June 24, 1374 The Madness of the Dance

Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

Amidst our people here is come
The madness of the dance.
In every town there now are some
Who fall upon a trance.
It drives them ever night and day,
They scarcely stop for breath,
Till some have dropped along the way
And some are met by death.
– Straussburgh Chronicle of Kleinkawel, 1625

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A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone were to provoke the wrath of St. Vitus, the Sicilian saint martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.  One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance, occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.

In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237, a distance of some sixteen miles. In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until the span collapsed.

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A major outbreak St. Vitus’ Dance occurred on June 24, 1374. The population writhed and jerked through the streets of Aachen, screaming of visions and hallucinations until, one by one, each collapsed.  There, victims continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

dancing-plague1Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

This “choreomania”, more commonly referred to as dancing mania, spread throughout Europe, fanning out to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.

One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in by the end of a week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of this primarily female group actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack or stroke.  Others collapsed in exhaustion, their bloody feet no longer able to hold them up.

According to one report, the dancing plague was killing fifteen people every day.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from dance mania were possessed by the devil, others by ‘hot blood’. Doctors were called, who advised that the Dance be allowed to run its course. Bands were hired and one town even built a dance floor, to contain the phenomenon.

There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840.

ErgotonRyeEven today there is little consensus about what caused the phenomenon. Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, a toxic and psychoactive fungus of the Claviceps genus, also known as ergot.  Often ingested with infected rye bread, symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.

Many associate the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 with ergot poisoning but, for others, such explanations are wanting.  Both the dancing episodes of earlier centuries and the witchcraft chapter involved lucid and deliberate action, far more than the convulsions and involuntary spasms associated with ergotism.

Others describe the Dancing Plague phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by the Bubonic Plague.  The Black Death, a pandemic which killed 75-100 million people around the earth, in a world with a population of 450 million.  The explanation seems as plausible as any.  The modern mind is incapable of understanding (at least mine is) what it is to live in a world where one in every four-to-five people on the planet is dead, killed by a horror not one of them understands.

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Long before germ theory was commonly understood, disease was thought to be borne of odors. Medieval plague doctors donned head-to-toe waxed canvas gowns and leather hats, with the distinctive beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs.

Today, a calamity of such magnitude would kill over 1.5 Billion souls.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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June 23, 1918 The Day the Clowns Cried

Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

rome_hbo_image__3___medium_There is an oft-repeated but mistaken notion that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, (bread and circuses)” of Juvenal, ca AD100, refers more to the ancient precursor of the racetrack, than to anything resembling a modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, the Latin root ‘circus’, translating into English, as “circle”.

The father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.  Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to maintain balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

s-l1600These afternoon shows gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and Astley hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

From that day to this, the “Fancy Pants” dresses in red tailcoat and top hat, evocative of British fox hunting garb. This “Announcer” is commonly (and mistakenly) called the “ringmaster”, while the true ring master is the “equestrian director”, standing in the center of the ring and pacing horses for the riding acts.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when cattle dealer Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, and began to exhibit the animal all over the country.

The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added, and farmers were soon leaving their fields to get into the traveling menagerie business.  The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a regular feature of the American circus.

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There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless “Dog & Pony” shows, programs so small as to include only a few family members and an assistant or two, with a couple of trained animals.  And all this time, I thought ‘Dog & Pony Show’ referred to the United States Congress.

The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ closed for the last time on Sunday, May 21 2017, when ‘animal rights activists’ and changing tastes in entertainment finished the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, ending a 146-year run.

In the mid-19th century, German animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck toured Europe with “ethnographical” spectacles, combining animals with native peoples such as the Sámi of the Scandinavian peninsula, complete with reindeer and sleds. Hagenbeck was among the first to develop animal training methods based on trust and reward rather than pain Hagenbeck-Wallace_Circusand fear, his demonstrations emphasizing the animal’s intelligence and tractability over ferocity.

In 1906, Hagenbeck sold his traveling animal show to American circus operator Benjamin Wallace, before going on to develop open zoological gardens and native panoramas which would be familiar to today’s zoo enthusiast, rather than the barred cells of his day.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued an end to the war ‘over there’.

Hagenbeck-Wallace was one of the premier circuses of the day, moving about the country on three trains and employing no fewer than 1,000 roustabouts and assorted performers.

In the small hours of  June 22, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the wheel of Train No. 41, an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares and at least one frantic signalman should have warned the driver that a stalled train lay on the track ahead, but he missed them all.  Alonzo Sargent was asleep at the wheel.

The following day, newspapers across the country told the story of  what happened next.

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On June 22, the circus was scheduled to appear at the Show Grounds at 150th and Calumet Avenue in Hammond, Indiana.  In the early morning darkness, an overheated axle box required one train to make an unscheduled stop.  It was 4am and most of the circus’ employees were asleep, when the Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train.

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The Hammond circus train wreck was one of the worst such accidents, in history.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

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Hagenbeck-Wallace clown “Big Joe” Coyle

Those lucky enough to escape the horror were forced to watch in disbelief as friends, families and co-workers were incinerated alive.

Hours later a clown, “Big Joe” Coyle, could be seen weeping, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two small boys.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in an heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.

None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours before on an earlier caravan, and now awaited a train which would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had recently purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois and called it “Showmen’s Rest”, having no idea their investment would be used so soon.

A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Some of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired only hours or days earlier.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Four-Horse Driver”,  “Baldy” and “Smiley”.

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The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  Famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

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Only two shows had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

In the world of elephants, an upraised trunk carries connotations of joy, while a lowered trunk symbolizes mourning.  At the Woodlawn cemetery of Chicago, five elephant statues circumscribe the mass grave of clowns, trapeze artists, strongmen and other circus performers.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Every trunk, hangs low.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four are inscribed the words “Showmen’s Rest”.

 

June 18, 1815 A Handful of Nails

For want of a nail the battle was lost…

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting the Grand Armée of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.

The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but made the same mistake which Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset – General Winter.

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The Night Bivouac of the Great Army, by Vasily Vereshchagin

For months, Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered the Russian capital of Moscow that September, with expectations of capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

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French invasion of Russia

 

With the dread Russian winter coming fast, there was no choice but to turn about. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman river on June 24. By mid-December, barely 27,000 straggled home from Russian soil.

The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King Louis VXIII. The Emperor returned at the head of another army, in 111 days.

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The Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815, when Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingsom bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his reign.

Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.

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It rained all day and night, that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon.  Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of the Grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge. French infantry swarmed the stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haye Sainte on his left.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most French infantry reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. Colonel Cornelius Frazer watched the mass of riders  and thought to himself: “They are going to roll over us.” In a flash, Frazer ordered: “Form squares!”  9,000 cuirassiers charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.

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It was common practice of the time to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole and disabling the weapon. Marshal Ney’s aide Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymès, frantically cried out “Les clous!” “Nails! Spike the guns!”

Not one rider had thought to bring them.

Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with spears. Eleven times they returned to their pieces, to fire into French cavalry as it withdrew.

Waterloo_Cavalry

Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000 man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.

The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver, and then retreat. Someone shouted “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannon balls fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the limb. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”

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As night fell, hundreds of locals emerged with hammers, pliers and chisels, combing the battlefield to remove the teeth of tens of thousands of dead and dying soldiers. Demand for human teeth was high and looters sold them by the tens of thousands, to dentists, who formed them into dentures. According to England’s National Army Museum, British dentists did nothing to conceal where they came from, advertising their appliances as “Waterloo teeth.” As late as the American Civil War, English dentists continued to do a brisk trade in “Waterloo ivory.”

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

51FJajZqFIL._SL300_Austrian military history professor Erik Durschmied wrote in his excellent book`The Hinge Factor‘, of the times when serendipity,  ‘chance and stupidity have changed history.’  According to Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was comprehensive.  Bonaparte was captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  All, for a handful of nails.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 17, 1462 Son of the Dragon

In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for extraordinary cruelty.

Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.  Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”. He nearly kept one of them too, until stumbling into the real-life story of Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and front-line warrior, against the Jihad of his day.

In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “the Devil”. In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”.

166-vlad-tepes_246_9379154c5086651cL.jpgStoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL”. In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for his extraordinary cruelty. There are tales of Țepeș disemboweling his own mistress. That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries.  Some 24,000 of them. That he dined among forests of victims, spitted on poles. That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.

In 1436, Vlad II became voivode (prince) of Wallachia, a region in modern-day Romania situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains.  The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, and dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back..

A weakened political position left Vlad II no choice but to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, in the form of an annual Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and a contribution of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as Janissaries in the elite slave army of the Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was taken hostage by the Sultan in 1442, along with his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu.  The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time and both became skilled horsemen and warriors. Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing an incandescent hate for his captors which would last all his life.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II set his sights on the invasion of all Europe.

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Fall of Constantinople

The younger Vlad gained the Wallachian throne three years later and immediately stopped all tribute to Sultan Mehmed II, by now risen to 10,000 ducats per year, and 1,000 boys.  When a group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, the Prince ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls.

Vlad now consolidated power as his reputation for savagery, grew.  According to stories circulated after his death, hundreds of disloyal boyars (nobles) and their allies met their end, impaled on spikes.

Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, now amassed power of his own, setting his sights on campaigns against Anatolia, the Greek Empire of Trebizond and the White Sheep Turkomans of Uzun Hasan.   Throughout this period, Romanian control of the Danube remained a thorn in his side.

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Danube River

Pope Pius II declared a new Crusade against the Ottoman in 1460, but Vlad Țepeș was the only European leader to show any enthusiasm.  The Hungarian General and Ţepeş’ only ally Mihály Szilágyi was captured by the Turks, his men tortured to death and Szilágyi himself sawed in half.

Țepeș invaded the Ottoman Empire the following year.  In a letter to Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus dated February 11, 1462, Țepeș wrote:  I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with him (Sultan Mehmed II).

The Sultan invaded Wallachia at the head of a massive army, only to find a “forest of the impaled”.  The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen long and seven stades wide”.

To give a sense of scale to such a horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena.

Vlad DraculaOutnumbered five-to-one, Ţepeş employed a scorched earth policy, poisoning the waters, diverting small rivers to create marshes and digging traps covered with timber and leaves. He would send sick people among the Turks, suffering lethal diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and bubonic plague.

From his years in captivity, Ţepeş understood Ottoman language and customs as well as the Turks themselves.  Fearless, he would disguise himself as a Turk and freely walk about their encampments, gaining valuable intelligence on the Sultan’s organization.

On this day in 1462, the Son of the Dragon launched a night attack on the Ottoman camp near the capital city of Târgoviște, in an effort to assassinate Mehmed himself.  Knowing that the Sultan forbade his men from leaving their tents at night, a force of some 7,000 to 10,000 horsemen fell on Mehmed’s camp three hours after sunset.  The skirmish lasted all that night until 4 the next morning, killing untold numbers of Turks, their horses and camels.  Ţepeş himself aimed for the Sultan’s tent, but mistook it for that of two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha.

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The Battle With Torches by Romanian painter Theodor Aman. It depicts the The Night Attack of Târgovişte,

Mehmed II “The Conqueror” survived the Night Attack at Târgovişte.  In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would twice be deposed only to regain the throne but never able to defeat his vastly more powerful adversary.

“Vlad the Impaler” was exiled to Hungary where he spent much of his time, in prison.  He died fighting against the Ottomans in December 1476 or January 1477, his body cut into pieces and his head delivered to the Sultan.  Drăculea is buried in an unknown grave, stories of his cruelty told and retold in Russian, German and a hundred other languages.  Five hundred years later, the Son of the Dragon is remembered as the un-dead vampire, Count Dracula.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 9, AD721 Odo

The story is familiar.  Despite all odds, the Frankish force emerged victorious.  Charles “The Hammer” Martel had saved western civilization.  Forgotten in this narrative, is the story of the man who made it all possible.

In AD732, a Frankish military force led by Charles Martel, the illegitimate son of Pippin II of Herstal, met a vastly superior invading army of the Umayyad Caliphate, led by Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated two of the most powerful militaries of the era.  The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as was the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.

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As the Caliphate grew in strength, European civilization faced a period of reduced trade, declining population and political disintegration, characterized by a constellation of new and small kingdoms, evolving and squabbling for suzerainty over the common people.

The “Banu Umayya”, the second of four major dynasties established following the death of Muhammad 100 years earlier, was already one of the largest, most powerful empires in history. Should it fail, no force stood behind the Frankish host, sufficient to prevent a united Islamic caliphate stretching from the Atlantic coast of Spain to the Indian sub-continent, from Sub-Saharan Africa to the North Sea.

 

Carolingian Empire Map

With no cavalry of his own, Charles faced a two-to-one disadvantage in the face of a combined Islamic force of infantry and horse soldiers.  History offers few instances of medieval armies withstanding the charge of cavalry, yet Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men, they were ready.

The story is familiar.   Charles “The Hammer” Martel met the invader, at a spot between the villages of Tours, and Poitiers.  Despite all odds, the Frankish force emerged victorious, from the Battle of Tours (Poitiers). Western civilization, was saved.

Battle of Tours, 732

Forgotten in this narrative, is the story of the man who made it all possible.

Twenty years earlier, a combined force of 1,700 Arab and North African horsemen, the Berbers, landed on the Iberian Peninsula led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad.  Within ten years, the Emir of Córdoba ruled over most of what we now call Portugal and Spain, save for the fringes of the Pyrenean mountains, and the highlands along the northwest coastline.

In AD721, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, wali (governor) of Muslim Spain, built a strong army from the Umayyad territories of Al-Andalus, and invaded the semi-independent duchy of Aquitaine, a principality ostensibly part of the Frankish kingdom, but for all intents and purposes ruled as an independent territory.

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Duke Odo, I

Duke Odo of Aquitaine left his home in Toulouse in search of help, from the Frankish statesman and military leader, Charles Martel.  This was a time (718 – 732) of warring kingdoms and duchys, a consolidation of power in which Martel preferred not to step up on behalf of his southern rival, but to wait, and see what happened. Odo, Duke of Aquitaine, was on his own.

At this time, Toulouse was the largest and most important city in Aquitaine.  Believing Odo to have fled before their advance, the forces of al-Andalus laid siege to the city, secure in the belief that their only threat lay before them.  For three months, Odo gathered Aquitanian, Gascon and Frankish troops about him, as his city held on.

Overconfident, the besieging army had failed to fortify its outer perimeter, or to scout the surrounding countryside.  On June 9 with Toulouse on the verge of collapse, the armies of Duke Odo fell on the Muslim rear, as defenders poured from the city gates, an avenging army.    Sources report Duke Odo’s forces numbered some 300,000, though the number is almost certainly exaggerated.

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Caught at rest without weapons or amour, the surprise was complete.  Some 350,000 Umayyad troops are said to have been cut down as they fled, but again, the number is probably inflated.  Al-Samh himself was mortally wounded, and later died in Narbonne.

Be that as it may, the battle of Toulouse was an unmitigated disaster for the Arab side.  Some historians believe that this day in 721 did more to check the Muslim advance into western Europe, than did the later battle at Tours.  For 450 years,  Muslim chroniclers at Al-Andalus described the battle as Balat al Shuhada (‘the path of the martyrs’), while Tours was remembered as a relatively minor skirmish.

Ch-MartelOne of those to escape with his life, was a young Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi.  Eleven years later in 732, the now – governor of Al-Andalus would once again cross the Pyrenees, this time at the head of a massive army of his own.  Al Ghafiqi’s legions laid waste to Navarre and Gascony, first destroying Auch, and then Bordeaux.  Duke Odo “The Great” would be destroyed at the River Garonne and the table set for the all-important decision of Tours.

In history as in life, time and place is everything.  Today, Duke Odo of Aquitaine is all but forgotten. We remember Charles “The Hammer” Martel as the savior of western civilization, as well we should. Yet, we need not forget the man who made it possible, who gave Martel time to gather the strength, to forge the fighting force which gave life to such an unlikely outcome.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 5, 1899 J’Accuse

At best, the passionate denunciation of anti-Semitism left in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, “l’Affaire”, would ennoble and elevate French politics.  At worst, the episode revealed and hardened divisions within the French state which would weaken the nation into 1914, and beyond.

alfred-dreyfus-trial-affair-france-001.jpgIn the late 19th century, Europe was embarked on yet another of its depressingly regular paroxysms of anti-Semitism, when a French Captain of Jewish Alsatian extraction by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was arrested, for selling state secrets to Imperial Germany.

At this time the only Jewish member of the French Army General Staff, the “evidence” against Dreyfus was flimsy, limited to an on-the-spot handwriting analysis of a tissue paper missive written to the German Embassy.

“Expert” testimony came from Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the crackpot theory of Anthropometry, the “measurement of the human individual”.

No handwriting expert, Bertillon opined nevertheless, that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the sample, articulating a cockamamie theory he called “autoforgery” to explain the differences.

Dreyfus-Affair-Postcard (1)Chief Inspector Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam, himself no handwriting expert, agreed with Bertillon. With no file to go on and despite the feebleness of the evidence, de Clam summoned Dreyfus for interrogation on October 13, 1894.

Dreyfus maintained his innocence during the interview, with his interrogator going so far as to slide a revolver across the table, silently suggesting how Dreyfus might put an end to his ordeal.

Du Paty arrested Dreyfus two days later, informing the captain that he was to be brought before a court martial.

Despite the paucity of evidence, the young artillery officer was convicted of handing over State Secrets in November 1894, and sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent nearly five years.

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Dreyfus stands before his court-martial, 1894. H/T Britannica.com for this image

A simple miscarriage of justice elevated into a national scandal two years later, when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart found evidence that French Army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as involved in espionage, and it was his handwriting on the letter which was used against Dreyfus.

Esterhazy was brought to trial in 1896.  Picquart’s discovery being inconvenient for his superiors, the Lt. Col. was sacked, and later arrested.  Then-Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, he who discovered the letter in the first place, suppressed some pieces of evidence, and invented others.

Esterhazy was acquitted on the second day of trial. The military dug in, accusing Dreyfus of additional crimes based on false documents, as indignation at the obvious frame-up, began to spread.

j'accuseMost of the political and military establishment lined up against Dreyfus. The public outcry became furious in January 1898 when author Émile Zola published a bitter denunciation in an open letter to the Paris press, entitled “J’accuse” (I Blame).

Zola’s accusations against the Ministry of War would earn the writer a trial and conviction for libel, resulting in a year in prison and a fine of 3,000 francs.

Liberal and academic activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case. On June 5, 1899, Alfred Dreyfus learned of the Cour de cassation, (French Supreme Court’s) decision to revisit the judgment of 1894, and to return him to France for a new trial.

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Lieutenant Colonel Henry at Emile Zola’s trial for libel

What followed nearly tore the nation apart. “Dreyfusards”, those seeking Dreyfus’exoneration such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, pitted against authoritarian anti-Dreyfusard characters such as Édouard Drumont, publisher of the virulently Jew-Hating newspaper La Libre Parole.

By New Year’s eve 1898, Hubert-Joseph Henry had become ‘Faux Henry”, his forgeries discovered.   Halfway to the bottom of a bottle of rum, Henry took out a pen and wrote “I am like a madman”.  He then took out a shaving razor, and slit his throat.

For Dreyfus, the new trial was a circus.   The political and military establishments stonewalled.  One of two attorneys for the defense was shot in the back, on the way to court. The judge dismissed Esterhazy’s testimony, even though the man had by now confessed to the crime. The new trial resulted in yet another conviction.  Dreyfus was sentenced to another ten years in the Guiana penal colony.

This time, Dreyfus was set free with a Presidential pardon. A good thing it was, too. The man would not have survived another ten years in that place.

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80,000 men were sent to the “Bagne de Cayenne”, the French penal colony at Devil’s Island, during the 100 years in which the place operated as a penal colony. Only one in four, ever made it out.

Alfred Dreyfus accepted the act of clemency, but reserved the right to do everything he could, to prove his innocence.  Final exoneration came in July 1906, when a civilian court of appeals reversed all previous convictions.  Dreyfus was reinstated to the rank of Major in the French Army, where he served with honor for the duration of WWI, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The chasm remaining between left-wing anti-militarists and right-wing nationalists would haunt French life, for years.  At best, the passionate denunciation of anti-Semitism left in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, “l’Affaire“, would ennoble and elevate French politics.  At worst, the episode revealed and hardened divisions within the French state which would weaken the nation into 1914, and beyond.

 

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June 4, 1629 A Real-Life ‘Lord of the Flies’

Rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

VOC Logo
VOC Logo

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

Such organizations may have been chartered for a single voyage or for an extended period of time, and were much more than what we currently associate with the word “company”. In their day these organizations 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 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.

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Batavia Replica

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 have given the pair 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.

bat7Perhaps 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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Statue of Wiebbe Hayes at Geraldton, Western Australia.

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,  was 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 prototype Charles Manson, 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.  Those 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 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 of them 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, is 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 are jealous of their secrets

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“Archaeologists recovering Batavia timbers from the wreck site”.  H/T, HuffPo for this image
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.