April 5, 1761 Midnight Ride

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up. The Colonel had one night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done. The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born. His daughter, Sybil.

“Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of”…Sybil Ludington.

Wait…What?

Midnight RidePaul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” began on the night of April 18, 1775.  Revere was one of two riders, soon joined by a third, fanning out from Boston to warn of an oncoming column of “regulars”, come to destroy the stockpile of gunpowder, ammunition, and cannon in Concord.

Revere himself covered barely 12 miles before being captured, his horse confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.  Revere would finish his “ride” on foot, arriving at sunrise on the 19th to witness the last moments of the battle on Lexington Green.

Two years later, Patriot forces maintained a similar supply depot, in the southwest Connecticut town of Danbury.

William Tryon was the Royal Governor of New York, and long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, he was also a major-general of the provincial army.  On April 25th, Tryon set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

Burning of DanburyPatriot Colonel Joseph Cooke’s small Danbury garrison was caught and quickly overpowered on the 26th, trying to remove food supplies, uniforms, and equipment.  Facing little if any opposition, Tryon’s forces went on a bender, burning homes, farms and storehouses.  Thousands of barrels of pork, beef, and flour were destroyed, along with 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents.

Colonel Henry Ludington was a farmer and father of 12, with a long military career.  A long-standing and loyal subject of the British crown, Ludington switched sides in 1773, joining the rebel cause and rising to command the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

In April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, and spread across the countryside.  An exhausted rider arrived at the Ludington farm on a blown horse, on the evening of the 26th, asking for help.  15 miles away, British regulars and a force of loyalists were burning Danbury to the ground. Sybil Ludington

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel had one night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born, his daughter, Sybil.

Born April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was barely sixteen at the time of her ride.  From Poughkeepsie to what is now Putnam County and back, the “Female Paul Revere” rode across the lower Hudson River Valley, covering 40 miles in the pitch dark of night, alerting her father’s militia to the danger and urging them to come out and fight.  She’d use a stick to knock on doors, even using it once, to fight off a highway bandit.

By the time Sybil returned the next morning, cold, rain-soaked, and exhausted, most of 400 militia were ready to march.

BattleOfRidgefield
Battle of Ridgefield, from Wikipedia A: British movement to the coast B: American movements to pursue and harass the British C: Arnold’s position attempting to block the British return to the beach D: British return to New York

35 miles to the east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

Arnold’s forces arrived too late to save Danbury, but inflicted a nasty surprise on the British rearguard as the column approached nearby Ridgefield.  Never outnumbered by less than three-to-one, Connecticut militia was able to slow the British advance until Ludington’s New York Militia arrived on the following day.  The last phase of the action saw the same type of swarming harassment, as seen on the British retreat from Concord to Boston, early in the war.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling inflicted by these colonials ensured that this was the last hostile British landing on the Connecticut coast.

The British raid on Danbury destroyed at least 19 houses and 22 stores and barns.  Town officials submitted £16,000 in claims to Congress, for which town selectmen received £500 reimbursement.  Further claims were made to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1787, for which Danbury was awarded land.  In Ohio.

Keeler_tavern_ridgefield_cannonball_2006
Keeler Tavern

The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

At the time, Benedict Arnold planned to travel to Philadelphia, to protest the promotion of officers junior to himself, to Major General.  Arnold, who’d had two horses shot out from under him at Ridgefield, was promoted to Major General in recognition for his role in the battle.  Along with that promotion came a horse, “properly caparisoned as a token of … approbation of his gallant conduct … in the late enterprize to Danbury.”  For now, the pride which would one day be his undoing, was assuaged.

Henry Ludington would become Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, mayor of Milwaukee and 12th Governor of Wisconsin.

Gold Silliman was kidnapped with his son by a first marriage by Tory neighbors, and held for Nearly seven months at a New York farmhouse.  Having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, Patriot forces went out and kidnapped one of their own, in the person of Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

Wooster Square
Archway at Wooster Square

Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, who was brutally raped by English forces for denying them the use of her home.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells the story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives during the Revolution, as well as Mary’s own negotiations for her husband’s release from his Loyalist captors.

General David Wooster was mortally wounded at the Battle of Ridgefield, moments after shouting “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!”  Today, an archway marks the entrance to Wooster Square, in the East Rock Neighborhood of New Haven.  Sybil_Ludington_stamp

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends, even George Washington, and then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would likewise have faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  86 years later.

Advertisements

April 1, 1698 Washing the Lions

Pandemonium broke out when hundreds showed up, only to realize they’d been pranked.

Festival of FoolsApril Fools.  The ancient Roman festival of Hilaria, held on March 25, may be a precursor.  The Medieval Feast of Fools, held December 28, is still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.

In one translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “March 32” of 1392 is the day the vain cock Chauntecleer was tricked by a fox. The fox appealed to the rooster’s vanity by insisting he would love to hear Chauntecleer crow, just as his amazing father did.  Standing on tiptoe with neck outstretched and eyes closed. The rooster obliged, with unfortunate, if not unpredictable results.

In 1582, France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian moving New Year to January 1 as specified by the Council of Trent of 1563. Those who didn’t get the news and continued to celebrate New Year in late March/April 1, quickly became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. Paper fish were placed on their backs, as these “poisson d’avril” (April fish) were said to symbolize the young, naive, easily caught fish of Spring.poisson-davril

The Flemish children of Belgium lock their parents or teachers out, letting them in only if they promise to bring treats that evening or the next day.

In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on fool’s errands on April 1.

In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. Although it’s fallen into disuse, a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person. The prank consists of asking someone to deliver a sealed message requesting some sort of help. The message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”. On reading the message, the recipient will explain that to help, he’ll first need to contact another person, sending the victim to another person with the same message.

In Poland, “Prima Aprilis” is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I, signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.

LeoAnimals were kept at the Tower of London since the 13th century, when Emperor Frederic II sent three leopards to King Henry III. In later years, elephants, lions, even a polar bear were added to the collection, the polar bear trained to catch fish in the Thames.

In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference.

On April 1, 1698, citizens were invited to the Tower of London to see the “Washing of the Lions” in the tower moat. Quite a few were sucked in.  The April 2 edition of Dawks’ News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” The “annual ceremony of washing the lions,” lasted throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, always held on April 1st.

tower-of-london
Tower of London

The prank became quite elaborate by the mid-nineteenth century. Tickets were printed and distributed for the event, specifying that attendees be “Admitted only at the White Gate”, and that “It is requested that no Gratuities will be given to the Wardens on any account.”

In his “Reminiscences of an Old Bohemian”, Gustave Strauss laments his complicity in the hoax in 1848. “These wretched conspirators”, as Straus called his accomplices, “had a great number of order-cards printed, admitting “bearer and friends” to the White Tower, on the 1st day of April, to witness…the famous grand annual ceremony of washing the lions”. Pandemonium broke out when hundreds showed up, only to realize they’d been pranked. “In the midst of the turmoil” Strauss wrote, “some one spotted me to whom I had given an order of admission, and he would have set the whole mob upon me. Knowing of old that discretion is, as a rule, the better part of valour…I had to skedaddle, and keep dark for a time, until the affair had blown over a little”.

spagtreeIn 1957, (you can guess the date), the BBC reported the delightful news that mild winter weather had virtually eradicated the dread spaghetti weevil of Switzerland, and that Swiss farmers were now happily anticipating a bumper crop of spaghetti.  Footage showed smiling Swiss peasants, pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees.  Apparently, an embarrassingly large number of viewers were fooled.  Many called BBC offices, asking how to grow their own spaghetti tree. “Place a piece of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce”, callers were told, “and hope for the best.”

The Warby Parker Company website describes a company mission of “offer[ing] designerWarby Barker eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses”.  On April 1, 2012, the company released its new line of eyeglasses for dogs, appropriately called “Warby Barker”.  For only $95, your hipster pooch could be sporting the latest styles in canine eyeware, in irresistible dog treat shades like “Gravy Burst” and “Dusty Bacon.”  There was a monocle option too, for those partial to that Prussian Field Marshall look.  Anyone falling for the gag, got an “April Fools!” message on their on-line shopping cart.

Two days ago, Burger King announced the introduction of their new, Whopper flavored mouthwash, for those who just can’t get enough.  I’m sure it’s true because I read it on-line, but it should be mentioned here. There is no “White Gate” at the Tower of London.  Never was.

Left-Handed Whopper

March 28, 1915 Thrasher Incident

That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba

102 years ago, the Great War was in its 8th month.  The war of mobility of the early months was long gone, replaced by the lines of trench works which would characterize the rest of the war. Off the battlefield, the German and British governments each sought to choke the life out of the other’s economy. Great Britain held the upper hand, with the superior deep-water surface fleet.  To the Kaiser’s way of thinking, parity would come in the form of a submarine.

Picture_of_Leon_Chester_Thrasher_who_died_on_the_RMS_Falaba
Leon Chester Thrasher 1st American killed in WW!

Leon Chester Thrasher was an American mining engineer. That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba.

The German submarine U-28 stopped Falaba on this day in 1915, sinking the ship to the bottom with a single torpedo and killing 104, including Leon Thrasher.  The first American killed in the “War to End all Wars”.

German policy varied over the course of the war, from unrestrained submarine warfare, to strict adherence with international law. U-28 Commander Freiherr Georg-Günther von Forstner claimed to have given Falaba 23 minutes to evacuate, cutting that short and firing his torpedo only in response to Falaba’s distress rockets and wireless messages for help. British authorities claim to have been given only 7 minutes’ warning.

The death of the first American in the European war set off a diplomatic row which threatened for a time to bring the Americans into the war. American newspapers called it the “Thrasher Incident”, denouncing the sinking as a “massacre”.   An act of “piracy”.falaba

The Germans claimed that subsequent explosions proved Falaba to be carrying contraband ammunition, intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.  Eyewitness accounts failed to settle the matter, some even tended to support the German view.

President Woodrow Wilson stayed his hand, winning re-election the following year with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War”.

What remained of Leon Thrasher washed ashore on the coast of Ireland on July 11, 1915, after 106 days in the water.  Authorities mistakenly believed him to be a victim of the RMS Lusitania sinking, designating him Body No. 248.

The U-boat U-20 had torpedoed the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland 40 days earlier, killing 1,198, 124 of whom were Americans. The US came close to the brink of war that time too, but the last and final straw wouldn’t come for another two years.  In the form of a German telegram, to the government of Mexico.

March 7, 1912 The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

The final camp became their tomb, a high cairn of snow erected over it. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribed with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

Belgica_schiff
RV Belgica frozen in the ice, 1898

The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. His mother wanted no such thing and made him promise he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died. He kept his promise until that day.  There would be no more school after that.

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

It’s been called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to it as much as he helped create it. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south, along a direct line to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911,  the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

Aan_de_Zuidpool
Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott had attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again in 1911. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. 97 miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

amundsen_-_scott_antarctic_expedition_map-svg
Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.

Weak, unacclimatized ponies slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team. When Scott decided to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35 miles short of its planned location at 80°, expedition member Lawrence Oates warned “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike the previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is clear: “The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

scotts_party_at_the_south_pole
The doomed Scott party used a string to take this “selfie”, the day after becoming 2nd to reach the South Pole

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19. Team member Edgar Evans’ condition was visibly deteriorating as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left him dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  By March 16, Lawrence Oates was severely frostbitten. He left his tent for the last time, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on camp the following day and lasted for days, as Scott and his companions wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others. The last words in his diary, were: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

robert-falcon-scott
Robert Falcon Scott

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found 8 months later, the last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming their tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

They were eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.   The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).    A century of ice and snow have covered bodies, camp and the cross alike. Now encased 75′ down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, the bodies are expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276, perhaps to float away in an iceberg.

In 1926, Amundsen and a team of 15 reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Three previous claims to have attained the North Pole: Frederick Cook (1908), Robert Peary (1909), and Richard E. Byrd (1926), have all been disputed as being of dubious accuracy or downright frauds, leaving Amundsen the undisputed first to have reached both poles.

cross_on_observation_hill_mcmurdo_station
The Observation Hill cross memorial to the Scott expedition, erected 1913.

On hearing the details of Scott’s end, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

He and a crew of five disappeared into the Arctic on June 18, 1928, lost in the search for survivors following the crash of the Airship Italia. Despite efforts to find them as late as August 2009, neither aircraft nor bodies were ever found.

Peter Markham Scott, the only child produced by the marriage of Robert Falcon and Kathleen Bruce Scott, went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature, which operates to this day as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Shackleton advert

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck”. —  The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

February 13, 1542 The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Catherine of Aragon was destined to die alone in a convent, possibly the only class act in this whole, sorry story.

Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, came to England to marry Arthur, the eldest son and heir to the throne of Henry VII, in 1501. Arthur died the following year and his younger brother took the throne, asking Catherine to marry him in 1509.

She was by all accounts a devoted wife, but the marriage bore no sons. Henry came to believe, or said he believed, that it was punishment from God for marrying his brother’s wife. By this time he had fallen hard for Thomas Boleyn’s daughter, Anne. The king was in a pickle. His wife wouldn’t agree to a divorce, and Anne Boleyn was not about to give it up as a mere mistress.  She was going to be the King’s wife, or nothing.

The problem was, the Pope refused to grant the divorce.  Henry launched the Reformation so that he could divorce his wife and marry this young French girl, getting his divorce the following year and going on to become Supreme Head of the Church of England.  Catherine of Aragon died alone in a convent three years later, possibly the only Class Act in this whole, sorry story.henryviii_wives

Catherine was popular with the people, but this second wife was not. To many, she was ”the King’s whore”.  Many believed she was a witch who had cast a spell on the king. The marriage produced one daughter, Elizabeth, but again no sons. Anne miscarried a male child on the day that Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough Abbey.  The Savoyard ambassador Eustace Chapuys commented that “She has miscarried of her saviour.”  There would be no divorce this time, the king concocted a plot based on a story, and Anne was convicted of incest, adultery and treason.  Anne Boleyn was executed by decapitation in 1536.  She would not be the last.

Henry married Jane Seymour 11 days later.  Though she bore him a son, she died two weeks after the birth. Years later, Henry would request on his deathbed that he be buried next to her.

Anne of Cleaves would be wife #4, an arranged marriage with a German Princess intended to secure an alliance with the other major Protestant power on the continent, especially after England’s break with Rome over that first divorce. Henry was put off by her appearance however, as if Henry himself were a prize.  The marriage went unconsummated. They were amicably divorced after 6 months.henryviii

Catherine Howard was 19 and Henry 49 when she became wife #5. He was hugely fat by this time, with festering ulcers on his leg that never healed. Henry’s suits of armor reveal a waistline that had grown from 32″ to 54″.  The man weighed 400lbs on his passing, five years later.  Catherine was young and flirtatious, preferring the company of young courtiers to that of the fat old guy she was married to.  She would be tried and convicted of adultery two years later.  As with her predecessor, execution was by the headsman’s axe.  Catherine Howard lost her head on, February 13, 1542.

Katherine Parr was the 6th and last wife of Henry VIII. Henry died in January 1547, Parr going on to marry Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron of Sudeley, six months later. Katherine died in September 1548, as the result of complications of childbirth.

kell-positiveIronically, Henry himself may have been the problem, when it came to the inability to produce a male heir.  Researchers revealed in 2011 that Henry’s blood group may have been “Kell positive”, a rare condition which would have initiated an auto-immune response in the mother’s body, targeting the body of the baby inside of her.  It’s unlikely that first pregnancies would have been effected, but the mother’s antibodies would have attacked second and subsequent Kell-positive babies as foreign objects.

The science to prove or disprove the theory didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it may not matter.  Anyone who tried to bring that bit of news to Henry VIII, very likely would have paid for it, with his head.

January 20, 1829 An Ass for a Lion

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world”

The Declaration of Independence, the birth certificate of the nation, begins with this preamble: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”.

The next paragraph leads with the phrase most commonly cited: “We hold these truths todeclaration-of-independence be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The paragraph ends with a personal indictment of one man, followed by a 27 item bill of particulars against him. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world”.

The overall tenor of the document is a personal indictment of one man, George III, King of England. The word “He” appears in the document 19 times, “tyrant” is used twice and “ruler” only once, as in: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people”.

Thomas Paine wrote of George III in “Common Sense”, the pamphlet which inspired a people to rise up in the summer of 1776: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.

To be sure, the King had little or nothing to do with the policies which brought the two countries to war. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend duties on tea, paper and other products in 1767; these came from Parliament, as did the “Coercive Acts” of 1774, referred to by the Patriots of Massachusetts and others as “The Intolerable Acts”.

These policies were a result of the financial burdens of garrisoning and administering the huge territories of the American colonies, the never ending wars with France and Spain, and the loans given to the East India Company, which was then responsible for administering India.

The third King of the House of Hanover was himself a creature of Parliament, his lineage having been invited to rule over Great Britain in 1714, after the fall of the House of Stuart. What Parliament gives, Parliament may take away. Yet today, George III is remembered for two things; losing the American colonies, and for losing his mind.

He is the longest reigning of any English King, ruling from 1760 until his death on January 29, 1820. Medical historians have long said that George III suffered from a genetic blood disorder called Porphyria, a term from the Greek meaning “purple pigment”. This refers to a blue discoloration in the urine of those suffering from the condition, along with symptoms primarily involving the central nervous system, and accompanied by severe abdominal pain, vomiting and mental disturbances.

The illness seems to have afflicted George III alone however, casting doubt on an hereditary condition. George III’s medical records cast further doubt on the porphyria diagnosis, showing that he was prescribed medicine based on gentian, a plant with deep blue flowers which may turn the urine blue. He seems to have been afflicted with some kind of mental illness, suffering bouts which occurred with increasing severity and longevity. At times the King of England would talk until he foamed at the mouth or go into convulsions where pages had to sit on him to keep him from injuring himself.

An ongoing research project at St George’s, University of London, has looked at thousands of King George III’s handwritten letters, and concluded that the King suffered from mental illness. His writing was erratic at times coinciding with his “spells”, with run-on sentences of 400 words or more and as many as 8 verbs with no punctuation. These are features of the writing and speech of patients as they experience the manic phase of bipolar disorder. This manic phase stands at one end of a spectrum of mood disorders, with an overwhelming sadness or depression at the other. Research is ongoing, but these types of mood swings are consistent with contemporary witnesses to George’s behavior, as well as the written record.

The last ten years of George’s reign were spent in complete seclusion, mentally unfit to rule.  His eldest son, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, acted as Prince Regent from 1811 on.

There is an historic lesson in this story. If the country ruled by a King (or Queen) wins the lottery and gets a good and fair monarch, then that country can experience a period of peace and prosperity. If that country draws the cosmic short straw and gets a bad one, the results can be catastrophic. In the end, it’s the most powerful argument I can think of for a governmental system of diffuse power with checks and balances.

January 13, 1842 Last Man Standing

That afternoon, one mangled soldier rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. He was Dr. William Brydon. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied “I am the Army”

The British East India Company was a British joint stock company, chartered by Queen Elizabeth in 1600 with a trade monopoly in Southeast Asia and India. It was the first of several such companies established by European powers, followed closely by the East India Companies of the Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, French and Swedish, and associated with the valuable trade in such commodities as cotton, silk, indigo, salt, saltpeter, tea and opium.

These organizations were much more than what we associate with the word “company”. In their day they could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrong doers, and largely functioned outside the control of the governments that formed them. By the early 19th century, the British East India Company ruled over large areas of India with its own private armies.

Firmly entrenched by the 1830s and wary of Russian encroachment south through Afghanistan, the British tried without success to form an alliance with the Emir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan.

Lord Auckland’s “Simla Manifesto” of October 1838 laid out a justification for British intervention in Afghanistan, based on the need for a trustworthy ally on India’s western frontier. The pro-British, Shuja Shah Durrani was installed as ruler, backed up by an army of 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of Lieutenant General John Keane, 1st Baron Keane, veteran of the Peninsular War, and the battle of New Orleans.

Most of these troops returned to India the following year, as Dost Mohammad unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé, only to be defeated and exiled to India in late 1840.

wazir_akbar_khan
Prince Akhbar Khan

By 1841, disaffected Afghan tribesmen were flocking to support Dost Mohammad’s son, Akbar Khan, against what they saw as an occupying force. There were warning signs of the deteriorating situation as the spring of 1841 turned to summer, and British freedom of movement around Kabul became increasingly restricted. The British government in India was dismayed at the cost of keeping the Kabul Garrison, when they cut off funds, ending the stream of bribes that all but kept the tribes in check.

It was around this time that Sir William Elphinstone stepped in as commander of the Kabul Garrison. Described by fellow General William Nott as “the most incompetent soldier who ever became General”, Elphinstone found himself in charge of 4,500 Indian and British troops, along with 12,500 camp followers: families, servants and civilian workers.

On November 2 1841, Akbar Khan proclaimed a general revolt. Several British officers were murdered along with their families, servants and staff. Afghan leaders invited Civil servant Sir William Hay MacNaghten for tea in December to discuss the situation; only to seize and murder them as the delegation dismounted their horses.

On January 1, Elphinstone agreed to hand over all powder, his newest muskets and most of his cannon, in exchange for “safe passage” out of Kabul, guaranteed by Akbar Khan along with the protection of the sick, wounded and infirm left behind. 16,000 soldiers and civilians moved out on January 6, heading for Jalalabad, 90 miles away.

Akbar Khan’s safe passage lasted as long as it took the column to get out in the open, when Afghans moved in firing at the retreating troops while setting fire to garrison buildings containing those left behind. At one point Akbar Khan met with Elphinstone, claiming ignorance of any betrayal. He claimed that he had been unable to provide the promised escort because they had left earlier than expected, and then asked Elphinstone to wait while he went ahead and negotiated safe passage with local tribesmen.

The delay accomplished nothing more than to allow Akbar Khan time to set up the next ambush. By the evening of the 9th, the column was only 25 miles outside of Kabul. 3,000 people were dead, mostly killed in the fighting or frozen to death, while a few had taken

last-stand
The Last Stand of Jan. 13, 1842

their own lives. By January 12, the column was reduced to only 200 soldiers and 2,000 camp followers

The last stand took place on a snow-covered hill near the village of Gandamak, on the morning of January 13, 1842. 20 officers and 45 British soldiers were surrounded, with an average of two rounds apiece. That afternoon, one mangled soldier rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. He was Dr. William Brydon. Brydon had part of his skull sheared off by an Afghan sword. He was only alive because of a Blackwood’s Magazine, stuffed into his hat to fight off the cold of the Hindu Kush. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied “I am the Army”.

In the end, 115 captured officers, soldiers, wives and children lived long enough to be released. Around 2,000 Sepoys and Indian camp followers eventually made their way back to India. According to legend, Brydon’s horse lay down on arrival in Jalalabad, and never got up again.