Category Archives: Military History

History Undusted: Gibraltar

Back in 2015, my husband and I spent a few days in Gibraltar; it was the starting point for the first leg of his “south to north” European bike trips and a research trip for me; the book that resulted from such inspiration was “Asunder“.

Gibraltar is a tiny outpost of Britain at the gateway to the Mediterranean, spitting distance from Spain (as a matter of fact, I walked across the border and it took all of 2 minutes).  Its history is disproportionately immense, spanning thousands of years, as it has always been a strategic nautical or military location.  You can’t walk down a single street or lane without being reminded in some way of its military history:  There are cannons everywhere, street names and square names reflect either military leaders or garrison locations, and even the town’s parks are walled in by fortress walls.  The first known name of Gibraltar was “Calpe”, likely the Phoenician verb “kalph”, to hollow out, perhaps in reference to what is now known as St. Michael’s Cave.  There was a Roman occupation, and in 400 AD, eastern barbarians invaded; Vandals, then the Goths, and then Berber Muslims followed.  In 711 AD Tarik ibn Zeyad landed, leaving behind his name:  The Arabic phrase “Jebel Tarik” (Tarik’s Mountain) has been corrupted into the modern name of Gibraltar.  For over six centuries, with the exception of 1309 to 1333, the Rock was under Moorish occupation, though no town existed until 1160 (there were only fortifications).

In 1462 Gibraltar was retaken from the Moors by the Spanish; from there it was quibbled over between Spanish dukes, kings and queens until the Treaty of Utrecht in which Gibraltar was yielded to the Crown of Great Britain “forever”.  The Great Siege, 1779 to 1783, was Spain’s last great attempt to reclaim the Rock, and it led to the vast destruction of the town and fortifications. Spain has never forgotten the sting of losing Gibraltar, and Brexit is likely a daily topic of discussion; Gibraltar is not part of the UK but is a British Overseas Territory, and voted strongly to remain in the EU; what they will be after Brexit finally comes about is uncertain. Chances are, it will become Spanish once again, or come under co-sovereignty with Spain and Britain.

In the 19th century the phrase “As safe as the Rock of Gibraltar” entered the English language, as Gibraltar became renowned for its impregnability.  A civilian community began to grow up within the safety of the fortified walls, earning their living from commercial trade.  Today, there is still a British and American military presence, and the local language is a mixture of Spanish and English.

The Rock is dominated by the presence of the only wild monkey population in Europe, of the Barbary macaques breed; they were most likely brought as pets during the Moorish occupation.  Tourists are lower in the pecking order than the monkeys – because, in their social hierarchy, the lower in rank give their food to the higher in rank… just remember that the next time you want to feed monkeys. They usually stay up on the Rock, though we were warned not to leave our hotel window open, just in case. If they get half a chance, they’ll steal your picnic. When we first went up to the Rock, we were dismayed by the amount of rubbish everywhere, assuming it was discarded by careless humans; but it was, in fact, thieving monkies who don’t throw rubbish into the bins! And monkies were everywhere; walking toward St. Michael’s cave, we passed baby monkies playing, completely oblivious to humans; they know they’re celebrities up there, and they use it to their advantage every chance they get!

If you ever get the chance to go to Gibraltar, it’s well worth the experience. A week will give you ample time to enjoy everything it has to offer. If you like history and military history, you’ll love every nook and cranny of Gibraltar!

 

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary macaque; Spain in the distance.

 

Gibraltar - Reminders of Military Past, Russian Cannon

The Promenade, showing the City War Memorial honouring Gibraltarians who gave their lives in World War One. In the foreground is one of four Russian cannons (24-pounders) that arrived in GBZ in 1858 from England, having been captured in the Crimean War.

Gibraltar Rock

The Rock of Gibraltar, with Spain in the distance just beyond the airport’s single runway.

Originally posted on History Undusted 18 May 2015
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History Undusted: The Wild Women of the Old West

Often unsung heroines, the women who trailblazed (alongside their husbands, or on their own through the loss of said man along the trail, or who headed west on their own to forge a new way of living) were the backbone of settlements.  Without the women, there would have been no way for a man to survive for long.  I grew up in Kansas, and my father’s ancestors were immigrants from Denmark who travelled west to Kansas in covered wagons in the 1880s; the farm which my great grandfather built was eventually inherited by my grandfather, and many of my happy childhood memories are associated with that farmstead.  Looking back through family photos, there’s not a photo of a weak woman among them; weak women (and men, for that matter) simply didn’t survive the trail.  They became the strength that built the West.

For a 46-minute documentary on the importance of the pioneer woman, and the legends that grew up around the likes of Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr, please click on the image below.  It’s well worth the time to watch, when you have a moment!

 

Annie Oakley

 

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The Icelandic War Bride Mystery

I haven’t posted for a while, and I apologize; sometimes I just need “percolating” time: Those are times when I might not do much writing, but I’m thinking about it, gathering ideas and creative input. One idea or article or film leads to the next, and the next. An article that I came across recently was an amazing story called “The War Bride Mystery”:

A young Icelandic woman named Ragna Esther Sigurdardottir married an American GI just after World War 2; she was only 18 and married against her family’s wishes. Once in America, she found out that the man she married was a “bad apple” – a violent man who beat her through two pregnancies. The daughter would be mentally handicapped until her death at the age of 49. When Ragna was hospitalized from a beating, she finally obtained a divorce; the children were taken from her and placed in state care, and she disappeared. For 60 years.

What makes the story fascinating is that she went on to marry again, and have a second family. That second family knew nothing of her past until her daughter discovered on her own birth certificate that her mother had given birth twice before. Likely out of shame for past mistakes, and not wanting to hurt anyone, she’d kept the secret to herself. But her Icelandic family had never given up hope of finding her, and with the help of a stranger with skills in research, they were finally able to put the puzzle pieces together and connect with Ragna’s American family.

The story was published in the Oregonian newspaper in a series of articles; if you’d like to read the whole story, click here.

World wars opened up the possibilities for many cross-cultural relationships, and brought men and women into positions of both opportunity and vulnerability; being far from home, one could reinvent oneself, for good or bad. Ragna was unfortunate in the choice of her first husband, but her second appears to have given her a happy ending, and the story goes on as her Icelandic and her American families connect the dots, and come to peace about the story of the missing war bride.

 

Ragna Esther Vickers - credit, Lou Ann LeMaster

Ragna Esther Vickers with her second family’s children, in 1957; credit, Lou Ann LeMaster (right)

 

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History Undusted: Mary Seacole

Have you ever heard of Mary Seacole? Probably not – I hadn’t, and I’m a history fan. Have you ever heard of Florence Nightingale? You probably had something taught to you in school about her.  In reading about the two, the most striking difference, and perhaps the one that made all the difference in the paths their lives took, was that Florence was born into a rich, upper-class and well-connected English family; Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican woman, who first taught her about medicine.

mary seacole

 

Mary Seacole. Source: Wikipedia

 

While Florence was famous for training nurses during the Crimean War, the English authorities refused Mary’s request to be sent there, too, even though it was known that the nursing care was far too inadequate; so she scraped the money together herself, travelled to the front lines on her own, and established a hotel in order to provide meals, a place of rest, and medical treatment for the wounded. She would often go out to the battles to bring in the wounded, and as mortars flew past, a soldier would shout, “Down, mother!” and she would hit the dirt, then pick herself back up and continue on. To tell her whole story would be a lengthy one here, but she has told it in her own words by writing a book: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, available for free as a Kindle or other formats here. You can also read more about Mary herself in the following links:

 

Wikipedia

BBC

YouTube

Her story is well worth reading, because it truly was an adventure, and it neither started nor stopped in Crimea. Kudos to the woman who overcame a triple-prejudice (being a woman of mixed race from a poor background) to achieve her calling and change the lives of the men she helped. It’s a history gem worth undusting!

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History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga

Agafia Lykov - Siberian Times

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times

I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them;  life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.

 

The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936,  Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.

The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.

In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).

Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.

In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.

I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.

To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.

Agafia Lykov - Titlovi-com

 

 

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History Undusted: The Japanese Schindler

I believe that people who have made a significant impact on the lives of individuals and nations not only deserve being honoured by remembrance but need to be brought into the spotlight for each new generation.

Though you may have learned something about Oskar Schindler through the books or film about his deeds, chances are you’ve not heard of Chinune Sugihara, whose conscience would not allow him to look the other way when Jews came under the persecution of the Nazis during World War 2. As vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, he was in an ideal position to save thousands of lives by issuing travelling visas, but at the risk of his own career by disobeying orders.

His story is worth taking a few minutes to read; please click on the two links below, to get a picture of the man who became the only Japanese Righteous Among the Nations.

Lessons in Manliness: Chiune Sugihara

“Sempo” Chiune Sugihara (Wikipedia)

Chiune Sugihara

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Snapshots in History: The Bulletproof Vest

Bulletproof Vests

Talk about trust!

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History Undusted: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

Mississippi and Chinese are not two terms one usually expects to see in the same sentence; yet it’s a slice of history worth undusting (though, for those who grew up in this subculture of the South, it’s not history, but reality): An industrious, well-educated but small population of Chinese immigrants made a significant impact on the economy and social environment of their communities along the Mississippi Delta.

The first influx of Chinese to America came in the pioneering days, when they worked in gold mines, along railroads, and provided laundry services in the Old West.  More came to work in the cotton fields of the South when the plantation owners could no longer count on free slave labour.  Most of these Chinese came from Guangdong province in China, which has a similar climate to the Delta.  The opportunity for work in America afforded them the chance to help support their family members who remained behind in China.  They quickly established themselves in a niche market between the whites and the blacks, serving both communities with segregated grocery stores.

During the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), they were unable to own property, so the families lived behind their stores in the same building; their children all attended one-room schoolhouses, some of which were built by the Southern Baptist church (which remains a big part of their lives). [The fact that there was such a law implemented to restrict a specific ethnic group is the greatest remaining witness to the number of Chinese immigrants of the initial wave (during the California Gold Rush, 1848-1855), as records or censuses of that time period have all but vanished.]  The parents worked 365 days a year to send their children to college; many of those children went on to be pharmacists, NASA scientists, veterans (the Delta was represented by 182 Chinese men who served in World War 2), doctors, and many other professions.

For a fascinating look at an almost unknown community in the heart of America’s South, click on the photo below and the links provided below that.

Mississippi Delta Chinese

 

E. Samantha Cheng: Discovering the Mississippi Delta Chinese Legacy

Heritage Series: Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese

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History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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History Undusted: A World War II Love Story

Once in a while I come across amazing stories; this one is truly one of dedication, perseverance, love, and gratitude.

Peggy and Billie Harris were married just 6 weeks before he was sent off to war as a fighter pilot over Nazi-occupied France in the Second World War.  Six decades later, Peggy finally found out what happened to him, no thanks to her own government.  Deep gratitude to, and a friendship with, a small French village is just one result of her amazing patience and quest for the truth.  Click on the picture to hear about this amazing story. (9½ minutes long, 3-part story)

 

Peggy and Billie D. Harris, 1944

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