On the 19th April 1770, the British explorer Captain James Cook first caught sight of Australia. Or at least that’s what the log of HMS Endeavour said. The problem was, Cook and his crew had been at sea for nearly 2 years, having sailed west from Britain across the Atlantic to South America, and then onwards across the southern Pacific. By the time they arrived on the south-east coast of Australia, they had – in a calendar – skipped a day. According to some sources, therefore, Cook arrived in Australia on April 20th.
Irrespective of whether we use the ship’s log or the modern calendar to record the date, the voyage of the Endeavour was significant for being the first European voyage to reach the east coast of Australia. The Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon was the first to chart the west coast over 100 years previously.
After sighting land, it was another ten days before Cook and his crew actually stepped ashore. The first sighting had been of Point Hicks, but it wasn’t until the ship had travelled some distance along the coast to what is now known as Botany Bay that Cook and his crew felt they had found a suitable mooring.
Botany Bay is now a major transportation hub, since it is home to Sydney’s cargo seaport and two runways of Sydney airport. However, for many years the name Botany Bay conjured up different images of transportation since Botany Bay had been the first proposed site for a British penal colony.
On 15th April 1755, Samuel Johnson published “A Dictionary of the English Language” in London. Johnson was not the first to write a dictionary, but his was the most comprehensive and detailed to date. The finished book contained 42,773 words, each of which featured notes on each word’s usage. Perhaps most astounding is the fact that Johnson wrote the entire dictionary himself, taking 9 years to do so, and earning the modern
equivalent of £210,000 British pounds for his efforts.
Johnson’s book was by no means the first dictionary to be produced – as far as we’re aware that accolade goes to Sir Thomas Elyot, who was the first to publish a book called a Dictionary in 1538 while working for Henry VIII. However, it’s generally accepted that Johnson’s dictionary was the ‘go to’ reference for the English language until the publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary in 1888 – 173 years after Johnson published his.
Despite the impact of Johnson’s dictionary, it would be fair to say that it created a number of problems that the modern English language has inherited. His spellings have become standard, despite them having a number of inconsistencies. However, as Johnson himself wrote in a letter to an Italian lexicographer in 1784, “Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”
On the 5th April 1621, the Mayflower – the boat that carried the Pilgrim fathers to America – returned to England from the settlement at Plymouth. The story of the Mayflower usually focuses on its journey to New England, with the ship itself being a central character in the story of European settlers in North America. However, the ship itself was nothing special.
By 1620 the Mayflower was already reaching the end of its working life. It had been a cargo ship, regularly making short journeys to France in order to load up with wine and other goods to sell in England. The ship’s voyage to the New World was in many ways just a delivery contract between the Pilgrims and the ship’s master, Christopher Jones. With the Pilgrims safely ashore in America, Jones and his crew were free to return to England.
However, the bitter winter and outbreak of disease meant that construction of a settlement on land was not completed until March 1621. With many of the ship’s crew struck down by disease, Jones was forced to stay until those of his crew who survived were fit enough for the return journey at the start of April.
After its return, Jones used the Mayflower for some other trading runs to France, but he died just a year later. By 1624 the ship had also reached the end of its life. Legend says that it was sold and broken up for scrap, with the beams used to construct a barn in the county of Buckinghamshire.
On the 2nd April 1982, the Falklands War began when Argentina launched an amphibious invasion of the Falkland Islands. The Argentine occupation ended 74 days later on the 14th June following a bitter conflict that killed over 900 people.
The Falkland Islands have long been the subject of a sovereignty dispute between Britain and Argentina. Argentina’s military government, led by General Galtieri, sought to use the country’s claim to the islands to boost patriotic feelings at home and draw attention away from criticisms of economic mismanagement and human rights abuses.
Despite increased tensions in the South Pacific following the raising of the Argentinian flag on the island of South Georgia two weeks earlier, Britain did not expect a military invasion of the Falkland Islands. The small garrison of British Marines were overwhelmed by the Argentine invasion on the 2nd April and the islands’ governor Rex Hunt surrendered. As the last Telex conversation from the Falklands to London stated at 4.30pm that day, “You can’t argue with thousands of troops plus enormous navy support when you are only 1800 strong.”
The next day the United Nations passed Resolution 502 which condemned the invasion and demanded an immediate withdrawal of all Argentine forces. However, on the 5th April the British Government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ordered a naval task force that numbered more than 100 ships to retake the islands.
Bitter fighting eventually led to the Argentinian surrender, an outcome that further undermined the military government. Argentina’s 1983 general election returned the country to civilian rule, while in Britain Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party secured a landslide election victory.
On the 31st March 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany landed in the Moroccan city of Tangier and expressed his support for the Sultan’s independence from foreign powers. The diplomatic crisis that followed, now widely known as the First Moroccan Crisis, contributed to the tensions that led to the outbreak of the First World War ten years later.
The Kaiser’s speech in Tangier was a direct challenge to the French Foreign Minister, Théophile Delcassé, who had previously secured wide European support for control of Morocco. Despite initial reservations, both Spain and Britain – the latter through the signing of the Entente Cordiale – accepted French control of Morocco.
The Kaiser’s speech in Tangier promoted an ‘open-door’ policy regarding Morocco, and sought an international conference to discuss the matter. The French – who believed that their control of the country was now a foregone conclusion – opposed this suggestion, but with the threat of war growing eventually agreed.
The subsequent Algeciras Conference that took place between January and April 1906 was a diplomatic disaster for Germany. Of the thirteen nations present, only Austria-Hungary supported Germany’s position. Even Italy, who was a member of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany, sided with the French.
Although a compromise agreement was eventually reached, Kaiser Wilhelm emerged bitterly humiliated. His attempt to drive a wedge between France and Britain had failed spectacularly, and had in effect turned the Entente Cordiale into a loose military alliance. The Anglo-Russian Entente followed in 1907, combining with the Franco-Russian Alliance to form the Triple Entente. The Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 subsequently created further tensions between Europe’s power blocs.
The raid by the Royal Navy and British Commandos was overseen by Combined Operations Headquarters. Their task was to disable the only dry dock on the Atlantic seaboard that was big enough to accommodate the terrifying German battleship Tirpitz. This was vital to British attempts to weaken the German presence in the Atlantic. If the St Nazaire facility could be put out of action, the Germans would have to send Tirpitz home for any repairs and would ultimately keep the dangerous ship out of the Atlantic.
265 commandos and 346 Royal Navy personnel arrived at the French docks in a convoy led by the old British destroyer HMS Campbeltown in the early hours of 28 March. The convoy was spotted before reaching the enormous gates of the dry dock but, despite of intense fire from the German batteries on the shore, Campeltown ploughed into the dock gates at 1.34am. Commandos surged ashore to destroy key dock facilities with explosives while assault teams tried to draw away German defenders. Meanwhile, time fuses attached to explosives hidden in the bow of Campbeltown were set.
With almost all the British evacuation ships destroyed or unable to reach the docks, it became clear that the Commandos left on shore would be unable to leave by sea. They consequently fought on until they ran out of ammunition, after which all but five were taken prisoner. At around noon the explosives inside Campbeltown detonated, destroying the dry dock.
Only 228 men returned to England. 169 had been killed and 205 became prisoners of war, but the raid itself was a success as the dock remained inoperative for the rest of the war.
On the 27th March 1963, Chairman of the British Transport Commission Dr Richard Beeching published his report entitled The Reshaping of British Railways. The first of two documents that outlined his plans for the reduction and restructuring of the British railway network, the subsequent Beeching Cuts resulted in the closure of 2,128 stations, thousands of miles of track, and the loss of up to 70,000 jobs.
By the end of the Second World War, road transport had grown exponentially and many of the nation’s railway lines were in a poor state of repair. In 1948 the railways were nationalised and became British Rail. However, economic recovery and the end of petrol rationing spurred a 10% annual increase in road vehicle mileage through to the 1960s, while railway income slowly fell below operating costs. By 1961 British Rail was operating at a loss of £300,000 per day.
Beeching was drafted in by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to make the railways profitable. His detailed analysis of rail traffic highlighted stations and lines that ran at a constant loss by raising very little income while their fixed operating costs remained high. He pointed out that stations and railway lines had broadly the same fixed costs whether they saw 1000 passengers a week or 6000.
Beeching’s report therefore recommended that 6,000 out of the existing 18,000 miles of railway line should be closed entirely, while others should only serve freight. Meanwhile 2,363 stations were to close. Not all the recommendations were implemented, but by the early 1970s thousands of miles of line, thousands of stations, and thousands of jobs had been cut.
On the 11th March 1918 the first confirmed case of what was to become known as Spanish Flu was identified at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, a huge military facility in Kansas. Within 18 months the disease had become a pandemic that infected up to a third of the entire world’s population. With between 10-20% of all infected persons dying, modern estimates place the flu as taking anywhere between 20 to 100 million lives.
The exact geographical origin of the disease has never been identified, but the first confirmed case was company cook Private Albert Gitchell in Kansas who reported to the camp’s infirmary when he woke in the morning. By midday 107 soldiers had been admitted with the same symptoms.
The outbreak came while American soldiers were being shipped to Europe to fight in the First World War. The conditions in the trenches of the Western Front accelerated the spread of the virus, and contributed greatly to it becoming a pandemic. Poor hygiene and nutrition provided a fertile breeding ground for the flu, which soon made its way into the civilian populations of Europe as well.
Due to wartime censorship, governments limited reports on the virulence of the flu and played down the death toll. However, newspapers in neutral Spain faced no such limitations, resulting in people believing Spain was suffering disproportionately high cases which led to it gaining the name Spanish Flu.
With even the lowest estimates placing the number of deaths from Spanish Flu at 20 million, the pandemic killed more people than had died on all sides in the First World War itself.
On the 7th March 1936, the German Army under control of Adolf Hitler violated international agreements by remilitarising the Rhineland. Although Germany had retained political control over the area following the Treaty of Versailles, it had been banned from stationing armed forces there. France reacted with horror, but they didn’t take any action.
The Rhineland area of Germany, which lay on the border with France, had been banned under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles from containing armed forces within a 50km-wide strip. This had later been confirmed by Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in the Locarno Treaties of 1925. However, by 1936 Hitler had come to power and had begun to break the terms of Versailles by increasing the number of German weapons beyond the agreed limits and reintroducing conscription.
The Western powers had failed to respond to these moves with anything more than diplomatic grumbling, so Hitler felt emboldened to further test the limits of the Versailles settlement. After France and Russia signed the 1935 Franco-Soviet Pact, Hitler chose to send three battalions, or approximately 22,000 German troops, into the Rhineland on the morning of the Saturday 7th March in what he claimed was a defensive move against ‘encirclement’. His own generals were expecting retaliation from France, and Hitler had even ordered an immediate withdrawal if the French army made a move. But it didn’t – France refused to act without the support of Britain, which had been severely weakened by the impact of the Great Depression, distracted by the unfolding Abyssinia Crisis, and sympathised – to an extent – with the German desire to defend its own border.
On the 5th March 1946, Winston Churchill described the post-war division of Europe as an “iron curtain” in his “Sinews of Peace” address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Often interpreted as a key event in the origin of the Cold War, Churchill’s speech played a significant role in changing Western perceptions of their former Soviet ally.
Churchill, as the British Prime Minister, had led Britain to victory in the Second World War but in the General Election of July 1945 suffered a landslide defeat to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Despite now being in opposition, he continued to be highly respected abroad and visited the United States in 1946. During this trip he was invited by Westminster College in the 7,000-person town of Fulton to deliver a speech to an audience of 40,000 people.
Churchill was introduced at Fulton by President Harry Truman, and opened his speech by complimenting the United States as standing “at the pinnacle of world power.” As the speech progressed, he became increasingly critical of the Soviet Union’s policies in Eastern Europe. Churchill was not the first to use the term “iron curtain” as a metaphor for a strong divide since versions of its had been in use for many centuries, and nor was the “Sinews of Peace” speech the first time that he himself had used the term. However, his use of the term in a speech with such a large audience thrust it into wider circulation and associated it directly with the post-war situation.
Stalin accused Churchill of warmongering, and defended the USSR’s relationship with eastern Europe as a necessary barrier to future attacks.