Why is Gibraltar British?


Gibraltar has always been important. It guards the entrance to and exit from the Mediterranean. It welcomes guests or blocks invaders to Europe. It is inhospitable and bleak yet provides a comfort to those under it’s shadow. Today it is speaks English but yesterday Greek, Latin and Spanish. It has an Arabic name (The Rock of Tariq) and was an Islamic stronghold for seven centuries. It has been a British one for three. How this came to be, as with so many issues in history, involves a man who couldn’t have children.
In 1700 Hapsburg Spain was in the twilight of it’s life. The family who provided Henry VIII with his first wife and who launched the armadas of the Elizabethan age was departing the world stage. Charles II was ill, old and childless. Yet the family possessions were mouth watering – Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Cuba, Milan, California, Panama and the bulk of South America. Not to forget the jewel in the crown – Asiento – the monopoly to trade African slaves across the Atlantic.
As Charles was about to breathe his last breath, the powers of Europe held theirs. The interested parties were France and Austria. Ultimately any decision in the will would lead to war. And looking on with more than a passing interest were the naval rivals of the British and Dutch. Whoever controlled the New World Spanish possessions was a threat to the growing reach of their international commerce. And an Austrian was much preferable to a French man. When the Spanish cardinal informed all of the death of Charles, he passed news that Philippe of Anjou, the grandson of the French king, would get it all.
The War of the Spanish Succession had begun. The French with some of Spain fought against the rest of Spain, Austria, Netherlands, England and Scotland. (Half way through the war, England and Scotland united to form Britain.) This could be seen as the first world war as it was fought in the Caribbean, America and across Europe. By 1713 peace talks were under way and the side of the British had won.
Philippe of Anjou was permitted to rule Spain and their American possessions while the Spanish Netherlands, Italy and the Mediterranean islands passed into Austrian hands. This suited the merchants of London and Amsterdam as Austria was neither a naval power nor commercial rival.
Britain and the Netherlands had been fierce rivals until 1700 but the outcome of this latest war finally swung the relationship into Britain’s favour. The creation of the Bank of England, the National Debt and the exacting practice of the Treasury enabled Britain to maintain enormous trade while financing European wars from the safety of an island.
In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht Britain received Gibraltar alongside North American land and strategic stations. But most significantly Britain gained the treasured right of Asiento upon which her wealth would be built. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool, funded by the city of London, would amass a terrible wealth as millions of people were captured and sold in the much feared triangular trade. The markets for the mills and urbanisation of the industrial revolution were built on Asiento and world history lurched towards our modern age.
Oh, and Gibraltar became British.

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TK Whitaker: Ireland’s Unrevolutionary Revolutionary

TK Whitaker at the Dublin stock exchange in 1965

Revolutionaries do not tend to succeed in government do they? Can you think of any? Their skill set lends itself to leading the masses against something or giving orders for obedient soldiers to follow. Or as orators they give sparkling speeches as visionaries yet seem to know not how to deliver on them. By the 1950s Ireland had all the hallmarks of a state being led by aging revolutionaries. It was largely governed by men whose political capital lay in their past as young patriots of the Easter Rising or War of Independence. It was in a word: stagnant.
Even given the post-war injection of £150,000,000 in grants and loans the economy was showing little signs of life. By 1956 most observers agreed that the policy of nationalist economics which involved protected industries and isolation from Britain was broken. In the decade from 1950 almost half a million voted with their feet and left the country. The population was now almost a quarter of what it was on the eve of the famine.
Change was needed and change was delivered through the appointment of Thomas Kenneth (TK) Whitaker as Secretary to the Department of Finance in 1956. Though he initiated revolutionary changes, he was anything but a revolutionary. A cautious civil servant, he was educated by the Christian Brothers in County Down before studying at London University. At the age of 40 he was experienced enough to steady the ship but young enough to steer it in the right direction.
His main aim to was to provide productive and self-sustaining employment to combat the ills of emigration, unemployment and empty state coffers. His landmark document Economic Development in 1958 opened Irish doors to business and welcomed the World Bank who visited within months. Foreign investment quickly followed, attracted by the offers of subsidies and tax holidays. The state then followed a policy of increasing support of already successful agricultural sectors and strategic support for farmers. Membership to the European Economic Community (EEC) was submitted in 1961 and by 1965 the Anglo-Irish free trade area was created.

Time magazine cover showing Irish economic strength with Taoiseach Sean Lemass


Yet a culture cannot change overnight and if the reaction of the media and unions represented the people, then all was not well. Foreign business were described as, ‘alien institutions squeezing the lifeblood out of our shopkeepers who financed Sinn Fein ands other republican movements.’ You can’t please all of the people all of the time…
But it was plain to see that the Irish economy was transformed. During the 1960s the population grew by 100,000 (The first growth seen since 1844!) and the economy was proudly showing the fastest growth in western Europe. Business management and marketing companies were thriving while two thirds of exports went outside of the UK market. Investment in education led to participation rates in Irish secondary schools outperforming Britain. This outward looking attitude was also shown through Irish soldiers serving in their first UN mission in 1961 and a booming transatlantic tourist trade.
Not for the first time however economic warning signs were ignored and in 1973 the ill-prepared economy plunged into a dark recession. Coupled this with the conservative clutch of the Catholic church and it is clear that while progress was made, progression was not even close.
Yet the impact of TK Whitaker on not only the Irish economy from the late 1950 to the early 1970s but on the Irish nation is clear. His strategic and objective thinking also had a clear impact on those who would nurture the Celtic Tiger towards the end of the century.
Indeed in a 2001 poll he leapfrogged Collins, de Valera, Griffiths and a score of other patriots to win the award of Irishman of the Century. 

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Jackass: America’s First Populist President


Days before running for President, Andrew Jackson declared, ‘I am not fit to be president.’

Despite being both rich and powerful Andrew Jackson declared, ‘The rich and powerful often bend government to their own selfish purposes.’

And when asked if he had any regrets from his presidency, Andrew Jackson replied, ‘That I didn’t hang John Calhoun.’ John Calhoun was his Vice President.

He rallied against the corruption of professional politicians, his opponents did not take him seriously and his blunt manner of speaking won him many dedicated followers. Thomas Jefferson labelled him as unfit for office with little respect for the law and a dangerous man. Yet ‘Old Hickory’ has been labelled as the Peoples’ President with an overall positive two terms in office.

The first president born outside of Massachusetts or Virginia, he grew up in poverty and was orphaned at the age of 14. He became a lawyer on the frontier, a circuit judge on the Tennessee superior court then a landowner of a large plantation which eventually had 150 slaves. Business and legal interests aside, he gained his fame in an admirable military career fighting against the British. He led 5,000 soldiers to victory in America’s first independent victory over a European power at the Battle of New Orleans. It was here that he gained his nickname as his troops said that he was as tough as old hickory wood.

The military nickname was used throughout his presidency to gain support


Now a household name in the young republic he ran for the presidency in 1824 and although he won the popular vote, his race was ultimately a failure. Spurred on by this for his next campaign, he whipped up passionate support against the corruption of Washington, the corruption of banks and the corruption of career politicians. Laughing off his challenge, his opponents branded him ‘Jackass’. This only fed into his populist campaign. He adopted the ‘Jackass’ slur to his campaign and his electoral image became a donkey which the Democratic Party uses to this day. He won the election in a landslide.

‘Jackass’ was used in both positive and negative portrayals of Jackson during his two terms in office


Once in office he abolished the Electoral College as he believed that since the President and Vice President were elected to government then they should wield the power of government. As a result he became the first president to use his veto as a matter of policy instead of sparingly as others tended to do. Additionally he purged cabinet offices and government departments to fight corruption then appointed supporters of his whom he felt he could trust. He then even went as far as abolishing the national bank as he believed that it furthered the interests of the wealthy. Yet throughout his time in office his opponents continually labelled him as the man who simply gave the appearance of representing the common man to further his own gains.

Yet given his swashbuckling swagger into Washington and his crusades against ‘professional’ politicians, his presidency had several successes. He held the union together when South Carolina attempted to leave (Granted, he did threaten them with an invasion from 50,000 soldiers after which his Vice President resigned), he cleared the vast national debt, he created the Democratic Party, spread politics to the common man through electoral reform, opened up free trade to British Caribbean colonies and was successful in reducing corruption in the federal government.

However a dark shadow still looms over his presidency given his policy towards Native Americans. Although he believed in small government, the exception was his relocation policy. 45,000 Native Americans were given the choice of adopting a white lifestyle or being forced to move west. While negotiations were on-going, the majority were forcibly removed with 7,000 dying along the way in what became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’. Some may state that we cannot place 21st century values on a frontier man, yet at the time there was considerable outcry in America and beyond at this inhumane policy.

Andrew Jackson is seen as an influential president today given his firm preservation of the union, his fight to keep power out of the hands of the wealthy and for being the first president to frequently use his executive powers. Yet not without clear controversy, not least because in his younger days he murdered a man for passing comment on his wife.

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Miracle On Ice

Miracle on Ice, February 22, 1980, Lake Placid, NY.

‘Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds.

Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game.

Do you believe in miracles?!? YES!!!’

 

Lauded by Sports Illustrated as the Top Sporting Moment of the 20th Century’ the Miracle on Ice is the stuff of all-American legend. In the Winter Olympics of 1980 the Soviet Union were defeated by America, but this wasn’t your regular superpower clash. Littered with global legends, the Russians had lost one of their previous 29 games, had scored three for each goal conceded and had thrashed an NHL All-Star team 6-0 the previous year. Facing them was a team of amateur college players hastily thrown together five months before with an average age of 21.

Even with the David vs Goliath face off, the Cold War added an extra dimension to the clash. Two months before on Christmas Day 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This shattered a fragile peace as an aggressive Russia swept dangerously close to the oil wells of the Middle East. As President Carter scrambled a western response, former actor and political nobody Ronald Reagan plotted his route to the White House on the back of aggressive pro-American rhetoric. But I digress.

American media predicted that ‘unless the ice melts’ the Soviet Union would claim the gold medal. But as match day beckoned the young Americans worked on stamina to boost the physical nature of their game while the Russians studied plays in their hotel. The intimate crowd of 8,500 belted out ‘God Bless America’ as the teams skated out for the match to begin.

The Russians swept into the lead and peppered the American goal with shots from all over the rink. They added another before one was pulled back. The Russian goaltender Tretiak was not only the Red Army shot stopper but was in the Soviet League All Star team from 1971 to 1984. But this was not his day. Seconds before the first period buzzer, he fluffed the puck and the Americans flucked a fortuitous equaliser. He was controversially pulled from the game but his replacement did not fare much better.

Entering the third and final period the Russians led 3 goals to 2. Gifted a power play, the athletic Americans notched two quick goals. Ten minutes remained. The Russians panicked. They shot wildly, hoping for a break that was destined not to come. As the clock ticked down the commentator Al Michaels delivered his famous lines and America were victorious.

Seen as the greatest upset in American sport the ‘miracle on ice’ cast the team into folklore. Never again would the world witness such a sporting shock. Never again would such odds be overcome. Never again would victory be snatched from the jaws of defeat in such enigmatic fashion. Well not until 2016…

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Students Vs Residents, Town vs Gown – The Battle of 1355

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The noise is the worst part. Doesn’t matter which side you are on. As a normal person who only wants to live in peace you hear the repetitive beat of loud music then the herds of loud groups announcing their return from revelry for all of the once-asleep residents to hear. As a student who is only having fun you hear the dreaded knock on the door followed by the rehearsed lecture about work the next morning and peace. You may even receive a call from the landlord with threats of eviction you know to be hot air. Each side wants revenge, but how? As with most questions, the answer can be found in the past. Join me in 1355 Oxford for the ultimate Town versus Gown showdown.

Two students, Roger and Walter, were raising a glass to St Scholastica on 10th February in the Swindlestock tavern. They were enjoying wine imported from the English territory of Bordeaux, but it was not to their liking. They informed the barkeep of their distaste towards his ‘indifferent wine’. He became indignant so firstly they threw their drinks in his face then threw themselves out the door.

Each side sensed a skirmish and summoned for support. The residents rang the church bell of St Martins and the students rang their equivalent on campus. Reinforcements flooded in and battle commenced. With the country immersed in the One Hundred Years War (Which lasted 116 years) weapons and military training were commonplace. This added to the ferociousness of the clashes across the town. After three days of hostilities, 63 students and 30 townsfolk lay dead with scores more horrifically injured. During the fracas the mayor had rode nine miles to Woodstock, where Edward III was in residence, to request support but to no avail.

When the dust had settled the monarch sided firmly with the students. He ruled that each year on the anniversary of the event (Rather appropriately on St Scholastica’s Day) the town was to pay 5 shillings and three pence to the university. This equated to one penny for each student killed. On this day they also had to attend mass and swear an oath to permanently recognise the primacy of the university. And to ensure that this would never happen again, the university was given the powers to regulate the quality of wine in the town.

Let this be a warning to any publican who has the audacity to serve anything less than the finest alcoholic beverages to the scholars of twenty sixteen.

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The Potato

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We all love a good ‘What If’ in history don’t we? Is it true that a British sniper let Corporal Hitler off the hook during World War One? Didn’t Europe almost fall to Islam in the eighth century? Was Kyoto saved from nuclear annihilation because Henry Stimson went on his honeymoon there? Well here is another one for you. It is admittedly not pretty but certainly more tasty. What if the potato never made it to Europe? Other than menus being slightly less diverse, bloated cities would have been unsustainable and famine would have been a regular occurrence, with one notable exception of course.

Just as the Andes are the backbone of South America, so the potato was the backbone of the Incan civilisation. When encountered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s they noted how large yields of this misshapen tuber could be grown almost anywhere and were eaten by almost anyone. They sensed an opportunity and grandly unveiled the vegetable to a rather underwhelmed audience at the Spanish court.

Although any sailor who ate them did not contract scurvy and any farmer who grew them did not go hungry, old methods die hard and few people took to them for centuries. The upper class palate did not welcome this development so they were passed down through the middle classes to the peasantry who saw no benefit other than to grow them to feed their animals. So other than for sailors, for decades they served mainly as cattle feed across Europe. The great Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment noted them as “tasteless and starchy… reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.” A two star review at best.

But as the European population grew so did the threat of famine. Enlightened rulers realised that in the potato lay the key to a healthy population, but more importantly to a cheap surplus to be used in times of want. After all, revolutions rarely occur on full stomachs. So the potato was publicised to the peasantry as a solution to their woes. But still they remained suspicious. This tuber was ignored by dogs and wasn’t even mentioned in the bible! It was time for some clever French marketing.

A French chemist named Parmentier had survived on potatoes alone when captured during the Seven Years War and tirelessly stated that no longer would people riot over bread if they simply ate potatoes. He came up with the ingenious idea of planting 40 acres of the crop outside Paris. Nothing new here. However he ordered that they be placed under a 24 hour armed guard. Suddenly the locals were interested. What valuable commodity could be guarded so heavily? It was a resounding success. The guards ‘accidentally’ allowed several thieves to pinch potatoes for personal use. Word spread of the culinary ugly duckling throughout Europe.

The bulbous tuber soon supported the rural and urban peasantry alike. Europe’s population soared as the black hole of industrial cities sucked in workers in their thousands. They were now feasting on the plant which yielded more food than wheat ever could. From soups sipped on the streets of Paris to fish and chips sold in the heaving courts of London, the potato conquered all. As populations continued to grow, so too did their reliance on this one crop.

This was the sad case in Poland, Ukraine and Ireland whose farmers eagerly forgot other crops and packed their fields with potatoes. With no central planning this reliance on one crop was a disaster waiting to happen. Ireland was the unfortunate victim and her population is yet to recover.

When the blight arrived from North America it swept and plundered the bloated farms within days. Healthy crops became putrid black slime overnight. The sceptre of famine hung over Irish heads and with a British overlord committed to a free market economy, little was done. One million died and one million fled as the staple food struggled to recover from the merciless attack.

But recover it did and became a regular tenant to farms around the world, largely thanks to war. As vast armies trekked the globe in the twentieth century, farmers from Romania to Rwanda planted potatoes. Why? Because they bloom underground and remain hidden to the passer-by who would otherwise help himself to a nutritious smash and grab meal. As war ended the crop remained and today is the second largest food crop behind only rice. Russia with it’s huge tracts of not-so-fertile land is the largest producer and America with it’s not-so-small portion sizes is the largest consumer.

So the potato finally conquered the world. But what if it didn’t? What if it died out with the Incan civilisation? What if it never made it across the Atlantic? Well Keith Lemon would be down at least one show-stopping punchline…

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The Framing of Guy Fawkes

It all seems a little too perfect doesn’t it? Just at the moment that a conspiring catholic is lighting a match to destroy the Houses of Parliament, a guard walks in. The same guard who missed 36 barrels of gunpowder being loaded by catholics into a rented cellar? The same guard who had the bright idea of conducting the unprecedented search of basements at midnight? It was almost as if this was a set up but by whom and why?

There is no doubt that Guy Fawkes was intent on destroying protestant England. He had fought in the Spanish military for twelve years against the protestant Dutch. He personally petitioned King Philip III for support in igniting a catholic rebellion at home.

The leader of the infamous Gunpowder Plot Robert Catesby approached Fawkes in 1603. The 13 conspirators required a man with a professional knowledge of explosives who could add military precision to the operation. They need not have looked further.

But let’s not look at the much heralded events in isolation. The year was 1605. ‘Good Queen Bess’ had died four years previously and her cousin James came to the throne. He had previously been James VI of Scotland. His claim to the English monarchy was that his grandmother was the sister of Henry VII (Elizabeth’s grandfather) who married the king of Scotland in 1503. An issue of concern was that his mother was Mary Queen of Scots. Remember her? A devout Catholic and centre of many foiled plots, her execution order was signed by Elizabeth.

Fine. So what was the problem? The upper echelons of James’ government were unsure of his supposed hard-line approach towards catholics. For upper echelons, read Robert Cecil his Chief Minister and SpyMaster. Although James had ordered all priests to leave the country immediately, concerns still lingered. Cecil knew that it would take a lot more than a few cursory meetings to convince the king for a change in policy. James was a paranoid man who embraced flamboyance and theatrics. After all he was the man who paid Shakespeare to write Macbeth as Stuart propaganda warning people about what happened to those who rebelled against the true king. Remember how even nature reacted to Macbeth usurping the throne? No? Do you remember what happened to the climate of Pride Rock when Scar took over? There you go. It was bad.

So Cecil knew that to win over James a fantastic and elaborate plot was needed. He got to work. This would be his best yet – indeed he had framed many a man in the final years of the Tudor dynasty but he was saving the best until last.

A cellar was rented underneath parliament. Conveniently right beneath the seat of King James. It was available for lease. 36 large barrels of gunpowder, over which the government had a strict monopoly, became available and easily transported through the city by cart. Bringing it by the river ran the risk of it becoming wet and useless. It was sneaked into the most guarded building in the country. During a time of intense paranoia.

On 3rd November, two days before parliament was to open, Lord Monteagle received a mysterious letter. The messenger insisted upon reading it aloud to him. It warned that he should not attend parliament because his life was in danger. He swiftly brought it to Cecil the next day. That evening the basement cellar which Fawkes was in was raided.

Immediately after this, two leading co-conspirators who were expecting Fawkes were executed in their Midlands hideout by a soldier who received a very generous pension. Another was ‘poisoned’ in the Tower after his swift arrest, seemingly before he could talk. Was a paper trail back to Cecil being quickly stamped upon?

Fawkes was tortured for two days (How do we know? Search for a picture of his confession signature compared with his regular one) and ceremoniously dragged to Tower Hill for his long and ‘drawn out’ execution. The play did not last as long as planned as he quickly jumped off the gallows, snapping his neck and not giving the crowd the pleasure of witnessing his organs being sliced out of his torso as he looked on.

Mission accomplished. Unsettled by the threat of his dramatic death, James adopted a more punitive approach against catholics. He then decreed that on each 5th November bonfires were to be lit annually across the country to celebrate the Gunpowder Plot being stopped. Initially effigies of the pope were burned but during the nineteenth century this was switched to Fawkes instead.

So is this conspiracy true? Possibly. But possibly not. All of this could have been achieved without a clandestine puppet master pulling the strings. But we all like a good story don’t we?

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