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Archive for June, 2013

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Clive’s victories at Arcot and Plassey secured India for the British

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Trade, War on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about British India originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 308 published on 9 December 1967.

Battle of Arcot, picture, image, illustration
The Battle of Arcot by C L Doughty

The urge to explore is often motivated by the desire to trade. When Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and landed at Calicut on the west coast of India, he was welcomed by the local rajah, who earnestly desired to trade spices and precious stones with Portugal.

For a century the Portuguese monopolised the trade with India. Their place was taken in the 17th century by the Dutch who carried on extensive commerce with the east, evicting the Portuguese from most of their trading posts.

The first British expedition followed shortly upon the formation of the British East India Trading Company, in 1600. During the first half of the century, the Company acquired a number of coastal trading centres. These included ones at Surat, on the west coast; Madras; and Bombay, which the Company obtained through King Charles II from the Portuguese. At the end of the century, they founded Calcutta.

During this time, the French were building trading stations at Pondicherry and Chandernagore.

The situation in India was very tempting to those whose eyes turned from trade to the prospects of territorial acquisition. In the years that followed the death of Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul Emperor of India, in 1707, the viceroys who ruled great areas of India in the name of the Emperor began to extend their personal power and pay little more than lip-service to the imperial court at Delhi.

The most important of these viceroys were the nawab of the Deccan, the nawab of Bengal and the nawab of Oudh.

There was great scope in this situation for any foreign nation which chose to interfere. It was a question of who would do so first.

While the war of Austrian Succession was under way in Europe, the French governor of Pondicherry, Joseph Dupleix, used it as an excuse to attack and take the British Company’s trading post at Madras. The British only regained Madras in the settlement made in Europe by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle (1748).

The French, attracted by the ease of their previous success, were eager to extend their activities and build an empire for themselves in India. The opportunity arose when the choice of a nawab in the Carnatic (a region of the Deccan) was disputed. The French succeeded in establishing their candidate there – for which he paid them a huge sum of money.

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Ladders were once used by lynch mobs as gibbets

Posted in Historical articles, Superstition on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about popular superstitions originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 308 published on 9 December 1967.

Advertising bill poster, picture, image, illustration
The mother and child would doubtless not walk underneath this bill poster's ladder, but why?

We have, of course, a very practical reason for not walking under a ladder – especially if there is a man with a paint-pot on the top rung!

However, there is another, and more sinister, explanation which goes back to the days when ‘justice’ was rougher and readier than it is today; and when citizens who believed they had been wronged were quicker to take the law into their own hands.

Often they did not wait for the wrongdoer to be arrested and brought to trial. A length of rope, a handy tree, and the job was done!

When these ancestors of ours began to live in towns, things were less simple. Trees did not grow in their streets and so they substituted ladders, which could be quickly erected against any wall. The rope was slung over one of the high rungs, the ‘execution’ carried out, and all evidence removed before the Law could intervene.

The danger from the ordinary person’s point of view, was that anyone passing close by, or particularly beneath, the ladder might be suspected of attempting a rescue – and dealt with accordingly; so the innocent passers-by quickly learnt to keep clear of any ladder leaning against a wall . . . just in case!

This reason for avoiding ladders has, of course, long been forgotten, but the general feeling of ill-luck still clings to them, and the usual precautions against misfortune are often taken, particularly crossing the fingers.

In some places, meeting certain animals after walking under a ladder can strengthen the precautions. In Devon you must remain silent until you have seen a four-legged animal. In Bath people cross their fingers, and keep them crossed until they have seen five dogs!

In some parts of Wales things are even more complicated. You must keep your fingers crossed until you have seen three dogs and three horses – and then you must wish.

Armoured vehicles were greatly outnumbered by horses in WW1

Posted in Cars, Historical articles, History, Transport, War, Weapons on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about vehicles in World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

WW1 tank, picture, image, illustration
Tank on the Western Front by Severino Baraldi

Although some experiments were made with armoured vehicles during the early 1900s, it was not until the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, that the motor industry was called upon to demonstrate the usefulness of the petrol engine in wartime.

One of the earliest armoured cars was bought by the Russians from a French firm named Giradot & Voight. The light armoured body was built onto a Charron chassis with a 30 h.p. engine. The whole vehicle weighed nearly two-and-a-half tons and could reach a speed of 28 m.p.h.

The story of that British invention, the tank, is well known. Two main types were first built, and they were known as Male and Female. The Male tank weighed 31 tons and its armament consisted of two 6-pounder guns and six machine guns. The Female weighed 30 tons and carried six machine guns. Tanks were first used on the Somme in 1916, but were not generally employed until 1917.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that their official title was His Majesty’s Land Ships. The word tank was in fact a code name which was used to suggest that they were merely large water tanks when they first appeared at the front, but the name stuck!

These early monsters were powered by a 6-cylinder Daimler engine which gave them a maximum speed of less than 4 m.p.h. Nevertheless, they were extremely effective and could straddle trenches where the German infantry could do little against their heavy armour plating.

Once the war had started, a wide variety of petrol-driven vehicles began to appear, from ambulances to Scout cars.

The Onion Market in Berne celebrates the citizens’ gratitude to Freiburg

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about Swiss customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Berne, picture, image, illustration
Berne and the Bernese Alps, from the Enge

On the 14th May, 1405, a fire broke out in a small, wooden building in the centre of Berne, Switzerland. Fanned by a strong breeze, the flames spread rapidly through the densely packed wooden and stone buildings. Within a few hours some 550 dwellings had been destroyed and many more seriously damaged.

This was the greatest disaster Berne had suffered since its foundation in 1191. With despair in their hearts, the Bernese people started to clear away the rubble and charred wood, but they soon realised that this work, together with the task of rebuilding the town, would be more than they could cope with alone.

So when the people of the neighbouring canton of Freiburg offered to help the citizens of Berne, their assistance was gratefully accepted.

In the months that followed the fire, several hundred sturdy men from Freiburg worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Berne in the reconstruction of the town. One benefit which arose from the fire was that the City Council took the opportunity to replan the town to provide better dwellings and more open space for roads, recreation and ventilation.

All the workers from Freiburg gave their services voluntarily and without payment. They also gave their word of honour to return all objects of value which they found to their rightful owners.

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The Ballycotton lifeboat saves the Daunt Rock lightship crew

Posted in Boats, Bravery, Disasters, Historical articles, Ships on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about lifeboat rescue originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

A fierce gale had turned the village of Ballycotton, in County Cork, into a place of nightmare. Fishermen walking along the winding streets and alleyways were hit by slates blown from the rooftops, and housewives out shopping were knocked to the ground by the force of the wind. In the picturesque harbour, the sea had damaged the breakwater, and pieces of rock were being tossed about as if they were made of paper.

The fishermen spent the night of 10th February, 1936, securing their boats. The telephone wires between Ballycotton and the rest of Eire had been blown down, and the following morning a messenger came by car with the news that the Daunt Rock lightship had broken loose from her moorings. The eight men on board the lightship were at the mercy of the sea, and their only hope of rescue lay in the Ballycotton lifeboat.

When Patrick Sliney, coxswain of the lifeboat, heard this, he immediately ordered that no maroons should be fired to alert the crew. He knew that it was almost suicidal to put to sea in such weather, and he did not want to frighten the women of the village.

Instead, he told the seven crew members to go quietly to the lifeboat station, where they could take the boat out before anyone realised what was happening.

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Jem Mace, the fairground fighter who became a champion

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about Jem Mace originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Jem Mace, picture, image, illustration
Jem Mace

James Mace was born on 8th April, 1831, at Beeston in Norfolk. As he grew up, he was destined to fight his way to a fame that will be remembered forever in the history of boxing. He began his career in the rough and tumble world of a travelling boxing booth. At fairs, the booth would be set up and Jem – as he was called – would challenge all comers to fight him for a purse.

In those days, before the Queensberry Rules* were introduced, boxers fought with their fists and often a contest lasted until one or other of the combatants was battered almost to death. Yet Jem was no muscle-bound bully of the ring. When he had finished his rounds in the booth he liked to relax by playing the violin.

Soon Jem progressed from fairground fighting, and on the night of 19th January, 1860, he defeated Bob Brettle to become the middle-weight champion. Although he was defeated several times after that, Jem always managed to get his championship back and he was holding it on his retirement from the ring in 1871.

One of his most famous fights was against Thomas King on 28th January, 1862, when after 43 rounds of hard but even fighting Jem finally won on account of his scientific methods.

In those days the authorities tried hard to stop prize fighting, and in 1867 Jem was arrested for taking part in it. Following this he went to Canada and Australia, continuing his fighting career and becoming the landlord of a pub.

After he had retired from championship fighting, Jem continued to give exhibitions with circuses, but as time went on he was faced with poverty. At last he was forced into being a sparring partner in a small sideshow. The cycle was complete, he was back where he had started only now he was an old man. He continued gamely at this heart-breaking work until his death on 30th November, 1910.

* The Queensberry Rules (called after the Marquess of Queensberry) were drawn up in 1866 and form the basis of modern boxing. The last bare-knuckle championship was held in 1889.

Louisa May Alcott was a sentimentalist and social reformer

Posted in America, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about Louisa May Alcott originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Little Women, picture, image, illustration
A scene from 'Little Women' by John Keay

Ever since it was first published 99 years ago, Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women has been a firm favourite with children throughout the world. No doubt one of the reasons for its success was the fact that it was based on the writer’s own experience of growing up with her family in New England, U.S.A.

Born on 29th November, 1832, at Germantown, Pennsylvania, Louisa had little formal education. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, taught her himself. The family had little money and as Louisa grew up, it became necessary for her to work as a teacher for several years. While she was helping her family in this way, she dreamed of becoming a writer, and in 1855 her first book, Flower Fables, was published. It did not receive much attention.

When the American Civil War broke out, Louisa became a Union Army nurse. When her shift was over in the wards, she worked on a series of articles called Hospital Sketches. These were read with great interest by a large public for the material was very topical. But it was in 1868 that Louisa May Alcott’s name became really famous. It followed the publication of Little Women which was hailed by the critics for its ‘charm and naturalness’.

As well as continuing her literary career (her other best-known books include Little Man, Good Wives and Jo’s Boys), Louisa devoted her life to social reform and the movement for women’s suffrage. She died on the 6th March, 1888, at Boston.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 imperilled Christian Europe

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Religion on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about Constantinople originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Fall of Constantinople, picture, image, illustration
The Fall of Constantinople by Angus McBride

When the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 328-330 built a new capital upon the old Greek city of Byzantium, he gave the Roman Empire two capital cities. Rome in the West and the new Constantinople in the East. This division was made more complete under his successors who ruled as separate Emperors from these two capitals.

The two halves of this divided Empire had entirely different futures and for this the barbarian invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries were responsible. When the Huns began their sweep across central Europe, only a few areas of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire felt the ripples of the disturbance. The Goths merely brushed up against Constantinople, laying waste the Balkan regions; they did not settle there permanently, but moved on to attack Rome’s western regions. Gaul, Spain, Britain, North Africa and finally the Italian peninsula itself fell under barbarian rule.

The Roman Empire in the east lasted independently for 1,000 years, during which time it suffered great changes of fortune ranging from times of brilliant vitality to periods of pitiable weakness. For these ten centuries, Constantinople was a Christian bulwark for the West against the threatening Goths, Slavs, Persians and Saracens. While the Empire was forced to surrender lands, it upheld every one of its claims to pre-eminence. Among its genuine achievements was the maintenance of a high standard of culture – which was the more impressive because of the general lack of it elsewhere – and the transmission of the Christian religion to Russia and the Balkan states.

Though the Empire ceased to exist in the west in the 5th century, it reached one of its greatest periods in the east under the 6th century Emperor, Justinian. Besides regaining for a time some of the provinces that had been lost in the West, Justinian undertook the mighty work of systematizing Roman Law, a work which had a profound effect on the intellectual life of Western Europe in later centuries, and which still arouses admiration and respect.

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Mawson made the most terrible solo trek in Antarctic exploration

Posted in Adventure, Disasters, Exploration, Famous news stories on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about Sir Douglas Mawson originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Douglas Mawson, picture, image, illustration
On 17 November 1912, young Douglas Mawson of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition left Main Base to explore Adelie Land; it was the start of what was to prove perhaps the most terrible solo trek ever undertaken

For mile after mile, Douglas Mawson, the sole survivor of the three-man exploration team, trudged painfully forward, dragging behind him the remains of his sledge. Beneath his fur boots he wore six pairs of socks, but despite this, his toes had turned black from the cold, and his toenails were working themselves loose.

Since the death of his two companions, Mawson had been alone in the Antarctic for almost a week. He was still nearly a hundred miles from his expedition’s winter headquarters, and he had barely enough food to last him for the rest of the journey. His chances of reaching safety grew slimmer each day, and by 17th January, 1912, he had almost given up hope.

Then, as he struggled to keep his footing on the slippery ice, a further and even more serious disaster occurred. The ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet, and he plunged helplessly down into a crevasse. Seconds later, he found himself suspended in space at the end of his harness. Only his sledge, which had stopped near the edge of the chasm, had prevented him from falling to his death.

As he hung there, slowly spinning, he wondered if he was to share the fate of the men who had already died – Doctor Mertz and Lieutenant Ninnis.

The three men were members of the British Antarctic expedition of 1911-14. Mawson, the Expedition’s leader, was an experienced explorer; he had been on the scientific staff of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition which, in 1908-9, determined the position of the South Magnetic Pole.

Mawson had journeyed into the Antarctic interior with Mertz and Ninnis, and they were making good progress when the lieutenant and the main dog team had pitched to the bottom of a deep crevasse. Even if Ninnis was still alive, there was no rope long enough to reach him, and with him had gone most of the party’s supply of food.

Mawson and Mertz shouted down into the depths of the abyss until their throats were sore. No reply came from their friend, and, after reading the burial service, they were forced to move on without him.

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Gerald Durrell, the naturalist, films a snake-pit for the BBC

Posted in Africa, Animals, Communications on Friday, 28 June 2013

This edited article about Gerald Durrell originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Snakes, picture, image, illustration
A montage of snakes with the Gaboon Viper, bottom left corner

‘The pit was about twenty-five feet long, four feet wide and twelve feet deep . . . It was simply crawling with Gaboon vipers – one of the most deadly snakes in West Africa.’

Gerald Durrell BBC Home Service 12 July, 1953.

Standing on the quay at Tiko, on the west coast of Africa, Gerald Durrell glanced at his watch. It was nearly midnight. The Arakaka was sailing for England in the morning, and the wild animals he had collected were to be loaded on to the ship before dawn.

For five months, Gerald Durrell, naturalist and broadcaster, had been living and working in the rain forests of West Africa, watching the forest creatures, studying their habits and capturing them on behalf of various zoos in Britain.

“I’d collected about 200 specimens,” he told me, as we talked at his home in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where he runs the zoo he founded. “These ranged from red river hogs to chimpanzees, from hairy frogs to bush babies and squirrels – and a few snakes.”

Now, as the naturalist moved away to begin the task of loading, a small van appeared and, with a screeching of brakes, shuddered to a stop beside him. Out of it jumped John MacTootle, a young Irishman whom Durrell had met on the voyage out to Africa.

“John had promised me,” Durrell said, “that he would try to find me some rare specimens of snakes. But I hadn’t heard from him, and had practically forgotten all about it.”

But MacTootle had come now to tell Durrell that, on the banana plantation where he worked, he had discovered a large pit which had been used as a drainage sump, and that this pit was full of snakes. If Durrell cared to catch them – well, they were his for the taking.

Durrell’s heart sank.

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