Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 30

The Anglo conquest of the American Southwest took a bloody leap forward on this date in 1871, as a band of Mexican and Tohono O'odham vigilantes -- laboring in the service of a handful of whites -- obliterated an Apache encampment at Camp Grant, located fifty miles to the northeast of Tuscon. There, scores of Aravaipa and Pinal Apache were slaughtered in about half an hour; as was often the case with Indian massacres, most of the victims were women and children. The precise numbers have never been determined, though contemporary historians usually estimate the number of dead anywhere from 85 to 144 Apache, as well as several dozen infants who were taken and sold into servitude.

The Apache had relocated to Camp Grant in February and March 1871, when the pressures of white settlement and the complexities of regional land conflicts drove more than five hundred to seek federal security and rations in exchange for a promise of peace. The officer in charge of the facility, Lt. Royal Whitman, described the Indians as quite agreeable and later emerged as their strongest -- if most futile -- defender. Meantime, livestock raids and reprisal killings continued apace in the region, and community leaders elected to blame the Aravaipa, whom they alleged were continuing to harass white settlers in Tucson, San Xavier, Tubac, Sonoita, and San Pedro. In late March, prominent white Tusconans formed the Committee on Public Safety, a citizens' group that unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for protection and redress. Finding no satisfaction, William S. Oury -- a veteran of the Mexican War and a former delegate to the Confederate Congress -- organized a hunting party and set them loose upon the Indians camped at Fort Grant.

Just after dawn on Sunday, 30 April 1871, the armed posse began firing upon the Aravaipa, who were still sleeping. C. B. Briesly, a surgeon in the US Army, described the aftermath later that year in a sworn affidavit presented to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The camp had been fired and the dead bodies of some twenty-two women and children were lying scattered over the ground; those who had been wounded in the first instance, had their brains beaten out with stones. Two of the best-looking of the squaws were lying in such a position, and from the appearance of the genital organs and of their wounds, there can be no doubt that they were first ravished and then shot dead. Nearly all the dead were mutilated. One infant of some ten months was shot twice and one leg nearly hacked off.
As with the Chivington Massacre in Colorado less than a decade before, the Eastern public was astonished to hear word of the slaughter. President Ulysses S. Grant denounced the conduct of the vigilantes, while other federal officials called for justice to be served.

In the trans-Mississippi West, the appraisal was considerably more generous to the perpetrators of the massacre. In December 1871, more than 100 defendants were found "Not Guilty" of the crime of murder of 108 people at Camp Grant. After a trial that sensationalized and distorted the record of Apache depredations against whites, the jury took a mere 19 minutes to reach its verdict. Relations between the various Apache bands and the United States degenerated quickly into an open war that would carry into 1873.

Labels: ,


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

April 29

On this date in 1992 a jury in Simi Valley, California, acquitted four white police officers of all the charges that had accrued to them from the beating and arrest of Rodney King the previous year. The pummeling of King -- an African American who had just been pulled over after an extensive, high-speed chase on Highway 210 in Los Angeles -- had been caught on videotape by a bystander who was roused from bed by the commotion outside his apartment.

George Holliday’s fortuitous camera work provided what was supposed to be the central piece of evidence against the officers, who kicked and struck their victim dozens of times as he writhed on the ground. After King had been subdued, one of the officers reported that “I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time.” At the LAPD officers’ trial, however, defense attorneys managed to persuade the jury -- none of whom were black -- that Rodney King had, in fact, been the aggressor and that the videotape showed an arrest procedure that had gone by the book.

When the verdict was announced just after 3:00 p.m. on April 29, 1992, a shocked nation watched as south central Los Angeles descended into violence. Within an hour following the acquittals, the intersection of Florence and Normandie streets had become ground zero for the uprisings that would continue throughout the city for the next five days. Young men, infuriated by the outcome of the trial and eager for revenge, smashed windows, set buildings on fire, looted stores and threw bottles and chunks of concrete at passing cars. Rioters quickly targeted Korean-owned grocery stores, which -- along with police brutality -- served as a focal point for black grievance in Los Angeles.

When the LAPD pulled out of the neighborhood, the arson and looting spread, and random passers-by were caught up in the convulsion. In one of the more horrific episodes that first day, Reginald Denny, a truck driver hauling a load of sand, was dragged from his car and attacked by four men, one of whom threw a block of concrete on his head, shattering his skull in 91 places. Remarkably, Denny survived. Others did not. Among those who died that first day were Eduardo Vela, who was standing beside his stalled car when someone shot him in the chest; John Henry Willers, who had stopped to help victims of a collision when he, too, took a bullet in the heart; and Elias Rivera, who was beaten into a coma when he intervened to stop an assault against one of his neighbors. Rivera’s family removed him from life support eight months later -- four months after the body of Nissar Daoud Mustafa was at last discovered in the rubble of a department store that had burned on April 29.

When the disturbances ended on May 4, 53 people had died and thousands were attempting to recover from injuries; the city, meanwhile, had suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. Like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 1992 Los Angeles riots were supposed to provoke a “national conversation” about race and poverty -- a conversation that has yet to actually take place.



Monday, April 28, 2008

April 28

Today is the anniversary of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, when 28-year-old Martin Bryant killed 35 people at a popular Tasmanian tourist site.

Socially inept and detached since childhood. Martin Bryant was regarded with caution by nearly everyone who knew him. After shacking up in his early 20s with an eccentric middle-aged heiress to the Tatersall’s Lottery fortune, Bryant inherited her estate when she died in a car accident. Suddenly rich, Bryant used his dead friend’s cash to travel the world over the next few years. Hoping a long last to make friends, he found that most people were reluctant to chat with him because of his creepy demeanor; according to some of his acquaintances and family members, his adventures abroad disappointed him greatly and increased his sense of isolation. Returning to Australia, Bryant’s developed an intense fascination with guns and eventually bought several semiautomatic weapons from an unlicensed dealer in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital.

On 28 April 1996, Bryant snapped at long last. After eating lunch at the Broad Arrow Café, Bryant retrieved his weapons from a large duffel bag and shot 20 people in a matter of minutes. Proceeding to the parking lot, he wounded and killed several other tourists before escaping in his Yellow Volvo. As he drove from the site of Australia’s most brutal 19th century prison colony, Bryant stopped along the road to shoot nearly a dozen more people before taking a hostage -- whom he later killed -- and sequestering himself inside a guesthouse called the Seascape Cottage, whose owners he had already shot prior to the mass assault at the cafe. As the hours passed, police from Victoria and New South Wales descended on Port Arthur. The siege became the largest single police action in the nation’s history.

Early the next morning, after police failed to persuade Bryant to surrender, Australia’s greatest mass murderer set fire to the cottage. Pulled from the blaze and arrested, a severely burned Martin Bryant eventually received 35 consecutive life sentences.

Bryant has never precisely explained his motives for embarking on the spree. Asked once by police interviewers to explain himself, Bryant responded that "I'd really love to help you out, but I can't." Whatever his rationale, he was most certainly not celebrating the birthday of Saddam Hussein, who turned 59 that day.



Saturday, April 26, 2008

Birthday Girl

Once in a while, someone asks me how I can possibly maintain this blog and not sink into a pit of despair. I don't often have a good answer to that question, but this strikes me as being good a reason as any:



Thursday, April 24, 2008

April 24

The Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union claimed another victim 41 years ago today, when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov plummeted 150 miles to Earth aboard the Soyuz I spacecraft. The accident took place three months after the United States lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire; it set the Soviet space program back by nearly two years, helping to assure that the United States would be the first superpower to reach the Moon.

Described posthumously by the Communist Party as “a loyal son of our motherland and a courageous explorer of space,” Komarov was incinerated when the ship struck the ground near Orenburg, Siberia after both its main and reserve parachutes failed, with the latter becoming hopelessly tangled in the drag chute. The tangled chute was the last of a seemingly endless sequence of failures after the previous day’s launch. Upon arrival into orbit, one of the craft’s solar panels failed to deploy, leaving the orbiter without sufficient power to maneuver. After a fate-tempting thirteen cycles around the planet, and with Komarov quickly losing his ability to stabilize the Soyuz, the decision was made to attempt re-entry, with results that were -- to understate the matter -- less than optimal.

The entire Soyuz project had been a chaotic mess to this point -- a situation that Komarov’s death only underscored. Previous unmanned Soyuz test flights had all ended badly, and it was widely known among the Soviet engineers and cosmonauts that the program was riddled with flaws. Despite the knowledge that literally hundreds of design problems jeopardized the launch, Party officials were determined to move ahead so that the first Soyuz missions would coincide with state celebrations of Lenin’s birthday. Before the launch, Komarov himself joked that if he were bumped from the mission, Yuri Gagarin -- a national hero -- would die instead.

Americans listening to Soviet radio transmissions claimed later that they could hear Komarov -- who had been able to say goodbye to his wife and children before re-entry -- cursing and berating the engineers and flight planners as his ship scorched the atmosphere at 400 miles an hour.

Labels: ,


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April 23

James Buchanan, arguably the worst chief executive in American history, was born on this date in 1791. The only president to hail from Pennsylvania, Buchanan stood for nearly everything the state’s Quaker founders detested, including the institution of slavery, which he sought to extend before watching inertly as it cleaved the nation in two.

A lawyer by training, Buchanan ascended into political life as a young man and migrated from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to the US Congress, in both of whose chambers “Old Buck” resided during the 1820s and 1830s. When not enrolled as a legislator, Buchanan was employed as a diplomat, serving the Tennessee imperialist James K. Polk as Secretary of State during the most priapic era of Manifest Destiny, 1845-1849.. Two years before his election to high office, Buchanan gave even more ballast to his imperialist credentials by helping draft the disastrous Ostend Manifesto (1854), which essentially demanded that Spain agree to the sale of Cuba to the United States. The manifesto, composed in Belgium, advised President Franklin Pierce that if Spain proved “dead to the voice of her own interest, and actuated by stubborn pride and a false sense of honor, should refuse to sell Cuba to the United States,” the United States would be obliged to act strongly in the name of “self-preservation.” Insisting that Cuba’s domestic troubles might spill into the southern United States, Buchanan and his fellows advised that the US could rightfully dislodge the island from Spanish rule. They likened it to a desperate individual “tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”

The Manifesto was a disaster for slavery’s advocates, who were ever more desperately arguing that the extension of the Peculiar Institution was the only means of preserving it where it already existed. The document fueled Northern suspicions that elements of the “Slave Power” were mobilizing to thwart the ambitions of free white landowners. Such concerns were further fueled by the insistence of Southern Democrats -- and even many Whigs -- that the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 had unlawfully restrained slavery’s growth into the Western territories. On the great moral and political questions of the day, Buchanan was unmistakably supportive of the Southern cause.

When Buchanan was elected to the White House in 1856, only five of the sixteen so-called “Free States” endorsed his ticket, while the slaveholding regions of the country voiced nearly unanimous approval (losing Maryland to Millard Fillmore). As President, Buchanan returned the love. He heartily congratulated the Supreme Court on its notorious Dred Scott decision, which was issued mere days after his inauguration; he supported the admission of Kansas (where the Civil War had already commenced) as a slave state; and when the first, petulant wave of Southern secession occurred in late 1860, Buchanan blamed the “intemperate interference of the Northern people” for the troubles. While Buchanan had six years earlier recommended an imperial war against Cuba in the name of “self-preservation,” he could not bring himself to lift a finger in the cause of preserving the Union. Instead, he insisted that the President could do nothing to scold a recalcitrant state like South Carolina. Moreover, he urged Congress -- whose lower house was run by a free-soil Republican majority -- to succumb to the demands of man-stealers and lawbreakers. By forever securing white rights to human property, Buchanan believed that a Constitutional amendment would “restore peace and harmony to this distracted country.”

Buchanan then did practically nothing until he left office in March 1861.

Labels: ,


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

April 22

A calamity shrouded by state secrecy occurred four years ago today in Ryongchon, North Korea, where a train explosion killed several hundred people while leveling nearly 2000 houses within a 500 meter radius. According to Red Cross observers, at least 76 children died in the blast when their school was obliterated. Although the precise cause of the disaster has never quite been ascertained, the best guess appears to be that a wagon loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer was accidentally detonated by an electrical charge when it was shunted to a car brimming with fuel oil.

The Ryongchon explosion took place twelve years after a horrific volley of explosions blew apart huge sections of the working class Alamo district in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Here, 206 people died and more than 500 were injured when corroding PeMex gasoline pipes leaked fluid into the city’s sewer system. For days prior, residents of the city had complained of gas fumes in their homes; some even witnessed gasoline flowing from their sink faucets. City officials were investigating the problem when the city lit up like a Roman candle at 10:06 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 April 1992. Over the course of four hours, a series of blasts tore apart six miles of sewer lines, destroying hundreds of buildings and vehicles and rendering 15,000 people homeless. Nearly two dozen city blocks collapsed into massive, 60-foot ravines, where more than 230,000 tons of rubble crushed everything. The explosions registered around 7.0 on the Richter scale. Buses were tossed onto rooftops.

As in South Korea a dozen years later, the source of the ignition could never be clearly reconstructed. It is quite possible, however, that the spark from a dropped manhole precipitated the disaster.



Monday, April 21, 2008

April 21

Uncommemorated and forgotten, the charred and unidentified remains of scores of prisoners are buried in mass graves at Evergreen, Eastlawn and Harper-McKinley cemeteries in Columbus, Ohio. Monuments to the worst prison fire in American history, these anonymous grave sites hold most of the inmates who died on 21 April 1930, when a candle ignited a pile of oily rags on the roof of West Block at the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Prison officials scrambled in vain to locate a master key; abandoned as the fire spread, the prisoners suffered unimaginable deaths, as 322 were asphyxiated and barbecued in their cells. Among the dead that day was 31-year-old Wilbur "Fats" Young, a World War I veteran serving a sentence at Columbia for bigamy. Young's hometown paper, the Deshler Flag, carried his obituary on 24 April 1930:
[F]ate was not kind to Wilbur Young and he lost his life, while still a young man, within the gray walls of the institution in a most horrible manner. Trapped in his cell like a wild beast with no hope of release he could see the flames, smoke and heat creep closer and closer while all he could do was to wait and do nothing but still wait. Convict though he was, and the rest may be or rather may have been, yet withal there beat in his breast a human heart with human feelings and a heart that could love those near and dear to him and be loved in turn and it casts a pall of gloom and sorrow over those who knew him to think of the awful manner of his ending.

Mr. Young and Funeral director Rader took the ambulance to Columbus on Tuesday afternoon with the expectation of bringing the body back but were informed that no bodies would be released until 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning. They were also told that the body would be furnished with a shroud, color and tie and a coffin, and that transportation charges would be prepaid to its destination.
Prison officials blamed the fire on a botched escape plan, but the fire drew increased attention to the miserable conditions at the Columbus facility, which was operating at twice its intended capacity. Meager efforts were made to improve Ohio's prison system over the next several years; none succeeded, and the Ohio Penitentiary was the site of three major riots in the decades after World War II. The facility was ordered closed in 1979. From 1897-1963, it had been the site of 315 executions -- seven fewer than the number killed on this date in 1930.



Friday, April 18, 2008

April 18

Not long after 5:00 a.m. one hundred and two years ago, the city of San Francisco convulsed when the plates along the San Andreas Fault unexpectedly slipped several meters to the right. The resulting earthquake -- now believed to have reached a magnitude of 7.7 to 7.9 on the Richter Scale -- could be felt across an area of 375,000 square miles from Oregon to Los Angeles and eastward into Nevada. The destruction was massive throughout the region, though nowhere was the quake felt more than in the city. Buildings dropped to the ground, especially in the South-of-Market area of the city, where tenement buildings thundered down, trapping and killing thousands of working class and poor San Franciscans.

One eyewitness somehow avoided the fate that quite literally struck so many that day. He lived to describe it:
Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come.
By mid-day, the fires had begun; by the end of the day, much of the city was alight. Troops from Ft. Miley began dynamiting buildings to create fire breaks. Not infrequently, the explosions created more fires. Most civilians were able to make their way to some kind of safety, although thousands of people were unable to leave their neighborhoods due to the reefs of debris. In addition to the 500 alleged looters whose bodies were left in the streets as a warning to imitators, military and police officers shot at least four people who could not be rescued from the flames -- one man who was pinned under burning rubble, and three who were trapped on the roof of the Windsor Hotel at Fifth and Market, not long before the roof collapsed. Five thousand people witnessed the mercy killings at the Windsor.

By the time the fires exhausted themselves four days later, 25,000 buildings no longer existed, and nearly 500 city blocks were reduced to ruin. Half to three-quarters of the city’s 400,000 people were rendered homeless. An accurate count of the dead was never accomplished; the best contemporary estimates suggest that 3000 people or more may have perished in the earthquake and fire.



Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 17

The Cambodian civil war ended thirty-three years ago today, as the Supreme Committee of the Khmer Republic abandoned the capital of Phnom Penh. Over the previous five years, the war had consumed the entire nation, with government forces -- supported by the United States -- waged an increasingly futile campaign against the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), a coalition of forces increasingly dominated by the communist Khmer Rouge. As they chipped away at the territory controlled by the government of Prime Minister Lon Nol, FUNK earned the financial and military backing of the Chinese and North Vietnamese. In the field, the Front were commanded by named Saloth Sar, a monster from the Khmer Rouge who would become known to the world in coming years as Pol Pot.

For its part, the United States unwittingly aided the cause of the Khmer Rouge by dropping a half million tons of bombs on central and eastern Cambodia, where North Vietnamese forces had set up camp in its ongoing effort to run the US out of South Vietnam. As the American bombing campaign remade Cambodia into something resembling the landscape of the Moon, the Khmer forces acquired further support among a peasantry that already had good reason to detest the government in Phnom Penh. After 1973, when the US acknowledged the futility of its war on Vietnam, it likewise ended its campaign on behalf of the government of Cambodia.

By 1974, the Khmer Republic could only assert control of Phnom Penh and Battambang, the country’s two largest cities, both of which were overcrowded with citizens displaced from the countryside. Roughly 700,000 soldiers of the Khmer Rouge soon launched a final assault on the capital, which succumbed a mere two weeks before the reunification of Vietnam under communist control. Though Lon Nol himself had fled to Hawaii along with other government officials, others in the Cambodian government remained; captured by the Khmer Rouge, they were quickly executed.

As many as 150,000 Cambodians may have perished in the civil war that formally ended on April 17, 1975. Over the next 44 months, anywhere from one to two million more would die as Pol Pot committed Democratic Kampuchea -- as his country was now called -- to a campaign of ideological and economic purification. Cities were evacuated and the people herded onto collective farms, where they labored and starved by the hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more -- intellectuals, professionals, ethnic minorities and other “parasites” -- were taken to the so-called Killing Fields, where they were shot or (more frequently) slugged with hammers or gouged with pick axes before being dumped into mass graves.

Labels: ,


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

April 16

On 16 April 1947, the French ship Grandcamp -- a salvaged American vessel formerly known as the Benjamin R. Curtis -- was loaded with twine, peanuts, drilling equipment, tobacco, cotton, and about 17 million pounds of ammonium nitrate, shipped to the port at Texas City from Nebraska and Iowa.

When a fire erupted in Hold 4 of the ship around 8:00 a.m., crew members and local firefights spent an hour trying to extinguish the blaze before the fertilizer ignited, causing a massive explosion that destroyed everything in a several-hundred yard radius. A 15-foot tidal wave surged over the port facilities, tossing boats indiscriminately; one 150-foot oil barge was tossed 200 feet. Bodies cut in half by flying steel clotted the harbor, and smoldering cotton and twine showered the city, igniting fires that ultimately burned for days. The ship’s anchor -- weighing 3000 pounds -- was discovered two miles away. Ruptured oil tanks and pipes dumped crude slicks into the harbor. Flaming debris set them alight. At 1:00 a.m., the USS High Flyer -- which had been docked next to the Grandcamp and was also bulging with explosive chemicals -- erupted into flames and was itself torn asunder by an explosion that showered the city with more steel debris. Over $32 million worth of property was destroyed.

Carrie Born Baker, a young mother at the time of the disaster, recalled the event a half century later:
I was waiting for a Houston salesman to come show me drapery material. As we looked at his fabric, the blast blew the door open in his face, and he took off for Houston. I grabbed Sheary and ran outside. Deafening sirens were blaring. Police cars and ambulances were everywhere. My nieghbor's husband and son-in-law worked at the docks, and she kept fainting.

A nieghbor came by in his flatbed truck and made us get in. I didn't want to leave but another explosion was expected, and I had to get my brothers, sisters, and baby to safety. My older brother drove to Houston to tell my husband Tommy and Dad where we were going . . .

My brother-in-law, Truman Baker, was a Monsanto foreman, last seen going to the fire. Tommy and his brother-in-law, Walter Stidham, were part of group searching for bodies. They kept looking for Truman and Walter's father. It took a long time to find them. Fingerprints and dental work indentified Truman. Tommy never liked to think of the explosion because all he could see was the bodies and pieces of bodies, and smell that awful smell. When he thought of his brother, he remembered his face caved-in.

I knew a lot of people that died that day. Many I worked with at Monsanto or lived near. I lost friends, family and many acquaintances. I will never forget that day even though many names have faded from memory.
The exact death toll of the Texas City explosion could never be accurately determined, since so many of the missing were never recovered, and because there were untold numbers of workers and seamen who may have been visiting or working at the facility without documentation. The best estimates, however, are that nearly 600 people died and several thousand more suffered injuries. The entire Texas City volunteer fire department -- twenty-eight members in all -- perished.



Tuesday, April 15, 2008

April 15

On this date in 1715, four South Carolina diplomats were killed in the Yamassee town of Pocotaligo, located about a hundred miles west of the colonial capital of Charles town.

The delegation had been sent to solicit the support of the Yamasee in an effort to thwart the outbreak of a war -- rumored to be just over the horizon -- launched by the Ochese (Lower) Creek against the colony. The six ambassadors had good reason to assume their appeal would be recognized and accepted. As the most important English ally in the region, the Yamasee had waged war on behalf of the white settlers before, most recently in 1712-1713 against the Southern Tuscarora. In that conflict the Yamasee joined with an array of other regional tribes to annihilate their adversaries, pushing them out of the Carolinas and into the region, much farther north, that was dominated by the Iroquois Confederacy.

However, the cultural and economic stability of the Yamasee was under tremendous pressure during these years, and their allegiance to the English colonists was beginning to fray. The deerskin and Indian slave trades had helped secure the political and economic bonds between the white settlers and the Yamasee, but they also brought further white encroachment into Yamasee territory while depleting the deer stock. As well, the growth of massive rice plantations -- which would ultimately prove to be the source of South Carolina’s great wealth -- were also impinging on Yamasee territory. With the expansion of the Port Royal region south of Charles Town, cattle ranches quickly sprouted up along the border of the Yamasee territory; heedless of their own role in fomenting the crisis, unfenced livestock gobbled the crops on which the Yamasee depended for food.

During these early years of the 18th century, the Yamasee population showed marked decline, with the window of opportunity for resistance diminishing with each year. With fewer warriors, slave raiding was becoming more difficult. Many Yamasee resented what they regarded as abusive trade practices among the white settlers, including aggressive debt collection, intimidation and violence. They worried that unless they were able to clear their financial obligations to the colony, their own people would soon find themselves on the auction block; whether this fear was well-founded or not, the Yamasee were in the very least determined not to follow the downward trajectory of the Westoe or Cassaboe -- two other once-powerful Indian peoples who had been reduced to helpless dependency over the previous half century.

While receiving assurances from the South Carolina government of its benign intentions, the Yamasee could also not help noticing the construction of a new military fort in Beaufort.

When the delegation arrived in Pocotaligo on April 14, then, the Yamasee regarded the English ambassadors with suspicion. Several of the men in the group had already squandered the good will of the Indians, and the rest were rumored to be spies rather than earnest diplomats. Early the next morning, after hours of intrartibal debate, the Yamasee headmen decided to take the unprecedented step of killing their guests. One of them -- an Indian commissioner named Thomas Nairn -- was tortured for hours before he died.

Having dispatched the ambassadors -- and recognizing the consequences of that decision -- the Yamasee then launched a massive assault against Port Royal, killing roughly a hundred colonists and striking the first blow in a war that would consume the region for the next two years. The war would eventually bring the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Catawba, Apalachee and more than a dozen other Indian peoples into a loose alliance against the colony. Over the course of two years, South Carolina reached treaty arrangements with a number of their adversaries, while others fled the region or remained in a state of hostility.

Nearly 10 percent of the colony's settlers died in the fighting. The Yamasee, which lost at least a quarter of its population, dispersed throughout the region after the war. Some joined in with the Lower Creek confederacy, while others relocated to Spanish Florida, where they eventually merged with the Seminole.

Labels: , ,


Thursday, April 10, 2008

April 10

Perhaps the most sophisticated submarine of its day was crushed 45 years ago today off the coast of Cape Cod. The USS Thresher, a 3700-ton Permit class nuclear submarine, was designed to navigate deeper and move faster than any previous submarine. Its purpose was to hunt down and destroy missile-firing subs developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After an overhaul during the winter, the Thresher sailed to New England to conduct deep-water tests. On the morning of 10 April 1963 a design flaw -- most likely located along the steel bonded fittings in the sub’s piping system -- caused 100,000 pounds of water to spray into the sub, tilting its nose upward and shutting down the vessel’s reactor. Without power, the Thresher sank toward the ocean bottom. When it reached its “crush depth,” the submarine imploded, taking the lives of 129 sailors and civilians, whose last moments must have been unendurably frantic as they struggled to regain control of the doomed vessel. Radio operators on the USS Skylark -- a naval rescue ship assigned to shadow the Thresher on its maneuvers that day -- actually heard the submarine’s last moments, which somewhat mercifully consisted merely of the sound of metal being crushed.

The loss of the Thresher proved to be the worst peacetime naval disaster in US history. The vessel still rests in six parts along the ocean floor.

The Thresher was obliterated exactly 43 years after the Titanic left port in Southampton, England, on its way to New York.



Wednesday, April 09, 2008

April 9

The notorious massacre of Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin began on this date in 1948, marking a turning point in the first Arab-Israeli War. During the attack, more than 130 armed combatants from the Irgun and Lehi militias killed scores of unarmed men, women and children, likely 110-120 in all.

At the time of the attack, Jerusalem was besieged by neighboring Arab armies -- the major road into the city had been cut off, and on April 6 the main Israeli army (Haganah) launched a counteroffensive known as Operation Nachshon, aimed at lifting the siege. Although the residents of Deir Yassin had successfully resisted efforts by Syrian and Iraqi forces to occupy the village in the weeks prior to the massacre, and while the town itself was not strategically important, Lehi and Irgun assaulted Deir Yassin on their own initiative on the morning of April 9. The attack was led by 132 mostly young and inexperienced fighters, armed with automatic weapons and grenades.

When the irregular forces fought their way into the village -- after receiving assistance from Haganah mortar shells -- they moved from house to house, shooting everyone who remained. Prisoners and wounded villagers were liquidated as well. One group of 20-25 men was taken to a quarry and shot. Many participants and defenders of the massacre would later insist that the killings were justified by the resistance offered up by the residents of Deir Yassin. According to several accounts, some of the village men dressed as women during the battle for the village; Jewish fighters then began shooting women indiscriminately, unsure of whom they were actually shooting.

By 11:00 a.m., the village was quiet. Meir Pa’il, an intelligence agent who was on hand for the massacre, provided one of the few eyewitness accounts of the events:
The fighting was over, yet there was the sound of firing of all kinds from different houses. Sporadic firing, not like you would hear when they clear a house. I took my chap with me and went to see what was happening. We went into houses. They were typical Arab houses. Most of the houses there are one-story, though there are a few two story houses like the Mukhtar’s house and a few others. In the corners we saw dead bodies. Almost all the dead were old people, children or women, with a few men here and there. They stood them up in the corners and shot them. In another corner there were some more bodies, in the next house more bodies and so on. They also shot people running from houses, and prisoners. Mostly women and children. Most of the Arab males had run away. It is an odd thing, but when there is danger such as this, the agile ones run away first.
In 1997, one of the former residents of Deir Yassin, Um Mahmoud, recollected the events of April 9:
We were inside the house. We heard shooting outside. My mother woke us up. We knew the Jews had attacked us. My cousin and his sister came running and said the Jews were already in our garden. In the meantime, fighting became heavier and we heard lots of gunshots outside. A bomb was thrown at us and it exploded close to where we were in the yard. (...) My sister- in-law did not want to leave. She was frightened. The girl was two months old and the boy about three. I took the two and my mother said we should go to my uncle’s house. I saw how Hilweh Zeidan was killed, along with her husband, her son, her brother and Khumayyes. Hilweh Zeidan went out to collect the body of her husband. They shot her and she fell over his body (...). I also saw Hayat Bilbeissi, a nurse from Jerusalem serving in the village, as she was shot before the house door of Musa Hassan. The daughter of Abu El Abed was shot dead as she held her niece, a baby. The baby was shot too (...). Whoever tried to run away was shot dead.
After the capture of Deir Yassin, Palestinians throughout the region fled their homes by the hundreds of thousands, fearing similar atrocities.

Labels: ,


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

April 8

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus -- known to the Roman world as Caracalla -- ascended to power in the year 211 upon the death his father, Septimus Severus. For a few months he shared the imperial duties with his brother Geta, but in December of that year, Caracalla decided to dispose of his fraternal rival. He arranged a meeting with Geta in his mother’s apartment, where a group of centurions hacked the unfortunate brother to bits.

After Geta had been assassinated and his body burnt to a crisp, Caracalla began a killing spree that solidified his reputation as one of the more bloodthirsty Roman leaders. He ordered his counselor Laetus -- with whom he had originally discussed the assassination plot -- to commit suicide, taking care to send him the poison himself. Other plotters and advisers met similar ends. One victim threw himself from a window to avoid his assassins; when he merely suffered a broken leg and tried to crawl away, his pursuers mocked him in the streets before finishing him off. As the Historia Augusta explains,
[d]uring this same time there were slain men without number, all of whom had favoured the cause of Geta, and even the freedmen were slain who had managed Geta's affairs. Then there was a slaughtering in all manner of places. Even in the public baths there was slaughter, and some too were killed while dining, among them Sammonicus Serenus, many of whose books dealing with learned subjects are still in circulation.... After this he committed many further murders in the city, causing many persons far and wide to be seized by soldiers and killed, as though he were punishing a rebellion.
Over the next four years, Caracalla presided over massacres in Gaul, in Germany, and in Egypt, where thousands of Alexandrians were put to death for little reason other than to remind the rest of the city of its subordinate relationship to Rome.

Loathed by apparently everyone, Caracalla died on this date in the year 217; he was assassinated will taking a piss on the side of the road hear Harran, a city on the edge of the Parthian Empire, which included all of modern-day Iran and much of modern-day Iraq.

Labels: , ,


Thursday, April 03, 2008

April 3

Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Memphis, Tennessee to offer his support to the 1300 sanitation workers -- most of whom were African American -- who had struck nearly two months before to protest their low pay, awful working conditions and their union's non-recognition by the city. The civil rights leader had been to Memphis twice during the previous month and joined the men of AFSCME Local 1733 in marches to City Hall, sit-down protests, mass meetings and night-long vigils. During his final trip, King was ill. After joining in an afternoon march in downtown Memphis, King initially decided to rest and not speak that evening at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God, where workers and their supporters were planning to convene. After a 30-minute address by Ralph Abernathy, however, King rose and spoke extemporaneously for nearly 45 minutes.

Toward the end of his address, King observed that
[m]en, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence.

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis . . . .

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
James Earl Ray shot King in the throat less than 24 hours later as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, wondering if he needed to wear a coat that evening.



Wednesday, April 02, 2008

April 2

Two years into the Civil War, the Southern economy was in disarray. Cotton producers -- unwilling to bid farewell to the cash crop that sustained the slave society for which the Confederacy fought -- refused to convert their fields to food production. As the war in Virginia trampled the farms and pushed tens of thousands of refugees into the city of Richmond, food shortages combined with price inflation and overcrowding stretched the population to the limits of its patience. The melt from a March snowstorm destroyed the roads into the capital, adding to the misery of a city whose population had swelled from 40,000 to nearly 180,000 since the outbreak of hostilities. Diaries from the period record conditions approaching starvation. For some, rat meat was the only available source of protein.

On 2 April 1863, a crowd of women armed with clubs, rocks and guns took to the streets of the Confederate capital and demanded “bread or blood.” The disturbance in Richmond would prove to be the largest of the 1863 Southern food riots, which occurred as well in Mobile, Atlanta, and Petersburg among other cities and towns. The Richmond uprising was unique in a number of respects, not the least of which was that it was carried out almost entirely by women. They were led by a mother of four named Mary Jackson and a butcher’s apprentice with the improbable name of Minerva Meredith, both of whom organized a meeting on April 1 to plan a march the following day on a local bakery. After Virginia’s governor John Lechter refused to consider their pleas for relief on April 2, the women -- who eventually numbered between one and three thousand -- stormed through the Old Market, looting anything that wasn’t nailed down -- bacon, flour, sugar, candles hats, and brooms were among the goods pilfered by the enraged and war-weary crowd. Newspaper editorials and angry Confederate leaders denounced the women as prostitutes, communists, and paid agents of the Union government, although they were in fact nothing of the sort.

In 1878, the New York Sun published an account of the bread riot as told by an eye-witness named John W. Daniel, who portrayed the disgruntled participants as machine-like in their efficiency:
The women took the stores in line, one after the other. They proceeded systematically. The goods were piled upon wagons drawn by horses driven by female sympathizers. Not a word was spoken. The work was done with terrible earnestness. When the mob entered a grocery a certain percentage of them piled the goods upon the outstretched arms of the others, and they were borne to the streets and dumped into the wagons. The women had it all their own way. Neither soldiers nor police were in sight. Meanwhile the crowd increased. Other women heard what was going on, and flocked to Main Street for a share of the plunder. Not a man joined them, and for a long time no one made an effort to stop them. At last Colonel Baldwin, of Virginia , jumped upon a dry-goods box, and made an impassioned appeal for law and order. He might as well have talked to the wind. No one paid the least attention to him. The women went on with their sacking, and the bystanders drowned Baldwin 's voice with their whoops and cheers.
When Jefferson Davis and a detachment of the Virginia Public Guard arrived on the scene, the president of the Confederacy offered a few words to the rioters. John Daniel described it as “the most eloquent speech [he] had ever heard.” Another bystander -- less impressed with Davis’ attempts to soothe the crowd -- tossed a loaf of bread at the president but failed to strike him. Davis then ordered the militia captain to fire on the crowd if it did not disperse within five minutes. Several witnesses later recalled that a cannon was rolled up next to the St. Charles Hotel, where it was aimed down Main Street at the assembled women.

And so the bread riot concluded.

However unsuccessful it may have beenin the short term, the women’s uprising in 1863 helped alter the course of the war. Confederate armies badly needed reinforcements, but the threat of further disturbances kept thousands of troops tied down in the streets of Richmond, where they served a much less dangerous role guarding a dying society.

Two years to the day after turning the state’s guns against his own citizens, Jefferson Davis fled the city of Richmond on a late-night train as the Civil War neared its conclusion.

Labels: ,


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April 1

On this date in 1873, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company -- better known as the White Star Line -- lost a passenger ship off the coast of Nova Scotia.

The RMS Atlantic was making its 19th voyage, having departed on March 20 from Liverpool to New York with nearly a thousand souls aboard, 833 of whom were passengers. After encountering rough weather, the ship’s captain decided to make a coaling stop in Halifax before continuing on to New York. The Atlantic had been loaded with only 13 days’ worth of coal and was, in the judgment of the captain, not likely to have enough for the rest of the trip.

Unfortunately -- because the ship’s crew apparently misread their position in the dark and underestimated the speed at which they were traveling -- the ship ground to a halt early in the morning of April 1 overtop Golden Rule Rock, a obstacle that sat a mere 50 yards off Meagher’s Island near the town of Lower Prospect. Within minutes, the 3700-ton ship stood nearly perpendicular in the water, and nearly all of the passengers were trapped in their sleeping berths. When the crew attempted to lower the lifeboats, the turbulent waters created by the rapidly sinking ship washed them away; a few of the crew members managed to reach the island with rescue lines, but more than 560 passengers drowned, including all of the women on board, all of the married men, and every child on the ship with the exception of a single boy. The entire crew survived. Survivors of the Atlantic were rescued the next day.

Meantime, the recovery effort began as boats and divers combed the beach and waters for the remains of the dead. One of the divers later described the scene in one of the sleeping quarters:
Here, piled up in heaps on the port side, were numbers of bodies of men, and strewn among them bed clothing of one kind and another. From continual knocking against the stanchions and sharp, jagged woodwork which is splintered and broken front the linings of the bunks, the faces and limbs of these dead are more ghastly than any I have ever seen. Imagination cannot picture anything more terrible than what was in this compartment. The flesh is torn from the faces of many of the dead; others, again, are bruised and battered about their heads and faces, which are red and bloody, and in striking contrast to the pale, livid features of others which the action of the water has not disturbed. While I stand here, another of the divers descends and commences to send up some of the bodies. He, however, is more intent upon securing the cargo than sending up the bodies, and only does so now to gain access to some boxes and trunks which are lying beneath them. Having seen enough of the horrors beneath the water on that fatal reef - horrors of the deep which will never be erased from my vision - I decided to ascend, and motioned accordingly to the men who were above in the boat, and pumping down to me the necessary supply of air to sustain life; in a few minutes I was once more at the surface, gazing upon the light of heaven and experiencing a sensation of relief at having left the chambers of death in the cabins of the ill-fated Atlantic.
At the time, the Atlantic catastrophe was the worst civilian maritime disaster. Nearly 39 years later, the White Star line would lose a more famous ship called the Titanic.