Historical Nonfiction

fun facts, quotes, and pictures from history
In Myanmar, everyone drives on the right. Because a wizard told the ruling general at the time to do so. In 1970!

In Myanmar, everyone drives on the right. Because a wizard told the ruling general at the time to do so. In 1970!

History …[is] where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. … The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

—Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

The flag of Mozambique — yes, that’s an AK-47

The flag of Mozambique — yes, that’s an AK-47

In 1905, Norway held a referendum on dissolving their union with Sweden. 99.95% voted yes — just 184 voted no 

(Source: Wikipedia)

The Balmis Expedition

Smallpox ravaged the New World for centuries after the Spanish conquest. In 1797 Edward Jenner showed that exposure to the cowpox virus could protect one against the disease, but the problem remained how to transport cowpox across the sea. In 1802 Charles IV of Spain announced a bold plan — 22 orphaned children would be sent by ship; after the first child was inoculated, his skin would exude fluid that could be passed to the next child. By passing the live virus from arm to arm, the children formed a transmission chain that could transport the vaccine in an era before refrigeration and other modern technology was available.

And it worked! Over the next 10 years Spain spread the vaccine throughout the New World and to the Philippines, Macao, and China.

(Source: futilitycloset.com)

Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(Source: legendsofamerica.com)

A meeting of civilisations: The mystery of China's celtic mummies

Solid as a warrior of the Caledonii tribe, the man’s hair is reddish brown flecked with grey, framing high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips and a ginger beard. When he lived three thousand years ago, he stood six feet tall, and was buried wearing a red twill tunic and tartan leggings. He looks like a Bronze Age European. In fact, he’s every inch a Celt. Even his DNA says so. He lies near three women and a baby, all of Celts. So what were they doing in the Taklamakan desert in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang — thousands of miles east of the Celtic civilisation in Europe?

On the Yucatan Peninsula, there were repeated droughts in 50-year intervals — in 760, 810, 860, and 910. Why is this interesting? Because that was around the time of the Classic Mayan’s collapse. They relied on collected and stored rainwater to irrigate crops, which fed their large cities with elaborate social hierarchies. With repeated droughts, however, their sophisticated agricultural system was stressed and then failed altogether.

Archaeological evidence points to hungry cities warring over the remaining resources, civil wars erupting, and large-scale migrations in search of food. Outside invaders took advantage of the chaos. In the end, the cities disappeared, leaving ruins in the jungles and a culture that many people in the region still identify with today.

(Source: mentalfloss.com)

A Great Day For Japanese Samurai Enthusiasts

Masamune was one of the greatest Japanese swordmakers (or the greatest, I don’t want to get involved in the historian wars). He lived and worked in the late 1200s and early 1300s in the Kanagawa Prefecture. Even during his lifetime, Masamune was acknowledged as a great swordmaster. His reluctance to sign his swords, however, has made identifying his works difficult. In fact, for the past 150 years, no new Masamune swords have been confirmed.

a previously identified Masamune creation

After centuries of civil wars, local squabbles, and pirates, swords tend to get lost or lose identification, no matter how impressive their pedigree. Last year, a man brought a sword, which had found its way into his personal property, to the Kyoto National Museum to be appraised. The resident historian and sword expert (what an awesome title) has after months of study concluded it is a new Masamune sword. The particular sword is called the Shimazu Masamune. It was given in 1862 by Iemochi, the 14th Tokugawa shogun, to the Imperial Family marking his marriage to Princess Kazunomiya.

Princess Kazunomiya, who was renowned for her poetry

(Source: thedailybeagle.net)

Despite the popular image (and annual celebrations), only 22% of modern Australians have convict ancestry.

Despite the popular image (and annual celebrations), only 22% of modern Australians have convict ancestry.

Of the People, By the People, For the People

Before the American Revolution, European political thought held that sovereignty — ie ultimate power to rule — was believed to always rest with one individual or body. In France, that was the king. In Great Britain, with Parliament. Even after the revolution in America, final sovereignty was believed to reside in the state legislatures. Americans did not believe sovereignty rested with the state governor, distrusted as every executive was after the tyrannies of King George III, and certainty not with the deliberately weak Congress created under the Articles of Confederation.

The Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates after 1787 over the newly proposed constitution changed completely the conception of sovereignty. Anti-Federalists argued that the newly created Congress would become tyrannical in order to control the diverse and scattered American population. Inevitably the United States would become a single, consolidated state because sovereignty would rest with the federal government; it was thought impossible for states and the federal government to share sovereignty. The Anti-Federalists eloquently summed it up: “We will find it impossible to serve two masters.” The Federalists disagreed. Sovereignty could not be taken from the states, they said, because it did not come from the states. Sovereignty rested with the people. Therefore, agreeing to the new constitution did not mean agreeing to eventual tyranny, merely transferring who executed the sovereign will of the people. As historian Gordon S. Wood put it, “It marked one of the most creative moments in the history of political thought.”

The last surviving eyewitness to the Lincoln assassination, who lived long enough to be interviewed on television.

Soviet Minister Molotov stated that the cluster bombs being dropped on Finland were actually food, during the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. The Finns began sarcastically calling the bombs “Molotov bread baskets,” which they responded to with their own “Molotov cocktails,” as “a drink to go with the food.”

(Source: tawdryknickers.com)

Teenaged Beatrix Potter and her pet mouse Xarifa, circa 1885.  Here’s a few more interesting things about this famous children’s author
Beatrix Potter was the author of thirty-three books total
her writing started as “picture letters” as she called them to her nanny’s son. She would tell a story and include many little illustrations to keep her son Noel entertained
Beatrix’s parents were rich off the cotton trade — slavery — and she grew up in a house filled with servents and expensive furnishings
A cold and distant mother made Beatrix’s earliest friends the animals she kept as pets
She was a rather brilliant painter, who could use oils or watercolors

Teenaged Beatrix Potter and her pet mouse Xarifa, circa 1885.  Here’s a few more interesting things about this famous children’s author

  • Beatrix Potter was the author of thirty-three books total
  • her writing started as “picture letters” as she called them to her nanny’s son. She would tell a story and include many little illustrations to keep her son Noel entertained
  • Beatrix’s parents were rich off the cotton trade — slavery — and she grew up in a house filled with servents and expensive furnishings
  • A cold and distant mother made Beatrix’s earliest friends the animals she kept as pets
  • She was a rather brilliant painter, who could use oils or watercolors