Mar
13
2014
0

Why does Hawaii’s flag include the Union Flag?

Each of the states of the United States of America has its own flag. Many are nothing more than drab depictions of the state seal against a navy blue background. Some are a little more adventurous, such as Maryland’s heraldry-inspired riot of colour and shapes. But one sticks out more than any of the others; Hawaii is the only flag to depict the Union Flag of the United Kingdom in its design.

It is one of the more vibrant state flags, with three red stripes, three white stripes and two blue stripes. The choice of red, white and blue stripes makes it a recognisably American design. One prominent feature, however, is arrestingly un-American – the unmistakable Union Flag of the United Kingdom is displayed in the canton.

Flag of the state of Hawaii flying at Haleakalā National Park on Maui, Hawaiʻi By The uploader (Own work; taken by the uploader) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Hawaii’s state flag tells the story of competing claims for the Pacific island group. As Hawaii, they became the most recent of the 50 states of the United States in 1959. They had, however, been annexed as the Territory of Hawaii in 1898. But as the Sandwich Islands, the territory had been eyed by Britain for their naval significance.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Mar
11
2014
0

Why did Italy join the Allies in 1915?

On 23 May 1915, Italy declared war on its former ally, Austria-Hungary. The Triple Alliance was reduced to an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Europe no longer seemed quite as finely balanced into two opposing camps as it had at the outbreak of war. But why did Italy abandon the Central Powers? 

Italy had always been the shakiest member of the European alliance system. By 1914, the Triple Entente of Russia, France and the United Kingdom had developed into a working alliance. They faced the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany and Austria-Hungary’s military alliance was solid. Its strength was forged from a messy combination of compromise, necessity, exigency and shared geographic and political goals.

Cartoon showing the disparity between the Triple Alliance members - Italy strains to reach the heights of Germany and Austria-Hungary

These factors did not apply as clearly to Italy. In fact, there were real tensions between Italy and Austria-Hungary – a shared border, competing irredentist claims over Alpine and Adriatic territory and the prospect of territorial gains in the Balkans as a crumbling Ottoman Empire rolled back to its Anatolian heartlands.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Mar
06
2014
0

Royal Bastards

What connect David Cameron, the 12th Duke of Grafton and Diana, Princess of Wales? They are all descendants of royal bastards, the illegitimate children of kings from across the centuries. Their illegitimacy barred them from succession to the Crown, but family ties ensured they would be granted titles, lands, wealth and power. And some started dynasties that thrive to this day.

Over nearly a thousand years of royal history since the Norman Conquest, the monarchy has augmented its power, wealth and influence by marrying well and producing children. The legitimate children of kings and queens are only part of the story; a surprisingly important role is played by the progeny of the illegitimate offspring of England’s monarchs.

Well into the twenty-first century, descendants of royal bastards occupy some of the top branches of the aristocracy, the Establishment and even Number 10.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Mar
04
2014
0

Deporting Dixie to Brazil

After the defeat of the Confederacy, thousands of Americans decided to emigrate to Brazil. They dreamed of building a new slave-owning society in a country almost as large as continental America with plenty of undeveloped land. Ironically, their presence would highlight slavery as an issue and lead to its eventual abolition in Brazil.

The Economist’s 2013 Christmas Special tells the story of the murder of Joaquim Firmino de Araújo Cunha. The story goes on to show how America and Brazil were “once bound together by slavery, and how the end of the peculiar institution in one country helped, in a roundabout way, end it in another.”

Ruins of Richmond, VA., 1865

For those in favour of slavery, or at least to the way of life that the ‘peculiar institution’ permitted, the defeat of the southern Confederate States of America by unionist forces in 1865 was a calamity. Would they stay in their home states to watch their antebellum way of life destroyed? Or should they move on to find a new and more permissive home?

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Feb
28
2014
0

Vengeance denied

Few spy thrillers have plots that are as implausible as the reality presented to French military intelligence in 1904. A German officer presented himself and offered to sell top secret war plans. He called himself “The Avenger” and met his handlers with his face entirely wrapped in bandages. The facts were so implausible that it was dismissed as a German ruse. If they had taken the documents seriously, could the French have averted the near-catastrophe on the Western Front?

By the time the continental Great Powers went to war in 1914 their armies had already created detailed battle plans. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan would be pitted against France’s Plan XVII. If successful, Germany would swing around to join its ally, Austria-Hungary and its Plans B and R to fight against Russia and its Plan 19.

Le Vengeur (the Avenger) appeared to his French intelligence handler disguised in bandages

A German officer working in the General Staff wrote to his French counterparts in 1904 and offered “documents of the highest importance”.  He was to remain anonymous, signing himself only as Le Vengeur – the Avenger. The only clue at this stage was a postmark showing that the letter had been sent from Liège in Belgium.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Feb
26
2014
0

Iron Barons

The creation of the UK railway network in the nineteenth century saw the equivalent of billions, if not trillions, of pounds invested in infrastructure. In five years alone, 5,000 miles of track were laid as the nation succumbed to railway mania. As with any such boom there were winners who would walk away with immense fortunes and, in some cases, bring about big changes to society.

Robert Stephenson was one of the pioneers of the railway. Along with his father, George Stephenson, he was the engineer responsible for designing the Rocket, the locomotive that famously won the trials to decide the best engine for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Robert Stephenson

Already instrumental in Britain’s first timetabled passenger railway, he would become a powerful force behind its most important line – the London and Birmingham Railway. His salary as chief engineer would eventually reach £2,000 – an economic status equivalent to several million pounds – placing him firmly in the league of today’s best-remunerated bankers and executives.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Feb
24
2014
0

The United States of the Americas

It was the glorious culmination of a history that started when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. The New World had come together, uniting all the peoples of the western hemisphere under a single, republican and democratic constitution. George Washington and the Founding Fathers were joined by Simón Bolívar and his Spanish-speaking liberators.

The United States of the Americas emerged from the turmoil that had erupted in Europe with the French Revolution. Soon Americans from all parts of the continent took control of their own destiny and finally removed European interference in their affairs. Could this counter-factual have become a reality? How close did the Americas come to uniting as the Spanish and Portuguese empires crumbled?

Stretching from the frozen wastes of Cape Columbia in the north to the wilderness islands lying off Cape Horn in the south, the United States of the Americas stretches unbroken for almost 9,000 miles. An entire hemisphere is encompassed in its landmass and territorial waters. Almost a billion people live in its 16.428 million square miles.

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Superlatives abound – it is two and half times bigger than Russia, currently the world’s largest country. Although it has fewer people than China or India, its economy dwarfs its rivals with a GDP of $25 trillion to China’s £8 trillion and the EU’s $16.5 trillion.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Feb
21
2014
0

Castle Country

One of the most enduring and awe inspiring legacies of the Normans are their castles. Located across the country, but concentrated in particularly problematic locations, the Norman castle was a manifestation of both royal power and the regime’s insecurity. As timber and mud gave way to stone and iron, castle building reached a climax in complexity and size until gunpowder and changing politics made them somewhat redundant as fortresses.

The Normans were keen to ensure vital locations were guarded by these huge, solid statements of their domination. The City of London was guarded by the Tower of London, a vast fortress complex, centred on William the Conqueror’s original White Tower, that would eventually extend over 14 acres.

The White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London fortress complex By Matthias v.d. Elbe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The immediate post-Conquest period saw William the Conqueror order similar structures built  in the key medieval cities of Norwich, York, Bristol, Winchester, Durham and Lincoln. A testament to the skill of the Norman masons is that all  bar Bristol Castle survive and are used in various ways (museums predominate, but 100 students at University College, Durham live in the quite unique castle-based student halls of residence).

The Norman’s aggressive forays against neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Ireland ensured that castle building become concentrated in both border areas (such as Shropshire, Herefordshire, Cumbria, Durham, North Yorkshire and Northumberland) and newly conquered areas (north Wales and south-west Wales).

Durham Castle - view from within the Castle courtyard By en:User:Robin Widdison (en-WP) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

North Wales’s castles are justifiably renowned – four of their number in Gwynedd (Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech) are inscribed as a World Heritage Site (the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd). Wales has been described as the “castle capital of the world”, with up to 400 castles studding the landscape in an astonishing density of military might.

The reason for the preponderance of Welsh castles is simple – conquest, subjugation and rebellion. From the original Norman invaders of south Wales to the conquest of the unruly north by Edward I, the foreign rulers feared their Welsh vassals and readily built huge castles to deter rebellion and to defend themselves should the locals revolt. The English fear of the Welsh is attested by the concentration of castles in the Welsh Marches of Powys and Monmouthshire.

Inner ward of Manorbier Castle, located near the village of Tenby in South Wales/GB By Manfred Heyde (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The focus on the castles on the north Welsh coast and the border diverts attention from the astonishing collection of fortresses in the south west of Wales. Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion boast some of the most amazing castles in the country. This week I have visited some of the most stunning extant examples in Pembrokeshire.

Carew, Manorbier, Pembroke, Tenby and Haverfordwest all remain as permament reminders of the Norman invader’s to impress their power on the locals.

Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History |
Feb
17
2014
0

Opening the Peace Palace on the eve of war

In the heart of the Dutch capital stands a gothic wonder set in immaculate grounds. It has the lofty bell tower and intricate brickwork that conjures images of the handsome guild houses and town halls of the prosperous trading centres of the low countries. But this is not an ancient building; it is the home of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

It is commonly known as the Peace Palace and was intended to place a key role in ending armed conflict. With terrible irony, it opened on 28 August 1913; less than a year later Europe had slid into the calamity and horror of the First World War.

Utopia was the vision of Sir Thomas More, a perfect island society that was both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. It was a ‘good place’ in being perfect, but it was ‘no place’ on earth as the dream was both unreachable and impossible. More succinctly discerned that mankind is fallible and so an ideal society or world is an impossible dream.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands By Peegmehh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately a negligible or nonexistent possibility of success rarely stops dreamers from dreaming. Since Thomas More’s early 16th century work, philosophers, scholars and leaders have pondered how to forge a better or even perfect society.

Few attempts at societal change were as ambitious as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ peace movements. Throughout the nineteenth century, great powers had sought to solidify and enhance their positions by developing armies and navies. Technological progress produced weaponry with the unrivalled capacity to destroy.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |
Feb
14
2014
0

Why was Kyoto removed as the prime target for the A-Bomb?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki conjure images of lightening flashes and mushroom clouds; the terrifying power of atomic weapons and of once great cities reduced to smoking ash, twisted steel and molten corpses. Survival in the radioactive aftermath was, in many cases, a curse as Japan struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of the disaster. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the first choice targets. Instead, many planned for Kyoto to be incinerated. How did Kyoto escape obliteration?

On 6 August 1945, the United States Air Force unleashed the country’s latest and most powerful weapon on the unsuspecting city of Hiroshima. The world had now openly and terrifyingly entered the Atomic Age and the once thriving port was now a smouldering city of the dead and dying.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki By The picture was taken by Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three days later, the USAF repeated its feat with the annihilation of Nagasaki. America had comprehensively demonstrated the new and terrible power at its disposal; Japan unconditionally surrendered just six days after the destruction of Nagasaki.

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Written by Ian Curry in: History |

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