March 31st 1889: Eiffel Tower opens

 

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The completed Eiffel Tower in 1889

 

On this day in 1889 in the French capital of Paris, the iconic Eiffel Tower was officially opened. The tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution and is named after its designer Gustave Eiffel.

 

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Gustave Eiffel (1832 – 1923)

 

After two years of building it was inaugurated on March 31st 1889 with Eiffel, government officials, and the press going to the top of the tower by foot. Upon reaching the top, Eiffel hoisted a French flag which was accompanied with a 25 gun salute. The tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909 but it soon became apparent the tower had both cultural and practical value as it was used for communications. Upon its creation it was the tallest man-made structure in the world (it was defeated by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930).

 

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The Eiffel Tower under construction

 

It is hard to imagine a Paris without the Eiffel Tower; it has become a national icon of France. The tower defines the Parisian landscape, drawing millions of tourists every year to climb to the top and look down on the most romantic city in the world. Paris has many sites to offer tourists, from the famed Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. However the Eiffel Tower is still the main attraction, drawing almost seven million visitors in 2011 alone.

 

March 30th 1853: Van Gogh born

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) – self-portrait

 

On this day in 1853, the artist Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert in the Netherlands. The young van Gogh had a keen interest in art, and continued to draw and paint into adulthood. As an adult van Gogh traveled extensively throughout Europe, exploring the different art scenes and becoming especially affected by the French Impressionists.

 

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The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1889) – perhaps his most famous work

 

Despite his talent and distinctive art style, van Gogh was unappreciated in his lifetime. The struggling artist also suffered from mental health issues, infamously cutting off his ear and eventually shooting himself aged just 37. In his tragically short life van Gogh left an impressive selection of work, with over 2,000 pieces of art attributed to him.

 

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Sunflowers by van Gogh (1888)

 

When he died, van Gogh was a little known name; today he is a household name. His art was rediscovered after his death, and found an appreciation in a new audience who praised his unique style. I should say right off the bat that I am no art expert, so what I have to say about his work is from the perspective of an amateur! That being said, it seems to me that Van Gogh’s style is marked by the boldness of his brush stokes and choice of colours, but especially the pure emotion he brings to his art. It is a tired cliché that tortured souls make the best artists, but this certainly seems to be true in van Gogh’s case. He was plagued by mental illness issues throughout his lifetime, and translated this poignantly into his art. The images I have selected do not do justice to the full emotionality of his work, as I decided to include his two most famous pieces in a celebration of his life and legacy. However from my limited knowledge there are many other works of his which reflect the broad range of his skill. So let’s take his 161st birthday to remember the art of Vincent van Gogh, and spare a thought for the other hundreds of struggling artists whose work is not appreciate in their time.

March 29th 1871: Royal Albert Hall opens

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Queen Victoria & Prince Albert

On this day in 1871 Queen Victoria officially opened the concert hall in London which was named after her late husband Prince Albert. The hall had been initially planned by Albert after the success of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. The building was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Scott and built by the Lucas Brothers. Work began on the Royal Albert Hall in 1867, six years after Albert’s death and was completed in 1871.

 

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Royal Albert Hall grand opening

 

At the official opening on March 29th the Queen was so overcome with emotion at the thought of her beloved late husband, she was unable to speak. It was Edward, Prince of Wales who had to announce: “The Queen declares this Hall is now open”. The Royal Albert Hall remains a London landmark and a popular concert venue.

March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia

 

On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea.

 

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Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)

 

The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

 

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Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source: http://www.emersonkent.com/map_archive/crimean_war_1853.htm; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)

 

 

On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.

March 27th 1625: Charles I becomes King

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Charles I of England (1600-1649)

On this day in 1625, Charles I became King of England, Scotland and Ireland. He succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father King James I. Charles and his father believed in the divine right of kings to absolute rule. This caused Charles’s struggle for power with Parliament and resentment among his subjects for his seemingly tyrannical actions like taxing without the consent of Parliament and interfering with churches. The English Civil War broke out in the last years of his reign, which pitted the crown against Parliament. Charles was captured by the Parliamentarians and executed for high treason in 1649. The monarchy was then abolished but returned in 1660 with Charles’s son in power.

 

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The execution of Charles I

March 26th 1830: The Book of Mormon published

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1830 edition of the Book of Mormon

 

On this day in 1830, the Book of Mormon was first published at E.B Grandin’s New York bookstore. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr, claimed that he had been visited by an angel called Moroni who told him of ancient writings on golden plates which described people whom God led to the Western hemisphere before the birth of Jesus. These plates were supposedly found by Smith buried by a tree on a hill in his back yard. Smith said he was told by Moroni to translate the plates into English and publish them. Smith initially struggled to find someone to publish the book as many considered it risky, fraudulent and blasphemous. Smith and his friend Martin Harris began work on translating the Book of Mormon, with Smith dictating by either reading directly or using seer stones placed in a top hat (accounts vary).

 

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A page from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon

 

Work was halted when Harris’s wife stole some pages of the manuscript. Translation recommenced in 1829 and was soon finished and ready for publication and sale in March 1830. It took eight men and boys working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for almost eight months to print the initial 5,000 copies. Upon the book’s publication Smith said he returned the plates to Moroni. The building in New York where the Book of Mormon was first published and sold is now the Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site.

 

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Printing press where book was published

 

Mormonism continues to be a prominent religion in the United States and abroad. Despite enduring questions about the origins of the religion – many believe Smith planted the plates or made them up altogether – it still has a large following. Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election, became the first Mormon presidential candidate in the United States. I have been interested in Mormonism for some time, though I must admit my interest has been encouraged by seeing the musical ‘The Book of Mormon’. Even though the musical is a parody of Mormonism (‘I Believe’ explicitly pokes fun at Mormon beliefs and ‘All-American Prophet’ mocks the origins story recounted here), I thought it was surprisingly gentle considering some other things Matt Stone and Trey Parker have done. I personally didn’t see it as a vicious attack on Mormons or their beliefs, however as I am not a Mormon I cannot say it hasn’t offended anyone. I would always recommend reading historical and contemporary material on the religion, but if you’re a fan of Matt and Trey (and even if not!), ‘The Book of Mormon’ is a fantastic musical and a good laugh.

March 25th 1811: Shelley expelled from Oxford

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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

 

On this day in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Shelley is best known as a famous English poet, who was part of a group of fellow prominent writers including his wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. As well as being as being an author, Shelley was a radical political activist who advocated non-violent protest. Having begun study at Oxford in 1810, it is often said that he only attended one lecture during his time there. He published several works whilst at university, but it was his atheistic pamphlet which led to his appearance before the College fellows and his eventual expulsion as he refused to deny authorship. ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ argued that people do not choose their beliefs and thus atheists shouldn’t be persecuted. However it is unclear whether Shelley was personally an atheist; he may have instead been an agnostic or a pantheist. Either way, this document is an interesting insight into Shelley’s views and shows how atheism was stigmatised in the early nineteenth century. Atheism is far more commonplace now, at least in England, and no-one is going to be expelled from university for expressing their beliefs. Of course in some more strictly religious countries, atheism is still considered blasphemy. Perhaps the ignorant and discriminatory treatment Shelley suffered is not as far withdrawn from modern times as we may like to think.

 

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‘The Necessity of Atheism’ 1811 edition

 

“Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity”

March 24th 1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill

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Aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

 

On this day in 1989, hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil were spilled into Prince William Sound in Alaska by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker after it ran aground. Between 11 and 32 million gallons of oil were spilled, creating one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in history. The cleanup operation was especially difficult due to the Sound’s remote location which was only accessible by air or by boat.

 

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Birds killed as a result of the oil spill

 

The spill damaged the local habitat, covering 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean. It was the largest ever oil spill in American waters until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Whilst the cleanup operation was completed, it is believed that the oil will continue to have a negative effect on the area for many years. The Exxon Valdez spill remains one of the most tragic man-made environmental disasters in history, and serves as a reminder of the horrendous effect that spills of this kind can have on the environment. If spills such as these continue to happen, serious and irreversible damage will be inflicted upon this planet. It is a sad truth that more stringent regulations of the oil industry are unlikely to occur, at least in the United States, as the politicians in Washington are too deep in the pockets of big oil lobbyists. Perhaps the first stage, then, is to aim to get big money out of politics. Only then can reforms that desperately need to be passed have a chance.

March 23rd 1933: Enabling Act passed

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The Reichstag on the day of the bill

On this day in 1933 the German Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which essentially made Adolf Hitler dictator of Germany. The law gave Chancellor Hitler legal powers to establish his dictatorship as it gave the Cabinet the power to enact laws independently of the legislature (the Reichstag). Its formal name was ‘Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor on January 30th and just before the scheduled election, the Reichstag fire occurred. The Nazis used the incident to suggest a Communist revolution was imminent and passed the Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended civil liberties and habeas corpus.

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Hitler’s Reichstag speech promoting bill

The Nazis failed to gain an absolute majority in the Reichstag and so Hitler drafted the Enabling Act to secure his position. The Nazis pressured and threatened representatives of the Reichstag to pass the bill, positioning SA men and Nazi swastikas in and around the building. With the bill’s passing, Hitler’s dictatorship was assured, and thus began a brutal regime which would last until 1945.

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Newspaper reports on the bill’s passing

“The authority of the Führer has now been wholly established. Votes are no longer taken. The Führer decides. All this is going much faster than we had dared to hope”Joseph Goebbels after the passage of the act

March 22nd 1622: Jamestown massacre

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1628 woodcut showing the massacre

 

On this day in 1622, the Jamestown massacre occurred in colonial Virginia. Jamestown was the first successful English settlement in North America; this followed the failure of previous attempts to colonise North America, most notoriously the lost colony of Roanoke. On March 22nd, fighters of the Powhatan confederation of Indian tribes (also known as Algonquian Indians) came into the houses of the settlers in the area, grabbed their weapons, and attacked them. 347 people died in the incident, which made up a quarter of the English population at Jamestown.

 

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The colony of Jamestown, Virginia

 

The massacre was in response to the colonists’ mistreatment of Native Americans – burning down their homes, destroying food supplies and threatening expansion into their land. In retaliation the Natives launched a surprise attack on the area, however Jamestown itself was spared as it was forewarned.

 

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Powhatan chief Opechancanough

 

The incident is one of many conflicts between Native Americans and English settlers in the early days of the colonial venture. The English settlers increasingly desired to expand further into Indian lands, and this often resulted in bloodshed. The colonies, especially those on the frontier, were racked with sporadic warfare. Perhaps the most famous of these wars was King Philip’s War in the 1670s, which is often considered a cause of the heightened fears and tensions that resulted in a burst of witchcraft accusations in the 1690s. Colonial relations with Native Americans did not improve with the coming of the Revolution, and Native communities especially suffered under the United States’s expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny. This can be seen most tragically in President Andrew Jackson’s ruthless policy of Indian Removal, which intended to clear the way for Westward expansion. In this context, we can see how the Jamestown massacre was sadly not the end of conflict between the settlers and the Native population.