The Yellow River is the cradle of China’s civilization, but it was and remains a pretty unstable cradle, given to catastrophic course change and flooding. One such episode occurred between 2 and 11 AD, when the Yellow River underwent disastrous course changes that led to severe flooding. The result was a series of widespread famines, plus widespread dislocation and hardship.
Because misery loves company, the turmoil was made worse by a civil war, plus a massive peasant uprising known as the Red Eyebrows Rebellion. Fighting first erupted in 8 AD, when an imperial government official named Wang Mang overthrew the Early Han Dynasty which had reigned over China for two centuries. In its place, Wang Mang declared himself emperor and founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty.
China’s political turmoil, natural disasters, hardships and hunger, took place against a backdrop of a resentful peasantry. In addition to the catastrophes plaguing the country, the peasants’ main grievance was a rise in debt slavery, and a steady consolidation of agricultural land into large tracts controlled by powerful magnates.
The formerly independent yeoman peasant owners of those plots were reduced to tenant farmers or serfs. They thus often found themselves tilling what had once been their own holdings on behalf of others. Other peasants simply got kicked off the land altogether, and were reduced to a life of itinerant wanderers. For years, the downtrodden peasants endured their suffering, but patience has limits, and the downtrodden Chinese peasantry finally reached theirs.
In response to the turmoil and dangers, and to protect the interests of China’s peasants, a secret society was founded. Its leader spoke through mediums, and organized bands of armed peasants known as the Red Eyebrows. They took their name from the color of the eyebrows of their members, who painted their faces to look like demons. They began their armed resistance in 15 AD, and their popularity grew steadily. By 17 AD, the Red Eyebrows’ armed defiance had become a widespread peasant revolt, led by man named Fan Chong.
In the imperial palace, Wang Mang proved politically incompetent, and in 19 AD, he responded to the peasant revolts by raising taxes. That only fueled and supercharged the various uprisings. They soon consolidated into a massive insurrection, as the disparate rebel bands united under the banner of the Red Eyebrows and the leadership of Fan Chong.
In 23 AD, the Red Eyebrows played a key role in the defeat and overthrow of Wang Mang and the eradication of his Xin Dynasty. That allowed an opening for Liu Xuan, a member of the Han royal family, to reestablish the Han Dynasty and declare himself emperor. Liu Xuan’s rule did not sit well with the Red Eyebrows, however. So they overthrew him, and placed a child Han descendant on the throne as a puppet emperor, while they ruled China in his name.
Unfortunately, while militarily brilliant, the Red Eyebrows proved incompetent when it came to governing, and their misrule soon led to widespread revolts. Their puppet emperor was overthrown and replaced by another Han descendant, Liu Xiu. He forced the Red Eyebrows to surrender and brought their movement to an end, then went on to found the Later Han Dynasty, which reigned for two centuries.
28. The Braggart Who Got Himself Killed Trying to Live Up to His Boasts
Abu al Tayib Ahmad ibn Hussayn, better known as Al Mutanabbi (915 – 965) is the Arabic language’s most influential and prominent poet. He crafted his poems with such consummate skill and artistry, that he is commonly deemed to have attained a pinnacle unequaled in the Arabic language before or since.
His verse is widespread and proverbial throughout the Arab world. Most of his work was odes to patrons, but he was an egomaniac who managed to turn a significant portion of his panegyrics into odes to himself, his talent, and his courage. That bragging eventually came back to bite Al Mutanabbi, and get him killed.
From his earliest days, Al Mutanabi exhibited a precocious talent for verse that won him a free education. During his childhood, the Qarmatians, a heretical cult that combined Zoroastrianism and Islam, began pillaging the Middle East, and in his teens, the budding poet joined them. Claiming to be a Nabi, or prophet, he led a Qarmatian revolt in Syria when he was seventeen.
The rebellion was eventually suppressed, and its teenaged leader was captured and locked up until he recanted two years later. The Nabi claim earned him the derisory nickname Al Mutanabbi, or “would-be prophet”, by which he is known to history.
After his recantation and release from prison in 935, Al Mutanabbi became a wandering poet, travelling around the region’s courts and composing poems in praise of their rulers in exchange for patronage. Poems praising patrons in exchange for patronage have a long history that cuts across cultures. From ancient Sumer through ancient Greece and Persia, and among the Anglo Saxons, Arabs, Vikings and others, bards and poets sang and recited for their supper. But when they sought richer fare, the surest ticket was to compose something that flattered a wealthy and powerful figure.
Al Mutanabbi was often handsomely rewarded with gifts of cash, but his greatest hope was to get appointed a governor. He impressed as an unsurpassed poet, but did not impress as a potential governor: his personality was prickly, and his overweening pride was off putting. Such traits, combined with the dramatics frequently accompanying creative genius, gave his patrons pause, and his ambitions of ruling a province were never fulfilled.
The flip side of Al Mutanabbi’s praise of patrons was his propensity to compose devastating verse insulting those who had rubbed him wrong. They were usually rival courtiers competing for a patron’s attention, but their numbers sometimes included patrons who had failed to reward Al Mutanabbi as richly as he thought he deserved. Such insulting proved his undoing.
In 965, one of the victims of Al Mutanabbi’s diss verses waylaid him near Baghdad. Outnumbered, the poet took off in attempted flight. He was steadily opening up a lead on his pursuers, until they derisively recited some of his bold lines boasting of his courage. Al Mutanabbi was stung into turning around to live up to his verse, and was killed in the ensuing fight.
In 1874, the Russian Navy commissioned one of history’s weirdest and most controversial ships, the Novgorod monitor. Displacing 2500 tons, it had six steam engines that drove six propeller screws, but what stood out the most was the ship’s round hull. It gained a reputation as one of history’s worst ever designed ships, and was compared to a floating soup dish for its clumsiness.
On the plus side, the Novgorod was largely immune to ramming – a common naval warfare tactic back then. It featured a nine inch armored belt, its round shape deflected strikes, and its vital components were well inside the hull. It also sported a pair of eleven inch guns, which were quite powerful for the era. Its shape and flat bottom also gave it a draft of only twelve feet, allowing it to operate close to the coastline in shallow waters. However, those advantages were outweighed by serious disadvantages.
The Novgorod’s circular hull played havoc with the rudder’s ability to steer the ship or turn it around. In a storm, the ship was unsteerable, and even in calm weather, it took 45 minutes to make a full circle. Moreover, the wide flat bottom made the vessel susceptible in rough seas to pitching so severe that the propellers came out of the water. Additionally, the blunt hull did not slice through water to reduce its resistance, but pushed large volumes of water out of the way by brute force. That made the ship very fuel-inefficient, causing it to consume coal at a prodigious rate.
On top of design defects, the Novgorod had numerous manufacturing defects. Low quality materials and poor workmanship led to persistent problems with the ship’s propulsion, from blades to shaft to drive, that lasted for the vessel’s entire career. Additionally, the ship suffered from poor ventilation that no amount of troubleshooting could fix, even after installing ventilation cowls on the gun emplacements.
The Novgorod also sucked in its core function as a fighting platform. Its two eleven inch guns had an exceptionally slow rate of fire, at ten minutes per shot. The rotating mounts containing the guns were also slow, taking three minutes to traverse 180 degrees. The problem was exacerbated by weak locks that caused the gun mounts to rotate on their own from the guns’ recoil. And the guns’ firing caused the ship to rotate uncontrollably.
Because the flat bottomed vessel had no stabilizing keel to keep her in line and keep her guns pointed towards the target, the only solution was to moor the Novgorod in a fixed position. That essentially transformed her from a ship to a floating fortress anchored in place, with her guns pointed seaward.
The Novgorod and other round hulls were summarized thus by a naval historian: “they were a dismal failure. They were too slow to stem the current in the Dniepr, and proved very difficult to steer. In practice the discharge of even one gun caused them to turn out of control and even contra-rotating some of six propellers was unable to keep the ship on the correct heading.
Nor could they cope with the rough weather which is frequently encountered in the Black Sea. They were prone to rapid rolling and pitching in anything more than a flat calm, and could not aim or load their guns under such circumstances“.
Mongol general Subutai (1175 – 1248), known as “Bagatur” (The Valiant), is probably the greatest military commander that so few people had ever heard of. He was the Mongols’ most brilliant and successful general, and the main military strategist of both Genghis Khan and his successor, Ogedei.
Hailing from a humble background, Subutai left home at age fourteen to join the Mongol army. Genghis Khan liked him and appointed him his door attendant, and from that close proximity to Genghis, Subutai learned the basics of strategy and the Mongol art of war. He rose through the ranks, and eventually directed over 20 campaigns, conquered or overran 32 nations, and won 65 battles. He holds the distinction of having conquered more territory than any other commander in history.
In Subutai’s first command assignment, he convinced an enemy garrison that he was a deserter from the Mongol army, won their confidence, and lulled them into letting down their guard. He then signaled the Mongols to attack, allowing them to easily overrun and defeat the foe.
Throughout his career, deception was a hallmark of Subutai’s generalship, and a major factor in his successes. He exhibited that talent on a grand scale in 1211, when he secured a major victory over the Jin Chinese by a timely appearance to surprise the enemy with a flank attack, after convincing them that he was hundreds of miles away.
18. Subutai’s Subjugation of the Khwarezmians and the Rus
When Genghis Khan turned his attentions to the Khwarezmian Empire, Subutai led the Mongol vanguard in the campaign, and chased Khwarezm’s emir to his death. Subutai then led a reconnaissance in force on a circular route around the Caspian Sea to the north en route back to Mongolia, while Genghis returned via a circular southern route that brushed against India.
Subutai’s route led him through the Caucasus, where he twice defeated the Georgians, then subjugated the Cumans. That brought him into conflict with the Cumans’ Rus allies, so he led them on a merry chase for nine days in a feigned retreat, before turning on them at an opportune moment, and destroying them at the Battle of Kalka River in 1223. Subutai then returned to the east, where he conducted successful campaigns against the Chinese for the next decade. In the late 1230s, he returned to the west, and subjugated the Rus.
After reducing the Rus to Mongol vassals, Subutai invaded Eastern Europe in 1241. During that campaign, he oversaw the operations of Mongol armies separated by hundreds of miles, and brought them to victory over their respective opponents, in Poland and Hungary, within one day of each other. Subutai was in command at the second victory, the Battle of Mohi, which destroyed the Hungarian army and left Central Europe open to further invasion. He was drawing plans to advance along the Danube to Vienna, then subjugate the Holy Roman Empire, when news arrived of Khan Ogedei, Genghis Khan’s successor, had died.
Although he wanted to press on into Europe, politics necessitated the return of Subutai and his forces to Mongolia to participate in the selection of a new Khan. Subutai never returned to Europe, and spent his final years campaigning against the Song Dynasty in southern China. Thus, Europe was spared the Mongol yoke that Russia ended up enduring for centuries.
Teddy Roosevelt walked away from the US presidency in 1908, but by 1912, he had come to regret that decision. So he returned to the campaign trail, running for president as candidate of the Bull Moose Party. On October 14th of that year, he made his way to a podium at the Milwaukee Auditorium, and opened with the unremarkable statement “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible“.
Next, he delivered one of the most remarkable lines ever uttered on the stump: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have been shot“. As the horrified audience gasped, Roosevelt unbuttoned his vest, to reveal a bloodstained shirt beneath. The former president then topped his previous statement with an even more memorable one: “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!”
After telling his Milwaukee Auditorium audience that he had been shot, Teddy Roosevelt pulled out a 50 page speech from his coat pocket, that had been pierced through with a bullet. He continued: “Fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bulletâthere is where the bullet went throughâand it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best“.
Just about any other candidate – except maybe Andrew Jackson – would have keeled over in shock or at least bid the audience adieu before rushing to seek medical care, but not TR. Assuring his audience “I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap“, he went ahead and delivered a ninety minute fiery speech.
The assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt’s life had been made at about 8 PM, as he got into an open air car outside his hotel, waving his hat to the crowd. Just then, the darkness was lit up by a flash from a .38 Colt revolver – the former president had been shot. An aide grappled with the would-be assassin and prevented him from firing another shot, before the crowd joined in.
The culprit, a deranged Bavarian immigrant named John Flammang Schrank, would have been lynched on the spot if Roosevelt had not intervened. “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to see him“, Roosevelt told the crowd. He then asked Schrank “What did you do it for?” When Schrank stayed mum, TR told the crowd to turn him over to the police.
After getting shot, Teddy Roosevelt reached inside his shirt and felt around, until he encountered a dime-sized hole. He turned to an aide and remarked: “He pinked me “. TR then coughed into his hand a few times, and seeing no blood, determined that his lung had not been pierced. He directed that he be driven to the Milwaukee Auditorium, to address the waiting audience.
The hefty speech, squeezed into his jacket pocket, had combined with a glass case and a dense overcoat to slow the bullet. It was later recovered lodged against his fourth rib, on a trajectory to his heart. As to the shooter, Schrank had dreamt that the assassinated president William McKinley had urged him to avenge him by killing his vice president and successor, TR. Schrank was deemed legally insane, and was institutionalized until his death in 1943.
12. History Would be Quite Different If the French Had Not Guillotined Louis XVI
The French Revolutionary Wars, and later the Napoleonic Wars, roiled Europe and much of the world from the 1790s until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. They went into high gear after the revolutionary French government chopped off the head of their former king, Louis XVI. That scared the daylights out of the rest of Europe’s monarchs, and guaranteed their undying enmity towards revolutionary France. However, the unfortunate Louis had come quite close to avoiding that fate.
The years after the French Revolution had been tough on Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. The absolute monarchy had been drastically weakened, and in October of 1789, the unwashed masses had burst into the Palace of Versailles, and forcibly transferred the royal family to Paris. Ever since, king and queen lived as virtual prisoners of their subjects. Feeling increasingly humiliated as they were forced to adjust to the role of constitutional monarchs, the royal couple decided to slip out of Paris. They almost got away.
King Louis XVI planned to flee with his family to the citadel of Montmedy, roughly 200 miles from Paris, where 10,000 men under a royalist general awaited. After regaining his freedom of action, Louis planned to launch a royalist counterrevolution, and restore France to pre-revolution days. On the night of June 20th, 1791, he and Marie Antoinette gathered their family, and prepared to slip out of the Tuileries Palace.
Behind, Louis left a document addressed to the National Assembly, letting them know his intent to roll the clock back to the royal concessions granted in 1789, before the Revolution began. In private correspondence, Marie Antoinette took a more reactionary line, declaring an intention to return to the old order, without any concessions at all.
To whisk away the French royal family and their close intimates, a Swedish Count Fersen had arranged for two fast light carriages, that could have made it to Montmedy relatively quickly. However, that would have entailed splitting the family, something the king and queen refused to contemplate. Instead, Louis and Marie Antoinette decided on a different ride at the last minute: a bigger and more conspicuous carriage drawn by six horses, that could accommodate everybody. It turned out to be a bad choice.
Around midnight on the night of June 20-21, 1791, Louis XVI, entered the carriage disguised as the valet of a Russian noblewoman – the governess of the royal children, who pretended to be their mother. Marie Antoinette pretended to be a governess, while her sister acted like a nurse. They made it out of Paris unchallenged, but soon rued their last minute carriage change. The heavy carriage was slow, and it had to stop for repairs when its traces broke. The royal couple’s disguises were also flimsy, and they were recognized by many along the route.
The French royal flight ended at the small town of Varennes, just thirty miles shy of safety. The local postmaster recognized Louis XVI from currency bearing his likeness, and the royal family were arrested and returned to Paris. It was a disaster. Before his flight, the revolutionaries had accepted Louis as a constitutional monarch, and took his assurances that he agreed with them at face value. His flight, coupled with the document he had left behind telling them what he really thought, changed their minds.
Until then, abolishing the monarchy and declaring a republic had been a fringe position advocated only by radicals. Now, it quickly gained in popularity. Finally, in December of 1792, Louis XVI was tried for treason, and convicted. He was guillotined a month later. His wife met a similar fate, and was guillotined in October, 1793.
8. The Little Known Functionary Who Saved the World
Not that many people know who Stanislav Petrov is. However, everybody alive today, anywhere in the world, irrespective of race, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, political persuasion, or any other distinction, owes him a huge debt of gratitude.
Acting on a gut instinct and placing a huge responsibility upon his own shoulders, Petrov saved the world from a full blown nuclear holocaust. In short, if not for Petrov, most of us would not be alive today, and the relative few still living would be struggling for survival in some barbarous and radioactive post apocalypse environment.
Early in the morning of September 26th, 1983, Soviet early warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the US. Computer readouts confirmed the warning, and advised that several American missiles had been launched. Soviet protocol for such a scenario called for an immediate response by launching their own nukes in retaliation.
Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer in charge, and his job was to immediately alert the Soviet leadership to launch their own missiles. As he put it an interview decades later: “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it“. You and I can read this today because, as seen below, Petrov had the moral courage to pursue a different course of action.
In September of 1983, Cold War tensions were particularly high. Soviet leaders feared American president Ronald Reagan. They also suspected that a massive NATO training exercise known as Able Archer, that was taking place at the time, might be a ruse, to conceal preparations for a surprise attack against the Warsaw Pact. In short, it was a bad time for nuclear attack warnings to go off in the USSR.
By nuclear warfare logic, the protocols of immediately launching your missiles upon receipt of a warning that the enemy had launched their nukes made sense on “use it or lose it” grounds. Given the short window – under half an hour – between missile launch detection and impact, the side that failed to immediately launch its own missiles risked having them destroyed in their silos. Stanislav Petrov’s job was to sound the alarm up the chain, which almost certainly would have led to a decision to launch Soviet missiles.
When he received an alarm that the US had launched nukes, Stanislav Petrov declined to alert his superiors. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it â¦ A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’“.
Petrov trusted his instincts – and the advise of radar operators who told him they registered no missiles – and dismissed the alert as a false alarm. Instead, he called the duty officer at Red Army headquarters, and reported a systems malfunction. If he was wrong, mushroom clouds would have erupted all around the USSR within minutes. They did not. A few days later, Petrov received an official reprimand – not for what he did that night, but for mistakes in the logbook.
4. Martin Luther King Winged the âI Have a Dream’ Speech
Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s best known quote, “I have a dream“, is one of the most famous lines ever delivered in an American speech. A highly memorable part of an inspiring oration delivered before the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, August 28th, 1963, the phrase resonated and caught on.
Indeed, that phrase probably did as much or more than anything else in Dr. King’s remarkable life to cement his place in the popular imagination as an icon in the struggle for civil rights. Relatively few people know that it was an improvisation.
When Dr. King walked up to the podium that memorable August day in 1963, he intended to deliver a written and prepared speech – copies of which had already been distributed to the press – that contained no mention of dreaming. However, mid speech, while reading the seventh paragraph, King took a pause for breath. During that brief break, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a good friend of King, shouted “Tell âem about the dream!”
King responded by pushing the prepared text aside, shifting gears, and giving himself over to the spirit. What followed was one of the greatest examples of rhetorical dexterity, as King abandoned the prepared speech halfway through, and began riffing and improvising the second half, with the “I have a dream” refrain.
Sometimes in history, the margin between catastrophe and salvation is rather thin, and depends on little more than the vagaries and whims of fate. Few examples are more illustrative of that than the fate of the Japanese city of Kokura on August 9th, 1945. At 3:49AM that morning, the Bockscar, a B-29 piloted by US Air Force Major Charles W. Sweeney, took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Kokura.
In the bomb bay was Fat Man, a plutonium atomic bomb, more powerful than the uranium core weapon that had devastated Hiroshima three days earlier. As late night turned to dawn and then morning, Kokura stirred and came to life, its inhabitants blissfully unaware that death was winging its way towards them. Weather observation planes reported clear skies over Kokura, and the Bockscar proceeded to a rendezvous point where it was supposed to link up with Big Stink, a B-29 tasked with filming the strike. Then fate intervened, and spared Kokura.
When Bockscar reached Kokura, Big Stink, with which it was scheduled to rendezvous, was nowhere to be seen. So Bockscar circled around, waiting for the film plane to show up. After 40 minutes of flying around, Major Sweeney gave up on Big Stink, and proceeded to Kokura. By then, however, clouds, plus smoke from a conventional bombing raid on a nearby city, had combined to obscure Kokura.
Over the next 50 minutes, Bockscar crisscrossed the skies above the target city, hoping for enough of a break in the cloud and smoke to drop its bomb. Below, the Kokurans went about their daily lives, innocently oblivious to the death circling above. After three failed bombing runs, Sweeney finally gave up, and flew at a new heading for his alternate target in case he was unable to bomb Kokura: Nagasaki. One city’s salvation proved to be another city’s doom.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading