August 21st 1831: Nat Turner’s rebellion begins
On this day in 1831 the Virginian slave Nat Turner began the deadliest slave rebellion the United States had ever seen, which resulted in the deaths of 55 whites. Turner, a slave preacher, had come to believe that God intended for him to lead a black uprising against the injustice of slavery. In the evening of August 21st 1831, Turner and his co-conspirators met in the woods to make their plans and early the next morning began the rebellion by killing Turner’s master’s family. Turner and his men, who soon numbered over 80, then went from house to house assaulting the white inhabitants. Eventually a local militia, and then federal and state troops, confronted the rebels and dispersed the group. Turner himself initially evaded capture but was captured on October 30th. Subsequently Turner, along with over fifty other rebels, was executed. However the retribution for Nat Turner’s rebellion did not end there. The uprising sent shockwaves across the South, and while full scale rebellion such as Turner’s was rare in the Deep South due to the rigid enforcement of the slave system, caused widespread fear of another rebellion. In the ensuing hysteria over 200 innocent black slaves were killed by white mobs. Turner’s rebellion came close to ending slavery in Virginia, as in its wake the state legislature considered abolishing the ‘peculiar institution’. However the measure was voted down and instead the state decided to increase plantation discipline and limit slaves’ autonomy even further by banning them from acting as preachers and learning to read. Similar measures were adopted across the slave-holding South and thus Nat Turner’s rebellion increased the South’s commitment to slavery, despite undermining the pro-slavery argument that it was a benevolent system and slaves were content. Turner has left behind a complicated legacy, with some seeing him as an African-American hero and others as a religious fanatic and villain; his memory raises the eternal question of whether violence is justified to bring about necessary change.
August 19th 14 AD: Augustus dies
On this day in 14 AD the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, died aged 75. Born Gaius Octavius and known as Octavian, he was named as heir of his great uncle Julius Caesar. Upon Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Augustus formed an alliance - the Second Triumvirate - with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Mark Antony, to rule and take vengeance on Caesar’s assassins. The alliance soon fell apart and the three fought for sole rule of Rome. Octavian emerged victorious after defeating Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian then set about ‘restoring’ the Roman Republic, which had been ruled by Caesar as Dictator, by formally returning power to the Senate. However in reality the new leader kept considerable power in his person, adopting many titles which became part of the imperial pantheon, including ‘Augustus’ (which loosely translates as ‘magnificent’), ‘princeps’ (first citizen), ‘pontifex maximus’ (priest of Roman religion) and ‘tribunicia potestas’ (power over the tribune assemblies elected by the people). Augustus’s constitutional system gave way to the birth of the Principate, the first period of the Roman Empire. He is also considered the first Roman Emperor because the empire greatly expanded under his rule. Augustus died in 14 AD, and was succeeded by his step-son and adopted heir Tiberius. Augustus thus began the stable line of ‘adoptive’ Roman Emperors which ended with Marcus Aurelius’s decision to name his birth son Commodus, who came to power in 180 AD. This year is the momentous 2000th anniversary of the death of the first Roman Emperor. Even today Rome is remembered as a pinnacle of civilisation and empire and much of modern Europe continues to be shaped by its legacy.
2000 years ago today
August 17th 1987: Rudolf Hess dies
On this day in 1987 Adolf Hitler’s former deputy in the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess, died in Spandau Prison, Berlin. Hess, a leading figure of the Nazi regime, famously fled Hitler’s Germany during World War Two and flew to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. On May 10th 1941, he flew from Augsburg and later parachuted near the Scottish village of Eaglesham. He told authorities he had an important message and was handed to the army who took him as a prisoner of war. Winston Churchill sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him its last inmate. After the end of the war and the fall of Hitler’s government in 1945 Hess was tried at Nuremberg alongside 22 others for his role in Nazi war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated at Spandau until his death aged 93. Hess committed suicide via asphyxiation by electrical cord, however some have claimed that he was murdered.
August 15th 1965: Beatles at Shea Stadium
On this day in 1965 the Beatles played their iconic concert at Shea Stadium in New York City. The gig was part of the band’s 1965 tour of the United States, by which time they were international superstars and ‘Beatlemania’ gripped the world. The band formed in Liverpool in 1960, and came to prominence with their first hit ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962. By the time of the Shea Stadium gig they had a huge following in the US, and at Shea played to around 55,600 fans. As typical of Beatlemania, the crowd was deafening with their screams, which meant that the music could not really be heard, and were often seen crying and fainting. The Beatles did still manage to play a 30 minute set (very short by modern standards) with 12 songs. It was the intensity of these concerts, and the fact they could not hear themselves, that contributed to the band’s decision to stop touring in 1966. Soon after the Shea Stadium gig, which was followed by another huge concert at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, the band recorded their sixth album ‘Rubber Soul’. The Shea Stadium gig was immortalised in a 1966 documentary about the event, which contributed to it becoming one of the band’s most famous concerts. Shea was also an important milestone for the Beatles, and in fact for all musicians, as it ushered in the age of stadium concerts.
"At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain"
- John Lennon in 1970
August 13th 1910: Florence Nightingale dies
On this day in 1910 the famous English nurse, Florence Nightingale, died in London. Born in 1820, she was named for the Italian city in which she was born where her wealthy parents were visiting at the time. Her parents initially tried to prevent her from training to be a nurse, which she resolved to do after she believed God wanted her to do some work. However Nightingale bucked the tradition of upper class women settling for a good marriage and instead pursued a career as a nurse. She became famous during the Crimean War of 1853 - 1856 when she drew attention to the poor conditions of the troops and nursed wounded soldiers. Other nurses laboured in Crimea alongside Nightingale, including the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole. Upon her return to Britain Nightingale began the movement for professional nursing by establishing a nursing school in 1860, leading many to call her the founder of modern nursing. Florence Nightingale was 90 years old when she died, and passed away in her sleep at her London home.
August 11th 1897: Enid Blyton born
On this day in 1897 the famous British children’s writer was born in East Dulwich, London. Blyton’s books have enjoyed enduring popularity, selling over 600 million copies worldwide. Her most famous works include the character of Noddy, The Famous Five series and the Secret Seven series. Beyond her novels, Blyton was also a prolific writer of non-fiction, writing on topics as diverse as natural history and the Bible. Despite later criticisms of her work as representing outdated ways of thinking, including some arguably racist and sexist content, children around the world still read her books. Blyton died in 1968 aged 71 in Hampstead, England.
August 9th 1974: Nixon resigns
On this day in 1974 at noon, Richard M. Nixon became the first and only President of the United States to resign from office. He was replaced by his Vice-President Gerald Ford, who remains the only President to have never been elected Vice-President (as he was appointed in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew), or President (as he lost his presidential re-election bid in 1976 to Jimmy Carter). Richard Nixon resigned due to the revelations of the Watergate scandal that his administration had been involved in illegal activities, which included breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, covering up said break-in, and widespread wiretapping. He long denied direct knowledge of these activities, but after the Supreme Court forced him to hand over the tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, Nixon’s involvement was clear. What was also made evident by the tapes was Nixon’s intense paranoia, his rough demeanor and his often racist attitudes. He resigned rather than face impeachment and almost certain removal by Congress. He was later pardoned for his crimes by Ford, who hoped his decision would help America heal and move on. 40 years on, Richard Nixon is mainly remembered for the corruption and dishonesty of Watergate, which discredited the presidency for many years after. However, his numerous achievements in office must not be forgotten: he cooled down the Cold War with his policy of détente and was the first President to visit China and Moscow; withdrew American troops from Vietnam; supported affirmative action policies; established the Environmental Protection Agency; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; and oversaw major desegregation of schools. Nixon is rightfully remembered for his role in Watergate and his unprecedented resignation in disgrace but we must be wary of only seeing one side of one of the most controversial figures of American history.
40 years ago today
August 7th 1947: Kon-Tiki expedition ends
On this day in 1947, the Kon-Tiki raft smashed into reef and was beached in the Tuamotu Islands. The expedition was led by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and aimed to prove that pre-historic peoples could have travelled from South America to Polynesia and settled there. The expedition took 101 days and covered 7,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to the Polynesian islands. The raft was constructed and sailed using only materials and techniques people would have had available in pre-Columbian times. However, the experiment was criticised because they used modern technology such as having the raft towed out to sea. The journey began on April 28th but ended on August 7th, with the crew all returned safely to land.
August 20th 1938: Lou Gehrig hits 23rd Grand Slam
On this day in 1938 the famous New York Yankees baseball first baseman Lou Gehrig hit his 23rd Grand Slam. Nicknamed ‘The Iron Horse’, Gehrig’s 23 Grand Slams remained the most on record until it was broken by fellow Yankees player Alex Rodriguez in 2013. The remarkable career of this exceptionally talented baseball player ended in 1939 when, after his performance had been deteriorating, Gehrig was diagnosed with a terminal neurodegenerative disease which severely limits physical mobility (often to the point of paralysis) while not affecting the brain. The disease is known by different names, for example in the UK it is called motor neurone disease (or MND), and in the US as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The diagnosis led Gehrig to retire aged 36 and on a July 4th 1939 ‘Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day’ at Yankee Stadium, he gave an emotional farewell speech that has become known as baseball’s Gettysburg Address. Lou Gehrig died two years later just before his 38th birthday. His legacy continues as one of the greatest players of all time and in the fact that many Americans now refer to ALS/MND as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. Other notable people to have this disease include Stephen Hawking, whose is an unusual case as he has lived with it for over 50 years. This cruel disease, which affects hundreds of thousands of people across the world, has been brought to the forefront of public attention due to the recent ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ in which someone has a bucket of ice water tipped over their head and then nominate others to do the same and donate to charity. To donate to this cause and find out more about the disease visit the ALSA website (US) or MNDA website (UK). The effort to raise funds and awareness of this disease which tragically ended Lou Gehrig’s life has been a great success, with over $30 million in donations being made to the ALSA and celebrities like Bill Gates, Robert Downey Jr. and the Foo Fighters getting involved.
"Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for”
- Lou Gehrig in his 1939 farewell speech
August 18, 1771. Phillis Wheatley, a famous poet, becomes a full member of Old South Meeting House, the church and public meeting space where she attended since being brought to Boston as an enslaved child more than ten years earlier. Old South Meeting House is where she first heard the Reverend George Whitefield preach, and her poem about him was the first poem to earn her widespread recognition. In 1773, she became the first African to publish a poetry book in the English language, and the third woman in America to do so.
Today, Old South Meeting House is a history museum, and we celebrate Phillis Wheatley day on August 18.
August 16th 1819: Peterloo massacre
On this day in 1819 a cavalry charge killed 17 and injured 600 at a public meeting in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, England. The meeting of around 60,000 was held to demand parliamentary reform and was addressed by famous radical Henry Hunt, known as ‘the Orator’. Radical agitation had been on the rise in recent years due to the famine and unemployment that followed the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction of laws that many felt unfair to the working class. Despite the peaceful intentions of the meeting, local magistrates feared it and sent in the cavalry, who violently dispersed the crowd. 15 people died in the ensuing violence, with hundreds more injured. The event was nicknamed ‘Peterloo’ in reference to the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. The massacre caused public outcry which only encouraged the government, led by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, to crack down on radicalism. This period is sometimes referred to as ‘reactionary toryism’.
August 14th 1947: Pakistani independence
On this day in 1947 the nation of Pakistan was founded upon its independence from Britain. In colonial India, a divide arose between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority, the latter who felt their interests were not being represented by the Indian National Congress. Thus in 1906 the Muslim League was founded to protect Muslim rights and, eventually, call for independence and an independent Muslim nation state. The 1933 pamphlet ‘Now or Never’ urging Muslim nationalism coined a name for the new nation based on the Muslim Northern provinces that would form the country - P (Punjab) A (Afghania) K (Kashmir) S (Sindh) TAN (Balochistan). ‘Pakstan’, which in Urdu and Persian means ‘Pure Land’, soon became ‘Pakistan’. The Pakistan Movement continued to gain ground throughout World War Two, and despite resistance from Hindu leaders in the Congress, the two-state solution proved popular among the Indian Muslim electorate. Finally, after years of campaigning, the 1947 Independence of India Act passed the Congress, which provided for the two states of Pakistan and India to become independent from Britain on the 14th and 15th August respectively. The birth of Pakistan, largely due to League President Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s efforts to unite disparate Indian Muslisms, has been hailed as one of the major political achievements of modern Muslim history. However the division prompted widespread religious violence which killed thousands, and led to a massive population exchange, with the violence between the two new nations even descending into open warfare. In 1971 Pakistan further divided when Bangladesh seceded. August 14th is celebrated as Independence Day in Pakistan, but this year it coincides with a major protest against the current government. Opposition leader Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir ul Qadri called for the march to protest the corruption of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government; around 100,000 people are expected to attend.
August 12th 30 BC: Cleopatra dies
On this day in 30 BC the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide. She came from a family of Greek origin who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Upon the death of her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC Cleopatra became co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy XIII (and later her other brother Ptolemy XIV). She famously became lovers with Roman leader Julius Caesar, with whose help she was restored to rule after her brother had tried to oust her; she eventually became the sole pharaoh of Egypt. Cleopatra travelled to Rome with Caesar, but returned to her native Egypt upon his assassination. After Caesar’s death, she began a relationship with Mark Anthony as they worked together against Caesar’s successor Octavian. However their attempt was in vain, and at the sea Battle of Actium on the Greek coast in 31 BC they suffered a resounding defeat by Octavian’s forces. The two fled back to Egypt, where Anthony committed suicide after his troops deserted him. Cleopatra followed soon after, supposedly killing herself by means of an asp bite on August 12th 30 BC. With the fall of these two powerful figures, Octavian was able to consolidate his rule and become the first Roman emperor as ‘Augustus’. Caesarion, Cleopatra and Caesar’s son, who had been ruling as co-ruler with his mother, was killed by Augustus’s forces and thus Egypt soon became a province of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra remains a famous figure for her political astuteness and remarkable leadership of Egypt and has been popular in art and literature, including William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
August 10th 1680: Pueblo Revolt begins
On this day in 1680 Pueblo Indians in present day New Mexico began an uprising against Spanish colonisers. Any rebellions against Spanish rule in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México by the indigenous people were brutally suppressed. This violence, coupled with Spanish seizure of Indian crops and possessions, and Spanish assaults on pueblo religion and enforcement of Christianity, led to deep resentment of exploitative Spanish rule. This came to a head in 1680, when Tewa leader Popé (or Po’Pay) led a co-ordinated, large-scale uprising against the Spanish. The revolt was in direct response to the Spanish governor’s arrest and beating of 47 pueblo shamans, one of whom was Popé. On the night of August 10th thousands of Indians across the province rose up against the Spanish authorities. 2,500 warriors sacked the colonial headquarters in Santa Fe and in the next few days over 400 Spaniards were killed. The rebellion was ultimately successful in driving the Spanish out of the region. However after Popé’s death in 1688 his loose confederation of pueblos fell apart and descended into infighting and wars with neighbouring tribes. The Spanish were therefore able to launch a reconquest in 1692, but this time were careful to allow pueblo religion to continue. While it was short-lived, the remarkable success of the Pueblo Revolt against the far better armed Spanish makes it the most successful act of resistance ever undertaken by Native Americans against European invaders.
August 8th 1963: Great Train Robbery
On this day in 1963, the ‘Great Train Robbery’ took place in Buckinghamshire, England. The team of 15 robbers stopped the Royal Mail train by changing a signal from green to red and stole £2.6 million, which is the equivalent of around £40 million today. Only 6 of the 126 bags on the train were not taken by the robbers. Most of the money, which was made up of used banknotes, was never recovered. 12 of the 15 were caught and jailed but some escaped and some were never caught.