Day By Day

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Day In History

The most wonderful time of the year just keeps getting better and better. Today is "National Chocolate Day" AND "National Egg Nog Day". Double mmmmmmm! Not only are they delicious, but they are both good for you, so enjoy!

On this day in 1814 Great Britain and the United States signed a treaty in Ghent, Belgium formally bringing to an end the War of 1812. The terms restored the status quo ante bellum, which was a really good deal for the U.S. because we were getting our tails whipped [as any Canadian will proudly note]. We had failed in every one of our war aims and the Brits had raided our shores almost at will. We had to settle for a few minor triumphs -- a couple of naval engagements that we won and barely avoiding a British capture of Baltimore. The point is that we survived the confrontation, although it was a very near thing. Many New Englanders, already upset by the embargoes imposed by Presidents Jefferson and Madison [both Virginians], were seriously considering secession. One more major British victory may well have destroyed the Union. Good thing for us that the British public, and particularly her middle-classes, were war-weary after fighting France for two decades and wanted peace. News of the peace settlement, however, did not reach America for several weeks, during which time military operations went on. The British won a battle at Fort Boyer in Mobile Bay, but lost the Battle of New Orleans. Britain was preparing a major assault on Mobile when word finally arrived that the war had long been over.

Entering the building:

Benjamin Rush [1745], Philadelphia physician, writer, humanitarian and scientist. Founder of Dickinson College, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Continental Congress, Treasurer of the U. S. Mint, Surgeon General of the Continental Army, Professor of Medicine at Penn, founder of Pennsylvania Hospital and the Philadelphia Medical Society, early opponent of slavery and capital punishment, friend and colleague of Benjamin Franklin. Rush was one of the most admirable of the founding fathers, but has not been given as much attention as some. His one great error in judgment (and possibly the reason he has not been treated as kindly as some of his contemporaries) was his stubborn dislike and disdain for George Washington and his repeated efforts to have Washington removed from command of the Continental Army. Just a few years ago Alyn Brodsky produced a laudatory biography of Rush. I have not read it, but it has received mixed reviews. You might want to check it out.

Leaving the Building:

Vasco da Gama [1524] -- perhaps the most important of the Portuguese navigators and explorers. In 1497 he led an expedition that rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean, thus establishing a sea link between Europe and Asia. He then proceeded up the East African coast, getting kicked out of Mozambique because he didn't have a large enough bribe for the local ruler, engaging in piracy and getting kicked out of Mombasa, finally going all the way to Calcutta where he petitioned the government for trading rights. Not surprisingly the Arab merchants, whose ships he had been plundering, opposed his petition and he was forced to sneak out of the harbor during the monsoon, leaving behind a few Portuguese who were soon murdered. During the return trip half of his crew died and the rest were debilitated by scurvy. He finally arrived in Lisbon in 1799 where he was lavishly honored and rewarded for his discoveries. Arabs and Indians, to say the least, were less impressed.

Three years later da Gama returned to India with a fleet of twenty ships. He started a war with Calcutta, but found a safe harbor in nearby Cochin, where he was able to trade. He then decided to persuade the ruler of Calcutta that trade was really in his best interest. He intercepted a ship of wealthy Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca, looted it, locked the crew and passengers inside and set it on fire. After that the ruler of Calcutta assembled a fleet of 29 ships to defend his people from the Portuguese the result was a slaughter. Da Gama had superior firepower and the encounter demonstrated the futility of trying to resist the Portuguese. After that Calcutta was amenable to da Gama's demands.

On his way back to Europe da Gama engaged in his usual piracy and shelled the Arab port of Kilwa in East Africa, exacting tribute from its ruler. His reputation for brutality spread widely and everywhere along his route local rulers acceded to his demands for favorable trade treaties.

In 1524 da Gama returned to India, ordered there by the Portuguese crown to instill fear and awe in the local population, which was beginning to get restive under European dominance. This time, however, things didn't turn out so well for him. He contracted malaria and died.

In Europe da Gama is remembered as a heroic figure in the age of exploration. In South Asia he is remembered differently.