Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Battle of the Herrings, 1429

The Battle of the Herrings did not involve any herrings as combatants, and none of them was actually alive at the time, but their presence was a vital factor in an incident during the Hundred Years War that would come to have important and unexpected ramifications.

In February 1429 an English army was besieging the French city of Orleans. The season of Lent was approaching, during which time meat was off the menu for Christians, which naturally meant the entire English army. With starvation being preferable to eternal damnation, an alternative source of protein was needed, and the solution took the form of a convoy of carts loaded with barrels of salted herrings.

The herring carts were under the protection of Sir John Fastolf, whose name would later be the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. Problems arose when the convoy, protected by Fastolf’s troops, reached Rouvray, north of Orleans, on 12th February. A combined French and Scottish army intercepted the English and opened a bombardment of cannon fire against which the English had no reply.

This assault should have been enough to put paid to the herrings, but the Scottish commander made the mistake of sending in his men on foot to finish the job. The English had no cannons but they did have archers, and as soon as the Scots came within range they were the recipients of volleys of arrows. The French commander then sent his men in to rescue the Scots, but they suffered the same fate. Sir John then attacked with his own men-at-arms and put the combined French/Scottish force to flight.

The herrings were thus able to continue their journey to Orleans and the besiegers of the city could carry on with the siege.

The net result of the battle was that the French had to have second thoughts about lifting the siege of Orleans. It so happened that on the very day of the Battle of the Herrings, when the force that should have been doing the job of relieving Orleans was being routed at Rouvray, a would-be commander was pleading for a chance to show how it should be done. With no other alternatives on offer, the high command agreed and thus the legend of Joan of Arc was born.
© John Welford

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Amistad case and the slavery debate

A revolt aboard a ship transporting slaves from one part of Cuba to another in 1839 led to a celebrated case before the US Supreme Court that some have seen as a precursor to the US Civil War.

La Amistad was a two-masted schooner in private ownership that was used to transport goods along the coast of Spanish-owned Cuba and to other parts of the Caribbean. On 28th June 1839 La Amistad set sail from Havana bound for a small port in eastern Cuba. The ship’s crew was captained by the owner, Don Ramon Ferrer.

On this occasion the ‘cargo’ included 53 slaves who had been sold in Havana and were being taken to the sugar plantation where they would be put to work and probably spend the rest of their lives. Also on board were the slaves’ new owners. The slaves were members of the Mende tribe from Sierra Leone who had been shipped across the Atlantic not long before. By this time the Atlantic slave trade had been declared illegal, although the institution of slavery had not.

The slaves were not conveyed in La Amistad in the conditions that they would probably have experienced during their previous voyage. Some of them were kept in the ship’s hold and others on deck.

After a few days at sea the slaves in the hold were able to free themselves and get hold of knives that were used for cutting cane. They overpowered the crew, some of whom were killed, including the captain. They demanded that the navigator set a new course, namely for Africa. However, he was able to trick the slaves and sailed north instead of east. The ship was eventually intercepted by an American naval ship, USS Washington, and escorted to New York.

The United States was now in possession of a Spanish ship together with its cargo of slaves, and it was the status of that cargo that was to occupy the best legal minds of the country over the next two years or so.

The Spanish demanded the immediate return of La Amistad and the slaves, and President Martin Van Buren was at first minded to agree with the request. However, it was pointed out to him that the transport of slaves in ships had been outlawed by both the United Kingdom and the United States, so under American law the slaves were the victims of a crime, not the perpetrators of one.

When the case came before the Supreme Court it was stated that the slaves had been ‘unlawfully kidnapped and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board’. This view was supported by Justice Joseph Story and the slaves therefore won their case, the verdict being delivered on 9th March 1841.

There was already a strong abolitionist movement, especially in the northern United States, and funds were raised to accommodate the freed slaves and give them lessons in English, as well as Bible classes. Further funds were raised to pay for their repatriation to Sierra Leone, which happened the following year.

One of the former slaves later returned to the United States to study at college, after which she became a Christian missionary back in Sierra Leone.

The Amistad case exposed the deep divide in American society between those who supported the institution of slavery and those who did not. Many southerners took the line that the slaves were non-persons who were the property of their owners and should therefore be returned to them, as would any other stolen and subsequently recovered goods. The abolitionists (led by former President John Quincy Adams) argued that persons who had been illegally transported to Cuba, and were therefore free, were entitled to the protection of the American legal system.

The Supreme Court verdict undermined the racist assumptions of the southerners and gave the abolitionists a significant moral victory. Tensions between north and south were heightened, and the case therefore constituted a step on the path that would eventually lead to civil war.

The case was remembered in 1997 when Steven Spielberg directed the film ‘Amistad’ that brought the case before a modern audience. Criticisms have been levelled at the film for its historical inaccuracies, and for portraying the case as a vital turning point in the story of the ending of slavery in the United States. It has to be remembered that the former slaves of the Amistad had returned home nearly 20 years before the first shot was fired in the war that finally settled the matter.
© John Welford

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Battle of Aljubarrota, 1385

14th August is an important date in the history of Portugal and in Portuguese/British relationships. It was the day of which the Battle of Aljubarrota was fought in 1385, with far-reaching consequences.

The central figure of the story was João o Bastardo, which translates as John the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of King Pedro I, and therefore not able to inherit the throne when his father died. However, when João’s half-brother also died the throne fell vacant and widowed Queen Leonor was persuaded to invite John I of Castile (a Spanish kingdom) to become King of Portugal as well.

This move did not please a group of Portuguese noblemen, one of whom, Pereira Nuno Alvares, urged João to seize power on his own behalf. Queen Leonor fled the country and implored John of Castile to invade Portugal in order to defeat her late husband’s half-brother. This he did, assisted by a contingent of 2,000 knights from France.

John’s army was met by that of João and Pereira at Aljubarrota, which was on the road to Lisbon. João also had a powerful ally, namely England, which supplied a brigade of longbowmen.

1385 was well within the period known as the “Hundred Years War” when English and French monarchs did battle against each other for mastery within western Europe. On this occasion the struggle for Portugal became a proxy battle in a much larger conflict. The battle turned out to be an echo of earlier ones (notably Poitiers in 1356) and a model for later ones (such as Agincourt in 1415) in that it featured French mounted troops facing English bowmen and coming off worse.

The most familiar feature was the ability of a relatively small force to defeat a much larger one by the use of superior tactics. John of Castile sought to outflank the Portuguese/English force by taking a long march on a hot day that only succeeded in exhausting his troops. João and Pereira merely had to wait in their well-defended positions for the enemy to approach and be soundly defeated. Losses were heavy on both sides, but the Portuguese victory was decisive.

The French and Castilians were eventually forced to withdraw, with many of them being killed by Portuguese civilians as they tried to escape back to Spain. King John fled the field but was able to escape by sea to Seville.

João, now firmly established as King of Portugal, thus established the independence of his country. He showed his gratitude to the English the following year by signing the Treaty of Windsor that pledged “an inviolable, eternal, solid, perpetual and true league of friendship”. The alliance has indeed remained solid down the centuries and is the oldest in European history. João cemented the alliance by marrying Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, brother to Edward the Black Prince.

Pereira was also well rewarded for his efforts and later used his riches to found a Carmelite monastery. Some would say that his reward was the best of that of all the participants in the Battle of Aljubarrota, in that – some 500 years later – he was declared a saint.
© John Welford

Sunday, 1 January 2017

How Marconi bridged the Atlantic Ocean

The first morse code message sent across the Atlantic Ocean by radio, as opposed to cable, was received by Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) on 12th December 1901. He was stationed at Signal Hill, near St John’s, Newfoundland, and the signal was sent by a transmitting station at Poldhu, near Lizard Point in Cornwall, England.

Early experiments

Marconi first started experimenting with wireless telegraphy in 1895 in his native Italy, but moved to England in 1896 because he hoped to attract more interest and support, which was indeed the case. He developed gradually more sophisticated transmitting and receiving equipment and achieved progressively greater distances over which signals could be transmitted.

He was particularly interested in establishing ship-to-shore radio communications, and many of his early experiments were from ships and yachts to receiving stations that he had built onshore. There was clearly a business opportunity here because ships could not be connected by undersea cables in the way that fixed stations could. During the course of these experiments it became clear that radio signals could be picked up even when the transmitter and receiver were not within line of sight of each other, as would be the case when a ship was below the horizon as far as the shore station was concerned. If radio signals could “bend”, what limit could there be to how far they could travel?

Marconi became convinced that it should be possible to send a radio signal for thousands of miles, provided that the transmitting equipment was powerful enough. However, up to this point the best distance achieved had been no greater than about 90 miles (from near Boulogne on the French coast to Chelmsford in Essex, where Marconi had established his business headquarters). Nevertheless, he pressed on with his project to leap the Atlantic.

Preparatory work

Work on the transmitting station at Poldhu Cove began in October 1900, the plan being to build a similar station at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the work on this station began in March 1901. Each station was to comprise 20 masts, each being 200 high, set in a circle that was 200 feet in diameter. In terms of transmitting equipment, Marconi calculated that the energy needed to send a signal the required distance would be around 20,000 volts, and this was to be provided by a Hornsby-Ackroyd oil-driven engine that would drive a 25 kilowatt alternator and a pair of transformers that would boost the alternator’s 2,000 volts to the necessary 20,000 volts. The final output of the plant, in terms of signal energy, would be 100 times greater than that of any previously built transmitter.

All seemed to be going well until 17th September 1901. By this time the aerials at both Poldhu and Cape Cod were nearly complete and Marconi was carrying out tests on the parts of the system that were serviceable, getting very satisfactory results. However, on that day a storm blew up and wrecked the circle of masts. This was clearly a massive setback, but it proved possible to create a temporary aerial, based on only two masts, that was operational only seven days later. Experiments using this aerial showed that strong signals could reach Marconi’s station at Crookhaven in County Cork, Ireland, 225 miles away, so Marconi decided that there was no need to rebuild the station before trying the ultimate test.

The Newfoundland test

He therefore abandoned the original plan to set up two-way communications between Poldhu and Cape Cod and on 26th November 1901 he set sail, with two colleagues, for St John’s, Newfoundland. He had begun to have doubts about whether the signals would reach as far as Cape Cod and decided to bridge a shorter distance, Newfoundland being the closest point of the North American continent to Cornwall. As it happened, just before setting sail he heard news that the Cape Cod station had also been wrecked in a gale.

The party arrived at St John’s with a quantity of balloons, hydrogen cylinders and large kites, apart from their portable receiving apparatus. They were received hospitably by the authorities at St John’s (Newfoundland was a British colony at the time) and offered space in a disused fever hospital on a rocky promontory overlooking the town. The appropriately named Signal Hill had been used in past ages for sending semaphore communications, and was also close to the point at which the first transatlantic cable had reached shore in 1866.

The trio tried various methods for getting an aerial wire airborne using the balloons and kites. The winds were strong and at times threatened to be too strong, but, once in place, the kites were perfectly serviceable for what was needed.

The station at Poldhu had been instructed to transmit a morse code “S” (three dots) for three hours every day. This letter was chosen because it would be unmistakable if picked up on the other side of the ocean. Any letter including a dash could be indistinguishable from atmospheric noise.

The first attempts at reception were made on 11th December. Marconi and his team recorded in their notes that something was detected on the Morse detectors, and as clicks on a telephone monitor, but they could not be definite that they were the Poldhu “S” dots.

However, on the following day there was no mistaking the regular three dots. One of the kites broke free, but, when a second kite was raised with a slightly shorter wire, the signals were heard continuously for more than two hours. Marconi was convinced that the experiment had succeeded.

Conditions on later days proved difficult, such that further tests were not possible and Marconi was concerned that his claims would not be believed. In this he was partially justified, because the London press was slow to accept his word for what was a remarkable claim, given the scientific opinion of the time that radio waves could not be “bent” (actually, the waves were being bounced off the ionosphere, but nobody knew that at the time).

Later work

Ironically enough, what most convinced people that Marconi had succeeded was the vehemence shown by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, whose undersea cable had transmitted Marconi’s triumphant massage back to England. They immediately threatened legal action against Marconi for breaking their monopoly, and Marconi promptly ended his testing in Newfoundland.

However, he was clever enough to make public his correspondence with the “Anglo” and won immediate support from the Canadian press and government agencies, the news soon spreading to the United States. Many messages of support came his way, including one from Alexander Graham Bell who made Marconi an offer of land at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for a permanent transmitting/receiving station.

Marconi packed up his equipment on 23rd December, sending everything back to England with one of his colleagues, while he undertook visits to inspect various possible sites and to meet government officials.

Before he left Canada, Marconi had a draft contract in his pocket to establish a permanent wireless telegraph service, and he was promised government finance towards building a wireless station. Both in Ottawa and New York, Marconi was feted and dined, being hailed as a hero for his magnificent achievement, although his evidence for success was extremely sketchy and impossible to demonstrate without a receiving station being in place.

Fortunately, Marconi had been correct, and later work confirmed what he had claimed. The stations at Poldhu and Cape Cod were quickly rebuilt, with substantial wooden towers instead of flimsy masts, and many technical refinements were to follow.

On 22nd February 1902 Marconi set sail on the SS Philadelphia from Southampton to New York, with a view to sorting out the final details of his Canadian contract. However, he used the voyage to demonstrate his system to the world at large, by transmitting and receiving messages as the ship sailed across the Atlantic. The ship’s mast acted as an excellent aerial (albeit much shorter than that used at Signal Hill) and various improvements allowed for dashes as well as dots to be received.

The result was that readable messages could be transmitted for up to 700 miles during daylight and more than 1500 miles at night. The three-dot “S” signal could be detected at more than 2000 miles distance. With this very public demonstration the critics were finally silenced.

Marconi’s equipment was to prove its worth in two very notable instances within the following ten years. In July 1910 a radio message to the SS Montrose led to the arrest of Dr Hawley Crippen, who had murdered his wife and attempted to escape to Canada. Radio messages from RMS Titanic in April 1912 led to the saving of many lives due to the signals being picked up by other ships within steaming distance.

© John Welford