Today in History
History's Happenings for October 12
Christopher Columbus' unusual ideas about the world made it hard for him to find support for his planned voyage to Asia -- the long way. He was convinced that the world was a quarter smaller than anyone else at the time believed, and that it was mostly land. He also held the highly suspicious notion that one could get east … by sailing west.
His first two guesses may have been wrong, but his last made history.
Originally from Genoa, Italy, where he likely learned to sail, Columbus apparently found himself shipwrecked on the coast of Portugal in the 1470's while plying his craft between the Mediterranean and England. Seizing the opportunity, he tried to gain support for a westward voyage from the king of that country, to no avail. The Portuguese had already discovered the sea route to India -- around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa.
Not giving up, Columbus moved next to Spain, where he found an interested ear in the queen of Castille, Isabella, and other notables. The initial reception was warm, but not hot. The local maritime "experts" still felt Columbus' ideas to be a bit, well, screwball.
But Isabella and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon, were riding high. Having recently pushed the Islamic Moors off the Iberian peninsula and out of Europe, they were the peach of the Christian world and in search of new challenges. They agreed to finance Columbus' voyage, and provided three small ships -- the fabled Niña, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, all glorified rowboats even by nineteenth century standards. In addition, they agreed that Columbus would rule over whatever territory he discovered, and be awarded ten percent of its gold and silver. Sweet deal, until one thinks about the complete unknown that faced the adventurers to the west, where even studied seamen believed there awaited dragons at the edge of the earth.
Off they went on August 3, 1492, about ninety men in the three little ships, sailing out of Palos de la Frontera, Spain for what they hoped would be China or India. They sailed west for over two months, interrupted by a stop in the Canaries to repair the Pinta in early September. The crew on the verge of mutiny, they finally spotted signs of land.
On October 12, 1492, they rowed ashore on the island of Guanahani, in the modern Bahamas. Columbus claimed the island for Spain (without a vote by the native islanders we suspect), and named it San Salvador, Holy Savior.
After his initial landfall, Columbus reboarded his vessels and continued his exploration of what he was certain was a piece of Asia. He discovered Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Juana (now Cuba), and built the fort of Natividad on the former out of materials salvaged from the wrecked Santa Maria.
Leaving a small garrison at the fort -- the first European colony of sorts in the New World -- Columbus took the Niña and Pinta back to Spain, arriving in March, 1493, where he received all that had been promised him by his king and queen.
Columbus led three more voyages to the New World, in 1493, 1498 and 1502, eventually discovering Panama and the mainland of South America -- still convinced they were part of Asia. By his last voyage, Columbus' star had waned, he had been replaced as governor of Hispaniola, and even Isabella had frowned on the worst of his oppression of the local natives. Nonetheless he was a rich man, and his vision and maritime adventures had given birth to what became the incredible wealth -- and harsh realities -- of the Spanish Main.
And though the closest he ever came to the future United States was the island of Puerto Rico, he is still credited with opening the path that, a tumultuous century later, led to the permanent settlement of our America.
Christopher Columbus died in May, 1506, at the age of about 55. He was buried first in Seville, later in Santo Domingo. His remains were supposedly removed from there to Cuba and then back to Seville, but many believe he still lies on Hispaniola.
Following a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison that there should be a pledge to our flag, the first Pledge of Allegiance was recited by twelve million kids in public schools on the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World, October 12, 1892. It was written by Rev. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister in Boston, and it went like this:
"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Bellamy considered adding the words "equality" near the end, but the issues of women's suffrage and black rights were just too controversial. (Ironically Bellamy, an official in the teachers' union and a socialist, was eventually forced from the pulpit for his unAmerican views.)
The Pledge continued to be recited, unofficially, in schools for the next several decades. Interestingly, the original gesture was not the current hand over the heart, but the hand moving away from the heart and ending in a Roman salute towards the flag. This bit the dust with the rise of Fascism. Other changes included making "my flag" more specific in 1924, out of fear that immigrants would be saluting their old flags, and the 1943 Supreme Court decision that allowed conscientious objectors to refuse to say the Pledge.
In 1954, responding to a request by President Eisenhower and the entreaties of various civil groups, Congress overwhelmingly added the concept of God to the Pledge. For those who may have forgotten, it now goes like this (hats off, please):
"I pledge allegiance, to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
And that just about says it all, doesn't it.
Well, not quite. In June of 2002 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to a suit brought by an Atheist who felt his young daughter should not have to hear the word "God", determined that the words "under God" were unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The Court stayed its own action in the face of an immediate national outburst, including a 99-0 response from the U.S. Senate.
So, at this writing, the United States of America still maintains an all-too-tenuous recognition of its Creator. Our Founders stated clearly that, without such recognition, our democracy could not exist. Perhaps, given the current times, we should think on that.
Edith Cavell is little remembered today but, in the critical year prior to America's entry into World War I, she was a heroine to the western alliance and a cause célèbre that prodded America towards war.
Born in 1865 to a rural Anglican parson, Cavell was drawn to nursing, a profession not yet appreciated in Europe, by the exploits of her heroine, Florence Nightingale. Training in various London hospitals, she soon undertook to train young "probationer" nurses in turn, gaining a considerable reputation for her competence and professionalism.
In 1907, through ties she had established as a young governess for a wealthy Belgian family, she accepted an invitation to train young nurses at l'Ecole Belge d'Infirmiéres Diplomées in Brussels, which had been recently founded by the esteemed Belgian surgeon, Dr. Antoine DePage. At the time, continental nursing was even less appreciated than in England, mostly being handled by untrained nuns.
Slowly, the clinique prospered under Dr. DePage and Miss Cavell. New probationers were taken in and became trained nurses as they cared for a combination of public and private patients. Money was always scarce, since even wealthy patients often skipped out on their bills.
Then 1914 happened. Belgium was the first to suffer in the German onslaught that summer, as the Schlieffen plan pushed troops through the neutral country's borders toward northern France, and brought England into the war in protest. Life in Brussels became much harder — and riskier — under a brutal Prussian occupation.
But the clinique continued its work, scraping funds and scraps of food where it could. As the battle for Belgium's forts and key industrial cities raged, Cavell's nurses found themselves treating German battle casualties with the same care they would have given their own.
Eventually Germany gained the upper hand on Belgian soil, and local skirmishes continued as the front slipped into France. German casualties were more able to be evacuated to the Fatherland. Instead, local partisans began bringing in English, French and Belgian wounded, as well as the healthy who simply needed to stay out of German hands. A network was formed, with the clinique as the hub, to hide, care for and eventually repatriate allied soldiers through neutral Holland.
But, though dozens of allied soldiers were saved and sent home by Miss Cavell and the other patriots, it was inevitable that German intelligence would get a whiff of the operation. In the summer of 1915, after weeks of undercover work and reports by paid Belgian informers, the occupation authorities moved in. Cavell, along with about forty others, was arrested and ensconced in solitary confinement in St. Gilles prison, Brussels.
The American legation, which represented British interests in Belgium, received belated notification of the arrest and made a variety of inquiries, to no avail. On October 7, without any fanfare or announcment, a military court martial was convened. Four ancient Prussian officers served as "judges", though the military prosecutor actually held complete power over the proceedings — and the eventual sentences.
Tragically, Edith Cavell was so incapable of lying that she had agreed to a full confession prior to the trial. Despite urging by fellow prisoners to seek mercy — which was more easily extended to women in those days — she demurred, stating to one that "it's useless". Many came to believe that she saw her own end as fitting, that it would mean more than returning to the clinque, where an unruly board of directors likely would have dismissed her for her patriotic actions. It turned out that she was right.
Predictably, on October 11 the court returned guilty verdicts in all but a few cases, and sentenced five "ringleaders" to death, including Cavell. Sentence was to be carried out the next morning.
The American legation received the news only through the rumor mill, and literally made a midnight attempt to stave off the execution. They begged the German military governor to call everyone, including the Kaiser. He refused, saying he only wished he had "a few more old English nurses to shoot".
Consequently, at dawn the next morning, Cavell and one other prisoner were taken from their cells and driven to the Tir National, the Belgian firing range in Brussels, tied to posts, and executed by firing squad. She wore her blue nurse's cape and, according to eye-witnesses (there were 250 of them), remained as cool in the face of death as she had been during confinement and trial. She was hastily buried in the yard.
Her execution raised holy havoc among the western allies. In England, 10,000 new recruits, direly needed at the front, were raised the very day the news was announced. In America, newspapers blasted out headlines that began to give Americans an urge to fight. In the opinions of many, two stupid deeds — the sinking of the Lusitania and the shooting of nurse Cavell — damaged Germany with America more than anything else it had done. The U.S. declared war eighteen months later.
It's never become clear whether the American authorities in Brussels tried as hard as they might have to save Cavell. Many at the time believed that they missed the ball, possibly owing to the extreme pro-war stance of Ambassador Page in London. But Edith Cavell did as much as anyone to facilitate her end, perhaps knowing which road led to the more hopeful future for humanity.
In 1919, Cavell's remains — remarkably preserved — were removed from Belgium and brought home on a special train to a full military funeral at Westminster Abbey. She was re-interred in Norwich Cathedral cemetery, near her home, and a monument to her courage was erected near Trafalgar Square in London.
In the early morning hours prior to her execution, she was allowed a visit by an Anglican priest. Her parting words to him were: "It is clear that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone."
One of the world's largest service clubs, the Lions International was founded in Chicago, on October 12, 1917.
Its mission is to promote civic improvements and to foster public health and education. The club especially has a penchant for helping the blind.
Today there are over 1.4 million Lions worldwide.
(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.
Farmers Day was created in 1915 by the Florida state legislature, as a way to focus attention and interest on the state's agricultural industry.
The more controversial outfall of their decision was the large-scale draining of Florida's Everglades areas in order to expand the land available for farming.
Nonetheless, since eating is one humankind's more important needs, we think a day to recognize the ordinary, independent American farmer is a neat idea. This is one endangered species that deserves the attention of every one of us.