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.

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

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.


January 10, 1869 Rasputin

Rumors of sexual trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that postcards depicting these liasons were openly circulated


The line of succession to the Imperial Russian throne traditionally followed the male line, as it had for most of its history.  The Tsarina Alexandra had delivered four healthy babies by 1903, each of them a girl.  Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.  In 1904 she labored to deliver her fifth. That August, the country waited and hoped for an heir to the throne.  All of Russia prayed for a boy.

The prayers of the nation were answered on August 12 (July 30 Old Style calendar), with the alexei_nikolaevich_1904birth of a son.  The Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich.  The public was informed of the happy news with a 301 gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Those hopes would be dashed in less than a month, when the infant’s navel began to bleed.  It continued to bleed for two days, and took all the doctors at the Tsar’s disposal to stop it.

The child suffered from hemophilia, a hereditary condition passed down from his Grandmother British Queen Victoria, who had lost a son and a grandson to the disease, both at the age of three.

The early years of any small boy are punctuated by dents and dings and Alexei was notsesarevich-alexei-in-1913 exception.  The bleeding episodes suffered by the Tsarevich were often severe, despite his parents never ending attempts to protect him.   Doctors’ efforts were frequently in vain, and Alexandra turned to a succession of quacks, mystics and “wise men” for a cure.

“We had the good fortune”, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his diary in 1905, “to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk”.  “Grigory” was Grigory Efimovich Rasputin.  Born on this day in 1869, Rasputin was a strange man, a peasant wanderer and self proclaimed “Holy Man”, a seer of the future proclaiming the power to heal.

The scandals seemed never-ending, involving Rasputin’s carryings-on with society ladies and prostitutes alike.  Rumors of sexual trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that postcards depicting these liasons were openly circulated.  What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State.   Alexandra believed the man had the power to make her boy better.  Many around her openly spoke of this man ruining the Royal Family, and the nation.

rasputinInfluential people approached Nicholas and Alexandra with dire warnings, leaving dismayed by their refusal to listen.  According to the Royal Couple, Rasputin was the only man who could save their young son Alexei.  By 1916 it was clear to many in the nobility.  The only course was to kill Rasputin, before the monarchy was destroyed.

A group of five nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace on December 16, 1916, using the possibility of a sexual encounter with Yusopov’s beautiful wife, Irina, as bait.  Pretending that she was upstairs with unexpected guests, the five “entertained” Rasputin in a basement dining room, feeding him arsenic laced pastries and washing them down with poisoned wine.  None of it seemed to have any effect.

Panicked, Yusupov pulled a revolver and shot Rasputin, who went down, but soon got up and attacked his tormentors.  Rasputin then tried to run away, only to be shot twice more and have his head beaten bloody with a dumbbell.  At last, his  hands and feet bound, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was thrown from a bridge into the icy Malaya Nevka River.

Police found the body two days later, with water in the lungs and hands outstretched.  Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

In the end, the succession question turned out to be moot.  A letter attributed to Rasputin, which he may or may not have written, contained a prophecy.  “If I am killed by common assassins and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have russian_imperial_family_1911nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia…[I]f it was your relations who have wrought my death…none of your children or relations will remain alive for two years. They will be killed by the Russian people…”

The stresses and economic dislocations of WWI proved too much.  Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne within three months.  Bolshevik forces murdered the Russian Imperial family:  Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and all five children, less than a year later.

January 9, 1492 Mermaid Sighting

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone who stood against them.  The conquered peoples described the period differently.  Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said  “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during mongol-warriorsthe 13th and 14th century.  The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connecting Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east.  Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes.  It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end.  Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century.  After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible.   Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

toscanelli-mapIt’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth.  The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong.  In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands.  He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China).  Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether. This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486.  At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492.  The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.mermaid

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months.  Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, when Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”.  “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology.  These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

mermaid-manateeColumbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder.  These marine herbivores measure 10’ to 13′ from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.  Not everyone was quite so dismissive.  A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s possible that ol’ John Smith needed to get out a little more.manatee

January 6, 1929 A Saint from the Gutter

Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”

In the language of Albania, “Gonxhe” means “Rosebud”.   Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born August 26, 1910, in the capital of Macedonia; now Uskup.  Then it was Skopje, part of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother raised the girl in the Roman Catholic faith after her father died in 1919.  By age 12, she was committed to a religious life.  “Agnes” was always fascinated with the lives of missionaries, joining the Sisters of Loreto at the age of 18 to become one.  Though she would live to 87, she would never again see her mother or her sister.

mother-teresa-at-18The Sisters taught English to school children in India, a language which Agnes learned in the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland.

She arrived in India on January 6, 1929, beginning her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayas. There she learned to speak Bengali, teaching at St. Teresa’s School, near her convent. She took her first religious vows as a nun in 1931, choosing the name Thérèse de Lisieux, after the patron saint of missionaries. Another nun in the convent had already chosen the name, so Agnes adopted the Spanish spelling, becoming Sister Teresa on May 24.

She would take her solemn vows six years later, while teaching at the Loreto School in Entally, eastern Calcutta, a position she held until 1944.

Today, about 10% of the world’s Muslims live in India, making up close to 15% of the population. It was much higher in 1944, as much as 2/3rds in some regions. The idea of the Muslim population breaking off of India and forming an independent Pakistan had come up as early as 1930, and become a major force with the breakup of British rule over the Indian subcontinent, the “British Raj”, at the end of WWII.

Tensions spilled over in the province of Bengal in August of 1946, as violence between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh mobs left thousands dead. Violence was particularly bad in Calcutta, where the massive riots of August 16-19 left over 4,000 dead and more than 100,000 homeless.

India was partitioned the following year, and Pakistan declared an independent nation in August. For now, the violence of 1946, following on the heels of the Bengal famine of 1943, left Calcutta in a state of despair.

Sister Teresa was looking out from the train that carried her from Darjeeling to Calcutta on September 10, when she heard the call. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith”. No one knew it at the time, but “Sister Teresa” had become “Mother Teresa”.

She would spend a few months at Holy Family Hospital receiving medical training, calcutta-1
venturing into the slums of Calcutta to begin her missionary work in 1948. A small group of women joined in her ministry to the “poorest among the poor”, as she wrote in her diary of begging for food and supplies. The hardships were severe, as was the near-constant temptation to return to the ease and comfort of the convent.

Teresa received permission from the Vatican on October 7, 1950, to start the diocesan congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity.  With only 13 members in Calcutta, their mission was caring for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”

kalighatAwarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she refused the traditional honor banquet, requesting instead that the $192K cost of the banquet be given to help the poor of India.

With the help of Indian officials, Teresa opened the Kalighat Home for the Dying in an abandoned temple, where dying Muslims were read from the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics were read the Last Rites. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted”.

Mother Teresa was once asked about the overwhelming nature of her work. ‘Never worry about numbers, she said. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you”.

By the time of her death on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members. They operated 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for victims of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis. There were soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools.

Mother Teresa was canonized on September 4, 2016 in Vatican City, becoming Saint Teresa of Calcutta, the ceremony at St. Peter’s Square attended by over 1,500 homeless people.  Even saints have critics, even a tower of rectitude like Mother Teresa.  In her case, it was usually the warm and well fed likes of Christopher Hitchens, the “New Left Review” and the German magazine Stern.

Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu once said “Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”.  Let that be the answer to her critics.mother-teresa-1


January 5, 1709 The Great Frost

King Henry VIII rode a sleigh down the Thames from London to Greenwich in 1536. Elizabeth I was on the ice shooting at archery targets in 1564

Three years ago tomorrow, January 6, 2014, temperatures dipped below zero as far south as Arkansas, and below freezing from the Florida panhandle to Texas, and well into Mexico.

In July of the preceding year, NASA satellite data revealed a low temperature of -135.3°f in Antarctica, just short of what has to be a record -135.8°f set in August of 2010.

A Russian ship full of Environmental, Scientific and Activist types, the Akademik Shokalskiy, had gotten stuck in the Antarctic ice a few weeks earlier, as did the Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long, that came to their rescue.  CNN never did get around to reporting that they were there to study “Global Warming”.

Those environmental activists would object to my use of the term Global Warming, preferring what they feel is the far more descriptive “Climate Change”.  They’re right to prefer the term, because we can all agree that climate is changing, five ice ages prove that much, though it’s far from clear that the Co2 narrative has anything to do with it.

It was either Galileo Galilei or Thomas Harriot who made the first sunspot observations, late in 1610. The Zurich Observatory began the daily observation of sunspot activity in 1749 and, with the help of other observatories, continuous observations have been possible since 1849. These and other observations make it possible to extrapolate back in time, to come up with 1,000 years of sunspot activity, and what they show is not very surprising. They show that periods of low sunspot activity correlates with changes in climate.

The most pronounced low in sunspot activity in the last 1,000 years started in about 1645 and ended in 1715.  Known as the “Maunder Minimum”, fewer than 50 sunspots were observed during one 30-year period within this time frame, compared with 40,000–50,000 in modern times.

In England, accounts of the freezing of the River Thames date back as early as 250AD. The river was open to wheeled traffic for 13 weeks in 923 and again in 1410.  That time, the freeze lasted for 14 weeks. By the early 17th century, the Thames was a place of “Frost Fairs”.

1677 painting shows the ice depth on the frozen Thames

The “Medieval Warm Period”, lasting from 950 to 1250 and (unsurprisingly) corresponding with a near-1000 year maximum in sunspot activity, was followed by the “Little Ice Age”, a 300 year period beginning in the 16th century.  King Henry VIII rode a sleigh down the Thames from London to Greenwich in 1536.  Elizabeth I was on the ice shooting at archery targets in 1564.

There was a famous “Frost Fair” during the winter of 1683-84, for which the English writer John Evelyn gives us a description:  “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”.

1683 Frost Fair

The Great Frost of the winter of 1708-09 was held in the coldest winter Europe had seen in 500 years.  William Derham, an English clergyman and natural philosopher, best known for his reasonably accurate estimate of the speed of sound, recorded a low of −12°C (10 °F) on the night of January 5, 1709.  It was the lowest he had measured since he started taking readings in 1697, prompting his comment that “I believe the Frost was greater than any other within the Memory of Man”.  The resulting famine killed an estimated 600,000 in France alone, while in Italy, the lagoons and canals of Venice were frozen solid.

Breaks in cold weather inevitably marked the end of Thames River frost fairs, sometimes all of a sudden.  In January 1789, melting ice dragged a ship away, while tied to a riverside tavern, in Rotherhite.  Five people were killed when the building was pulled down on their heads.

The last Thames River frost fair took place in 1814, the year someone led an elephant across the ice, below the Blackfriar’s Bridge.  Structural changes in river embankments and the demolition of the old London Bridge have increased water flow in the Thames, making it possible that the river will not freeze again.

Today there is far too much money and too much political weight behind the “anthropogenic” (human caused) climate change narrative, for it to die quickly or easily.  Meanwhile, the sun is going to do what the sun is going to do, which at the moment appears to be another quiet period in sunspot activity.  Very quiet.

Before it’s over, we may find ourselves wishing for a little Global Warming.

January 4, 1642 The Great Rebellion

Agree or disagree with US war policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation. It would seem absurd to us to see the President and the Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another

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

Queen Elizabeth I passed away without issue in 1603, succeeded by her first cousin, twice

Elizabeth I

removed, King James VI of Scotland.  For the first time, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united under single rule.

The English Parliament of the age didn’t have a permanent role in government, instead being a temporary advisory body, summoned and dismissed at the will of the King.  Practically speaking, the King had no means to enforce his will on matters of taxation, without the consent of the “gentry”, the untitled land owning classes who were the primary means of national tax collection.  This gave rise to an elected “House of Commons”, joining the House of Lords to form a Parliament.

James thought of Kings as “little Gods on Earth”, and had long gotten whatever he wanted from a supine Scottish Parliament.  The English Parliament was another matter.  James’ entire reign and that of his son Charles I was one long contest of wills with the English governing body.

The Three Faces of Charles I

Charles’ 1625 marriage to a Roman Catholic, French princess Henrietta Maria, did little to win him support in Protestant England.  His interventionist policies in the 30 years’ war made things worse, ending with Parliament bringing impeachment proceedings against his minister, the Duke of Buckingham.  Parliament drew up the “Petition of Right”, invoking the Magna Carta and severely limiting the King’s right of non-Parliamentary taxation, along with other restrictions on the Royal Prerogative.  Charles looked to the House of Lords to check the power of the Commons, but both houses ratified the measure by the end of May.

The King dissolved this first Parliament in 1629, putting nine of its leaders in prison and unwittingly making them martyrs for their cause.  The following 11 years are sometimes called “the personal rule” or the “eleven years’ tyranny”.  Charles had severe money problems by 1640, forcing him to call another Parliament.   The King wanted a more docile body this time, so he appointed many of his adversaries as Sheriffs, knowing that this would require them to stay within their counties, making them ineligible for election.  To others he bestowed aristocratic titles, making them ineligible for the House of Commons.  Of course, that only moved them to the House of Lords.

What the King saw as reasonable, the legislative body saw as opportunity to negotiate, and this “Short Parliament” was dissolved within a month.  That was May 1640, and Charles once again called a Parliament in November.  This was to be his “Long Parliament”, proving as uncooperative as any before it.

Lenthall kneels to Charles during the attempted arrest of the Five Members

In January, Charles directed Parliament to surrender five members of the Commons and one Peer on grounds of high treason.  On the following day, January 4, 1642, the King himself entered the House of Commons with an armed guard of 400, demanding that the offenders be handed over.  The Speaker, William Lenthall, replied, “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”  He might as well have told the King “I work for these people.  I don’t work for you”.

It was a grave breach of protocol, no King had ever entered the House of Commons.  Making things worse, the botched arrest had cut the feet out from under Charles’ supporters.  The two sides began to arm themselves that summer.  Full-scale civil war broke out that October.

The son of a Royalist is questioned by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, in “And when did you last see your father?” by William Frederick Yeames

What’s been variously described as one or two separate civil wars ensued, in which 300,000, 6% of the country’s population or roughly twice the percentage lost in the American Civil War, lost their lives.  A “Rump” House of Commons indicted the King on treason charges, in a trial which was never recognized by the upper house.  Charles maintained that he was above the law, while the court argued that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise”. Execution of Charles I

Charles I was found guilty of treason and sentenced to die by decapitation.   Clothed in two shirts by his own request, lest any shiver of cold be misinterpreted as a sign of fear, the King of England put his head on the block on January 30, 1649.  “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things,” he said. “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”.  With that, he extended his hands to signal he was ready, and his head was parted with a stroke.

The Rump House of Commons disbanded the House of Lords and England was briefly governed as a Commonwealth, but Charles soon came to be seen as a Martyr King.  Oliver Cromwell established a Protectorate with himself as Lord Protector.  He was briefly succeeded by his son on his death in 1658, but the son was not the equal of his father.  Parliament was reinstated and the monarchy restored to Charles’ eldest son, who became Charles II in 1660.billofrights

In the American colonies, Charles II renamed a slice of southern Virginia after his father “Carolus”, the Latin for Charles, and North and South Carolina were born. The Petition of Right would pop up 129 years later, reflected in the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh amendments of the United States’ Constitution, part of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.

January 2, 1492 La Reconquista

Without Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga, we’d almost certainly never have heard of Ferdinand and Isabella, let alone a certain Italian explorer whom the pair sent off in 1492, in search of a sea route to China

The manner in which Roderic came to the throne of the Visigothic Empire is unclear. His history, as any other, was written by the victors.  Unbiased contemporary sources do not appear to exist. What Is known is that someone in the early 8th century Iberian Peninsula thought him an illegitimate King.

That someone appears to have gone to Mecca looking for help from the Banū ʾUmayya, the “Sons of Umayya”, the second caliphate since Muhammad and known to history as the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 711AD, a combined force of 1,700 Arab and North African horsemen, the Berbers, landed on the Iberian Peninsula led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad.  384 years before the first Christian Crusade, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania was on.  Within ten years, most of what we now call Portugal and Spain had become “al-Andalus”; five administrative districts under Muslim rule, save for the fringes of the Pyrenean mountains, and the highlands along the northwest coastline

don_pelayoThe first significant Christian victory and what might have been the beginning of “La Reconquista”, took place along that northern fringe. That sliver of Christianity was the Kingdom of Asturias. Their refusal to pay the Jizya, the Muslim tax on “unbelievers”, brought them into conflict with an Umayyad force in the summer of 722. A Christian military force under Pelagius, or “Pelayo”, the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”. The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”, the two names telling a story about the outcome of the battle.

The Arab chronicles record Covadonga as a small skirmish while the Spanish record it as a great victory, but two things are near certain. In 770 years the Muslims never came back.  Without Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga, we’d almost certainly never have heard of Ferdinand and Isabella, let alone a certain Italian explorer whom the pair sent off in 1492, in search of a sea route to China.

It was close to 400 years before the crusading knights of Europe came to the aid of the al-andalusIberian Kings. With help from the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, beginning a long period of gradual Muslim decline.

Portugal was a mere county in the early 12th century, dependent upon the Crown of León and Castile, one Alfonso VII. His cousin, three year old Alfonso Henriques, followed his father as the Count of Portugal in 1122. At the age of 14, the age of majority in the 12th century, the boy proclaimed himself a knight and raised an army against his cousin. The county’s people, church and nobles were demanding independence when, his cousin vanquished, Alfonso Henriques declared himself Prince of Portugal. Following ten years of near-constant fighting against Moors and rival Christian Kingdoms alike, Alfonso was unanimously proclaimed the King of an Independent Portugal.  It was July 25, 1139.

Portugal would be annexed to Spain in 1580, regaining its independence in 1640 and leading many to believe that Portugal is the younger country. It isn’t so. Portugal was an independent, self-governing nation, over 350 years before Spain.

After the Christian re-conquest of Córdoba in 1236, the Emirate of Granada was all that was left of al-Andalus. Granada became a tributary state to the Kingdom of Castile two years later, and finally, on this day in 1492, Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada to Queen Isabella I of Castile, and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

The first thing I do in preparing these essays is to search on a particular date, and pick a topic that interests me. I am perennially surprised and not a little horrified, at the tedious regularity with which barbarity committed against the Jewish people, appears on these lists. It’s not the pogroms and the massacres that are surprising, as much as their appalling frequency, over 2,000 years.

The paroxysm of cruelty and paranoia which we now know as the Spanish Inquisition, begun in 1478, was not a standalone event. In part, this passion for religious unity was the result of 700+ years of Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula. One of the early results of this manic drive for ideological purity was the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, effectively banishing between 165,000 and 800,000 Jews from Spain.

This date, originally selected to signify Ferdinand and Isabella’s final defeat of the Islamic conquest of Spain, has another significance. It is only within living memory that descendants of Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, have returned in any significant numbers to their homeland. The first native Jewish child born in Spain since Christopher Columbus discovered America, was born on this day, January 2, 1966.