the Curiosities of History for 7th October
Yes folks, it’s the 7th of October again, a day rich in historical resonance. Among other reasons, today I’m happy to report that you can now get all four of the Comptrollerate-General literary historical novels through Amazon, in real life book form as well as for e-readers. GOVERNMENT HEALTH WARNING: these are proper reading – you’re going to be deeply immersed in another time, and strange things will be going on, and you’ll have to start to find your own way through the shadows.
7th October saw one of history’s great battles – albeit one not quite as decisive as often claimed (history, eh?). On this day in 1571, 212 ships of the Holy League of Catholic powers sailing under the Pope’s authority fought an Ottoman fleet of 278 ships – with something like 150,000 men between them – off the coast of western Greece. The Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since ancient times, the last fought before sailing ships supplanted rowing galleys, and an unprecedented defeat for the Ottomans.
European divisions and the fundamental economic potential of the Ottoman Empire meant that the battle changed less than its scale promised. The Ottoman Grand Vizier would boast to a Venetian: ‘In wrestling Cyprus from you [a month or so earlier], we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor.’ The Ottoman Empire, thanks in part to its enduring alliance with France, continued to expand; the Holy League collapsed within a couple of years. But the myth of Ottoman invincibility had been broken, and from now on the Ottomans would continue to fall behind European developments in naval technology.
The commanders in the battle have been celebrated in sculpture and song, but perhaps the most notable participant was a Spanish soldier on the Marquesa who would lose use of his left arm through wounds: with his right, Miguel de Cervantes would write Don Quixote, perhaps changing European culture more decisively than his battle changed its history.
It’s been a significant date in American as well as European history. 7th October 1691 saw the establishment of the Province of Massachusetts Bay – later one of the original thirteen United States (critical Mass.?) – out of the earlier Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, Province of Maine, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia only hung in there for eight years, before becoming part of Canada instead.
By coincidence, it’s also the suggested birthday of one of the most prominent figures in Massachusetts history (Mass. histeria!). Captain John Underhill reflects much of the ambiguity and controversy of the early history of the country he helped to shape: his instincts towards personal religious freedom made a series of places untenable for him, and he lived a restless life, mobile in geography and affiliation; he fought and worked for both the Dutch and the English in their struggle for mastery in the new world (it was the threat from Underhill that prompted the Dutch Governor of the then New Amsterdam to order a defensive fortification across the settlement’s northern border; eventually, this Wall would have a contiguous Street named for it); he slaughtered a great many Native Americans, declaring 'We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings'.
(A bonus curiosity are Underhill’s descendants, who include actors Johnny Depp and Tom Selleck, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.)
7th October would continue to echo in matters of what America was and who was in charge. This day saw the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade colonial settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains – land that was supposed to remain for Native Americans. The Proclamation became a factor in worsening relations between the American colonies and London. The American defeat of the British on 7th October 1777 (the Second Battle of Bemis Heights) led to the surrender of the British Army, French entry to the war in support of the Americans, and thus eventual American victory. And the 7th October 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain was another American victory, and a turning point in the southern theatre of the war of independence.
On 7th October 1940, America's McCollum memorandum argued that containing or provoking war with Japan was better than letting her expand. 7th October 2001 launched Operation Enduring Freedom, the beginning of the longest war in American history. In a different aspect of American grandeur and world-making, on 7th October 1913 the world’s first moving assembly line began producing Model T Fords. (Coincidentally, Clarence Birdseye – whose moving line fast freezing system revolutionized the food industry as much as Ford revolutionized the rest of it – died on 7th October.)
In other technological news, today saw the foundation in 1919 of KLM (now the oldest airline still operating under its original name) and in 1933 of Air France. That’s the same Air through which Interior Minister and future Prime Minister Léon Gambetta escaped endangered Paris by balloon on 7th October 1871.
7th October was the birthday of Nicholas I, first and last King of Montenegro. He stabilized, reformed and expanded his country, before it disappeared in the aftermath of the First World War. Known as ‘the father-in-law of Europe’, he was more famous, and effective, in marrying his many daughters into the continent’s diverse royal families. (But not the remarkable Ksenia...) And any chance to mention Isabella Bird, sickly daughter of a small-town clergyman, who became first an activist and then an explorer and writer about Australia, the Rockies – where she had a relationship with the one-eyed ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’ Nugent, of whom she declared ‘one eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of the face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble… A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry’ – Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaya and, when she was well into her sixties, India, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey and Morocco. She died on 7th October 1904.
Montenegro and her King will also feature in the next instalment of the Gentleman Adventurer’s memoirs, Murder in the Mountains. Keep watching the skies (for publications as well as French politicians in balloons); keep reading.