Day By Day

Monday, December 21, 2009

This Day In History

Today is "Forefather's Day" [no mention of foremothers or forechildren]. It was first observed in 1769 in Plymouth, Massachusetts in commemoration of the Mayflower Pilgrims' landing in 1620 on the mainland [probably not at Plymouth Rock -- that's just for tourists]. The Pilgrims were a remarkable bunch of people. They were "separatists" who, disgusted by the corruption they found in contemporary England, decided to leave their homeland and seek a place where they could live and worship in peace according to their own beliefs. They first settled in Holland, but then moved on to America rather than have their children grow up among the Dutch. They were amazingly naive, trusting everyone to treat then fairly. It is not surprising, then, that they were ripped off and exploited by nearly everybody with whom they did business. Still they persevered and finally made it to America where their real troubles began. There is a brilliant account of their experiences titled "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War" by Nathaniel Philbrick that won a Pulitzer Prize. I recently read the book and recommend it very highly. By the way Philbrick is a graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh.

On this day in 69 AD the Roman Senate named Titus Flavius Vespasianus [better known as Vespasian] emperor of Rome. Born into moderate circumstances he rose through both civil and military ranks, distinguishing himself by killing a lot of Britons in 43 AD and a lot of Jews in 66 AD. His troops were fanatically loyal to him, which stood him in good stead when in 68 AD Emperor Nero committed suicide [or so they say]. There followed a year of civil war "The Year of Four Emperors" out of which Vespasian emerged triumphant. He then solidified his position, systematically eliminating potential rivals, establishing strong administrative controls over the provinces, and initiating an intensive propaganda campaign that portrayed him as a semi-divine figure destined to bring hope and change to the troubled Roman empire. In particular he paid historians and commentators to say nice things about him and those who didn't get with the program were executed. Like many dictators he launched major building programs [including the colosseum] and put lots of people on the public payroll. He died of diarrhea. His last words, supposedly, were "Damn, I'm already becoming a god".

And on this day in 1790 Samuel Slater opened the first integrated cotton mill in the United States. Slater was an English engineer who conducted one of the most important instances of industrial espionage in history. Britain had a prohibition on the export of technology but Slater found work in a textile mill and memorized the plans for the place. He then started contacting American merchants, offering to sell his knowledge. They were eager to buy and soon he was set up as a partner in a mill constructed by a Rhode Island merchant. For the next few years Slater entered into similar partnerships with other New England merchants, and finally built his own mills. He became fabulously rich, one of America's first millionaires, and in the process he kick-started the American industrial revolution. Americans tend to celebrate Slater -- to the British he is a traitor.

And on this day in 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 passengers were killed in the explosion. A shower of airplane parts falling from the sky also killed 11 Lockerbie residents. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of conspiracy in the case and sentenced to 21 years in prison. This August he was released to Lybia on "compassionate" grounds where he was to remain under house arrest until his death (which the British government assured us was imminent). Needless to say, he wasn't dying and a few weeks ago he disappeared. Nobody seems to know where he is, just that he is no longer under arrest.

On this day in 1879 [there is some dispute as to the date] Josef Jughashvili [better known as Stalin] was born in Georgia. And on this very same day in 1940 Frank Zappa (father of Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa) was born. Coincidence? I leave it to you to decide -- I'm just connecting dots.