What happened this month in history?

Please note that this article contains a sensitive image of the My Lai Massacre that may be upsetting to some readers.

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November 1st 1755

Earthquake destroys Portuguese city of Lisbon

On November 1st, a massive earthquake some believe to be 8.5-9.0 in magnitude, struck the city of Lisbon during the morning of church commemorations, of the holy day of the Feast of All Saints. Within ten to fifteen minutes, after the earthquake had stopped, it was clear that two-thirds of the city lay in ruins. Survivors, in general, didn’t know where to turn as they tried in vain to avoid falling rumble. Those fortunate enough to have escaped the city towards the sea, were also soon doomed and consumed by a huge tsunami.

Many other coastal towns and villages were also affected, in particular Algarve. The death toll of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami and fires that followed has been estimated at 30,000 and upwards of 60,000 people. Large numbers of those first killed were believed to be in Lisbon’s cathedrals and churches during All Saints services during the morning.

From a cultural standpoint, the earthquake had a huge impact on the psyche of the population and intellectual community. Some theologians and philosophers also saw the tragedy as a form of punishment or divine judgment from God.

November 3rd 1957

The first dog launched into space.

Russian cosmonaut, Laika, was the first dog launched into orbit on the Soviet satellite Spuntik 2. In what can only be described as a ‘necessary evil’, animals like her were subjected to orbital flight, to test the safety of space travel for humans. Unfortunately, although the mission was successful in collecting vital data, the mission for the stray Moscow street dog was always going to end in tragedy, because space science technology had not developed enough to safely return her home.

Interestingly, for decades it was believed that she had survived for up to a week, but in 2002 the truth finally came out that she died very early on in the mission. Despite the fact that Laika was sealed in a cylindrical cabin containing food stores, air conditioning and instruments for measuring her vital signs, she died within hours of takeoff from sheer panic and overheating.

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November 9th 1938 

Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass.

Jewish communities throughout Germany were subjected to a night of terror when Nazi thugs went on an organised rampage, destroying Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues. The horrifying event would forever be known as the Kristallnancht, or ‘the night of Broken Glass’ because of the huge amount of glass smashed during the terror.

The attack on Jewish property and lives was instigated by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda and SS commander, Reinhard Heydrich, as revenge for the shooting in Paris of a German diplomat, by a young Polish Jew on the 7th of November. Within hours of the assassination, orders were sent out to all SS headquarters and police stations, which laid out the plan for the attack.

The exercise in terror on the night of the 9th of November 1938 saw many respectable ‘middle class’ Germans cheer and clap, as Jews were beaten and their properties looted by thugs. In total 36 people were killed (arguably many more) with some estimates of 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish arrests, of which thousands were sent to concentration camps. In all more than 7,000 business were looted and over 250 synagogues burnt to the ground. 

The extent of the destruction was so big that insurances companies teetered on the verge of collapse at the thought of paying out for rebuilding and repairs. In a sickening twist, Goering came up with a solution to confiscate insurance payouts and return them to insurance companies. Goering unapologetically made the unsavoury comment, “they should have killed more Jews and broken less glass”.

 Many historians point to the events of the Night of the Broken Glass, as the turning point in relations between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world. In short, the world’s reaction to condemn the actions of the Nazi regime at the time was indeed quick. Hitler though, was completely undeterred by their reaction, pointing out his fears of a ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ were justified.

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November 12th 1969

My Lai Massacre exposed to the American public.

The My Lai Massacre of 1968 is one of the most shocking and saddest chapters of the United States military’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Some people have argued that if it was not for the efforts of decorated investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, the incident and cover up that followed might have remained buried for years? Fortunately, it wasn’t.

Hersh was instrumental in exposing the story behind it to the public on November 12th 1969, after he received a tip from a source, later revealed to be antiwar lawyer Geoffrey Cowan, who worked at the time for The Village Voice. Hersh’s investigation would go on to expose that some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians (mainly the elderly, women and children) were murder on March 16, 1968, by an American contingent of around one hundred soldiers, known as ‘Charlie Company’. Among the chief ringleaders of the massacre was US Lieutenant William L. Calley.

As Hersh searched for clues he first found an obscure article buried in the Times in a local library that briefly outlined how Calley had been charged by the Army with the murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. He tracked Calley down in hiding at Fort Benning and spoke to him about the massacre. Hersh also spoke to another Charlie Company soldier by the name of Paul Meadlo, who eventually agreed to talk on national television about the massacre.

At first, when no one was interested in Hersh’s report in early November, he turned to a small antiwar newspaper in Washington. Eventually when the Dispatch News Service agreed to publish his article on November 12th, it forever condemned the United States Army for covering up the details of the My Lai Massacre. (Interestingly, two days after Hersh’s article was published, Washington was swamped by over a half a million people who marched in protest.)

With the truth out, the public would learn that initially 26 soldiers were charged with crimes against the people of Vietnam, but Lieutenant Calley would be the only one eventually convicted of mass murder in 1971. They sentenced him to life in prison, but President Nixon for his own selfish reasons allegedly intervened and had him placed under house arrests. Lieutenant Calley would ultimately only serve 3 years of his sentence before being released.

November 20th 1820

The American whaler Essex is sunk by a huge whale.

In the 19th century, Whaling was an extremely dangerous occupation. If the harsh seas didn’t cut to pieces sailing ships, an anger sperm whale just might!

The fate of the old whaler Essex and the record of the ordeal of its crew is one of the most famous maritime stories of the 19th century. In short, its account inspired Herman Melville to write his famous 1851 novel Moby Dick.

In 1820, the Essex was about nine months into her last voyager, when a huge sperm whale, evidently 85 feet long attacked the American whaler. It smashed into the Essex causing her to sink in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Her 21-man crew were left adrift in three rowboats (which were used to hunt whales with hand-thrown harpoons) with little food and water.

A decision had to be made whether the crew would set sail for the nearest islands to the west or set sail for South America. The implications of steering clear of the nearest islands were a matter of live and death. So it was that fear of cannibals, eventually drove them on an extreme long journey to South America. Unfortunately, not everyone survived before just eight crew members were rescued at sea.

During the more than 80 days at sea, starvation forced the crew to eat the bodies of five crewmen who died. Later when everything else felt completely lost, desperation saw the remaining survivors draw lots to see whom would be eaten next. In total, seven crewmen were cannibalized before the remaining eight survivors were eventually rescued.

Photo credits: All images are in the public domain except the image of the shop front damage in Magdeburg, Germany during the Kristallnancht, which is courtesy of the German Federal Archive, and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany license. The images of Laika, the Russian dog and the Whaling at sea are both licensed and used under the Getty Images embedding service.

 



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2 replies

  1. Great stuff. It’s extraordinary how ignored Seymour Hersh is now in mainstream media. He still does extraordinary investigative journalism, in regard for example to the intervention in Libya, the foreign involvement in Syria, etc, but most people don’t get to read it.
    Laika is an earth hero. I hope some day, in mankind’s space future, a moon, planet or space station is named after her.

    • Hersh has had some interesting things to say about Bin Laden, Obama and the War on Terror too. I’d hate to think that some people believe he is irrelevant or a dinosaur because of his age. I don’t always agree with what he reports on, but he certainly makes you sit up straight and listen. It certainly would be fitting if Laika was named after a planet or star.

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