Hernán Cortés was 34 years old when he led the Spanish Conquistador invasion of Mexico. The initial landing took place on the Yucatan Peninsula, in what was then Maya territory. Cortés’ force was only 500 strong, but they were armed with muskets and cannons, as compared to the arrows and spears used by their opponents.
Although initially peaceful, Cortés’ mission was one of conquest, and would eventually result in the destruction of the Aztec nation and its tributaries, and the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
An advance party for the First Fleet to colonise Australia entered Botany Bay on this day. The Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, sailed the armed tender Supply into the bay, and weighed anchor. Two days later, they were joined by the other ships of the Fleet. However, the poor quality of the soil led to the entire fleet decamping, and landing instead in Port Jackson 8 days later, at what was named Sydney Cove by the Governor.
The French explorer La Perouse entered Botany Bay on the same day, January 26, too late to claim the land for France. The British penal colony was, of course, never heard from again.
It is probably the best known maritime tragedy in history. The RMS Titanic, the largest passnger ship afloat and pride of the White Star Line, was three days out of Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York City when it collided with an iceberg and sank. Of the 2223 passengers and crew, fully 1517 of them were drowned, largely due to an insufficiency of lifeboats.
It’s a matter of historical record that the eight members of the ship’s band continued to play as the ship sank, in a feat of gallantry intended to keep spirits high. All eight of these men died in the sinking. Debate has raged over what their final song was. Some claimed that is was ‘Autumn’, others that it was ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. The debate is further complicated by the fact that ‘Autumn’ could have referred to either hymn tune known as “Autumn” or the tune of the then-popular waltz “Songe d’Automne” (although neither of these tunes were included in the White Star Line songbook). Similarly, there are two arrangements of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, one popular in Britain and the other in America (and the British one sounds not unlike ‘Autumn’) – and a third arrangement was found in the personal effects of band leader’s fiance.
Miners had been striking for a number of basic rights – an eight hour work day, the right to shop at stores not run by the mining companies, wage increases and actual enforcement of the laws governing mining – since September 1913. Obviously, this attempt by poor working class men to resist their exploitation by the boards of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, and the Victor-American Fuel Company could not be tolerated. An example would have to be made.
An example duly was, but it wasn’t the one that the rich men expected.
On April the 20th, Colorado National Guard members – actually mostly company hired men wearing the uniforms of such – attacked the site of striker’s camp in Ludlow. They killed a number of the strikers – including two wives and eleven children, along with captives who were summarily executed – that day. Only one conviction resulted – one of the strike breakers was convicted of assaulting a union leader who was later killed while a prisoner that day.
This is because management is the best friend that the working man ever had.
Named for then US Secretary of State George Marshall, the Marshall Plan is one of the largest foreign aid schemes ever put in place by any nation. Beginning in 1948 and ending in 1951, the Marshall Plan gave over 12 billion dollars worth of aid to various Western European nations, intending to help them rebuild after World War Two.
In all, 16 nations – Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Greece and Turkey – received differing amounts to assist in reconstruction, particularly of their industrial capacity and general infrastructure. The plan was originally supposed to last until 1953, but America was unable to afford this largess and the war in Korea at the same time.
To be fair, it wasn’t that much of a cover-up on the part of the company. The deed of sale for the site, sold by Hooker Chemicals to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for $1 does specifically mention the presence of the toxic waste, mostly so that the company’s legal liability for the 21,000 tons of chemicals including caustics, alkalines, fatty acids and chlorinated hydrocarbons – residue and waste from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, solvents for rubber and synthetic resins – could be limited. The company specifically enjoins against building on the site, because they had a very good idea of how dangerous these chemicals were.
The school board went ahead and built primary schools on the area, and later houses were built as well. Presumably, no members of that school board lived in the area or sent their children to school there. In 1976, journalists began investigating rumours regarding the abnormally high rates of birth defects and diseases in the area – leading to a poorly kept secret becoming front page news across America.
While there had been rumours about payola in the music industry for years, the practice became more prevalent in the 1950s as radio overtook jukeboxes as the primary way music was listened to. In 1959, the US Senate began to investigate these claims, dragging the whole sordid practice of pay for play into the light. DJs testified to taking payments of as much as $22,000 to play songs, and careers were ruined and reputations tarnished.
In an effort to combat the public reaction to the scandal, the National Association of Broadcasters announced heavy fines for DJs caught accepting such bribes. Later, they restructured the industry to make programme directors at each station instead responsible for deciding what to play – a decision that actually made payola easier for the record labels. It is widely believed that the practice of payola continues to this day with little change other than that the DJs no longer see a dime from it.
Like most other cities the world over, Los Angeles moved away from the inflexibility of light rail public transportation after the Second World War. An increasing emphasis on car ownership gripped the West, leading to booms in freeway construction, service station openings and closures of all sorts of rail lines, light and heavy. Most of the light rail lines of Los Angeles were replaced by bus routes – often, the lines were purchased by bus companies with the express intention of doing so.
The last of the Red Cars – those operated by the Pacific Electric company – ran on the Los Angeles to Long Beach line until April 9, 1961. The last of the Yellow Cars ran almost two years longer, before the last service on the J, P, R, S and V routes on March 30. All of these were replaced by bus lines on March 31, 1963. It was the end of an era.
When it was first created, the Neutron Bomb was hailed as a triumph of efficiency and progress. In theory, it would kill the population of its affected area, while leaving the buildings standing. The bomb would have a lesser degree of heat and concussive force than an ordinary nuclear bomb, but a greatly increased amount of radiation.
The bomb was never used in a combat situation, and its production has been largely discontinued. The United States, the Soviet Union, China and France all had developed neutron bombs, but no country is currently known to deploy them.
In the early Eighties, getting a rock star to advertise your fizzy sugar drink was the done thing. Both Pepsi and Coca Cola got some of the biggest names of the era – David Bowie, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and others all recorded versions of their songs with the lyrics changed to spruik their sponsor’s drinks. But then Pepsi announced that they had won this arms race. They would produce an ad with the biggest star in the world, the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson.
The ad was shot in late January, 1984. It was never completed and has never been screened, due to the events of January 24. On that day, Michael Jackson was injured in a pyrotechnics accident, setting his hair on fire and leaving him with second degree burns. Jackson suffered extreme pain from the burns, and developed a pain killer habit as a result. It was a terrible accident, one that too many marks the beginning of Jackson’s decline as an artist.
The Bhopal disaster (also referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy) is the worst industrial catastrophe in the history of the world.
It occurred on the night of December 2–3, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A number of chemicals – most notably methyl isocyanate gas – leaked out of the plant, and literally hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to it. Many of them were killed.
Estimates vary on the death toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259 and the government of Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release subsequently. Other governmental agencies estimated 3,000, 8,000 and even 15,000 deaths from diseases and injuries resulting from the disaster. In 2006, a government affidavit gave a figure 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.
Union Carbide continues its business today, its safety standards not much improved from 1984.
Under the terms of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act of 1984, it became possible for duly appointed local authorities (reporting in turn to state authorities, under the overall coordination of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) to declare moratoriums on fishing for the Atlantic Striped Bass – known to fisherman as the Striper – for periods of up to 30 days. But these moratoriums could also be renewed more or less indefinitely, until it was determined by the authority that the population of the fish had recovered sufficiently.
While in most locations, populations of the Atlantic Striped Bass did indeed recover – although the process took around a decade – that was little consolation to the fisherman who lost their livelihoods in the meantime.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is primarily intended to end tariffs between the USA, Canada and Mexico, allowing for the free trade of goods and services between them. Of course, it also revisited copyright to bring certain films back out of the public domain (because there’s such a thing as too much freedom where Hollywood is concerned), and some agricultural tariffs were not covered by it either.
All in all, twenty years on, NAFTA’s legacy is a mixed one, having ultimately turned out to be neither as bad as some feared or as good as some promised. Economics is many things, but none of them is ever simple.
It was only the beginning of the end, but by the time it was done, one of the greatest success stories of American business would be revelaed to be one of the greatest lies in American business. Enron was an energy provider originally based in Houston, Texas, but which grew to become an international titan with interests in gas, electricity and even non-energy fields such as communications. It was lauded for its innovations in business.
However, it turned out that the most innovative thing about them was their interesting new accounting practices: Enron’s single greatest contribution to the history of American business was their creative – and illegal – account keeping. By the time the SEC concluded their investigation, Enron would have declared bankruptcy and their director, Ken Lay, would be convicted on ten counts of assorted frauds. He died of a heart attck before he commenced his prison sentence.
The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository is exactly what it sounds like: a facility located inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. It was exhaustively researched as a potential facility throughout the eighties and nineties, and finally given the go ahead in 2002. It is intended that it be a safe place to store radioactive materials for up to a million years (the longest anticipated time for the materials in question to remain radioactive).
Although construction has commenced, there have been numerous delays, and the Obama administration has repeatedly cut the funds available for the project, which is now unlikely to be ready for use before 2020.
So that’s something to look forward to.
On July 24, 2002, a team of 18 miners in the Quecreek Mine (in Somerset County, Pennsylvania) accidentally broke through into an older, poorly documented mine. The second mine, the Saxman Coal Mine, was flooded, and the water quickly spread into the Quecreek Mine as well. Half of the miners escaped easily, but nine others were cut off by the rising flood.
After several days of drilling, all nine men were safely rescued on July 28, 2002, after five days underground. The men were suffering from starvation and exposure, but all of them were airlifted to hospitals, where they all made full recoveries. Only one of the nine men still works in a mine as of this writing.
Bunny Greenhouse was a rising star in the United States Army Corps of Engineers until the year 2000. Suddenly, under a new CO, her previously spotless performance appraisals were less so, something Greenhouse attributes to racism and sexism (claims which the US Army is yet to investigate).
In 2005, she testified before a public committee hearing of the Democratic Party regarding the Army’s deals with Halliburton, in particular with regard to waste, inefficiency, fraud, abuse of power and general corruption. Naturally, this led to the end of her military career, as the Bush White House apparently believed that free speech was something whistleblowers should be made to pay for.
Her actual words that day were an indictment of Halliburton, and by extension, the political, military and economic climate in which that company thrives: she described Halliburton’s dealings as “the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career.”