muscle groups, becoming so powerful that bones are literally fractured as the muscles tear themselves apart. These were the last days of John Roebling, the bridge engineer who would not live to see his most famous work.

The German-born civil engineer was the first casualty of the project.  He would not be the last.

Brooklyn Bridge Caisson Construction

Washington took over the project, beginning construction on January 3, 1870.

Enormous yellow pine boxes called “caissons” were built on the Brooklyn and New York sides of the river, descending at the rate of 6-inches per week in search of bedrock. Like giant diving bells, the New York side ended up at 78- feet below mean high tide, the Brooklyn side 44-feet. Pressurized air was pumped into these caissons, keeping water and mud at bay as workers excavated the bottom.

In 1872, these “sandhogs” began to experience a strange illness that came to be called “caisson disease”.

Civil War era submarine designer Julius Hermann Kroehl may have recognized what was happening, but Kroehl was five years in his grave by this time, victim of the same “fever”.

Today we call it “the bends”. Pop the top off a soda bottle and you’ll see the principle at work. Without sufficient decompression time, dissolved gasses come out of solution and the blood turns to foam. Bubbles form in or migrate to any part of the body, resulting in symptoms ranging from joint pain and skin rashes, to paralysis and death.  The younger Roebling was badly injured as a result of the bends in 1872, leaving him partially paralyzed and bedridden, incapable of supervising construction on-site.

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Roebling moved to an apartment in Brooklyn Heights and conducted the entire project looking out the window, designing and redesigning details while his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, became the critical connection between her husband and the job site.

To aid in the work, Emily Roebling took a crash course in bridge engineering. For 11 years she studied higher mathematics, catenary curves, materials strength and the intricacies of cable construction, all while acting as the pivot point on the largest bridge construction project on the planet and nursemaid, to a desperately sick husband.

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Emily Warren Roebling, the “first woman field engineer”.

Historian David McCullough wrote in his book, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge: “By and by it was common gossip that hers was the great mind behind the great work and that this, the most monumental engineering triumph of the age, was actually the doing of a woman, which as a general proposition was taken in some quarters to be both preposterous and calamitous. In truth, she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved”.

Unlikely as it sounds, fires broke out at the bottom of the river on several occasions, started by workmen’s candles, fed by the oakum used for caulking and turbocharged by all that pressurized air. On at least one occasion, the caisson was filled with millions of gallons of water, before the fire went out for good.

Brooklyn bridge builders

A footbridge connected the two sides in 1877, and soon the wires began to be strung. Wooden “buggies” carried men back and forth along wires suspended hundreds of feet above the water, as individual wires were woven into the four great cables that support the bridge. The work was exacting, with each wire bound together to precise specifications. Rumors about corruption and sleaze surrounded the project when J. Lloyd Haigh, the wire contractor, was discovered to be supplying inferior material. It was way too late to do anything about it, and 150 extra wires were bundled into each cable to compensate. The tactic worked.  Haigh’s shoddy wire remains there, to this day.

At the time it was built, the span across the East river linking Brooklyn with Manhattan was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Construction was completed in 1883, the bridge opening for use on May 24. Emily Roebling was the first to cross, in a carriage, carrying a rooster as the sign, of victory. New York politician Abram Stevens Hewitt honored her, at that day’s dedication. Today a bronze plaque bears name of the first female field engineer.

“…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.’

New York politician Abram Stevens Hewitt

Six days later, a rumor started that the bridge was about to collapse.  At least 12 people were killed in the resulting stampede. A year later, a publicity stunt by P. T. Barnum helped to put people’s minds at ease when Jumbo, the circus’ prize elephant, led a parade of 20 other elephants across the bridge.

For a long time the span was called the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge” or the “East River Bridge”, officially becoming the “Brooklyn Bridge” only in 1915. At least 27 were killed in its construction. Three from the bends, several from cable stringing accidents and others crushed under granite blocks or killed in high falls.

Even today, popular culture abounds with stories of suckers “buying” the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the longest bridge in the world for its time, and would remain so until 1903. Roebling had designed his project to be six times the strength required for the job. Even with those defective cables, the bridge is four times as strong as it needs to be. Many of the Brooklyn Bridge’s contemporary structures have long since gone.  Johann Augustus Roebling’s bridge carries 145,000 cars, every day.

Brooklyn Bridge