December 19, 1843 A Christmas Carol

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

Wait … What?

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; all were behind the young author when he came to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan underwent their mutual education, a half-century later.  He also visited a school for neglected boys in Boylston.  He must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, he later wrote that “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

In February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked in those mills.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

lowell-offering-coverHe left with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

The research that followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts

The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits

How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”

Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin

Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 173 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

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December 18, 218BC The Great Anxiety of the Romans

As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash

In 814BC, Phoenician settlers left their homeland on the coast of modern Lebanon, establishing colonial port cities along the Mediterranean coast.  They built safe harbors for their merchant fleets in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Spain and Libya, among others.  The largest they built on the North African Gulf coast of Tunis, calling it “Carthage”, meaning “New City”.

According to legend, the orphaned twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, the god of war, were suckled by a she-wolf on the Italian Peninsula, 61 years later.  Their names were Romulus and Remus.  They would found a city on the site of their salvation, a city which would come to be called Rome.

Carthage and Rome coexisted for hundreds of years, forming a relationship mostly based on trade.  Carthaginian traders were famed in Classical Greece and Rome as ‘traders in purple’, referring to their near-monopoly in the precious Royal Purple dye derived from the Murex snail.  They’re also known for the first “abjad”, (consonant based writing system) to gain widespread usage, the antecedent to almost all modern phonetic alphabets in use today.

As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash.  Carthage held undisputed mastery of the seas in the third century BC, while the rapid expansion of the Roman Republic brought them into conflict in Sicily, at that time partly under Carthaginian control.

The first of three Punic Wars, from Punicus (latin:  of or relating to Carthage), began in 264BC.  At the time, the Roman Legions were the most powerful land army in the region, while having little to oppose Carthage at sea.  Their introduction of the Corvus, a gangway with a heavy spike mounted to its underside, allowed the Romans to convert sea battles onto their “turf”, as Roman soldiers boarded enemy ships and defeated their crews in hand to hand combat.  It was over by 241BC, with Carthage paying heavy indemnities and ceding much of their territory in the western Mediterranean.

Carthage rebuilt its finances in the following years, expanding its colonial empire in Spain under the warlike Barcid family.  There were several trade agreements between Rome and Carthage, even a mutual alliance against king Pyrrhus of Epirus, while Hamilcar Barca, Strategus of Iberia, expanded influence on the southeastern Iberian Peninsula, near what is now Cartagena (“New Carthage”) Spain.

Eight years earlier, Hamilcar Barca made his then 12 year old son Hannibal swear undying hatred of the Romans.  In 219BC, Rome and Carthage found themselves in conflict over the Roman protectorate of Saguntum, in modern Spain.  The Roman senate demanded that Carthage hand over Hannibal, the Carthaginian oligarchy refused.  In 218BC Rome declared war.

hannibal_route_of_invasionNo longer a maritime power, Hannibal set out in the spring of 218BC, crossing into hostile Gaul (France) and arriving at the Rhône River in September with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants.  His crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing him almost half of his force before entering Italy in December.

The first of several major battles took place on this day, December 18, 218BC, on the banks of the Trebia River.  The Roman General, consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus (no relation) allowed himself to be drawn into a trap and crushed.  Two legions were victorious on their part of the battlefield and retreated with honor to the Province of Piacenza, but overall Trebia was a resounding defeat for Rome.

The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major

hannibal-barca
Hannibal Barca

engagement after another.  Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae; for sixteen years, they were virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another, only to see them crushed yet again.  Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided.  Hannibal never did receive any significant support from home.  In the end, he had to leave Italy to defend his homeland in North Africa.  Hannibal was soundly defeated by his own tactics on October 19, 202BC, at the Battle of Zama, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.

Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but he remained the bogey man whom Rome could not let go.  The Roman Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, would end every speech by saying “Carthago delenda est”.  “Carthage must be destroyed”.  Roman mothers told misbehaving children that Hannibal would come and get them if they didn’t behave.

The third Punic War saw the Romans besiege Carthage itself.  The city didn’t have a chance.  Thousands of Carthaginians were slaughtered as the city fell in 146BC.  As many as 70,000 more were sold into slavery.

Hannibal was quite elderly by this time, fleeing from one city to another to escape his Roman pursuers.  Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, he poisoned himself and died some time later that year.  In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

December 17, 1900 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

On December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian. That was considered too easy

In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that the world was made of atoms.  Physically indestructible and always in motion, these atoms are infinite in number, differing only in shape and size.  Democritus taught that everything around us is the result of physical laws without reasoning or purpose.  He asked only “what earlier circumstances caused this event?” Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?”, while Plato disliked him so much he wanted to burn all his books.

Democritus also taught that there are an infinite number of worlds with inhabitants like us, though the prevailing view in antiquity was that the Earth was special, that we are alone.

In the time of Copernicus in the 1600s, it became widely believed that there is life on other planets.  Astronomers saw several features of the moon as evidence, if not of life, then at least that intelligence had at one time paid a visit.

Interest in Mars began to develop in the 1870s, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli described physical features of the red planet as “canali”.  The word means “channels” in Italian, but it was mis-translated as “canals”.  The English speaking world was off to the races.extraterrestrial-life

Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by the popular concept that canals had been excavated by intelligent Martians.

The idea was near universal by the turn of the century.  On this day, December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian.  That was considered too easy.

war-of-the-worlds-alien-tripod-attackingThe British author H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien invasion of earth by Martians fleeing from the desiccation of their planet.  The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, so realistic that many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.

The idea of life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when close observations of the Martian surface were made possible by the Mariner series of spacecraft.

While much of “mainstream” science seems to steer clear of the subject, the University ofis-anybody-out-there California at Berkeley is running a “distributed computing effort” to identify extraterrestrial life, called SETI@home.   With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home currently operates on over 5.2 million computers.  With the introduction of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or “BOINC” (I didn’t make that up), SETI@home users can even compete with one another, to see who can process the maximum number of “work units”.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-alien-portrait-stars-image14135012The website explains their mission:  “SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data”.

You, too can participate at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Please feel free to insert the “there-is-no-intelligent-life-here” joke of your choice HERE.

December 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party

The Tea Act actually reduced the price of tea, but Colonists saw it as an effort to buy popular support for taxes already in force

In the time of Henry VIII, British military outlays as a percentage of central government expenses averaged 29.4%.   That number skyrocketed to 74.6% in the 18th century, and never dropped below 55%.

The Seven Years’ War alone, fought on a global scale from 1756 – ‘63, saw England borrow the unprecedented sum of £58 million, doubling the national debt and straining the British economy.

For the American colonies, the conflict took the form of the French and Indian War.  The British government saw its American colonies as the beneficiary of much of their expense, and wanted to be reimbursed.  For the colonists, the never-ending succession of English wars meant that they were largely left alone to run their own affairs.

Several measures were taken to collect revenues, as colonists bristled at the heavy handed taxation policies of the 1760s.. The Sugar Act, the Currency Act:  in one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized Royal Navy Sea Officers to enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

The merchants and traders of Boston specifically cited “the late war” and the expenses related to it, concluding the Boston Non-Importation Agreement of August 1, 1768. The agreement prohibited the importation of a long list of goods, ending with the statement ”That we will not, from and after the 1st of January 1769, import into this province any tea, paper, glass, or painters colours, until the act imposing duties on those articles shall be repealed”.

The ‘Boston Massacre’ of 1770 was a direct result of the tensions between colonists andgaspee-shippey the “Regulars” sent to enforce the will of the Crown.  Two years later, Sons of Liberty looted and burned the HMS Gaspee in Narragansett Bay, RI.

The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, was less a revenue measure than it was an effort to prop up the British East India Company, by that time burdened with debt and holding eighteen million pounds of unsold tea.  The measure actually reduced the price of tea, but Colonists saw it as an effort to buy popular support for taxes already in force, and refused the cargo.  In Philadelphia and New York, tea ships were turned away and sent back to Britain while in Charleston, the cargo was left to rot on the docks.

British law required a tea ship to offload and pay customs duty within 20 days, or the cargo was forfeit.  The Dartmouth arrived in Boston at the end of November with a cargo of tea, followed by the tea ships Eleanor and Beaver.  Sam Adams called for a meeting at Faneuil Hall on the 29th, which then moved to Old South Meeting House to accommodate the crowd.  25 men were assigned to watch Dartmouth, making sure it didn’t unload.

7,000 gathered at Old South Meeting House on December 16th, 1773, the last day of Dartmouth’s deadline.  Royal Governor Hutchinson held his ground, refusing Dartmouth permission to leave.  Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”

sons-of-libertyThat night, somewhere between 30 and 130 Sons of Liberty, some dressed as Mohawk Indians, boarded the three ships in Boston Harbor.  There they threw 342 chests of tea, 90,000 pounds in all, into Boston Harbor.  £9,000 worth of tea was destroyed, worth about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

In the following months, other protesters staged their own “Tea Parties”, destroying imported British tea in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Greenwich, NJ.  There was even a second Boston Tea Party on March 7, 1774, when 60 Sons of Liberty, again dressed as Mohawks, boarded the “Fortune”.  This time they dumped 3,000lbs of the stuff into the harbor.  That October in Annapolis Maryland, the Peggy Stewart was burned to the water line.

For decades to come, the December 16 incident in Boston Harbor was blithely referred to as “the destruction of the tea.” The earliest newspaper reference to “tea party” wouldn’t come to us until 1826.

John Crane of Braintree is one of the few original tea partiers ever identified, and the only man injured in the event. An original member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati and early member of the Sons of Liberty, Crane was struck on the head by a tea crate and thought to be dead.  His body was carried away and hidden under a pile of shavings at a Boston cabinet maker’s shop.  It must have been a sight when John Crane “rose from the dead”, the following morning.

Great Britain responded with the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774, including the occupation of intolerable-actsBoston by British troops.    Minutemen clashed with “Lobster backs” a few months later, on April 19, 1775.  No one alive today knows who fired the first shot at Lexington Green. History would record it as “The shot heard ’round the world”.

December 15, 1256 Stronghold of the Assassins

Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman

For the Islamic world, the 11th century was a time of political instability. The Fatimid Caliphate, established in 909 and by this time headquartered in Cairo, was in sharp decline by 1090.  The Fatimids were destined to disappear within the next 100 years, eclipsed by the Abbasid Caliphate of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to anyone familiar with the story of Richard the Lionheart, as Saladin.

To the east lay the Great Seljuk Empire, the Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim state established in 1037 and stretching from the former Sassanid domains of modern-day Iran and Iraq, to the Hindu Kush.  An “appanage” or “family federation” state, the Seljuk empire was itself in flux after a series of succession contests, and destined to disappear in 1194.

Into the gap stepped the “Old Man of the Mountain”, Hassan-i Sabbah, and his fanatically loyal, secret sect of “Nizari Ismaili” followers, the Assassins.

The name derives from the Arabic “Hashashin”, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”.  Marco Polo reported a story that the old man of the mountain got such fervent loyalty from his young followers, by drugging and leading them to a “paradise” of earthly delights, to which only he could return them.  The story is probably apocryphal, there is little evidence that hashish was ever used by the Assassins’ sect.  Sabbah’s followers believed him to be divine, personally selected by Allah.  The man didn’t need to drug his “Fida’i” (self-sacrificing agents), he was infallible.  His every whim would be obeyed, as the literal Word of God.

assassin-fortification-at-alamut-northern-iran
Alamut Fortress, Nortwest Iran

The mountain fortification of Alamut in northern Persia was probably impervious to defeat by military means, but not to the two-years long campaign of stealth and pretend friendship practiced by Sabbah and his followers.  In 1090, Alamut fell in a virtually bloodless takeover, becoming the headquarters of the Nizari Ismaili state.

 

Why Sabbah would have founded such an order is unclear, if not in pursuit of his own personal and political goals.  By the time of the first Crusade, 1095-1099, he found himself pitted against rival Muslims and invading Christian forces, alike.

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From

assassination_of_the_seljuk_vizier_nizam_al-mulk
Assassination of the Seljuk Vizier Nizam al-Mulk

religious figures to politicians and great generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible.  It was important that everyone absorb the intended message.

 

Though the “Fida’in” occupied the lowest rank of the order, great care was devoted to their education and training.  Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman.  All the necessary traits, for anyone who would penetrate enemy territory, insinuate himself into their ranks, and murder the victim who had learned to trust him.

Sometimes, a credible threat of assassination was as effective as an actual killing.  When the new Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar rebuffed Hashashin diplomatic overtures in 1097, he awoke one morning to find a dagger stuck into the ground, next to his bed.  A messenger arrived sometime later from the old man of the mountain.  “Did I not wish the sultan well” he said, “that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast?”  The technique worked nicely.  For the rest of his days, Sanjar was happy to allow the Hashashin to collect tolls from travelers.  The Sultan even provided them with a pension, collected from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied.

Saladin himself awoke one morning, to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake.  The message was clear.  Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect.  There were no more attempts on his life.

assassin-fortification-at-masyaf-in-northern-syria
Assassin stronghold at Masyaf, in Northern Syria

In the 200+ years of its existence, the Assassins occupied scores of mountain redoubts, though Alamut would remain its principle quarters.

It’s impossible to know how many of the hundreds of political assassinations of this period, were attributable to the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah.  Without a doubt, their fearsome reputation ascribed more political murder to the sect, than they were actually responsible for.

The Fida’in of Hassan-i Sabbah were some of the most feared killers of the middle ages.   Scary as they were, there came a time when the order of the Assassins tangled with someone far scarier than themselves.

The Grand Master dispatched his killers to Karakorum in the early 1250s, to murder the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the “Golden Horde”, Möngke.  It was a bad idea.

The Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire Kitbuqa Noyan, was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses in 1253.  Möngke’s brother Hulagu rode out at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen in 1255, with no fewer than 1,000 Chinese engineer squads.  Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who did not.

That he did. Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment.  Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

Hulagu went on to subjugate the 5+ million Lurs people of western and southwestern Iran, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Ayyubid state of Damascus, and the Bahri Mamluke Sultanate of Egypt.  Mongol and Muslim accounts alike, agree that the Caliph of Baghdad was rolled up in a Persian rug, and the horsemen of Hulagu rode over him, because Mongols believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood.

Some people are not to be trifled with.

December 14, 1862 Angel of Marye’s Heights

No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862

One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began on the 11th of December, 1862, when nearly 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The Union crossing of the Rappahannock was intended to be a surprise, depending on pontoons coming down from Washington to meet up with General Ambrose Burnside’s Union army in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.  The army of the Potomac arrived on November 19, with no sign of pontoons.  When they finally arrived, heavy snows slowed military operations for an additional week.  Lt. General James Longstreet and Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare their defenses.

Burnside’s crossing began on the morning of December 11, as engineer battalions constructed bridges in the face of determined Confederate fire. Several groups of soldiers had to row across the river, the battle moving through the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg, as Union and Confederate troops fought the first urban combat of the Civil War.

On the morning of the 13th, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces occupied a seven mile long curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s Corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town.  Fighting began on both ends of the Confederate position, more or less simultaneously.  George Meade had some early successes against Stonewall Jackson’s dug-in positions on the right, but requested reinforcements never arrived.  By the end of the day, the old farmer’s expression “slaughter pen”, had taken on a whole new meaning.

In contrast to the swampy approaches on the Confederate right, 5,000 soldiers under James Longstreet looked out from behind the stone wall on Marye’s Heights to an open plain, crossed from left to right by a mill run, 5′ deep, 15′ wide and filled with 3′ of freezing water.

Confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander looked out on that field, and said “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”.  He was right.  For six hours, the Union army threw one attack after another against the rebels behind the wall.  Fourteen assaults, in all.  As the sun went down on the evening of December 13, the ground before Marye’s Heights was carpeted with the mangled, dead and dying bodies of Union soldiers.

The Army of the Potomac suffered over 13,000 casualties, about two-thirds of them in front of that wall.  Lee’s army, by comparison, had suffered around 4,500 losses.  Watching the great Confederate victory unfold from his hilltop command post, Robert E. Lee said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

Union ambulance corps had all they could do to remove their wounded from the plains, but dared not enter within the Confederate’s range of fire in front of that wall.  All through the night of the 13-14th, the moans of mangled and dying Union soldiers could be heard along the heights.

I don’t doubt that some Confederate soldiers reveled in all this carnage, but I’m sure that the moans and cries of agony were difficult for most to hear.  There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t understand that, but for the grace of God, that could be himself.  For Sergeant Richard Kirkland, Company G, Second South Carolina Infantry, it wasn’t good enough to sit and listen.  He could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water”.  Kirkland left his position and made his way to General Joseph Kershaw’s headquarters, asking permission to help.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.  No one fired, nor even moved.  Sgt. Kirkland worked his way alone from one wounded man to the next, straightening out a shattered leg here, there spreading out an overcoat, always with a quiet word of encouragement and a drink of water.

Kirkland was out there for no less than 1½ hours.  Alone in no man’s land, he never left until he had helped every fallen soldier, Federal and Confederate, on that part of the battlefield.

moment_of_mercy
Moment of Mercy, by Felix de Weldon. 1965, Fredericksburg, VA. Photo credit Claire H. New York

General Kershaw later gave this account:  “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”

Kirkland would not survive the war.  He met his end while leading an infantry charge the following September, at a place called Chickamauga. No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness,  this day in 1862.  Richard Rowland Kirkland will forever remain, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

December 13, 1577 El Draque

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye

The “Pelican” left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577, with four other ships and 164 men.  The weather was so rotten that they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, before finally returning to Plymouth, where they started.  The flotilla set out again on December 13 after making repairs, soon to be joined by a sixth ship, the captured Portuguese merchant ship Santa Maria, renamed “Mary”.

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye.  Before it was over, Sir Francis Drake would be the first to circumnavigate the globe in continuous command of the expedition.

He was the third, actually, depending on how you count them.  Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out with 5 ships and 250 men back in 1519, becoming the first about 58 years earlier.  Magellan himself didn’t make it though, he died in the Battle of Mactan on a Philippine beach, in 1521.  19 men and a single ship under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano, was all that remained on the expedition’s return in 1522.

The Spanish explorer García Jofre de Loaísa was the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men on seven ships.  None of his ships ever made it back.  25 of his men would return in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

Drake had crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his captains got on his last nerve.  Thomas Doughty had been in command of the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo.  One thing led to another and Doughty found himself accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”.   He was brought before a shipboard trial for treason and witchcraft, establishing the idea that lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain is its absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of that ship’s passengers.

Doughty lost his head, in the end, in the shadow of the weathered and sun bleached skeletons and the bleak, Spanish gibbets where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.

golden-hind-replica
Golden Hind Replica

It may have been to smooth over the Doughty episode, that Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind”, (a female deer of 3 years or more), after the coat of arms of Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the expedition’s prime sponsors. Soon reduced to three ships, Drake made the straits of Magellan by August of 1578, emerging alone into the Pacific in September.

Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold near Lima, when he heard about the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, sailing west toward Manila.  Nicknamed “Cacafuego”, translating as “Fireshitter” (I wouldn’t make that up), the ship carried 80 pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins) and 26 tons of silver.  It was the richest prize of the voyage.

After a fine dinner with Cacafuego’s captured officers and gentlemen passengers, Drakedrake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

Drake landed near Alta, California in June 1579, where he repaired and restocked his vessel.  He claimed the land for the English Crown, calling it Nova Albion:  “New Britain”.   The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish, who by this time had a bounty of 20,000 ducats ($6.5 million in today’s money) on the head of “El Draque”.

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew onboard, on September 26, 1580.  The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s income for the entire year.  Drake himself was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth.drake_1577-1580

Drake’s seafaring career ended in January 1596, when he died of dysentery, anchored off the central American coast.  There he was dressed in his armor and buried at sea in a lead coffin, off the Portobelo District of Panama.  Divers search for his coffin, to this day.