A Short History of Rubber

A Short History of Rubber

Tyres, Sally Butcher, Flickr Creative Commons

Originating from a tree found in the jungles of the Amazon, rubber was used in its raw form by indigenous tribes for centuries. But it wasn’t until “vulcanisation” was achieved by British and American scientists, that the commodity became truly useful. In the process it triggered a gold rush, changing the fortunes and lives of millions and the fate of nations.


In May of 1526 Andrea Navagero, the Venetian ambassador to Spain, attended an entertainment in Seville staged for the royal court. Seven years earlier, Hernán Cortés, acting without the authorization of the Spanish throne, had invaded Mexico and toppled the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire). The king and the queen had to decide what to do with their millions of new subjects. To demonstrate the intelligence, skills, and noble demeanour of the peoples of the Triple Alliance, the antislavery faction of the Spanish church had imported a group of them from Seville. The Indians divided into teams and played a showcase version of the Mesoamerican sport of ullamaliztli, which the Venetian ambassador attended.

He was mesmerized by ullamaliztli, which he seems to have thought was a performance akin to juggling act. In ullamaliztli, two squads vied to drive a ball through hoops on the opposite ends of a field – an early version of soccer, one might say, except that the ball was never supposed to touch the ground and the players could hit it only with their hips, chests and thighs.

As fascinating to Navagero as the ball game was the ball itself. European balls were typically made of leather and stuffed with wool or feathers. These were something different. They “bounded copiously”, Navagero said, ricocheting in a headlong way unlike anything he had seen before. “I do not understand how these heavy balls are so elastic”. Navagero, d’Anghiera and Oviedo had a right to be confounded: they were encountering a novel form of matter. The balls were made of rubber. In chemical terms, rubber is an elastomer, so named because many elastomers can stretch and bounce. No Europeans had ever seen one before.

Rubber Fever

Brazil Rubber Tree, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr Creative Commons

Brazil Rubber Tree, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr Creative Commons

The first simple laboratory experiments, in 1805, gave little hint that rubber might be useful – although the scientist, John Gough, did discover the fact, key to later understanding, that rubber heats up when stretched. Only in the 1820’s did rubber take off, with the invention of the rubber galoshes. ‘Take off’ for Europeans and Americans, that is; South American Indians had been using rubber for centuries. They milked rubber trees by slushing thin, V-shaped cuts on the trunk, latex dripped from the point of the V into a cup, usually a hollowed-out gourd, mounted on the bark. In a process reminiscent of making taffy, Indians extracted rubber from the latex by slowly boiling and stretching out over than intensely smoky fire of palm nuts. When the rubber was ready, they worked into stiff pipes, dishes, and other implements.

Native people also waterproofed their hats and cloaks by impregnating the cloth with rubber. European colonists in Amazonia were manufacturing rubberized garments by the late eighteenth century, including boots made by dripping foot-shaped moulds into bubbling pots of latex. A few pairs of boots made their way to the United States. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were built on swamps; their streets were thick with mud and had no sidewalks. Rubber boots there were a big hit.

The Epicentre of what became known as “rubber fever” was Salem, Massachusetts, north of Boston. In 1825, a young Salem entrepreneur imported five hundred pairs of rubber shoes from Brazil. Ten years later, the number of imported shoes had grown to more than 400,000, about one for every forty Americans. Villagers in tiny hamlets at the mouth of the Amazon moulded thousands of shoes to the dictates of Boston merchants. Garments impregnated with rubber were modern, high-tech, exciting- a perfect urban accessory. People flocked to stores.

The crash was inevitable. The idea of impermeable rubber boots and clothes was more exciting than the fact. Rubber simply didn’t work well. In cold weather, the shoes became brittle; in hot weather, they melted. Boots placed in closets at the end of the winter turned into black puddles by fall. The results smelled so bad that people found themselves burying their footgear in the garden. Public opinion swung violently against rubber.


Rubber Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear photographed by Southworth and Hawes

Just before the collapse, in 1833, a bankrupt businessman named Charles Goodyear became interested in –and obsessed by – rubber. It was typical of Goodyear’s entrepreneurial acumen that he began to seek financial backing for a rubber venture just at the time investors were planning their exits from the field.

A few weeks after Goodyear announced his intent to produce temperature stable rubber he was thrown into debtor’s prison. In his cell he began work, mashing bits of rubber with rolling a pin. He was untroubled by any knowledge of chemistry but boundlessly determined. All the while he was mixing toxic chemicals, more or less randomly, in the hope that they would make rubber more stable. Goodyear began mixing rubber with sulphur. Nothing happened, he said later, until he accidentally dropped a lump of sulphur-treated rubber onto a wood stove. To his amazement, the rubber didn’t melt.

By a circuitous path two thin, inch-and-a-half-long strips of Goodyear’s processed rubber ended up in the autumn of 1842 at the laboratory of Thomas Hancock, a Manchester engineer who had developed processes for manipulating rubber. Hancock was more organized and knowledgeable than Goodyear and had better equipment. For a year and a half he systematically performed hundreds of small experiments. Eventually he, too, learned that immersing rubber in melted sulphur would transform it into something that would stay stretchy in cold weather and solid in hot weather. Later he called the process “vulcanization”, after the Roman god of fire, Vulcan.

The Great Exhibition 1851, Neil Cummings, Flickr Creative Commons

The Great Exhibition 1851, Neil Cummings, Flickr Creative Commons

The British government granted Hancock a patent on May 21, 1844. Three weeks later, the U.S. government awarded Goodyear his vulcanization patent. Goodyear didn’t understand the recipe of vulcanization, but he did understand that at least he had a business opportunity. Showing a previously unsuspected knack for publicity stunts, he spent $ 30,000 he did not have to create an entire room made of rubber for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, the first world’s fair. Four years later he borrowed $ 50,000 more to display an even more lavish rubber room at the second world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Parisians lost their urban hauteur and gawped like rubes at Goodyear’s rubber vanity table. Except for the unpleasant smell, Goodyear’s exhibit was a triumph. “Napoleon III invested him with the Legion of Honour” wrote the diplomat and historian Austin Coates, “and a Paris court sent him to prison for debt”. He received the medal in his cell. Goodyear was forced to sell some of his wife’s possessions to pay for their trip home.

Goodyear, Rool Paap, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodyear, Rool Paap, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodyear died four years later, still awash in debt. Afterward, Americans lionized him as a visionary. Books extolled him to children as an exemplar of the can-do spirit; a major tire company named itself after him. Meanwhile, Coates, noted, “Hancock received English treatment: due respect while living, fading notice when dead, and on some suitable centenary thereafter, a postage stamp”.

Neither Goodyear nor Hancock had any idea why sulphur stabilized rubber – or why, for that matter, unadulterated rubber bounced and stretched. Nineteenth-century scientists found bouncing balls exactly as mystifying as sixteenth-century Spaniards.

The last half of the nineteenth century was a heady time for chemistry. Immersing rubber in sulphur causes a chemical reaction in which rubber molecules link themselves together with chemical “bridges” formed of sulphur atoms. So ubiquitous are the bonds that a rubber band – a loop of vulcanized rubber – is actually a single, enormous, cross-linked molecule. With the molecules anchored together, they are more resistant to change: harder to align, harder to entangle, more resistant to extremes of temperature. Rubber suddenly becomes a stable material.

The impact of vulcanization was profound, the inflatable rubber tire-key to the adoption of both the bicycle and the automobile – being the most celebrated example. But rubber also made electrification possible: try to imagine a modern building without insulation on its wiring. Or imagine dishwashers, washing machines and clothes dryers without the belts that transmit the motion of their engines to the appliance itself. Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil, gasoline, and exhaust vapour. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids or gases to vent dangerously from joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, and O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust – a potential death trap.

In short three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution: steel, fossil fuels, and rubber.

The Rubber Rush

As this point, the primary source of natural rubber was latex from Hevea Brasilensis, native to the Amazon basin, the tree is most abundant on the borderlands between Brazil and Bolivia. The nearest ports to this area are those on the Pacific coast, across the Andes. Sending rubber to those ports would mean carrying it across the high, icy mountains. After doing that, shipping the latex to England would involve dispatching ships around the stormy southern tip of South America, a long and dangerous trip of almost twelve thousand miles. The entire route was so difficult, in fact, that the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society calculated in 1871 that it would be four times faster to ship rubber to London from the western amazon by transporting it down the Madeira River to the Amazon itself, and thence to the Atlantic.

Even in a time of crazy boom-and-bust cycles the rubber boom stood out. Brazil’s rubber exports grew more than tenfold between 1856 and 1896. Ordinarily such an enormous increase in supply would drive down prices. But instead they kept climbing. Attracted by tales of fortunes gained, speculators leaped into the market. New York rubber oscillated between $1.34 and $3.06 a pound. On top of that, the inflation, financial panics and political instability of the era caused the currencies of Brazil, Britain and the United States to gyrate wildly in value.

Still, rubber kept going up. Its “soaring price is turning rubber manufacturers gray”, the Times claimed on Mach 20, 1910. “Once ounce of rubber washed and prepared for manufacture is worth nearly its weight in pure silver”. The newspaper was hyperventilating, but not entirely wrong. One economist recently calculated that the average London price of rubber roughly tripled between 1870 and 1910.

Theatro de Paz, Belem

Theatro de Paz, Belem

The financial centre of the trade was Belém. Founded in 1616 at the entrance to the world’s greatest river, it had a strategic location. The rubber boom allowed it to become, at last, what Amazonian dreamers had long hoped: the economic capital of a vibrantly growing realm. Convinced they were building the Paris of the Americas, Belem’s newly rich rubber elite filled the cobbled streets with sidewalk cafes, European style strolling parks and Beaux –Arts mansions. Social life centered around the neoclassical Theatro de Paz, where barons in box seats smoked cigars and drank cachaça, the distilled sugarcane liquor that is Brazil’s preferred high-alcohol beverage.

After inspection, the rubber went into series of immense warehouses that lined the shore like sleeping beasts. Rubber was everywhere, one visitor wrote in 1911, “on the sidewalks, in the streets, on trucks, in the great storehouses and in the air – that is, the smell of it”. Indeed, the city’s rubber district had such a powerful aroma that people claimed they could tell what part of the city they were in by the intensity of the odour.

Belém was the bank and the insurance house of the rubber trade, but the centre of rubber collection was the city of Manaus. Located almost a thousand miles inland, where two big rivers join to form the Amazon proper, it was one of the most remote urban places on earth.

Atop one hill was the cathedral, a Jesuit built structure with a design so austere that it looked like a rebuke to the monstrosity that dominated the next hill over. The Teatro Amazonas was a preposterous fantasia of Carrara marble, Venetian chandeliers, Strasbourg tiles, Parisian mirrors and Glasgow ironwork. Finished in 1897 and intended as an opera house, it was a financial folly: the auditorium had only 658 seats, not enough to offset the cost of importing musicians, let alone the alone the expense of construction.

Teatro Amazonas - Manaus, Paulo Cameli, Flickr Creative Commons

Teatro Amazonas – Manaus, Paulo Cameli, Flickr Creative Commons

Wide stone sidewalks with undulating black-and-white pattern led downhill from the theatre through a jumble of brothels, rubber warehouses and nouveau-riche mansions to the docks: two enormous platforms that rode up and down with the river on hundreds of wooden pillars. State governor Eduardo Ribeiro aggressively boosted the city, laying out streets in modern grid, paving them with cobblestones from Portugal (the Amazon had little stone), overseeing the installation of what was then one of the globe’s most advanced streetcar networks (fifteen miles of track), and directing the construction of three hospitals (one for the Europeans, one for the insane, one for everybody else).

A celebrant of urban life, Ribeiro took part in everything his city had to offer, including its sybaritic whorehouses, in one of which he died amid what historian John Hemming delicately referred to as “a sexual romp”.  The city’s many brothels were largely for the rubber tappers and field operatives who staggered into Manaus after months of labour on remote tributaries. The owners and managers had mistresses, with whom they sported in the decadent style then fashionable.

In the 1890s the boom went still further upstream, into the Andean foothills – areas that until then had been regarded as useless, and so left largely to their original inhabitants, most of whom had minimal contact with Europeans. Because H.brasilensis can’t tolerate the cooler temperature on the slopes, entrepreneurs focused on another species, Castilla elastic, which provided a less-valuable grade of rubber known as caucho. “Caucheiros”, rather than futilely protect the trees, simply cut them down, gouged off the bark, and let the latex drain into holes dug beneath the fallen trunk. Sometimes collectors could obtain several hundred pounds of the latex from a single tree, thus making up in volume for caucho’s lower price.

Because caucheiros killed the tree they harvested, they naturally put a premium on being the first into a new area. The goal was to extract the most rubber in the least amount of time; every minute not at the axe was a minute when someone else was taking down irreplaceable trees. Work crews spent weeks or months trekking from tree to tree through steep, muddy, forested hills, carrying heavy loads of caucho from the areas they had just looted. Few people from outside the area were willing to come into the forest for this. Caucheiros thus turned to the people who already lived there: Indians. The situation invited abuse – and there are always people ready to take up such invitations. Among them was Carlos Fitzcarrald, son of an immigrant to Peru who had changed his name from the hard-to-pronounce “Fitzgerald”. Beginning in late 1880s Fitzgerald forced thousands of Indians to work the caucho circuit.

More brutal was Julio Cesar Arana. The son of a Peruvian hat maker, Arana came to exert near-total command over more than twenty-two thousand square miles on the upper Putumayo River, then claimed by both Peru and Colombia.

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book "The Putumayo, the Devil's Paradise"

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book “The Putumayo, the Devil’s Paradise”

Not wanting to lure labourers from other areas with high wages, he turned to indigenous people. At first they were willing to do some rubber collecting in exchange of knives, hatchets, and other trade goods. But when Arana asked for more they balked. So he enslaved them. By 1902 he had five Indian nations under his thumb. Caucho flowed from his land in ever-larger amounts. He controlled his slave force with a goon squad led by more than an hundred toughs imported from Barbados. Nobody other than Arana’s agents was allowed to enter Putumayo from outside. Twenty-three custom-built cruise boats enforced his rule. Arana had incorporated his company in London in an attempt to go public and cash out, as software entrepreneurs would do a century later.

The slavery was therefore a British matter. Eventually there was a parliamentary investigation and a yearlong public furore. London sent an investigatory team that included Roger Casement, an Irish–born British diplomat who was a pioneering human rights activist (he had exposed atrocities committed in the Congo by agents of Belgium king Leopold II). Casement shuttled about the Putumayo, confirming Hardenburg’s charges by obtaining detailed confessions of murder and torture. In a misguided fit of nationalism, Peru defended its citizen against foreign meddling. Nonetheless Arana’s empire disintegrated. He died penniless in 1952.

Wickham changes the game for Britain

photo of Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog

Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog

If this ecological tumult could be laid at the door of a single person, it would be Henry Alexander Wickham. Wickham’s life is difficult to assess: he had been called a thief and a patriot, a major figure in industrial history and hapless dolt whose main accomplishment was failing in business ventures on three continents. He was born in 1846 to a respectable London solicitor and a milliner’s daughter from Wales. When the boy was four, Cholera took his father’s life and the family he left behind slid slowly down the social ladder. Nonetheless at the end of his days he was a respected man. Crowds applauded as he walked onto testimonial stages wearing a silver-buttoned coat and a nautilus-shell tie clip. He was knighted at the age of seventy-four.

Wickham won the honour for smuggling seventy thousand rubber tree seeds to England in 1876.

As a young man, Sir Clements Markham had directed a British quest in the Andes for cinchona trees. Cinchona bark was the sole source of quinine, the only effective antimalarial drug then known. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which had a monopoly, zealously guarded the supply, forbidding foreigners to take cinchona trees. Markham dispatched three near-simultaneous covert missions to the Andes, leading one himself. Hiding from the police, almost without food, he descended the mountains on foot with thousands of seedling in special cases. All three of these teams obtained cinchona which was soon thriving in India. Markham’s project saved thousands of lives, not least because Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia were running out of cinchona trees – they had killed them by stripping the bark. Riding the success to the position of director of the India Office’s Geographical Department, Markham decided to repeat the feat with rubber trees. British industry’s dependence on rubber was leaving the nation’s prosperity in the hands of foreigners, he believed.

Markham argued, “It’s hardly possible to over-rate the importance of securing a permanent supply”. Glory would attach to those who secured that supply. In the early 1870’s, Markham let it be known that Britain would pay for rubber seeds. When the seeds arrived, they would be sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew in Southwest London, and the successful seedlings dispatched to Britain’s Asian colonies. Two separate hopeful adventurers sent batches of rubber seed. Neither batch would sprout. Wickham became the third to try. Wickham gathered seventy thousand seeds, enough to pay for passage back to Britain. Today Wickham is reviled in Brazil. Tourist guides refer to him as the “prince of thieves”, a pioneer of what has become to be called “bio-piracy”.

Two months after Wickham appeared in London, Kew shipped out the seedlings, most of them to British Ceylon, known today as Sri Lanka.

Henry Ridley and the rise of the Malaya Rubber

Rubber trees in Malaysia, Yun Huang Yong, Flickr Creative Commons

Rubber trees in Malaysia, Yun Huang Yong, Flickr Creative Commons

At the same time that the seedlings were dispatched to Sri Lanka, a further two cases, containing fifty seedlings, were sent to Singapore. There, the Singapore Botanical Garden’s new director, Henry Ridley, set to work on rubber plants, comparing them with other rubber-producing plants, and figuring out the best way to harvest latex without harming or killing the trees and coming up with a method that is still used to this day.

Ridley’s zealous persistence in persuading Malaya’s planters to grow rubber trees earned him less than flattering nicknames such as “Mad Ridley” and “Rubber Ridley”. During the 1890s and early 1900s, he devised successful propagation methods and advocated the large-scale cultivation of rubber in Malaya. Initially, planters largely ignored his advice until their coffee plantations were devastated by disease and they desperately required a new cash crop. During this time, demand for rubber soared as the automobile industry boomed. By 1912, Malaya was producing more rubber than Brazil, and when prices fell the Brazilian rubber industry was reduced to dust.


The first real chance for Brazil to recover occurred in 1922, when British colonies in Asia, which had overplanted rubber, sought to control prices by forming a cartel. Among those enraged by this action were Harvey Firestone, the world biggest tire maker, and Henry Ford, the world biggest car maker.

Firestone responded by creating a huge rubber plantation in Liberia, West Africa. Ford planned one of equal size in the Amazon. Ford hired a Brazilian go-between who in 1927 sold him almost four thousand square miles of land up the Tapajos river that happened to be owned by the go-between. To house his workers Ford built a replica of a middle-class Michigan Town, complete with a hospital, schools, stores, movie theatres, Methodist churches and wooden bungalows on tree-lined streets. On a hill was the Amazon basin’s only eighteen-hole golf course. Orderly and straitlaced as Ford himself, the town was the opposite of boomtown Manaus. Wags immediately dubbed the project Fordlandia.

Water tower and main warehouse building in Fordlandia, Brazil. Amit Evron, Wikimedia Commons

Water tower and main warehouse building in Fordlandia, Brazil. Amit Evron, Wikimedia Commons

For Ford, the next few years were a series of unhappy surprises; after the first season’s rubber trees died did the company find out that H. brasilensis must be established at particular times of the year to thrive. Only after paying steamship bills did the company realize that it would not be possible to offset the cost of clearing all the hardwood trees on its land by selling the timber in the United States. And only after planting thousands of acres did the company learn that the Amazon has fungus, Microcyclus ulei, that is partial to rubber trees. This last sentence is imprecise. The company did know that M. ulei existed. What it didn’t grasp was that there was no way to stop it. M. ulei causes South American leaf blight.

The disaster effectively ended Fordlandia, though it wasn’t formally abandoned until 1945. Its fate made the most Brazilians conclude that rubber plantations are not viable in the Amazon. When Ford bought land in Brazil, 92% of the world’s natural rubber came from Asia. Five years after Fordlandia ended the figure was 95%.

The Chinese move in

Natural rubber still claims more than 40% of the market, a figure that has been slowly rising. Only natural rubber can be steam-cleaned in a medical sterilizer, then thrust into a freezer-and still adhere flexibly to glass and steel. Big airplane and truck tires are almost entirely natural rubber; radial tires were entirely synthetic. High tech manufacturers and utilities use high-performance natural rubber hoses, gaskets and O-rings. So do condom manufacturers – one of Brazil’s few remaining natural-rubber enterprises is a condom factory in the western Amazon.

With its need for materials that can withstand battle conditions the military is a major consumer – which is why the United States imposed a rubber blockade on China during the Korean War.

The blockade helped convince the Chinese of the need to grow their own H. brasilensis. In the 1960s the People’s Liberation Army worked to turn the prefecture into a rubber haven. Xishuangbanna plantations were, in effect, army bases; entry was forbidden to outsiders. Outsiders included the Dai and Akha who lived nearby. As suspicious of minorities in the mountains as the Qing, the Communists imported more than 100,000 Han workers, many of them urban students from faraway provinces, and put them into labour gangs charged with revolutionary fervour. “China needs rubber” they were told. “This is your chance to use your hands to help your country”. Workers were awakened every day at 3:00 am and sent to clear the forest, one former Xishuangbanna labourer told anthropologist Judith Shapiro, author of Mao’s War Against Nature.

Chinese rubber plantation in northern Laos (2010), Prince Roy, Flickr Creative Commons

Chinese rubber plantation in northern Laos (2010), Prince Roy, Flickr Creative Commons

Even as burgeoning China became the world biggest rubber consumer, its rubber producers were running out of space in Xishuangbanna – every inch of land was already taken. They looked enviously over the border at Laos; with about six million people in an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is the emptiest country in Asia. But the real push didn’t begin until the end of the decade, when China announced its “Go-Out” strategy, which pushed Chinese companies to invest abroad. No one knows exactly how much H. brasilensis is now in Laos; the Laotian government estimated that rubber covered seven hundred square miles of the nation by 2010. And the pace of clearing will only accelerate, along with the effects of that clearing.

More than a century ago, a handful of rubber trees had come to Asia from their home in Brazil. Now the descendants of these trees carpet sections of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and parts of southern China. Across the border H. brasilensis was marching into Laos and Vietnam. A plant that before 1492 had never existed outside the Amazon basin now dominates the Southeast Asian ecosystem.


Main image: Rubber Latex in India, Avinash Bhat, Flickr Creative Commons

Header image: Tyres, Sally Butcher, Flickr Creative Commons

American Titans: The Rust Belt

American Titans: The Rust Belt

Rust Belt

Today, the Rust Belt is the economic region of the United States concentrated in the formerly dominant industrial states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The area we know as ‘The Rustbelt’ was coined by democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in the 1980s in lament for the sad decline of America’s steel and manufacturing industry. Originally called the Rust Bowl – the press misquoted it and the name has stuck.

The Rust Belt had the mighty reserves of what a great industrial nation needed to kick off: coal, iron ore, labour and inland waterways. The region drew the greatest labour force in the western world – from European immigrants to African Americans fleeing the shackles of a slave south.

Buffalo, New York State

A brutal Civil War had divided America and work and industry were to unite it. A route from
New York to the West Coast was how America first got connected – with transportation of goods from the Eastern seaboard, across the Great Lakes onward by water and, by 1870, by rail.

Erie County, on the western side of New York State, was the conduit where this could first happen and, in 1825, Buffalo was the town that made it happen. The Lake Erie Canal, opened up the Eastern seaboard to trade with the rest of the USA.

Grain was the big produce at the heart of this trade. Transporting Midwestern grain became an industry in itself. The Silo Rocks grain elevator, in Buffalo, was one of the first examples of mechanical engineering.

Buffalo, located on the Canadian border next to Niagara Falls, became known as the ‘City of Light’. Edison and Tesla were associated with the city which was the location of first power station to light up the Eastern seaboard.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries industrial millionaires lived here in 8,000 square feet mansions designed to their peculiar taste.

Cleveland, Ohio

One hundred and ninety miles west across Lake Erie is Cleveland, in the State of Ohio. Cleveland’s freight trade centered on iron ore, mined in Wisconsin. Together with the supply of coal from nearby Pennsylvania, this led to the creation of steel plants in the Rust Belt. The waterways offered a means to get to and fro and an industrial revolution equal to England’s own took off only a few years later.

Rust BeltKnown as “ The Mistake on the Lake” , a recession made Cleveland bankrupt in 1976.
But the wealth of a steel industry had already created a diverse cultural scene. Rock’n’Roll was coined here by DJ Alan Freed in a small record store and the city is now home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Rust Belt Titans

JD Rockefeller

Kerosene was the fuel that transformed America when it lit up homes and made gasoline after some diligent refining. JD Rockerfeller exploited the kerosene business in Cleveland like no other when he created one of the first corporations, Standard Oil, in 1870. He was one of the Rust Belt’s original Titans.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

A tough ferry boat owner from New York who bullied his way to the top of the railroad ladder, Vanderbilt was the man who united America’s rail network which sealed America’s industrial revolution. He joined forces with oilman John Rockefeller to fill his empty trains with cargo and suddenly the USA had light and fuel that could be transported across its vast nation.

Andrew Carnegie

Pittsburgh created the Rust Belt’s next titan and robber baron – Scottish steel-man Andrew Carnegie. He made a fortune by replacing unsafe iron with steel in railroad tracks. His
Pittsburgh steel mill was destined to be the world’s biggest. Carnegie sold his mills to the banker JP Morgan for the equivalent of US$360 million, He donated most of it to acts of charity and philanthropy.

But philanthropic Andrew Carnegie wasn’t an angel in his working life. Like most of the men who built America he was ruthless in his ambition to be the best and earn the most – and even if he was the nation’s biggest steel producer it was never enough. And he would do anything to maximise profits, even at the expense of his workers.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The 18th century discovery of coal deposits turned Pittsburgh into a steel-making hub. A
growing steel industry attracted European migrants and created a patchwork of communities: German, Irish and Italian.

Heinz Tomato Ketchup

Heinz is world famous for its iconic Tomato Ketchup among other delicious preserved foods.

A German émigre, Henry Johnson Heinz, was a humble horseradish seller who marketed his product in a clear glass bottle and then made the second largest condiment in the world in 1875.

Coal Hill (now known as Mount Washington) was where 1 billion tons of black gold has been unearthed since 1760.

A funicular railway was created here by German workers to lug the coal up and down the valley. These inclines were based on the “steilbahns” (cable-run cars) back home in Germany.

The summit atop Coal Hill became the residential district for the coal and steel workers as so many factories occupied the lower ground.

The Homestead steelworks produced more structured steel than anywhere on earth but Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was jealous that for all his output, his titan rival, John Rockefeller was still richer than him. A battle between the ‘Man of Steel’ and the ‘Man of Oil’ ensued.

Birth of the Unions

Andrew Carnegie got his headman, Henry Frick, to overwork his poorly paid labourers – 40 hour weeks and 6 days of slogging in a furnace. There were injuries. Workers passed out. The workers then got together and a strike ensued. Carnegie and Frick would not give in to the workers’ demands for better pay and lesser hours and when the workers locked out the mill, Frick employed Pinkerton detectives to break the strike. Nine people were killed as the detectives opened fire against unarmed Homestead steelworkers. There was national outrage. This is the start of the American union movement and anti-trust laws that set out to break up the monopolies of the huge conglomerates in the early 20th century.

Oil & the Motorcar

The development of the horseless carriage is at the heart of the the Rust Belt’s relationship with automobiles. Many early companies had previously built stage coaches.

In 1913 cars were still mostly powered by ethanol, steam and electricity but John Rockefeller’s relentless analysis of the waste products from crude oil led him to gasoline and as luck would have it, his discovery coincided with the invention of the internal combustion engine. The petrol station was born.

Akron, Ohio

Akron, like our other locations, grew with the building of the canal. Like Buffalo it imported grain and soon made cereals. The discovery of clay led to the building of sewage pipe factories. A factory base expanded its output; rotational mouldings led to Akron being a leading toy manufacturer.

Akron became a perfect site to attract the latest scientific discovery. And it did this when vulcanized rubber was mass produced to make the wheels of the bicycle and the every growing motorcar.

Akron became known as the “rubber capital of the world”. But the automobile industry that made Akron’s fortunes, sank it too.

Goodyear and Firestone

Civic leaders gave New York rubber entrepreneur BF Goodrich $13,600 to set up shop in Akron. In his lifetime he was a failed businessman but his company survived and developed a pneumatic tire pioneered by Michelin in France in 1898. Goodrich patented the radial tire and in the same year, Frank Sieberling bought the patent to Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber invention and established the Goodyear Rubber and Tyre Company. Goodyear had accidentally invented a rubber that did not goo in the heat nor become brittle in the cold. Goodyear spent years and all his savings trying to vulcanise rubber, using cream cheese and witch hazel in his chemical concoctions.

The Iconic Goodyear Balloon

The Iconic Goodyear Balloon

Goodrich died almost bankrupt, as did Goodyear and many others. But without their crazy obsessions where would the USA stand today?

By 1900 Akron was the fastest growing city in America. Harvey Firestone set up business here in 1900. Firestone was a friend of Henry Ford and he would end up supplying the tires for Ford’s Model T .

By 1950, more than 130 different companies manufactured rubber in Ohio, employing more than eighty-five thousand workers.

Today the names of rubber and tire pioneers Goodyear, Goodrich and Firestone are still associated with the Akron and the state of Ohio.

The Soap Box Derby

In 20th century America, boys of all age and sizes were drawn to the excitement of the automobile. Every kid wanted to be a racer – so they built gravity-powered, motorless cars a out of soap crates and roller blade wheels, and raced them downhill across the country. Nowadays, every August, Akron stages the All American SoapBox Derby race.

The derby grew out of the Great Depression. The automobile industry was in decline – half the number of GM cars were sold. So half an unemployed nation took to building cars to while away their boredom .

The derby transferred to Akron in 1935 when a depression era Federal Public works programme sanctioned the construction of the racetrack. It gave jobs to 30,000 locals.

Toledo, Ohio

“Toledo, Ohio” was not the pious, medieval capital of Spain but a slumbering town watered by the Erie Canal when it was completed in 1845. That year industry was planted – railway manufacturing and glassworks – but it was the wholesale of American‘s great automobile export , the Jeep, which made Toledo’s fortunes.

The Jeep

“Faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, agile as a goat” – the jeep’s invention was typical of American seat of your pants necessity.

It replaced the horse as the mode of transport to cross unruly terrain at speed. It was the messenger, the personnel carrier and the cavalry charge and it was born in World War II.

20160722_173439The Germans were engineering masters since the days of Von Bismarck and they won battles on their surprise, rapid attacks – the blitzkrieg. They invented the Panzer tanks and VW bucket car – to carry out their blitzkrieg raids in World War I.

A jealous US military gave manufacturers 49 days to create a rival to the bucket car. Out of 125 companies only two were up to the task American Bantam (with its 15 employees fending off bankruptcy) and Willy’s Overland. Bantam won the project and, led by Detroit engineer Karl Probst, they cobbled parts from garages around the state of Ohio to create the American Jeep we love today.

They made six prototypes. Tested to drive through woods and unruly terrain, it was fast and much more agile than the military could hope for and do more than expected. An engineering wonder, a 60 horsepower engine meant the Jeep could tow half of its own weight. It was the first vehicle to be a four-wheel drive. It featured combat lamps, a manual handcrank to start the engine, blackout lighting system, a gerry can equipped with five gallons, hand wipers and cover for jeep lights which folded to avoid detection.

The Ford Motor Company called their model the JPW and it was abbreviated to ‘JEEP’. But American Bantam could not produce en masse for the army. So Willy’s Overland and Ford supplied the army once the USA entered the war in December 1941.The first jeep was delivered by Willy’s in November 1941 – one month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the US entered the war.

63,000 jeeps were built in five plants at a rate of 500 a week. Each platoon had a Jeep. Soldiers became dependent on the Jeep. Each platoon had a Jeep and its capabilities led General Eisenhower to declare that three things won the allies the war – and the Jeep was one of them.

Returning GIs became attached to the Jeep and wanted to drive them back home, so Willy’s and the Ford Motor Company started thinking about advertising and modernising. The rest is history. The Jeep’s future was assured.

Detroit, Michigan

Detroit is a city like London that was reborn from a fire whose flames licked all the wooden houses back in 1805. Here the city was rebuilt in glass and steel with industrial revolution technology and Chicago-based architectural nous.

It was here that Henry Ford procured a licence to produce his Model T. He invested in an automated production line churning out four cylinder cars that could be bought for as little as $900.

Detroit Mansions

The mansions weren’t owned by merchants but the big car magnates: Charles Lambert of Regal Motors, Henry Joy of Packard and The Fisher brothers. And and most conspicuously, a 20th-century fortress by America’s iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright – the Henry Ford Estate, aka Fairlane House.

Fairlane was Henry Ford’s and his wife’s sanctuary. It was his 15th home, built in 1915 at a cost of $1.8 million. It covers 1,300 acres and has a bowling alley inside. It’s self sufficient in electricity as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison designed the power supply – two turbines humming underground amply providing heat, light, a telephone and ice.

Downtown Detroit

Today, the real Detroit is a post apocalyptic graveyard of former glories, with a deserted Highland Park Ford motor plant as testament to a golden age of industrial innovation. Graffiti, voluntary groups, soup kitchens – this is present day, bankrupt, poor, desperate Detroit.


Detroit Blight

The city was abandoned – certainly by whites, who make up only 10-20 per cent of the population – after the automobile industry declined with foreign competition and a more efficient and cheaper way of making cars took root in the 1970s. There are a staggering 76,000 empty buildings scattered about Detroit’s shattered landscape. How does one even try to rebuild?

In its heyday, Henry Ford’s perfection of the production assembly line made Detroit a magnet for the unskilled and under-represented in America. The city attracted immigrants and a black population from the south, from cities like Louisiana and Kentucky. They came here to find a land of milk and honey. But a welfare capitalism created by Henry Ford himself, when he promoted the five dollar day, also undermined the industry’s longer lasting future as it was high wages which drove the companies out of Michigan. The unskilled remained and most of them had no voice.


Afro-Americans had to develop their own talents and there was plenty of that on the streets. In Detroit, this singing, dancing and entertaining talent gave black capitalism its first platform. That’s when Motown records was created.

Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were agog that America’s 4th largest city did not have an independent record label. So they mined Grand Boulevard West and amassed a talent pool that created the black sound of America.

20160723_093310Berry Gordy was an a production line automobile worker and he learnt to mass produce records in the same way Detroit was mass producing cars and selling them to the world: create something everyone wants, make it quickly, copy it and sell again! The challenge was how to make something everyone wanted. Well, automobile worker Gordy knew that most people listened to music on the car radio. So he had his engineers and composers arrange music to fit the tinny sound of a car radio. It was a magic formula of bass line, drums, horns and backing vocals.

Of course add the black experience into the mix and whites couldn’t get enough of this music. It was soulful, joyful, melodic, groovy and terribly catchy.


Detroit is the birthplace of Motown Records and this legacy has left a creative impression on the city.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee – a name derived from the Algonquian Native American Indian word meaning “pleasant land”- featured a natural harbour connected by lakes and canals to the East and 10 rail lines to the West. No wonder this metropolis bloomed in the industrial revolution. Milwaukee delivered the 20th-century slogan of its advertising poster “to feed and supply the world”

Miller’s Beer

In the 19th century, an oppressive agricultural feudalism in Germany forced a lot of poor farmers to the only place that would take them: America. Five million total came here and most of them were government-hating, Catholic-exiled, wheat farmers who brought with them a hatred for religious intolerance and skills in beer making.

It was therefore inevitable that Milwaukee would become s great exporter of cash crops and, with the discovery of iron ore in nearby Dodge City, Milwaukee was destined to become a manufacturer, especially of agricultural machinery. Combine mechanisation with agriculture and soon there were flour mills aplenty. Milwaukee started making its living in wheat-related industries, the most famous of them being beer-making!

There were 138 taverns in Milwaukee by 1843. By 1856 there were 24 breweries. They included Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz. Milwaukee became the beer capital of the USA.

Harley Davidson

Twelve years before Carl Wickman created the Greyhound bus service, two mates and a handful of relatives – Willam Harley and Arthur S Davison – were too lazy to pedal their bicycles to work. So they made a loop frame and cradled an engine in it. They called America’s first motorbike the Harley Davidson.

The Harley is a motorbike that crosses all class and cultural divides. Hollywood celebrities to print makers ride it. Each Harley is individual. It can be custom built and adapted.

The motorbike had been invented in 1895, in Germany by mechanical engineer William Daimler who designed the carburetor and the internal combustion engine which allowed gasoline to power his motorised bicycle.

Harley Davidson Duluth

Harley Davidson Duluth

The the first Harley used a tomato can for a carburetor! To start up the engine, you had to pedal the bike standing still and wait for engine compression to commence. The breakthrough came in 1909 when the V twin engine was designed. The motorbike could now travel at 60mph. The new engine created the distinctive sound of a Harley Davidson that everybody loves to this day.

The Harley motorbike was now raced. It even had its own racing team. Hollywood celebrities like Clark Gable and the starlet Gene Tierney brought the Harley Davidson to a worldwide audience. Marlon Brando made it a rebel machine and in the 1970s, the counterculture movie “Easy Rider” introduced the world to the ‘Hydra-Glide’, made famous by its stars and stripes fuel tank and chopper forks..

The Rust Belt Now

America’s Great Depression, the 2008 financial crash and the challenge of industrial survival in a competing world has meant the spirit of ingenuity and human achievement has been stifled by an enveloping stupor of sad, industrial decline.

Dan Gilbert is Detroit’s wealthiest CEO. He is Detroit born and raised; a professed champion of the city. His motto is “to do well by doing good.” He believes that a knowledge-based economy is where the Rust Belt’s future lies.

Despite depression, there is great infrastructure, raised by a century of industrial achievement. There are railways and waterways, and 50 per cent of imports from Canada still pass through Detroit.

More information:

The Rust Belt: Steel in Pittsburgh

Study Guide: The American Civil War

Epidemics Throughout The Ages

Epidemics Throughout The Ages

In an increasingly interconnected and peaceful world, disease remains one of the greatest fears of the modern age, especially the outbreak of a ‘superbug’ from genetic mutation and antibiotic resistance. Despite the medical advances of our time, diseases such as Coronavirus or Ebola have spread across nations and have caused the deaths of thousands. Throughout history, outbreaks of diseases on a major and international level have been rare but at times disastrous, especially in the poor living conditions and medical standards of previous ages, often made worse by times of war or other hardship.

Undefined Epidemics

We find recorded several cases in history of particularly deadly diseases, which may be termed now as epidemics, but the cause, nature and extent of the diseases are difficult to discern.

Plague of Athens 430-426 BC

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The first major account of an epidemic was the Plague of Athens in 430-426 BC, recorded by the eyewitness and survivor Thucydides in his The Peloponnesian War (2.49-54). The plague was facilitated by the Peloponnesian War, as a result of which many Athenians had crowded behind the city walls to wait out a Spartan siege. Thucydides reported that the plague spread from Ethiopia into Piraeus, the city port, a very international centre in the ancient world, that spread rapidly. Many possible diseases have been proposed as the cause: bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid or an ebola-like disease. However, the truth remains a mystery. The death toll is estimated at 75-100,000 people or 25% of the city’s population.

Antoine Plague 165-80

Another major epidemic was the Antoine Plague, described by Galen, which struck the Roman Empire in 165-180 AD. It was first recorded in the Roman siege of Seleucia, in modern Iraq, and spread throughout the Empire as far as Germany and Gaul. The disease is thought to have possibly been either smallpox or measles and at its height killed 2,000 a day in Rome. The estimated death toll is 5 million. The disease may also have spread from Han China, where reports of a similar disease date from the same period. It may have spread along the Silk roads or via the Roman embassy of 166 to Vietnam. Even the thought of this, true or not, may have hampered trade relations between East and West which could have greatly changed history.

Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague has led to history’s most deadly pandemics, with three major and disastrous outbreaks, despite its relative rareness and preventability now. It is caused the bacterium Yersinia pestis which attacks lymph nodes, swelling to form painful ‘bubones’ which can turn black and burst. The bacterium can also cause pneumonic plague in the lungs and septemic plague in the blood. It is carried most often in fleas and infected small animals or flea-carrying animals, particularly rats. The bacterium is then transferred into the human body via bites or consuming fluids from an infected body. Symptoms include high fever, painful swelling of the lymph nodes, and if it spreads to other parts of the body leads to gangrene and blackening of limbs and facial features, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing blood, delirium and death.

Plague of Justinian 541-2

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

The first major outbreak was in 541 affecting much of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire. It was transmitted via rats that existed on the trade ships moving throughout the Mediterranean, especially grain ships travelling from Egypt to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. At its peak some estimates conclude there were around 5,000 deaths a day in Constantinople with 40% of the total population dying and that in total up to 25 million fell victim to the disease, a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, more modern scholars have concluded on much smaller estimates. It was regarded as the first pandemic and had great effects on European history. The devastation in the Byzantine empire meant agriculture was ruined, with grain prices soaring, whilst tax revenue plummeted due a reduced population. Recent gains in Italy and around Carthage, briefly reuniting the Roman empires, were reversed as the Goths, Vandals and Lombards retook much Byzantine territory.

Black Death 1346-53

The deadliest outbreak of disease was the second major case of bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death. Likely originating in the East and China, the disease spread West along the Silk roads reaching the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Trade ships then spread the disease to the rest of Europe, hitting Italy first in Sicily and Venice in 1347, and the rest of Europe over the next three years. The disease would wipe out entire rodent populations, requiring repopulation before another outbreak would occur, recurring frequently over the next few centuries although never so badly. Estimations of a death toll are difficult but range between 75 and 200 million, 45-50% of the population and in the hot and connected areas of the Mediterranean, mortality rate was even higher. Populations would take years to recover and Florence not until the 19th century. The change in population changed the agricultural workings of many areas and the labour force reduced. Some even claim the decline in population led to a ‘mini Ice age’. Fanaticised and fearful, many blamed minority groups, especially Jews, resulting in many massacres, one at Strasbourg killing 2,000. This led many Jews to relocate to Poland where they were welcomed, leading to the large population there until the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Third Plague (Bubonic) Pandemic 1855-1960

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

The third major outbreak began Yunnan province on the Southern border of China, among the local rodent population. The influx of Han Chinese people to the area for mining, urbanisation, increased trade, and the Panthay rebellion which entailed refugee and troop movements, meant the plague spread rapidly throughout Southern China. Particularly damaging was the spread to the Canton area in 1894 and from there British-held Hong Kong, a centre of world trade and from where the plague spread to every continent.

In India, the plague was particularly severe due to the poor living conditions and packed urban centres of British imperial rule. Moreover, British measures to control the virus such as restriction of movement and the banning of Indian cultural medicines were seen as oppressive and culturally invasive and were hence disobeyed. 10 million died in India, and further 2 million died in the rest of the world. The World Health Organisation only declared the pandemic over in 1960. Bubonic plague still exists in much of the Chinese and East Asia rodent population. In 2019, a couple died of the bubonic plague after eating raw marmot in Mongolia.

Epidemics in the New World

The Spanish conquest of the Americas began with Mexico in 1519. The conquest was deadly in its sacking and massacring of cities, but far more so for the diseases it spread. A merchant ship to Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, first brought smallpox to American shores, against which the local population had no immune defence. It devastated the local populations. It reached Tenochtitlan in 1520. Bernard Dial, a Spanish chronicler, wrote “We could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians”. The death toll is estimated at over 5 million

On top of this, a native disease named Cocolitzli by the Aztecs led to millions of deaths. The disease returned several times, baffling native and Spanish doctors. Symptoms included high fever, black tongue, dark urine, dysentery, severe abdominal and chest pain, head and neck nodules, neurological disorders, jaundice, and profuse bleeding from the nose, eyes, and mouth. It usually killed within 3-4 days, leading to 5-15 million estimated deaths.

Subsequent Old World disease epidemics persisted in the Americas such as chicken pox, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, measles, malaria and yellow fever. A century after the arrival of the Spanish, some estimate over 90% of the New World population had died, the vast majority from disease.


Influenza, or ‘the flu’, is a common viral disease, which regularly mutates leading to the usual seasonal epidemics seen annually. A flu jab is developed annually to combat such mutations but due to the rapid changes in the virus, this will not be effective in subsequent years. Annually, there are three to five million cases of severe illness and about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, usually in vulnerable groups such as the old, pregnant, or those with an existing health condition such as asthma or heart issues. Symptoms include high fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle and joint aches, headache, coughing, and feeling tired. Complications can lead to viral or bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial infections in the sinuses that can spread throughout the body, as well as worsening previous health conditions.

These mutations are usually guarded to some extent by previous immunity among people. However, large influenza pandemics can occur when a new strain is developed in animals and spread into the human population. Their novelty means there is little to no immune protection existing in humans. The virus is spread rapidly between people in the air via droplets in coughs and sneezes or by touching contaminated surfaces. These pandemics occur when such a new strain infects human populations across the world, and occur irregularly, with 9 happening in the past three centuries.

Spanish Flu 1918-20

The deadliest pandemic was the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ involving the H1N1 virus, the only Category 5 influenza pandemic, meaning a mortality rate of over 2% amongst those infected. It is unclear from where the disease originated, but crucially it did not start in Spain. The disease coincided with the end of the First World War, with fighting still ongoing. Participant countries censored press to minimise reports of the disease and maintain morale. Spain, however, was a neutral country, and so press covered the spread of the disease here accurately, making it seem as if Spain was suffering particularly, and so creating the name ‘Spanish Flu’.

British Red Cross

1919: American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919.
It is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 100 million people were killed worldwide, or the approximate equivalent of one third of the population of Europe, more than double the number killed in World War I. British Red Cross.

The timing of the flu was particularly apt for facilitating a pandemic. War meant the focus of governments and press was on other matters. Similarly, large parts of Europe had been devastated and both civilian and military populations were weak. Large troop movements facilitated the spread. The virus also mutated resulting in a more virulent strain developing leading to an even more lethal second wave. The more lethal strain was also spread more than usual: in a usual flu, a mild strain still allows someone to work and so move about and spread the strain, whereas a more severe one will incapacitate and keep the sufferer at home, preventing transmission; in war the more mild sufferers remained at their posts and the more severe sufferers were transported to hospitals to transmit the virus.

The disease spread to all parts of the globe, will 500 million estimated to have been infected and 20-50 million estimated to have died as a result. The disease was particularly deadly in its higher mortality among the young population, whereas deaths from most flus occur disproportionately among the elderly. The death toll for the disease was higher than the First World War, and the deadliest since the Black Death, yet it received little impact in the arts of the time. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1926 in her essay ‘On Being Ill’: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache”. It did appear among the work of some artists of the time, and Egon Schiele’s ‘The Family’ has come to embody the disease. Schiele depicts himself, his wife, and daughter, all three of which would die from the illness before the painting could be completed.

Other Influenza Pandemics

There have been 8 other influenza pandemics in the last 300 years, although none have passed beyond a Category 2 pandemic i.e. beyond 0.5% mortality amongst those infected. The ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957-8 and the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ of 1968-9 were two particularly deadly outbreaks, spreading all over the world and both resulting in the estimated deaths of 1-4 million. Their victims were more typically prevalent in more vulnerable population groups, especially the elderly.

The most recent pandemic was the ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic of 2009-10, originating in Mexico. This pandemic likely infected, according to the WHO, 11–21% of the global population, or around 700 million–1.4 billion people. Mortality was no more than the usual seasonal flu, but the characteristic feature was that the elderly were not disproportionately affected, much like the Spanish Flu.


HIV/AIDS 1981-present

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by the infection by two species of Lentivirus, commonly known as the HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses). The virus is usually sexually transmitted, but also occurrs through the transmission of bodily fluids such as from mother to child

in pregnancy and breastfeeding or between people via the sharing of needles or blood transfusions. The virus results in flu-like symptoms 2 to 6 weeks after infection but can remain symptomless for many years after this, whilst still destroying the infected person’s immune system. Left untreated, the virus leads to the condition AIDS, describing when the individual is susceptible to a variety of diseases a healthy immune system would normally defend against. These include tuberculosis, cancers, and other ‘opportunistic infections’. This is the final stage and can quickly cause death if left untreated.

HIV is believed to have originated from chimpanzees in the Democratic of Congo, likely from the bushmeat industry. The disease was discovered in the USA in 1981, when an increasing number of gay men, but also a smaller number of injected-drug users, gained unusual diseases such as rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), usually only found in people with severe complications in their immune system. This led to the disease being initially known as ‘GRID’ (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).

World AIDS Day - Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

World AIDS Day – Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

As organisations struggled to identify the cause, transmission and treatment of the disease, over 2.5 million cases had been confirmed by 1993. In the US, the death rate began to slow by 1997. However, in Africa, where homosexuality was illegal in many countries and the existence of a large homosexual population not acknowledged and persecuted, politics hampered response. AIDS activists were often arrested due to the disease’s associations with the gay population. In 2003, over 40% of adults in Botswana had the disease. Heroin addiction in Asia also led to over 2 million cases in India alone. Response still improved but the current death toll still stands at over 32 million and is constantly rising. In 2018, there remained around 37.9 million cases, with 20.6 million of these in Eastern and Southern Africa.

No cure of HIV exists, but treatment via highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can be very effective, and at present two people have been cleared of the disease.

Ebola 2013-16

The West African Ebola epidemic was a widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in predominantly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is spread via the contact with the bodily fluids of those infected, and is now known, though not at the time, to be also sexually transmitted. The disease is a haemorrhagic fever causing fever, head and body aches, and a sore throat before developing into vomiting, diarrhoea, internal and external bleeding, and the decreased function of the liver and kidneys. The mortality rate was extremely high at somewhere around 40%, usually due to lack of fluid pressure.

Ebola outbreaks had happened before, but this 2013-6 epidemic was especially lethal as it spread out of isolated rural areas to the capital cities of the three affected countries. The poor health and surveillance systems of the area facilitated the spread of the disease. In total there were 28,646 cases, with 11,323 deaths. The impact of the epidemic had knock-on effects on other diseases by absorbing resources and damaging the healthcare workforce. In Liberia, 8% of doctors, nurses, and midwives died. This meant other diseases such as malaria, HIV, and measles grew worse. The Public Health Emergency of International Concern status was lifted by the WHO in March 2019.

COVID-19 2019-Present

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the Coronavirus. Symptoms are similar to the flu, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath which can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome. The disease is caused by droplets often spread via coughing or the touching of contaminated surfaces or people. The disease was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Many believe it originated in the Huanan wet market which sold live animals.

Coronavirus Surgical Mask

Surgical Mask, Paul Sableman, Flickr Creative Commons

The severity of the pandemic is caused by the virus being especially contagious, the little immune defence to its novel form, and the fact it is asymptomatic for up to 14 days. The disease was spread via global travelling between countries and has been particularly deadly amongst the elderly generation. As of the 20 March there have been over 267,000 cases in 183 countries with over 11,000 deaths. But the majority (80%) of deaths have occurred in those over 60, and 75% in those with pre-existing conditions. Countries such as Italy, densely populated and with a high elderly population, have as a result been especially badly hit. Efforts to manage the pandemic have included quarantines, border closures, the closing of schools and universities, and the closing of bars, restaurants, cinemas and other social venues. The economic and social effect has been vast, with many businesses closing due to lack of business, and hysteria causing panic-buying and xenophobia, especially against Chinese individuals and businesses. The pandemic at the time of writing is ongoing and on the rise.


These epidemics were particularly impactful and frightening due to their fast and novel spread and the condensed nature of their effect. However, other diseases can be as deadly on a regular basis. There have been 7 Cholera pandemics, the worst being that of 1852-60 claiming over 1 million lives; there were 228 million cases of Malaria in 2018 with 405,000 deaths; over on quarter of the world’s current population have been infected with Tuberculosis and last year there were 8 million cases with around 2 million deaths. The threat of disease and epidemics has been a constant of life throughout the ages. And the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown the still real threat of epidemics to all nations even today.

More information:

Read: World’s Deadliest Plagues

Read: Where in the Wild has the Coronavirus Come From?

Worldometer: Live COVID-19 Updates

GOV.UK Guidance

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

Australian Department of Health Guidance

By Wilfred Sandwell

WWII in the Pacific

WWII in the Pacific
Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal


Japan in the decade preceding World War Two had become increasingly imperialistic, with worship of Emperor Hirihito on the rise and the army becoming an increasingly political body. Expansion begun as early as 1931, with the invasion of Chinese Manchuria, making it a puppet state. This was seen as brazen disregard of the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN, increasing tensions between Japan and the West.

Japan looked further, identifying the Dutch Indies, now Indonesia, as a key target due to their oil reserves in 1935. Another puppet state was created in Inner Mongolia in 1936, and a full invasion of China began in 1937. In 1939, Japan invaded the Soviet Union but was soundly defeated in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. In September 1940, Japan seized French Indochina (modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), and singed a treaty with the Axis forces of Germany and Italy. To stop this imperialist expansion, America, Britain, Australia, Holland and China banned the export of oil to Japan, known as the ABCD (American-British-Chinese-Dutch) lines. These imports made up 80% of Japan’s consumption; they were essential and hence in Japanese minds, war was guaranteed.

Japanese Plan

The Japanese plan of war depended on a weak reaction from the UK, Soviet Union, and other European powers due to their ongoing war with Germany. Accordingly, a neutrality pact was signed with the Soviet Union in 1940. The Japanese believed the USA would inevitably become involved (although this has since been debated) and so planned for a fast, strategic war.

Total victory and occupation of the USA was impossible. Instead, Japan hoped to take key targets in two operational phases. The first focused on the South-East Pacific and the capturing of the Dutch Indies, British held Malaya Hong Kong, and Singapore and the US held Philippines, to escape the crisis of the ABCD lines. They then planned to expand as far as Fiji, Samoa, Midway and the Aleutian Islands. To do this, a shock attack on Pearl Harbour, America’s main Pacific military base in Hawaii, would paralyse the US Navy whilst the perimeter was secured. By holding all major islands in the Pacific, the Japanese hoped to block any attempt to launch a counter-attack and could squeeze the US into a surrender.

Japanese Invasion of China

"Bloody Saturday" by H.S. Wong. baby Ping Mei amid the destruction of Shanghai South Railway Station

“Bloody Saturday” by H.S. Wong. Baby Ping Mei amid the destruction of Shanghai South Railway Station

Japan controlled Manchuria after their invasion in 1931 but had also increased influence into Northern China. Puppet states had been set up in areas such as Tongzhou, a district of Beijing, with a Japanese garrison. China was also subject to a number of ‘Unequal Treaties’ in which several nations were granted occupation of parts of Chinese cities. Japan was allowed to station guards along the railway to Beijing, as were other European nations, but had increased that number to over 7,000, well beyond the limits set the in the Boxer Protocol.

An incident at the Marco-Polo Bridge near Beijing, led to an escalation and Japanese invasion and occupation of Beijing and Tianjin. Despite Japan’s contentment with occupation of Beijing, China had had enough. Chinese resentment is shown in the mutiny of the troops of the

Japanese puppet state in Tongzhou and the setting fire to the Japanese section of the city, in which 200 Japanese civilians died. The KMT, Chinese Nationalist government, also surrounded the Japanese section of the Shanghai Occupied Area, and on August 14, accidentally bombed it, resulting in 3,000 civilian deaths.

A full-scale invasion of China began, but Japanese casualties were much higher than expected. The Civil War between the KMT and Communists in China had been suspended to face the common Japanese threat. 200,000 men, several war vessels and strong airpower was needed to take Shanghai in a 3-month long siege. Japan flooded China with men, committing 350,000 to the taking of the Chinese capital, Nanjing. Following its fall, there occurred the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, in which the Japanese are estimated to have killed up to 300,000 Chinese, mostly civilians, whilst also committing extensive rape and looting.

The advance continued with great momentum, as Wuhan, the new KMT capital, Kaifeng, capital of Henan province, and later French Indochina fell. The KMT retreated to Chongqing, and to stop the Japanese advance destroyed the Huayuankou dike on the south bank of the Yangtze. Up to 800,000 civilians and soldiers on both sides drowned; 10 million became homeless. Here most of the Japanese advance halted. Japan struggled to hold a Chinese territory so full of resentment and the Chinese managed to launch a counter-offence with minor success. A stalemate was reached but Japan held most of the Chinese coast and North.

Outbreak of War with the West

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour

On the 7 December 1941 (8 in East Pacific), Japan launched attacks without warning with both its navy and army on Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, Hawaii, Wake, Guam and Thailand. The largest attack fell on the US Naval base of Pearl Harbour on Hawaii. Casualties were substantial: 8 battleships, 188 aircraft and 2,403 American soldiers. However, the crucial aircraft carriers were at sea, and most of the base facilities weren’t damaged. Far from disabling the US fleet into submission, Japan had sparked fury in the US at the unprovoked and undeclared attack.

The US, UK, Canada, Holland and Australia declared war within two days. Germany and Italy in turn declared war on the US, even though Japan would give little aid to the European war whilst America would be of vital importance.

South-East Asia Advance

Despite the relative failure of the Pearl Harbour attack, Japan’s speed of expansion was extremely effective. Thailand surrendered within 5 hours, even allying with Japan on 21 December, allowing access to European colonies in Malaya. By Christmas 1941, Hong Kong, Wake, Guam and Penang had all fallen.

On 1 January, the Allied forces were united in the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM), under the leadership of Sir Archibald Waver, a British general. But the Japanese momentum continued with invasions into Burma, the Dutch Indies, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival leads the British forces to surrender to the Japanese in Singapore

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival leads the British forces to surrender to the Japanese in Singapore

On 15 February 1942, Britain suffered what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst disaster’ in British military history as its major base in the Pacific, Singapore, surrendered, in which 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops were captured.

Japan expanded further even bombing Darwin in Australia in the largest attack on Australia by a foreign power in history, killing 243 people. It would be the first of over 100 air raids. In the Battle of Java Sea, Japan defeated the main allied navy and as a result the forces in Malaya surrendered on Java and Sumatra. Japan raided into the Indian Ocean, sinking the HMS Hermes aircraft carrier and targeting bases in Ceylon, pushing the British Navy out of South East Asia.

Burma had become occupied as Britain retreated to the Indian border but the territory would remain disputed, with the Chinese aiding the British, for example at the Battle of Yenangyaung, where 7,000 trapped British soldiers were rescued by the Chinese.

Fall of the Philippines

In March, America suffered a great defeat in losing Manila the Philippines. The islands were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, a charismatic figure famous for his corn-cob pipe. He felt a strong personal duty to the Philippines and so when Roosevelt ordered his smuggling out of the islands in order to be able to continue his command of the American forces in the South-West Pacific, he delivered the famous words “I came through and I shall return”, which he refused to change to ‘we will return’ despite being asked to do so by the government. On April 9, Bataan, the last US holding in the Philippines. 76,000 Allied soldiers were captured and were forced in the ‘Bataan Death March’, an 106km march to Camp O’Donnell in which it is estimated between 5,000 and 18,000 Filipinos and 500 and 650 Americans died.

Failure of the Second Operational Phase

With the fall of the Philippines and British colonies, Japan had completed its first operational phase, and begun to move toward its second. The Allies had begun something of a counter-attack, making use of their aircraft carriers, bombing the Marshall islands, Wake and Marcus Island and Rabaul from land-based aircraft.

Japan desired to cut off Australia as a possible base for an offensive. Some generals in the Japanese Navy proposed an invasion but the Army refused as they were too committed in Manchuria and afraid of a Soviet invasion. Instead, the option was taken to cut off Australia by taking New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, eastern New Guinea and the western part of New Britain (together now Papua New Guinea), and from there threaten Australia by air. Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands were also targeted to pressure America and their Navy by removing possible advance bases.

However, Allied morale was slightly restored in April by the Doolittle raid, an ineffective but symbolic bombing raid on Tokyo by 16 bombers. In May, the battle of the Coral Sea, despite the Japanese sinking one US carrier and disabling another, was a victory for the Allies and they repelled the Japanese invasion of Port Moseby, capital of New Guinea. Moreover, none of the three Japanese carriers

involved could be used at Midway. In this battle, neither fleet sighted each other but fought from range and with aircraft, indicative of how important carriers would become.

Allies Regroup

The Japanese cancelled further attacks on Fiji and Samoa and focused all attention on the North Pacific, aiming to take Midway, pressuring the US Navy into surrender. The Japanese outnumbered the Americans with 4 heavy carriers to America’s 3, 3 light carriers to none, 11 battleships to none, 44 destroyers to 18, but America fielded 19 submarines to Japan’s 15, and could use land-based aircraft from Midway. Despite this, American carrier bombers sunk all four of the Japanese heavy carriers, only losing the Yorktown carrier in return. Midway is commonly held as the turning point of the Pacific War, with the Japanese momentum dramatically halted and her naval offensive capabilities nullified by her loss of her carriers, though her defensive air capabilities remained via land-based aircraft.

Coastwatcher aptain W.F. Martin Clemens with members of the Solomon Island Police Force

Coastwatcher Captain W.F. Martin Clemens with members of the Solomon Island Police Force

The war now became a series of bitterly contested conflicts. In July 1942, Japan landed on Guadalcanal in the Southern Solomon islands and started building an airbase but were spotted doing so by Allied Coastwatchers. These were intelligence officers stationed on Pacific islands, sometimes aided by the locals, who supplied information to the Allies, especially later in the battle giving early warning of Japanese air raids.

On 7 August, the Allies launched their first major offensive and took the airfield and the strategic Tulagi harbour within a day via an amphibious landing. However, the Japanese countered decisively on the night of 8-9 August during the naval battle of Savo Island. Five allied cruisers and two destroyers were lost whilst only mildly damaging one Japanese cruiser. This would start a long battle of attrition in which, by January, Allied losses rose from around 14,000 to 44,000, Japanese from 7,000 to 22,000.

Wrecks in the Ironbottom Sound, W.wolny, Wikimedia Commons

Wrecks in the Ironbottom Sound, W.wolny, Wikimedia Commons

So costly was the battle to both sides that the sea north of Guadalcanal became known as ‘Ironbottom Sound’ as so many ships (an estimated 50+) were sunk there during the battle. The US Navy commemorates the area annually by laying wreaths, and many sailors still pass the area in silence. In the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the only two US admirals lost in a surface engagement in the entire war died. In total, the Allies lost 2 carriers and 22 other vessels, but the Japanese lost over 20,000 men and after losing the vital Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, decided to withdraw from the island. Momentum was now with the Allies.


China Regroups

In China, the Japanese had also slowed, with their first major defeat of the war occurring at Changsha in Hunan. The conflict was bloody. Operation Sei-go was a mission launched by the Japanese in July 1942 to capture the Allied pilots of the Doolittle raid who had parachuted into the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangxi and were mostly hidden by Chinese civilians. The Japanese launched a campaign of retribution, burning Chinese towns and using biological warfare by spreading cholera, typhoid, dysentery pathogens and contaminating food and wells with paratyphoid and anthrax. Around 10,000 Japanese soldiers fell ill from their own biological weapons, and 1,700 died, but Chinese civilian casualties numbered around 250,000.

The British continued to flounder in Burma through the embarrassing defeat of the Arakan offensive, not helped by a famine in Bengal causing up to 3 million deaths. But China continued to succeed in the Battle of Changde. The Japanese captured the city on December 6 but only after over a month of tough fighting, and the Chinese 57th Division held the Japanese pinned in the city for enough time that other Chinese forces were able to surround the city and forced a Japanese withdrawal. It was a victory in particular for the Chinese air-force, previously too easily defeated, who had been helped by Witold Urbanowicz, the second highest-scoring Polish Ace in the Battle of Britain.

A Turning Point in India and Burma

The Allies regrouped under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, and with US troops, began constructing the Ledo Road to link India with China. In reaction, Japan launched Operation U-go in March 1944, a large offensive on Allied positions at Imphal and Kohima in India. The British were bolstered by the firm Indian divisions of XV Corps and the Japanese attack on both targets was repelled. Without an early victory, supplies over the forested and mountainous terrain failed. Japan lost over 50,000 troops, her greatest defeat yet, but mostly to disease and starvation. The US troops advanced north in Burma, aided by the Chindits, a unit of British, Burmese and Ghurkha battalions, that worked deep behind enemy lines in difficult conditions. The Chinese invaded Northern Burma and over the course of 1944- 5, would link up with American forces. Allied advance was then gradual but consistent, capturing Rangoon in May 1945 and preparing to advance to Malaya when surrender occurred.

Allied Island Hopping 1943-4

After Midway, the Allies and especially America turned to a policy of mass-industrialisation, replenishing their navy and air force. Japan lacked the industrial base to do the same. The Allies began a policy of ‘Island-Hopping’, taking islands one at a time, or at least neutralising their offensive capabilities without capturing in examples such as Truk or Formosa. First to fall were the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, in which the Allies greatly improved their tactics of amphibious invasions and exposed the over-extended Japanese island garrisons.

The Allied forces now targeted the Mariana Island and Palau. It involved an ambitious amphibious operation, juxtaposed by the D-Day landings in the same month (June 1944), over 1,000 miles from a permanent US base. Despite heavy bombardment, the Japanese forces were largely unaffected, and victory was won by a hard-fought infantry engagement. American troops were armed with flame-throwers and demolition charges to maximise damage but in doing so unleashed horrific conflict. On the night of 6-7 July, the pocketed groups of Japanese banded together in the largest Bonsai attack of the war, a 4,000 strong suicidal charge. The Japanese civilians on the island of Saipan committed suicide by jumping off cliffs to the north.

The capture of the Marianas allowed B-29 bombers to be stationed within range of Tokyo and, when the news arrived, the Japanese Prime Minister and his cabinet resigned. It was viewed by many as the last Japanese defence before the homeland.

Re-Occupation of Philippines

General MacArthur walks ashore at Palo, Leyte.

General MacArthur walks ashore at Palo, Leyte.

Holding Saipan was seen as a priority by the Japanese and so followed in June 1944 the largest carrier battle of the war and history in the Philippine Sea. It was a catastrophic defeat for the Japanese. 3 of its 9 carriers were sunk to none of the American 15. Even more damaging though was the loss of around 90% of its air-force from strong anti-air guns, and effective American bombing of their land air-fields.

It was decided to make one more all-out attack in October 1944 in order to prevent the Allied occupation of the Philippines. The aim was to draw out the US carrier group with 4 of their remaining carriers by sailing North to open sea. Two strong fleets of the remaining battleships and heavy cruisers would then converge on Leyte Gulf and destroy the American beachhead there. The diversion succeeded, and the Japanese carrier aircraft inflicted some damage through the first use of kamikaze aircraft, but in the end the entire force was sunk. The sacrifice did not work. The two main forces failed to take the beachhead, and suffered heavy losses including the Musahi, one of Japan’s two flagship battleships. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, argued by some as the largest naval battle in history, was a catastrophic loss for Japan.

Occupation of the Philippines was now near inevitable but progress was still bitter and slow. Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, involved ten US divisions and five independent regiments, more US troops than any other conflict of the war, and 250,000 Japanese troops, of which 80% died. Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer, only surrendered on 9 March 1974 after hiding out for 29 years, relieved by his former commander after an order from the Emperor Showa. Despite MacArthur’s refusal to allow aerial bombardment in order to protect civilians, Manilla fell on 4 March 1945 and MacArthur kept his promise to return and liberate the Philippines.


Japanese-Americans arrive for internment processing.

Japanese-Americans arrive for internment processing.

During the war, around 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were residing on the west coast of America were “interned” in ten different camps. Families were kept together but conditions were hard with internees staying in military style barracks that were over-cramped and unsuitable for family living. Incidents of internees being shot were rare but did happen, such as the case of James Wakasa.

However, Japanese-Americans still played a great role in the American services. 33,000 served, of which 20,000 joined the army. The Japanese-American units achieved great success: the Military Intelligence Service was vital in deciphering the ‘Z Plan’, the Japanese plans to defend Saipan; the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany; and the 442nd Infantry regiment became the most decorated unit in US history earning more than 18,000 awards in two years.

In 1988, President Reagan opened an investigation of the legality of internment, which concluded there was insubstantial evidence of any security risk posed by these Japanese-Americans, and interment was instead a product of racism. $20,000 dollars was agreed as compensation to each internee and the US government eventually dispersed more than $1.6 billion.


The war was now entering its final stages. The final major campaign in the South-West Pacific was the capturing of Borneo. Australian troops invaded the nearby island of Tarakan on May 1 1945, and over the course of June and July attacks were mounted on the island proper. The campaign was criticised as unnecessary, but it did break the Japanese supply of oil and liberate several POW camps, including Sandakan in which only 6 of 2,500 prisoners survived.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa

Attacks moved onto Okinawa and Iwo Jima, two Japanese home islands to the south of Japan itself. Both were key for stationing planes in order to defend against the American B-29 bombers aimed for Japan. And Okinaway was selected as the vital staging post for an eventual invasion of Japan. Japan resorted to forcing unacceptably high casualties for the Allies in order to discourage further advance.

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

At Iwo Jima, the Japanese dug in, their command being under 10m of concrete, rendering preinvasion bombardment ineffective. They also resorted to kamikaze tactics as the air-force began to run out of skilled pilots. Despite the inevitability of defeat, the Japanese were fierce and this was the only battle in which American casualties at over 26,000 (killed and wounded) totalled more than Japanese at around 18,000. On February 23, 1945 six American soldiers raised the US flag over Mount Suribachi marking victory and the photo taken of them would become one of the most iconic of the entire war.

Okinawa was even fiercer. Referred to in Japanese as etsu no bōfū (“violent wind of steel”) due to ferocity and high number of vehicles in the conflict, it was one of the bloodiest of the war. Half the total civilian population of 300,000 went missing, died or committed suicide, and there were over 160,000 combined casualties on both sides. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. was commander of the US infantry on the island, and was killed in action, being the highest-ranking US officer to do so until the 9/11 attacks. The Japanese made wide use of suicide tactics, including bomb laden gliders and the one-way mission of the battleship Yamato. On July 2 1945, the island was declared as won. 94% of the Japanese defenders died.

Atomic Bombs

The campaigns of Iwo Jima and Okinawa showed invading Japan would be a very costly affair. Since 1942, partly due to Einstein’s warning in 1939 of the dangers of Germany doing the same, the Manhattan Project had been started to develop nuclear weapons. Fire-bombing became widespread, one napalm strike on Tokyo in March 1945 killing over 100,000 people, more than either later atomic bomb, but Japan would not surrender and so the Potsdam Declaration by Churchill, Truman and Chiang Kai-shek was issued in July 1945: surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.”

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation

On 6 August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, and on 9 August on Nagasaki. An estimated 140,000-290,000 would eventually die of these attacks due to the effects of radiation, of which 120,000 died immediately. The site is now a Peace Memorial Site.

End of War

The devastation of these bombs stunned the Japanese leadership and it took the second bombing for their repercussions to truly be believed. On top of this, on 8 August, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria. On 10 August, Japan agreed to accept the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration, and on 15 August, known as V-Day in the East, victory was finally declared. The official treaty was signed onboard the USS Missouri, docked with more that 250 other allied ships in Tokyo Bay, on 2 September.

MacArthur took over the occupation of Japan, of which the Soviet Union was allowed very little influence. Emperor Hirohito remained on the imperial throne but his powers were strictly limited by law, the Japanese cabinet was completely changed and became a democracy. Initially, Japan was treated as a dangerous enemy and America tried to undermine any chance to regain strength. But with the growing cost of occupation and the Cold War, American perception of the enemy changed. The occupation ended in 1952 and sovereignty was fully restored.

European power in the Pacific had also been irreversibly dented, and the colonial powers would gradually withdraw nearly entirely.

War Crimes

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East took place in Ichigaya, Tokyo from 29 April 1946 to 12 November 1948. This was to try and condemn Japanese war criminals in the Pacific conflict.

American and European powers suffered the undeclared attacks on 7 December 1941, and the Japanese POW camps were notorious. The infamous Burmese Railway cost 12,000 allied prisoners, and 90,000 civilians their lives subject to terrible conditions, disease, and execution. The death rate of POWs was 27%, 6 times that in German or Italian camps.

The Chinese suffered even worse. Some 200,000 ‘comfort women’ were forced into prostitution for the Japanese army, a fact denied even by the Japanese Prime Minister in 2007. The Rape of Nanjing resulted in 300,000 civilian deaths and widescale rape. Biological and chemical warfare was estimated to have killed 300,000-400,000 civilians. Unit 731 was a research unit that conducted various experiments of Allied and civilian prisoners, including vivisection, biological weaponry, forced impregnation, syphilis, and frostbite. Perhaps most shocking of all, the researchers of the unit were given immunity by the US government in secret, in exchange for their results.

The Inca Empire

The Inca Empire

The Incas were a civilisation which flourished from the 12th century until their conquest by the Spanish in 1533 in modern-day Peru and spreading to surrounding countries. With a centre in Cuzco in the Peruvian highlands, the Incas expanded into the largest pre-Columbian kingdom in the Americas, spreading across a diverse selection of climates such as the highlands of the Andes, plateaus and jungles. Famous for their advanced technology, opulent and magnificent art and impressive architecture, the Incas were nonetheless undermined by their lack of military technology and resistance to European diseases.


According to Inca beliefs, in the beginning, Viracocha came out of the Pacific Ocean and created the Sun and all ethnicities of people, who were buried in the Earth to emerge later. The Incas specifically were spawned first as Manco Capac and his sister (and wife) Mama Oqllu, followed by three more sibling pairs. In one legend, these were spawned as children of Viracocha, in another as children of the Sun god, Inti. In either case, the Incas saw themselves as special, the chosen representatives of either deity on Earth and hence destined to rule. The different legends could be explained by the fact that commoners could not utter the name of Viracocha.

There are also different legends about where the first Incas spawned. The earliest says they spawned from a cave at Tampu T’oqo or ‘The House of Windows’, which was located at Pacariqtambo, south of Cuzco. However, in another the Incas emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca onto the shore at Tiwanaku. This was a large but abandoned earlier Andean settlement in Bolivia, thought by the Incas to have been built by giants but who were later destroyed in a flood sent by Viracocha. This later myth may have been a way to link the Incas to the mysterious city and to bring the powerful local Aymara tribes under their control.

The siblings then set off with a golden staff, having been instructed to build a temple of the Sun where it sank into the ground. On the way, Manco Capac’s brothers die, in most stories killed by Maco Capac, before they reach Cuzco and here set up their capital.

Before the Incas

The Incas were only the latest in a series of Andean civilisations. Cuzco seems from archaeology to have been settled since possibly 4500 BC but was not important until the rise of the Incas in the 12th century. Before this, there were two major civilisations, that of Tiwanaku (300-c.1000 AD) and the Wari (600-c.1100AD), with Cuzco located quite centrally between the two. The Moche civilisation preceded even these two.

One of the reasons for the Incas’ success is thought to have been the pre-existing infrastructures and practices of these previous civilisations. Roads, hydraulic systems, and the agriculture of these civilisations were already in practice and were used by the Incas. As were their administrative practices, which involved creating several colonies and then integrating foreign settlements in between by keeping the local ruling systems but including them under their own administration. Non-reciprocal labour was also demanded as a form of tribute which explains how the colossal site of Tiwanaku could be created. The Incas both adopted the process of this labour tribute, and were inspired by the achievements of these former civilisations.


Sacsayhuaman Inca Ruins, Cusco

Sacsayhuaman Inca Ruins, Cusco, Pilot Productions

Cuzco was originally inhabited by the Killke people from 900-1200 AD who established the Sacsayhuaman, a fortress on the edge of Cuzco.

The Incas then incorporated this into the wider city of Cuzco, mostly under the reign of the Pachacuti, supposedly laid out in the shape of a puma, although some scholars believe this to be metaphorical. The Saksaywaman, with its own temple, road and aqueduct system, made up the head of the puma, and the imperial metropolis of Pumachupan made up the tail.

At its peak, the city may have had a population of 150,000. It was split into two main plazas, supposedly between the fore and hind legs, from each of which sprung two highways, extending to the four imperial quarters of the empire, called suyus. The wealth of the city was famous: it was dominated by the Coricancha complex (Temple of the Sun). The greatest temples were built to Inti, covered in 700 2kg sheets of gold, and to Mama Kilya, covered similarly in silver. There were also vast systems of parks, canals, irrigation, temples and fountains but most is now lost and remains only in the account of the Spanish and other European eye-witnesses.


Pachacuti is often credited as the first great ruler of the Incas, reorganising the small city kingdom into an empire. Pachacuti was the second-born son but earnt his succession to the throne when in 1438 he defended Cuzco from an army of the invading Chanka tribe, supposedly 40,000 strong, whilst his father and elder brother fled. Upon succeeding to the throne, Pachacuti continued the war against the Chanka, defeating them and the Collao.

The son of the king traditionally led the army, and Pachacuti appointed his son, Thupa Inca Yupanqui, as head of the army in 1463, who succeeded his father as king in 1471. He is credited with having expanded the empire by a massive 4,000 km (2,500 miles). His greatest victory was against the Chimor on the North-West Coast of modern Peru, the last remaining rivals to the Incas, but he also expanded south into modern Chile and Argentina. Succession proved a great issue, as Thupa died with 2 legitimate sons and 90 illegitimate children. He initially favoured the son of one wife, but then decided on his other son, who would become emperor Huayna Capac. This caused the first wife to poison him, resulting in her and her son’s death after Huayna’s accession.

Civil War

Huayana ruled over the peak of the Inca Empire, expanding further south into Chile and Argentina, and north into Ecuador and Colombia, most importantly absorbing Quito in Ecuador by marriage to its queen. But the symptoms of the Incas’ fall began to become apparent: Huayana died in c.1524, many suspect from a European disease, spreading from the first Spanish Conquistadors in Central America, against which the Incas had no immune defence and so died in their thousands.

Succession also proved an issue as Huayana split his empire in two between his two sons: the North and Quito to Atahualpa and the South and Cuzco to Húascar. Peace lasted for 5 years despite rivalry before Húascar gained the favour of the Canari tribe, a powerful group in the Northern Empire who resented Atahualpa. Civil war ensued in 1529 in which Atahualpa was initially defeated and captured, losing an ear in captivity, before escaping. Bitter war continued with several cities razed to the ground and many leading Incas tortured and executed. But Atahualpa’s favour with his father’s generals turned the tide, as he gradually pushed south and captured Cuzco. However, Atahualpa stayed behind the front line and consulted the oracle of the Huaca Catequil, who prophesied that Atahualpa’s advance would end poorly. And just at this moment, the Spanish began their encroachment into Inca territory.

Spanish Invasion and Collapse

Francesco Pizarro had obtained permission from King Charles I and Queen Isabel of Spain to launch a conquest of what was known as Peru and marched into Incan territory in 1532 with a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry. Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizarro near Cajamarco in what is now the Inca baths. Atahualpa refused to become a Christian and tributary of Spain, not fearing the small Spanish force having brought 6,000 of his 80,000 strong army. However, Pizarro had planned an ambush hiding cavalry, musketeers and artillery in nearby buildings, technology the Incas had never faced and had no defence against. Pizarro launched and succeeded in his ambush, capturing Atahualpa. Atahualpa offered to fill the room he was imprisoned in with gold and twice that amount of silver, which he duly did, treasures being shipped from throughout the empire. However, Pizarro broke his word, eventually executing Atahualpa for treason against Spain and the assassination of his brother.

Inca baths, Cajamarca, Pilot Productions

Inca baths, Cajamarca, Pilot Productions

In the meantime, the war continued. Most of the Incan forces and the best generals were to the south near Cuzco, finishing the Civil War – a grave disadvantage. The Spanish armour and weapons were also a great advantage but defeat for the Incas was not inevitable. Pizarro could not be reinforced due to rebellion in Mexico and what was the Aztec Empire. He was forced to ally himself to local tribes, such as the Wanka tribe, who resented Inca rule. The Incas also failed to use guerrilla warfare as the Mapuche in the Amazon would successfully hold off the Spanish with. Finally, European diseases, such as smallpox and typhus, wiped out thousands of the native South Americans, spelling their downfall.

The Last Incas

In 1533, Atahualpa’s brother Manco Inca Yupanqui was installed as king and for a time cooperated with the Spanish before retaking Cuzco. He resisted four counter-attacks and killed 500 Spanish before being forced out of the city. He retreated to the remote mountain jungles of Vilcabamba and set up the ‘Neo-Inca’ state.

Here the Incas adopted some Spanish weaponry and tactics, especially crossbows and cavalry. The new state lasted for 36 years before an incident on the border caused the death of two Spanish ambassadors, triggering the final Spanish invasion in 1572. Despite spirited resistance, the Incas could not break the siege and abandoned their final cities, retreating to the jungle.

The final king, Tupac Amaru, was found and executed. The remaining Incas were forced into labour for the Spanish, with one male from each family being forced to mine precious metals. Such men usually died after a year or two, and another male was expected to replace them. Moreover, disease outbreaks such as typhus in 1546, smallpox in 1558-9, diptheria in 1614 and measles in 1618 killed many.


The Inca empire was known as the Tahuantinsuyu, which consisted of an administrative centre of Cuzco, with four highways leading to four provincial suyus: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Kuntisuyu (SW) and Qullasuyu (SE).

The Inca king (Sapa Inca) was the centre of the Empire. Supposedly he drank from gold and silver cups, wore silver shoes, and living in a palace furnished with the finest textiles. The Incas also mummified their rulers and stored them in the Coricancha temple in Cuzco. These were sometimes brought outside, especially in November, ‘the month of the dead’, wearing their finest regalia. They were given offerings of their favourite food and drink, and ‘consulted’ for their opinion on pressing state affairs.

The Incas had no laws but three moral principles: Ama sua: Do not steal; Ama llulla: Do not lie; Ama quella: Do not be lazy. The Incas achieved great success by not conquering local tribes but indoctrinating them and allowing their local elites to continue ruling. However, the families of these elites were often held as hostages and the most important roles were reserved for Incas. Colonies were also dotted through the empire to ensure Inca control and garrisons throughout. The Incas used no currency, so tribute existed either in the form of labour or in the mode of goods such as textiles and luxury items.


Quecha was the official language of the Incan Empire. It was not only an Incan language but existed before in many areas and was indoctrinated in all conquered territories. Special privileges were given to those who could speak the language. However, regional dialects were maintained and some areas maintained their own language such as Aymara, still spoken in Bolivia. Quecha is in fact still spoken by over 8 million people.


At its peak the Incan empire contained nearly 12 million people. Most were farmers and existed in agricultural communities but the Spanish were greatly impressed by the Incan cities. Eyewitnesses described that they were as large as European cities but generally more pleasant to live in, for the road and water systems were superior in South America to Europe.

The Incas divided their lives up into various stages. Until 3, children were known as wawa, a near void description given the common infant mortality rate. At 3, a ceremony occurred where a child was welcomed into life; the whole family would be invited and given a lock of the child’s hair before it was shaved. The child was now warma, a stage of ignorance, before reaching 14 and the first stage of puberty and gender realisation.

The Incas had strong but equal gender roles. Boys’ coming-of-age ceremonies included dancing, fasting, and tasks to display strength. Girls’ main ceremony was the onset of menstruation, upon which they would go into the forest until the bleeding stopped. Both would then be given new clothes and taught how to live as a man or woman. A ‘folly’ stage then occurred, allowing sex without being a parent, before marriage and full maturity. Old age was described as a decline, particularly the final phase of Ruku, or decrepitude from the age of 90.

The Incas were uniquely adapted to high altitude: slower heart rate, high lung volume, and larger haemoglobin amounts to transfer oxygen. Incan nobility also adopted the practice of wrapping the heads of new-born in tight fabric to mould their heads into conical shapes, designed to set them apart as nobility.


Religion was of great importance to the Incas and strongly linked with the movement of the constellations as seen from Cuzco, thought to be the centre of the world. These were normally observed in special sanctuaries, huacas, positioned in spectacular places. The most important deities were Inti, the sun god, and Viracocha, the creator god. On Lake Titicaca there was an island temple devoted to Inti. But the Incan pantheon was vast, and adopted many foreign deities as their own, as well as allowing the worship of local religions in conquered territories. One such example was the scared city of Pachacamac, named after a god of the same name, with a wooden statue considered to be an oracle, which attracted many visitors.

The Incas believed in reincarnation in another world and so the worship of ancestors was of great importance. It was important that no body was burnt, as this would destroy their vital force. The ancient sites of previous civilisations, particularly Tiwanaku, were head in special reverence. Mummies were also frequently displayed and ‘fed’, either with food or libations of chicha beer, as part of ancestor worship. The most gruesome form of worship was sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice. 4,000 servants and officials were supposedly sacrificed upon the death of Huayna Capac in 1527. In 1999, archaeologists in Argentina even found the remains of three sacrificed children in a huaca on a volcano, specially fed maize and dried llama meat and drugged with coca leaves and alcohol.

Science and Technology

The Incas were an advanced civilisation, especially given the lack of a written language. In place of this, they developed the Quipu knot system. A series of differently coloured and lengthed string would hang from a wooden bar, with knots tied at different heights. Sometimes the ropes were interwoven, with larger quipus containing as many as 1500 ropes, suggesting a great complexity of meaning some scholars suggest as an alternative to written text. How to interpret these quipus has sadly been lost and will remain a mystery.

The Inca also made impressive medical discoveries, achieving 80-90% survival rate in skull surgery and using coca leaves as anaesthetic, lessen hunger and give energy.


Inca Weaver in Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca, Pilot Produtions

Weaver in Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca, Pilot Produtions

Inca art is most evident in luxury items. Precious metals were beautifully worked to mark their near divine status – gold as sweat of the sun, silver as tears of the moon. However, textiles, especially cumpi, made of alpaca or vicuna wool and cotton, or sometimes more exotic materials such as bat hair or hummingbird down, were the prize items. Designs often used repeated geometric patterns, such as chequer boards, and often special designs designated specific ethnicities to mark out their tributary contributions.



Incan architecture was their most impressive development. Without using any mortar, the Incas were able to build large buildings in extraordinary locations, by incorporating the natural landscape and using stones that were cut to perfectly fit together. One scholar even wrote a razor blade could not be fit between. As a result, many structures still remain despite the frequency of earthquakes in the region, most spectacularly at Machu Picchu, a mountain citadel most commonly thought to have been built as an estate for Pachacuti.

Macchu Picchu, Inca Empire

Macchu Picchu, Pilot Productions

The most common buildings were qollqa, one room warehouses to store potatoes and other foodstuffs. One major cause of Incan success was their ability to store potatoes, freeze-dried in the freezing outdoor night-time conditions and then stored in such qollqa. Most buildings were one room, with the kancha the most normal dwelling: a single room with a thatched roof. Terraces were also developed as a key part of Incan architecture as way of farming in the steep Andes.

But the most vital building of the Incas were roads which spanned across the empire and transported messengers with great speed, as well as llama caravans. Some estimates state the road system consisted of almost 25,000 miles of road – three times the Earth’s diameter.


The Incas were a spectacular and advanced civilisation that dazzled even the Spanish explorers who conquered them. Even with their fall, their influence carries on today in their art, monuments and language which still survive as a key part of Peruvian and South American identity.

More information:

Download: Bazaar – Peru

Read: Horsetrekking the Inca Trail

Read: The Andes Before The Incas

By Wilfred Sandwell

The American War Of Independence

The American War Of Independence

British Rule

The Stamp Act Protest, 1765 by Granger

The Stamp Act Protest, 1765 by Granger

The brutal and bloody eight-year struggle between the British Empire and the newly-declared United States of America, which comprised the American War of Independence represented a key turning point in world history, seeing the world’s most powerful entity lose an unprecedented amount of power and territory. Indeed, prior to the explosive conflict, tensions between the British and their American subjects were long-simmering. This had a number of underlying causes, the most notable of which was the heavy taxation incurred by the American colonies following the Seven-Year War with France, which had left Britain in financial debt.

Thus, the policy of tax imposition on British colonies was introduced in 1765 in the controversial Stamp Act. This was met with outrage by the American subjects, who had accumulated a great deal of wealth in the preceding years and perceived these new measures as unconstitutional, as they had no elective representatives in the British Parliament through which they were taxed. Indeed, these taxation issues would prove decisive in the intensifying conflict between the British and the Americans.

boston-massacre by Paul Revere

Boston Tea Party Massacre by Paul Revere

A pivotal development in the growing conflict between the British and the Americans, the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the heavy taxation recently imposed upon the colonies. Carried out by the Sons of Liberty, a secret society formed to protect the rights of the colonies, these activists boarded ships docked in Boston Harbour by the East India Company and destroyed the tea shipments by throwing them asunder. The Boston Tea Party is viewed as both a culmination of tensions between Britain and the Americas as well as a key catalyst for the American Revolution.

The British responded with punitive measures, crippling Boston’s economy through the Trade Act of 1774, which prevented trade from occurring within the region while also stripping Massachusetts of self-governing privileges. These, among others, were collectively known as the Coercive Acts, which were only met by increasing resistance from the colonies. This resistance grew increasingly sophisticated as the American Revolutionary War soon began.

US Declaration of Independence 1823, Stone Printing

US Declaration of Independence 1823, Stone Printing

Declaration Of Independence

Composed in the midst of the War of Independence with the British, the Declaration of Independence was a statement issued by the Continental Congress, a collection of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies, which comprised the United States of America. Officially adopted on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence announced the USA’s separation from the

British Empire and the beginnings of a new nation. Key figures in the composition of the Declaration of Independence were future American Presidents John Adams, who played a pivotal role in the drive for independence and Thomas Jefferson, who was selected by the committee to produce a draft of the Declaration. This would be amended by Adams and Benjamin Franklin, another future President. Printed and distributed to the general public, the document would go to resonate for hundreds of years after its inception, remaining a key feature of American cultural history.

Washington’s Role 

Walters Gilbert Stuart George Washington

Walters Gilbert Stuart George Washington

Known as the United States of America’s first President, George Washington played a pivotal role in the conflict between the British and the Americans, serving as the latter’s military and political leader, appointed the titles of General and Commander-in-chief.

Born into a wealthy colonial family of tobacco farmers, he quickly ascended the ranks of the British military during the French and Indian War. Due to his military experience, patriotic values and political abilities, he was a natural Act and particularly the Intolerable Acts of 1774.

Upon the creation of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington was appointed its leader. He devised the American Revolution’s basic strategy in collusion with the Congress, vowing never to surrender and to continue fighting, despite losing a number of battles. He also trained and organised the American army, creating a sense of structure within the newly-established military force. He also provided a representative face of the Revolution, an embodiment of the ideal of resistance against the British, arguably his most important function of all.

His political manoeuvring allowed a number of different, potentially
unwieldy forces, such as the continental army, the congress and allies such as the French, motivated and co-operative towards the same goal. Amongst his most notable military
accomplishments were the Siege of Boston in 1776 wherein he ousted the British, the crossing of
the Delaware River, and the small yet pivotal Battle of Trenton, which boosted the Revolutionaries’
wavering morale and renewed a sense of inspiration amongst the soldiers.

Key Battles

Over the eight year conflict, there were several military engagements, some of which carried more significance than others. Arguably the most notable were the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which signified the beginning of the conflict between the British and the Americans.

With the colonial assembly having formed a provisional government-the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the British interpreted this as a state of rebellion and thus assembled 700 troops in Boston under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The Patriots however, having been informed of the British military’s movements, were prepared for this, and were able to plan an effective strategy to combat the British.

Despite initially being overwhelmed by the British, the Patriots managed to oust the British from North Bridge, causing them to retreat to the rest of the British forces. With a combined force of 1,700 men, they were forced into a tactical retreat as the Patriots prevented access to Charlestown and Boston, thus beginning the Siege of Boston.

Considered the beginning of outright military engagement between the two sides, the opening gunshot by the patriots was termed ‘The shot heard round the world’, indicative of the battle’s importance in the grand scheme of American, and even world history.

The Siege of Boston, which immediately followed the Battles of Lexington and Concord, was another key phase of conflict in the American War of Independence, lasting nearly an entire year from April 19, 1775 – March 17, 1776.

With the British Army’s movements by land restricted entirely to the city of Boston, a siege broke out. Although the British seized Bunker Hill in June, they suffered heavy casualties with over 1,150 dead or wounded in comparison to the 400 American casualties. They were also unable to make an impact on the British military’s control of Boston. A key turning point of the conflict came in November, when Commander-in-Chief Washington dispatched former bookseller Henry Knox to transport heavy artillery into Boston from Fort Ticonderoga.

Over a few months, the Continental Army were able to fortify the Dorchester Heights region with canons, thereby severely constricting the supply lifeline to the British. With no choice left, the British retreated from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia, marking a key and decisive American victory.

The Battle of Trenton in December 1776 was another key victory for the Colonial Americans despite being a small battle. With the British having exercised a period of military dominance previously, the Continental Army were forced into a state of retreat. With morale at an all-time low, Washington formulated a plan to cross the Delaware River, surrounding and overwhelming a garrison of Hessian soldiers, definitively defeating them.

Battle of Trenton by Charles McBarron

Battle of Trenton by Charles McBarron

Although there were less than 100 British casualties, the Battle of Trenton nonetheless proved to be a definitive turning point in the conflict, affording the Continental Army an inspirational morale boost, causing a huge influx of new recruits.

The Siege of Yorktown was another armed conflict of huge importance, signalling the end of the conflict as well as the height of co-operation between the Continental and French Armies. The last major land battle, it lasted nearly an entire month. With the French having arrived in Rhode Island in 1780, numbering 5,500, the two armies united near New York City in Summer 1781.

The British defence had weakened significantly in recent months as a result of American and French bombardments. The British, under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis, found their situation spiralling further and further out of control, sustaining over 300 casualties. In addition, over 7,000 British soldiers were captured by the Americans and the French. Cornwallis was forced to surrender, the ceremony of which took place after two days of negotiation. While the conflict wasn’t entirely over, the siege of Yorktown signified the beginning of the end.


Signing of the preliminary Treaty of Paris, November 30, 1782

Signing of the preliminary Treaty of Paris, November 30, 1782


Following the Siege of Yorktown, American liberation was all but inevitable. While King George III pledged to continue the fight, the British Empire soon became preoccupied with conflict else whereas a number of Britain’s other colonies in the West Indies became threatened by French and Spanish forces. As a result, Parliament decided to call off all offensive operations in America and begin negotiations towards peace. While over 30,000 British soldiers remained in North America, in Savannah, New York City and Charleston, all land combat had ended. While naval conflict in the West Indies remained ongoing, peace gradually began to take form, culminating in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Support for the war in Britain had fallen significantly since the Yorktown fiasco, with the House of Commons voting to cease all conflict once and for all in April 1782. After months of negotiations, the Treaty of Paris marked a formal end to conflict, with the United States attaining all North American territory between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains, which angered the First Nations and leading to further conflict in later years. Despite this, hostilities had, for the better part, ended, and the United States had formally been established.

Native Americans

Native Americans

Given their near-genocidal treatment at the hands of European colonialism, the current population of Native Americans in the United States remains staggeringly low at over 5 million, just over 1.6% of the country’s population. What few people realise is the sheer breadth of diversity amongst the Native Americans. There are over 500 tribes federally recognised by the United States government, each with their own distinct cultural and historical identities.

1. Tribes

While Native American tribes are often lumped together as a single mass entity, this assessment could not be further from the truth. There are 567 registered Native American tribes in the United States, each with its own unique culture and history.


Essa-queta, Plains Apache chief

Essa-queta, Plains Apache chief

One of the most historically significant Native American tribes, the Apache hail from the Southwestern region of the United States, having played a major role in the American-Indian wars of the 19th Century. In modern times, the Apache are based mainly in Arizona and New Mexico, where there are reservations, as well as communities in Oklahoma and Texas. The Apache Indians originally hailed from further North in modern-day Alaska and Canada before migrating southwards and eventually settling around the Rio Grande, although they were a generally nomadic tribe. They were known for their brilliant battle prowess, and the Apache regularly came into conflict with opposing forces, notably the Spaniards and the Americans. The Apache-Mexican Wars was a series of conflicts from the 17th to 20th Centuries, beginning with the Spanish. A series of brutal skirmishes occurred with the Apaches incurring significant losses. Peace was declared towards the end of the 18th Century, but this ended following Mexican independence in 1821. The new government began cutting off resources to the local Apache population, forcing them to resume their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and lead a number of raids. This caused the Mexicans to declare war on the Apache, grossly underestimating their military capabilities. It is difficult to estimate the casualties, but they were vast on both sides. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, the US absorbed much of Mexico’s territory and came into conflict with the Apaches in a series of conflicts known as the Apache Wars, spanning from 1849 to 1886. These were brutal and bloody conflicts which eventually saw the Apaches moved to reservations. Currently, the Apache population is estimated at just under 112,000. The tribe is noted for its many folk heroes such as Cochise, a major leader during the Apache Wars and the leader of an uprising against the American government.


Based around the Great Plains, the Comanche are currently mainly based in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. The Comanche Nation is based in the city of Lawton, Oklahoma. Since European contact, the population has decreased massively from 45,000 to just over 15,000. The Comanche are historically known as a tribe of fierce warriors who sustained themselves economically through the production and sale of Buffalo products. They were one of the first Indian tribes to master horsemanship following encounters with the Spanish. The Comanche were the major force during the Texas-Indian wars, and proved to be a formidable opponent to the United States army.


One of the most prominent tribes in Eastern North America, the Mohawk People are historically from upstate New York around the Hudson River as well as in parts of Ontario and Quebec in Canada amongst other locations. They were one of the five founding tribes of the Iroquois League, a confederation of tribes and were the first line of defence against European settlers, for which they earned the name the ‘Keepers of the Eastern Door.’


Originating in the American South, the Cherokee Indians hailed from modern-day states such as the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, before migrating elsewhere. The tribe is currently entered mainly in Oklahoma although there are major populations in North Carolina and California as well. With over 300,000 verified tribal members, it is the largest tribe in the United States, with many more claiming Cherokee ancestry. The Cherokee were considered to be one of the most advanced Native American tribes prior to European colonisation, especially well-known for their agricultural capabilities.


One of the major Native American tribes centered around North Dakota, the Arikara are closely related to the Pawnee and share a similar language. They have a history of being semi-nomadic and were known for being adept farmers, particularly in the area of horticulture. They were also known for their construction of Earth Lodges, semi-subterranean homes dug from the earth.


Pawnee father and son, 1912

Pawnee father and son, 1912

A small population of around 3600 remains of the Pawnee people. Based in Oklahoma, the Pawnee hail from the modern-day states of Kansas and Nebraska. Formerly one of the most extensive and powerful Native American tribes, they controlled a vast territorial domain and were often at odds with rival tribes such as the Cheyenne, the Comanche and the Arapho. Similar to the Arikara, they lived in earth lodges and sustained themselves through a variety of different means including agriculture and trade. Despite their high stature, they suffered badly as a result of diseases brought by European settlers, which decimated their population along with famine and conflict. Despite this, their military capabilities were well realised by the US Army, who recruited many of their finest warriors as scouts.


Based in the Southeast of the United States, the Choctaw people are currently spread out across Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama an California. A coalescence of various tribes, the Choctaw were one of the first tribes encountered by Europeans and were labelled as one of the ‘Five Civilised Tribes’ in the 19th Century alongside the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Creek and the Seminole. They were also the first tribe victimised by the Indian Removal Act and forced to migrate due to the US attempts to exploit their resources. They were the first Native Americans to serve as code talkers during the First World War. Despite regular collaborations with the US government making the prospect of assimilation close to reality, the Choctaw have managed to maintain and preserve their distinct culture.


One of the largest Native American tribes, the Cree are mainly based in Canada in modern times although there is a diaspora in some parts of the United States, most notably Montana. Mainly centred in the region of Quebec, the Cree were historically known for their participation in the fur trade as well as their communal, egalitarian lifestyle. Due to their residence in the snowy tundra of Canada, they were known for their use of tools such as snowshoes and toboggans. Hunting remains an important cultural staple of Cree culture and they are well known for their prowess in this field.


One of the most notable Native American tribes of the Great Plains, the Cheyenne are mainly based in the modern-day states of Montana and Oklahoma, currently comprising a population of nearly 23,000. They are divided into two Nations-the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma and the Northern Cheyenne in Montana. They initially came into contact with Europeans in modern-day Minnesota although their exact point origin is unknown. The Cheyenne are well-known for their important role in the Indian Wars, notably victims of the horrific Sand Creek Massacre which saw 600 Cheyenne murdered by the Colorado Militia, led by the famous General Custer. Perhaps more famously was their involvement in the Battle of the Little Bighorn which saw an alliance of Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapho tribes face off against Custer’s forces in modern-day Montana in an overwhelming Native American victory.


Navajo woman & child, circa 1880-1910

Navajo woman & child, circa 1880-1910

One of the largest Native American tribes, the Navajo are based in the Southwestern region of the United States with the Navajo Nation having bases across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. This is the second-largest tribe in the US as well as the largest reservation. Indeed, the Navajo Nation Reservation covers an area of 27,000 square miles, larger than ten of the fifty US states. The population currently numbers over 300,000. The Navajo are noted for their distinct and complex religious practices as well as their decentralised system of government. Much of the population retain a traditional lifestyle.

2. Indian Wars

Rather than referring to a specific conflict, the Indian Wars is a collective term pertaining to a number of inter-related military incursions between various Native American tribes and opposing forces. These conflicts were initially fought with European powers such as the British and Spanish Empires before successor states such as the United States, Canada and Mexico became involved. The period of conflict was intermittent, spanning from the beginning of colonisation in the 16th Century into the early 20th Century.

The Mohawk Trail

A major site in Native American history, the Mohawk Trail is a route in Northwestern Massachusetts which connected tribes from the Atlantic with those from Upstate New York. It was a major trade route between the various tribes, allowing them to exchange various goods such as meat and fur. Tensions broke out between two of the trail’s major tribes-the Mohawks and the Pocumtucks, a conflict exacerbated by Europeans, hoping it would weaken both sides and strengthen their own position. The Mohawks proved victorious, and as a result the trail is named after them. This historic trail was expanded significantly during the Indian Wars, becoming a major gateway between the major American city of Boston and the Eastern Native American towns. Currently, the Mohawk Trail is a major tourism site for the region, with many attracted to the lush scenery, hiking trails and sporting activities.

Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears

One of the darkest chapters in American history, the Trail of Tears refers to the policy of forced relocations enacted by the United States government under the directorship of President Andrew Jackson. The major consequence of 1830’s Indian Removal Act, the Native American Tribes of Southeastern United States were unceremoniously ejected from their homelands and forced to migrate to designated areas westwards. The tribes affected belonged to the ‘Five Civilised Tribes-the Cherokee, the Muscogee, the Seminole, the Chickasaw and the Choctaw. For a 20 year period between 1831 and 1850, these tribes were forced into leave their homes and faced considerable hardships in doing so. It is believed that nearly 125,000 individuals were exiled in total. The process was the brainchild of Jackson, a long-time advocate of the policy of Indian Removal. He spent the bulk of his political career pursuing this goal, his prejudiced views forming during his barbaric military campaigns against tribes. Although the law was intended to be implemented peacefully, Jackson and his government utilised violence to force Indian removal. The Choctaw were the first nation to be expelled, completely unprepared for such an arduous feat, many died on the journey as a result. The Seminole were the only tribe to put up a major resistance to the relocation program, with the ensuing conflict proving to be costly on both sides. A handful of Seminole retreated to the Everglades but most of the population was killed in the conflict. The Cherokee were the final of the tribes to be forcibly relocated with nearly half of the population dying during the relocation.

The Comanche-Mexico Wars

The Comanche were famous for their horsemanship. By George Catlin, 1835.

The Comanche were famous for their horsemanship. By George Catlin, 1835.

A major part of the greater Comanche Wars, the Comanche-Mexico Wars was a recurring series of conflicts lasting nearly 50 years between 1821 and 1850. The Comanche were considered to be amongst the most fierce and formidable warriors of all the Native American tribes, and had previously come into conflict with the Spanish military. Despite this, a period of peace had been declared. Following the Mexican declaration of independence in 1821, hostilities quickly resumed. The conflict was mainly defined by a series of Comanche raids during the 1840’s during which tensions reached their apex. These raids were deadly and grew increasingly bold as the conflict progressed. They were highly organised and saw hundreds of Mexicans killed. Following the Mexican-American Wars, Texas became absorbed by the United States and the raids continued unabated. The Comanche remained a major force to be reckoned with during the 1840’s but their influence waned as the US Army increased their military efforts, decimating the population and reducing their influence significantly.

Battle of the Little Bighorn

Better known as Custer’s Last Stand’, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most important battles in American history. A face off between a united front of Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapho tribes and the United States Army, it was one of the greatest embarrassments in American military history. A major part of the Great Sioux War of 1876, the battle lasted two days and saw the American forces see an overwhelming defeat. The tribes were lead by iconic figures Crazy Horse and Chief Gall while the American forces were led by the infamous Colonel George Custer. Custer himself was killed along with 267 other American soldiers. Native American deaths, while difficult to quantify, were significantly lower. The battle and Custer’s efforts were initially lionised as an example of American military bravery while the reasons for Native American victory was based solely on their numerical advantage. Recent analyses have portrayed a more unflattering picture of Custer and his many costly errors. He was known to have ignored the warnings of his scouts and carried out poor reconnaissance missions, leaving him grossly unprepared for the incursion.

3. Great Chiefs: Structure of Native American Society

Native American tribal structures differed from one another, but retained certain common aspects. Social stratification in Native American culture was very much as important a concept as it was to European powers, and it remains so in modern times, albeit to a lesser degree. Native American societies were tribal, meaning they were structured like clans. These clans were chiefdoms, in which rulership is held by a singular figure. These figures are elected by their clans, who also hold the right to depose the chiefs or sachems (paramount chiefs) if they so wish. Their powers were fairly limited and few laws of note existed except for ones concerning piety. It was not essential for all Chiefs to be male, with a number of well-known Chiefs being women, most notably Wilma Mankiller.

4. The Buffalo and the Horse

Until European colonisation of the New World, buffalo were a significant animal amongst the Native Americans. They were a major source of meat and were subsequently hunted for thousands of years. There were two major species-the plains bison and the wood bison. Both were hunted for their meat and hides, which were used for clothing. Indeed, their adeptness at hunting soon created a wasteful surplus of meat and buffalo were sometimes hunted fir specific delicacies. The buffalo was an important symbolic animal in a number of Native American religions and there were a number of ceremonial hunts.

Following European colonisation, horses were introduced to the New World by the Spanish and these animals assumed a major role in Native American culture. Many tribes were quick to master the skills of horsemanship and quickly utilised them to help with the hunting of buffalo. Amongst Plains Indians, horses were especially important. In addition to its importance with major tasks such as buffalo hunting, horsemanship became a valuable symbol of social prestige. The Comanche were particularly well-known for their horsemanship abilities, their nomadic, pastoral lifestyle suiting this very effectively.

5. Spiritual Beliefs: Medicine Man, Peace Pipes

Bear Butte, in South Dakota, is a sacred site for over 30 Plains tribes.

Bear Butte, in South Dakota, is a sacred site for over 30 Plains tribes.

Native American spiritual beliefs differ slightly from tribe to tribe but there are a number of connecting aspects between them. Upon the arrival of European colonialsm, observers decreed them to be a non-religious people due to the significant differences to their own practices. This observation was completely untrue and the Native Americans are in fact one of the most spiritually rich and diverse peoples in the world. The religions vary from animistic-based around the belief of objects, animals and places possessing important spiritual essence, monotheistic-based around the worship of a single deity and polytheistic-the worship of multiple deities.

Major recurring practices include the use of sweat lodges. These are small, naturally-built huts in which a purification ceremony takes place. It focuses on prayer and healing and can be dangerous if not done properly. Practitioners are meant to ‘sweat’ out impurities while traditional songs and prayers are recited. Their purposes differ to suit the occasion.

Other practices of note include the Sun Dance, mainly practiced by indigenous peoples from the Plains. The ceremony varies from tribe to tribe but generally revolved around the recitals of songs, dances and prayers paired with physical endurance trials. It is normally a physically exhausting ordeal in which practitioners offer a sacrifice for the benefit of the tribe.

Ceremonial or Peace Pipes are an instrumental item used in a plethora of religious ceremonies. A smoking pipe, they are used for a number of different reasons, including the ratifying of treaties and the offering of prayers. These pipes differ in appearance and name across the different Indigenous tribes. Notable examples include Bluestone, Blue Pipestone and lay.

The majority if not all Indigenous tribes featured Medicine Men or Women as focal spiritual figures These differed in name and function throughout the country, but generally speaking, they served as the leaders of all spiritual and ceremonial matters in the tribe. Knowledge is passed down generation after generation.

Many Native American spiritual beliefs and practices are closely guarded from outsiders due to rampant and disrespectful cultural appropriation. Thus, many of the tribes’ beliefs and systems remain shrouded in a veil of mystery.

6. Home: Teepees, Clothes etc.

Domestic life of Native American tribes obviously varied throughout the country but one particularly iconic symbol is the Tipi, a dwelling unique to the tribes of the Plains. They are known for their distinct cone-shaped appearance, canvas material and smoke flaps. No longer in wide use, they nonetheless retain a ceremonial function. Like many symbols, they have been incorrectly used as a symbol for all Native American tribes, becoming a stereotypical image. Known as much for its practical importance as it is for its ceremonial importance, it suited the nomadic lifestyles of the Plains peoples, due to its easy assembly and durability to suit harsh climates.

An Oglala Lakota tipi, 1891

An Oglala Lakota tipi, 1891

Native American clothing is another aspect of Indigenous cultures that have been exploited by cultural appropriation. Many assume that all Native Americans wore the same style of clothes, but this is untrue and varied significantly throughout the country. The majority of tribes sources clothing from materials such as agave and in fewer cases cotton. This was particularly evident in the tribes of the Southwest due to the hot weather. Towards the east, due to the lack of cotton or agave plants, tribes sourced clothing materials from tree bark. In the north, near the Canadian border, animal skins were used extensively due to the harsher cold conditions. Hair styles were a major form of distinction between various tribes.

7. Reservations: Loss of Land

Following the Indian Act, Native American tribes from the Eastern United States were forcibly ejected from their homes and forced to migrate westwards in appalling, inhospitable conditions which caused significant loss of life amongst other severe problems. Reservations were created to house the migrating populations. These are legally designated lands designed to house Native Americans. They are exempt from state law and are alternatively governed by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are currently 326 Indian Reservations  in total. The land allotments vary in size-the largest is around the size of West Virginia, although most are nowhere near this size. Overall, Indian Reservations encompass an area of over 56 million acres. Of the total 2.5 million Native Americans living in the United States, only 1 million live in reservations, the others living in major cities such as Los Angeles or Phoenix.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War

A house divided against itself cannot stand. 
I believe this government cannot endure 
permanently half-slave and half-free.
— Abraham Lincoln, 1858

What Was The American Civil War?

A war fought in the United States between the North (Free States/Union/United States of America) and the South (Slave states/Confederacy/The Confederate States of America). There are multiple reasons for the start of the War, but the most notable outcome of the War was the abolition of slavery in the United States of America.

Slave states, states that legally had slaves, wanted to continue slavery so in a last effort to secure their right to slavery they seceded from the United States of America and created the Confederate States of America.

Why Did The American Civil War Start?

Slave states refused to accept the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. Lincoln was outspoken about the abolition of slavery, a concept, if carried out, that would crush the economy of the South.

Tensions between the North and the South continued to grow from a multitude of reasons including the North’s industrial capacity vs. the South’s agricultural ways, states’ rights vs. federal rights, and most notably the North’s push to abolish slavery vs. the South’s pursuit for the right to continue slavery.

The culmination of differences could no longer be appeased by laws passed in Congress. On December 20, 1860, after the Presidential Election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

The seven states to secede created a national government, the Confederate States of America, by February 1861 located in Montgomery, Alabama (the capital would later move to Virginia) with Jefferson Davis as the President. The Union did not fully acknowledge the secession of the Confederates States of America because the act of secession was thought to be nearly illegal by the terms defined in the creation of the United States of America.

First Shots


Less than a week after South Carolina announced its secession from the Union, Major Robert Anderson left Fort Moultrie, located on the shores of Charleston, under the cover of night to Fort Sumter, an island in the harbour of Charleston, for better defence. South Carolina and the Confederacy demanded the abandonment of Fort Sumter by Anderson and his men. Any attempts by the Union to resupply the Fort were stopped.

President Lincoln, under great pressure to keep the country intact, sent a dispatch of troops to Fort Sumter for much needed supplies and additional troops to settle the matter. The first of the ships arrived April 11, 1861. The South considered the movement of troops and supplies as an act of provocation and retaliated.

On April 12, 1861 the first shots rang out in the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina as Confederate troops opened fire for over twenty-four hours in the direction of Fort Sumter.

What Happened Next?

Once the War officially started, President Lincoln ordered troops from the surrounding states to send militia to stop the Confederates in Charleston.  Followed by Lincoln’s order, four more states seceded from the Union: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Who Fought On What Side?

The chronology of states that succeeded and joined the Confederacy included: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

The states, border states, and territories that supported the Union included: California, Colorado (territory), Connecticut, Dakota (territory), Delaware (border), Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky (border), Maine, Maryland (border), Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri (border), Nebraska (territory), Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico (territory), New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah (territory), Vermont, Washington (territory), West Virginia (border), and Wisconsin.

Where Was The First Major Land Battle Of The War?

On July 21, 1861 the Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas, was the first major land battle between the Union and the Confederacy. The Union expected the battle to be the first and only battle to occur during the War. Unexpected by the Union, the Confederacy won the battle because of unprepared Union troops and a strong Confederate military leader, Thomas Jackson, who earned his famous nickname Stonewall Jackson.

What Other Major Battles Occurred?

Battle of Antietam: On September 17, 1862 Unionists and Confederates experienced the bloodiest battle of the War. In a single day over 23,000 soldiers were killed in action. The battle marked the end of the Confederacy’s first invasion into the North led by General Robert E. Lee.

Battle of Gettysburg: July 1- 3, 1863 marked the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War with approximately 51,000 casualties. The battle is also known as the turning point in the War favouring the Union. The Confederacy’s strategy changed from offensive to defensive when General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion into the North failed.

Battle of Vicksburg: Only a day after the end of the battle of Gettysburg, on July 4, 1863 the Union captured the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi under the direction of General Ulysses S. Grant. The loss of Vicksburg divided the Confederacy along the Mississippi River.

Battle of Chattanooga: The Union victory on November 25, 1863 granted William T. Sherman the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea, which destroyed the Confederacy’s infrastructure from Atlanta, Georgia to Savannah, Georgia.

Battle of Appomattox: Two years after the major turning points in the War, Confederate Robert E. Lee surrendered to Unionist Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 at the Appomattox Court House.

Importance Of The American Civil War

The American Civil War remains the bloodiest war in American history with approximately 620,000 casualties. The casualty amount would not be equalled until the First World War, Second World War, and the Vietnam War casualties were totalled together.

The War also formally ended slavery in the United States of America by the Emancipation Proclamation the South’s surrender, and Reconstruction.

The Gettysburg Address

At Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 four months after the deadliest battle of the Civil War, President Lincoln gave a remarkable speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. President Lincoln referred to the human rights stated in the Declaration of Independence and the new focus of the Civil War to be a struggle for the preservation of those basic human rights. His speech would become known as one of the most famous speeches in American history.

President Abraham Lincoln

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863-Wikimedia-Commons-SmallFourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who died here that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have hallowed it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.