A Year in Review: 1819

In the history book in my brain, 1819 is dominated by the Peterloo Massacre.

England suffered a severe depression at the end of the the Napoleonic war, as a result of the transition to a peacetime economy. The sudden drop in government spending and the loss of wartime markets for British grain and manufactured goods led to falling prices, unstable currency, and widespread unemployment.

Members of Parliament reacted in their own self-interest as landowners and passed protective tariffs on grain as a way of solving the country’s economic problems. The new Corn Laws protected landowners’ incomes, but meant urban laborers had to pay a higher price for bread when times were already hard. (1)

Workers reacted with strikes and bread riots across England. (2) Members of working class societies called public meetings, in which they called for the repeal of the Corn Laws and parliamentary reform. Instead of taking actions which would have negatively affected the wealth and power of individual members of Parliament, in 1817 the government attempted to stifle the reform-societies by making public meetings illegal, suppressing all societies not licensed by the government, and suspending the Habeas Corpus Act, so that prisoners could be held without trial.

These measures brought a temporary lull in popular demonstrations, but did nothing to solve the underlying problems. In 1819, reformers once again held mass meetings in the larger industrial cities, one of which resulted in the Peterloo Massacre on August 16 1819. An estimated 60,000 workers gathered on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear radical orator Henry Hunt. Fearful that a large group of reformers would turn into a large group of rioters, the local magistrate ordered a squadron of cavalry to charge through the crowd to arrest Hunt. As massacres go, the immediate damages were small: eleven people dead and roughly 700 people injured.(3) The fear generated in the ruling classes was huge.

The government moved quickly to deter further demonstrations. Hunt and eight other organizers of the Manchester meeting were arrested and Parliament passed the Six Acts: a series of repressive laws intended to eliminate unauthorized public meetings, suppress the radical press, and make it easier to convict popular meetings.

Obviously the Peterloo Massacre wasn’t the only thing of importance that happened in 1819. Maybe it wasn’t even the most important thing. Here are some other high points, low points, and things that caught my imagination:

  • The princely states of the German confederation had their own concerns about radical movements. Universities, student groups, and gymnastics associations had become hotbeds of liberal and nationalist sentiment inspired by the French Revolution —not the kind of thing that made nineteenth century monarchs happy. When a slightly crazy student named Karl Sand assassinated the conservative playwright August von Kotzebue, the ministers of the major German states used it as an excuse to crack down. The result was a hard-nosed policy agreed on by a consortium of German states called the Carlsbad decrees, which prohibit political meetings, imposed censorship of the press, outlawed student fraternities and gymnastics associations, and gave universities the right to remove any professor who taught “subversive” doctrines. The immediate effect was to shut down political and nationalist expression in German. Or at least to send it underground.
  • The Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819 made it illegal for factory owners in Great Britain to employ children under the age of nine. Children between the ages of nine and fifteen were limited to a twelve hour work day. The passage of the act has been tied to the Peterloo Massacre, but in fact the first version of the act was drafted in 1815.(4)
  • The British founded Singapore as a free-trade port. Previously the Dutch East India Company had held a trading monopoly in the region. Allowing unregulated free-trade in the new port, change the economic dynamics in the region.
  • The United States acquired Florida from Spain in exchange for assuming some five million dollars in claims against the Spanish government by United States citizens.
  • European and American companies began industrial scale-whaling in the Pacific islands. The availability of a cheap source of oil made the second wave of the industrial revolution possible (5) and made cities safer through the use of whale oil lamps on city streets(6). These changes occurred at the cost of the massacre of whale populations.
  • The publication of Jakob Grimm’s German Grammar and Horace Wilson’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary, both of them blockbusters in the field of linguistics. Yes, blockbusters. Linguistics was one of the most exciting academic subjects of the day, with a popular intelligent audience akin to archaeology or astronomy today. It both pushed the boundaries of human knowledge and fed the fervor of romantic nationalism. (Which I swear I will write a blog post about one of these days.)

Oh yes, one last thing. The future Queen Victoria was born on May 24.

(1) Apparently they hadn’t learned anything from the French Revolution.
(2) Never a good sign. Bread riots have been a warning flag for potential revolution from ancient China through the Arab Spring.
(3) Compared, say, to the Amritsar Massacre a hundred years later, when a stupid order by a British general result in 400 deaths and 1000 people injured in a peaceful gathering of 10,000.
(4) I’m going to resist the temptation to make comments here about change and legislation and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
(5) The short version: machinery needs to be oiled
(6) At least in “good” neighborhoods


From the Archives: Cornelia Fort, Eyewitness to Pearl Harbor

Cornelia FortIn 1941, Cornelia Fort was a certified civilian flight instructor who worked for the Andrews Flying Service in Honolulu, a Nashville debutante who had kicked her way into the male dominated world of general aviation. (1) She was only 22 and already an experienced pilot with hundreds of flight hours to her credit.

On December 7, 1941, Fort was in the air with a student pilot, a defense worker named Suomala who was practicing landings prior to taking his first solo flight. As was typical at the time, they had no radio, so the only way to avoid other aircraft coming and going at Honolulu’s John Rodgers Airport was to scan the sky around them

Prior to what was scheduled to be Suomala’s final landing before soloing, Fort scanned the sky. She saw a military plane heading in from the ocean. She was so accustomed to military traffic from the nearby military bases that she nodded to Suomala to turn into the first leg of his landing pattern. She looked again and saw another military aircraft headed right for them. She grabbed the controls away from her student, jammed the throttle open, and pulled above the oncoming plane. It passed under them, so close that their celluloid windows rattled.(2)

Fort glanced down to see what kind of plane it was. Instead of the insignia of the US Army Air Corps, painted red circles shone on the wings in the morning sun: the “rising sun” emblem of the Japanese. With a chill tingling down her spine, she looked west to Pearl Harbor, where she saw billowing black smoke and formations of silver bombers. Something detached itself from one of the planes and she watched as the bomb fell and exploded in the middle of the harbor.

She landed the plane at John Rodgers as quickly as she could, surrounded by machine gun fire. As they touched down, Suomola asked “When am I going to solo?” (Fort later said she wasn’t sure whether he didn’t understand what was happening or was trying to lighten the situation with humor.) A contemporary newspaper account reported her answer as “Not today, brother.” A few seconds later, the shadow of a plane passed overhead and bullets spattered around them. Pilot and student sprinted for the cover of the hanger.

Once inside, Fort tried to warn others that the Japanese were attacking. She was met with disbelief and laughter. The men she worked with tried to pass it off as some sort of maneuvers that she had misunderstood. Fort was “damn good and mad.”(3) She was about to tell them off when a mechanic from another hanger ran in and told them that strafing planes had just shot another pilot and his student as they ran for cover.

As scores of Zeros roared by, some no more than fifty feet off the ground, Fort and her companions took shelter in the hangar. When she examined her plane the next day, she found it riddled with bullets.

Newspapers soon picked up the story of Fort’s encounter with the Japanese–it would have been a good story no matter who was involved. A pretty young female aviator gave it an additional human interest element. For a time, she was part of the speaking tour that sold war bonds. But she was determined to use her flying skills for the war effort. Lamenting the fact that she she couldn’t be a fighter pilot and face the Japanese in the air again, she was the second woman to volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).

For several months she delivered small training planes(4) up and down the east coast. In February, 1943, Fort and several other WAFS were assigned to Long Beach California to deliver the much larger BT-13s. They were thrilled with the “promotion” to larger planes, but some of them remained frustrated by the fact that they were not allowed to become fighter pilots. Determined to acquire some of the skills needed, Fort and a few of her companions began to experiment with formation flying, an activity that was forbidden during delivery flights. On March 21, 1943, while participating in a forbidden stint of formation flying on a delivery, Fort’s plane was destroyed in a mid-air collision, making her the first WAFS pilot to die while on duty.

What a waste.

(1) Her father made her brothers promise never to fly. He never thought to ask for the promise from his daughter. Her brothers were royally pissed off when they found out she had been taking flying lessons in secret.

(2) Fort’s written account of the incident claims that at this point she felt “a distinct feeling of annoyance that the Army plane had disrupted our traffic pattern and violated our safety zone.” My guess is that she swore like a fighter pilot–or at least gave vent to a string of the “dangs” and “sssssss–sugars” that passed for profanity among women of the Middle South at the time.

(3) And can you blame her?

(4) PT-19s, for the aviation fans among the Marginalia

A Year in Review: 1519

Back in May, announcements of museum exhibitions celebrating the work of Leonardo da Vinci began to appear in the various places where I hang out online, triggered by the 500th anniversary of his death.(1) They made me wonder what else of note happened in 1519.(2)

It turned out that quite a lot was going on. (Go figure.) Here are some of the high and low points, in no particular order:

The Protestant Reformation was beginning to bubble. Martin Luther publicly questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility and was summoned to Rome on charges of heresy. In Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli was preaching his own brand of church reform, which would develop after his death into the various Reformed and Calvinist versions of Protestantism.

Hernán Cortés landed at Veracruz with a force of 550 men, sixteen horses, several mastiffs, and ten brass cannon. He assembled a coalition of native peoples who had previously been conquered by the Aztecs and marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Because Cortes and the Spanish appeared to fulfill an Aztec legend about the return of the god Quetzalcoátl, the Aztec ruler Montezuma II met the Spanish with a warm welcome rather than armed resistance. In fact, he invited Cortés into the royal palace. Not a good decision. Cortés took Montezuma captive and used him as a hostage to subdue the Aztec people. That peaceful surrender wasn’t the end of the story. A year later, in Cortes’ absence, the Aztecs revolted. Montezuma was killed in the revolt. Cortes and his allies looted their way through the empire, succeeding in part because an epidemic of smallpox devastated the native population.

And speaking of forgotten women in history, as we so often do here in the Margins, there was another important character in this story who didn’t show up in the versions I learned in school: a multilingual Amerindian woman variously known as La Malinche, Doña Marina and Malintzin.(3) Her story has been pieced together over the years from conflicting accounts, with lots of holes in them. (Even the names we know her by date from her relationship with the Spanish.) She was the daughter of an Aztec (or possibly Mayan) chieftain, whose mother sold her to slavers after her father’s death.  The slavers sold her to another chieftain, who presented her, along with a group of nineteen other young women, to Cortés in 1519. Most accounts of her story claim she became Cortés mistress, though I’m not sure that’s the correct term for an enslaved woman who is used sexually by her owner. Beyond their sexual relationship, Malintzin quickly became indispensable to Cortés as a linguistic and cultural translator, and possibly as a military and diplomatic strategist. She is often portrayed as a traitor, or at best a victim. (4) But at least one scholar, Cordelia Candelaria, suggests that Malintzin, too, may have been bedazzled by the possibility that Cortés was the god Quetzalcoátl. From slave girl to right hand of the god is a pretty big step.

In addition to smallpox, Cortés reintroduced horses to the Americas. Over time, horses would transform Native American cultures in the Western plains and Latin America. Going the other direction, he brought cacao beans to the Spanish royal court, along with instructions for turning them into a tasty beverage. Hot chocolate anyone?

The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan sailed with five Spanish ships in search of a western route to the Spice Islands, the first step in circumnavigating the globe.

Isabella JagiellonFinally, just to balance out the fact that this post started with the anniversary of a death, Isabella Jagiellion, the first ruler to issue an edict declaring universal religious toleration, was born on January 18, 1519.

(1) Lucrezia Borgia also died in 1519, but no one seemed inclined to celebrate that anniversary. Though I would bet that 500 years ago a person or two may have lifted a glass in honor of the occasion. Assuming that the popular image of Lucretia bears any resemblance to reality. Which it may not because that’s the way it goes with women in history. (A quick poke around on line reveals titles such as “Lucretia Borgia: Predator Or Pawn?”—not a great pair of choices.)

(2) I am not the sort of historian who holds lots of random dates in my head.

(3) Or at least forgotten in the United States. She is definitely remembered in Mexico, where her name is an insult.

(4) Also not a great pair of choices.