Monthly Archives: December 2013

December 31st – Guinness is brewed for the first time

A typical 1930s poster for Guinness

A typical 1930s poster for Guinness

On this day in 1759, Guinness beer was first produced at the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin, Ireland. Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease on the brewery at £45 a year, and to this day, Guinness beer still calls St. James Gate Brewery home.

It would be almost a century after the first Guinness was brewed that the beer gained international renown. As one of the three largest brewers in the United Kingdom (at that time Ireland was still part of the British Crown), sales more than doubled from 350000 barrels in 1868 to 779000 barrels in 1876. By 1886, sales reached 1138000 barrels. In the 1930s, Guinness was the 7th largest company in the world.

Here are some fun facts about Guinness beer to ponder on this New Year’s Eve:

  • Almost 850 million litres of Guinness are sold every year.
  • While Guinness is often thought of as being black, it is in fact a very dark shade of ruby red.
  • According to Guinness, a proper pint of the beer should take 199.5 seconds to pour. This amount of time is a result of first pouring the beer at a 45º angle, followed by a rest. After the rest (long enough that the liquid appears pure black), the rest of the glass is filled, again at 45º.
  • Though often depicted as a heavy, high calorie beverage, Guinness is in fact relatively low in calories. A pint of Guinness contains 198 calories, less than most light beers, wine, orange juice, and low fat milk.
  • The famous 1930s posters (see above) featuring exotic animals and purporting the health benefits of Guinness are still used around the world. Guinness however no longer claims drinking their beer is of any medical benefit.
  • Guinness own five breweries: one in Dublin, one in Malaysia, and three in Africa: Nigeria, Ghana & Cameroon. Interestingly, 40% of all Guinness sold in the world is sold in Africa.

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December 27th – Charles Darwin sets sail on the H.M.S. Beagle

The H.M.S. Beagle on the southern tip of South America.

The H.M.S. Beagle at the southern tip of South America.

On this day in 1831, Charles Darwin began his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin’s discoveries the 5 year long journey on-board the Beagle led Darwin to postulate his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Darwin was brought on-board the Beagle to act as an expert geologist for the voyage. The Beagle was commissioned to conduct geological and hydrographical surveys of the southern coast of South America, a mission that Darwin assisted in tremendously. Besides his geological duties, Darwin was permitted to take on-board specimens from the places the Beagle would visit.

Darwin would publish The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839, documenting Darwin’s observations and adventures aboard the Beagle. Reflecting on what he saw during this voyage on the Beagle, Darwin published On the Origin of Species twenty years later (1859). On the Origin of Species was Darwin’s seminal work, fundamentally changing our ideas on the evolution of species.

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December 25th – Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese

The Hong Kong Memorial Wall located in Ottawa, Ontario, to honour the Canadian troops that fought to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War. On one side are the names of soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada, and on the other side, the soldiers of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

The Hong Kong Memorial Wall located in Ottawa, Ontario, to honour the Canadian troops that fought to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War. On one side are the names of soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada, and on the other side, the soldiers of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

On this day in 1941, the British crown colony of Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces. After seventeen and a half intense days of fighting by Canadian, British, and Indian troops and exhausting their ammunition, food and water, the Governor of Hong Kong surrounded the colony to the Japanese on Christmas Day.

Believing that Hong Kong would be unable to hold upon a Japanese attack, Winston Churchill and the British government had pulled out most of the British forces from the colony. A token British force was left in Hong Kong, and to reinforce the Allied garrison, the Canadian government was called upon to supply men. In the Autumn of 1941, two Canadian battalions (almost 2000 men in total) were sent over to Hong Kong from Vancouver, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada. Both units had little training or combat experience, yet within a short span of time, would soon find they were thrown into the heat of battle.

The Japanese invasion of Hong Kong began on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941. Japanese troops swept down from the Chinese mainland and into Hong Kong territory. Japanese forces moved quickly through the New Territories and Kowloon (the portions of Hong Kong on the Chinese mainland), forcing Allied troops to retreat to across the bay and onto Hong Kong Island. Allied troops were simply outnumbered (14000 troops to 52000 troops) and outgunned, and on Christmas Day, 1941, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered the crown colony to the Japanese at the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel. This day has since been known in Hong Kong as “Black Christmas”.

Hong Kong would remain occupied by the Japanese until August 30th, 1945, where the populace endured horrendous treatment by their Japanese rulers. Canadian, British, and other Commonwealth POWs were sent to northern Japan and kept in Hong Kong, where they were worked literally to death in labour camps and submitted to cruel treatment by the Japanese captors. The Allied dead from Hong Kong, including Canadian troops, are mainly interred at the Sai Wan Military Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery. Of the 1975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver in the autumn of 1941, more than 550 would never make it back home.

Though the Canadian involvement on the Second World War in Europe (e.g. the Battle of the Atlantic, Dieppe, Italy, D-Day, the Netherlands), few know of Canada’s involvement in Hong Kong. In fact, the first Canadian ground soldier killed during the Second World War was at Hong Kong. The first Victoria Cross (the highest military decoration to Commonwealth troops) given to a Canadian during the Second World War was awarded to John Robert Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Upon seeing a Japanese grenade roll into the bunker where Osborn and his fellow men were, Osborn jumped on the grenade, covering it with his helmet, sacrificing himself and saving the lives of 10 other Canadian soldiers in the bunker. Military service animals were not exempt either from receiving medals. Gander, a Newfie, was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the “animals’ Victoria Cross” in 2000. Gander, assigned with the Royal Rifles of Canada, received the Dickin Medal for taking a Japanese grenade thrown at his soldiers and running with it towards the enemy, dying in the explosion but saving the lives of his fellow Canadian.

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December 24th – Christmas Truce on the Western Front begins

A football (soccer) game played between British (from Chester) and German soldiers (from Saxony), 1914. Supposedly the  final score was 3-2 for Germany.

A football (soccer) game played between British (from Chester) and German soldiers (from Saxony), Christmas 1914. Supposedly the final score was 3-2 for Germany.

On this day in 1914, the guns fell silent in certain sections of the Western Front, on the eve of Christmas. German and Allied soldiers put down their weapons and met in no-man’s land to collect the dead, exchange gifts and mingle with their fellow brothers-in-arms.

No official truce existed between the Germans and the Allies during the holiday season, however spontaneous truces broke out throughout the Western Front. One should note that a truce was not observed everywhere, as some sections of the front continued to fight through Christmas. The first reported truce occurred near the Belgian town of Ypres, where German troops lit up Christmas trees with candles and started singing Christmas carols (no doubt O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht were in the repertoire). Hearing the Germans singing from across no-man’s land, British troops began singing themselves. Soon enough, both German and British soldiers emerged from their trenches and met in no-man’s land, exchanging gifts such as food, cigarettes and liquor. The lull in the fighting also gave the chance for both sides to collect the dead and hold burial services, sometimes jointly between the Germans and Allies. This unofficial ceasefire occurred throughout the Western Front and lasted through Christmas night, and in some cases, till New Year’s Day. Truces of this nature were also seen between the French and the Germans, and between the Austrians and Russians.

Future Christmas truces rarely happened after 1914. Military leaders were largely aghast at the demonstration of fraternization and camaraderie exhibited between the two sides during the 1914 Christmas truce, and officially discouraged future holiday truces. Consequently, artillery bombardments were ordered throughout Christmas Eve to ensure a ceasefire did not occur. Troop units were also rotated through the front to avoid units from becoming too acquainted with the enemy. Nevertheless, in 1914 the First World War failed to get in the way of troops on both sides from putting down their weapons, even if only for a day, to express their Christmas spirit.

One of the more famous stories from the Christmas truce of 1914 were the impromptu football (soccer) matches that broke out. A well-known account of a football match is that between the Cheshire Regiment and a Saxon Regiment, after a British soldier pulled out a leather ball from the trenches and began kicking it around. Germans joined along with the British soldiers, and using helmets as goal posts, a game started (final score was apparently 3-2 for the Germans). In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War next year, football organizations from both nations have began organizing to re-enact these football matches at the battlefields of France and Belgium next year.

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December 23rd – The first living coelacanth, a living fossil, is caught

A preserved specimen of a coelacanth (not the one found in 1938 however)

A preserved specimen of a coelacanth (not the one found in 1938 however)

On this day in 1938, a living coelacanth was fished out and caught off the coast of South Africa. What is remarkable about this fish is that the coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct 68 million years ago.

On December 23rd, 1938, Marjorie Latimer, a curator of a small natural sciences museum in East London, South Africa, was speaking to her fisherman friend who informed her of an unique fish that got caught in his net. According to Latimer, the fish appeared to be “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent markings.” Latimer had never seen this fish before, and proceeded to make a sketch of the fish. She then mailed this sketch to J. L. B. Smith, a ichthyology (the study of fish) professor at Rhodes University, also in South Africa. On January 3rd, 1939, the professor telegraphed Latimer back with the following message: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS”. The professor recognized that the catch on December 23rd was that of a coelacanth, a fish that existed in the time of the dinosaurs and thought to have gone extinct a long time ago.

The coelacanth is commonly called a “living fossil”, or an organism that has changed very little over an evolutionary long time. Other living fossils that exist today include the gingko tree, horseshoe crabs, crocodiles, hagfish, the nautilus, and mudskippers.

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December 22nd – The Dreyfus affair begins

The famous J'Accuse letter (1898) by Emilie Zola, penned in defense of Albert Dreyfus and against anti-Semitism in the French Army

The famous J’Accuse letter (1898) by Emilie Zola, penned in defense of Alfred Dreyfus and against antisemitism in the French Army

On this day in 1894, the Dreyfus affair began in France, a scandal that reverberated deep into French society.

Alfred Dreyfus, a high-ranking Jewish officer in the French Army, was convicted for treason in 1894, accused of communicating military secrets to the Germans. He was convicted and sent to “Devil’s Island”, a French penal colony on the coast of South America for five years. At Devil’s Island, Dreyfus suffered horrible treatment as a prisoner of the state, became malnourished and fed rotting pork, cordoned off from the rest of the prisoners and kept in isolation.

Two years later, new evidence appeared to suggest that Dreyfus was not the traitor, but rather, a French major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. In an attempt to cover up for their earlier mistake in convicting Dreyfus, the army covered up the new evidence and acquitted Esterhazy on only the second day of his trial. Additional charges were placed on Dreyfus, but by this time, the story of Dreyfus became well known to the French public.

Famously, in 1898, the notable author Emilie Zola published an open letter in a newspaper to the French President, entitled J’accuse (en anglais “I accuse”). In J’accuse, Zola accused the government of France and Army of anti-Semitism and the unlawful imprisonment of Dreyfus, pointing to the many errors in the court proceedings and the lack of any credible evidence. For J’accuse, Zola was prosecuted and convicted for libel, but to avoid going to jail, fled to England.

In 1899, Dreyfus was brought back to France to face trial yet again, and despite the immense public debate over his imprisonment, convicted for another 10 year sentence. Giving into public demand and the desire to move on from the Dreyfus affair, the French government shortly pardoned Dreyfus after this trial Dreyfus was set free.

In the end, Dreyfus was found to be completely innocent in the entire affair. Much of the evidence produced against Dreyfus was found to be forged and put forth based on prejudiced attacks on Dreyfus’ character. As a citizen from the Alsace region, Dreyfus’ first language was German, or an Alsatian dialect of German. Dreyfus’ Alsatian ancestry raised concerns amongst the French elite, who had only recently humiliatingly defeated by the German Army in 1871. As well, Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage raised issues in the anti-Semitic French Army hierarchy, who felt that upper positions of the Army should belong rightfully to Catholic aristocracy, who had recently loss power in the downfall of Napoleon III. Religion figured prominently in this affair, as the Dreyfus was commonly denounced as a “Judas”, and violent threats to Jews were common throughout France during the entire affair. In 1905, the Radical Party succeeded in passing legislation mandating the separation of church and state in France, after emphasizing the role that the Catholic leadership of France had in instigating the case against Dreyfus.

Ironically, Dreyfus had left Alsace for Paris after the Germans took the territory in 1871 in order to prepare his French Army for a war of revenge (revanche) against Germany for the lost territory. After his pardon, Dreyfus continued to serve in the French military and fought in the First World War, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Dreyfus continued to fight for the very Army that had so severely wronged him in the past. Only in 1995 did the French Army publicly state that Dreyfus was innocent.

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December 21st – The first crossword puzzle is published

The first crossword puzzle published, by Arthur Wynne on December 21st, 1913

The first crossword puzzle published, by Arthur Wynne on December 21st, 1913

On this day in 1913, exactly one hundred years ago, the first crossword puzzle was published in the New York World. Though crosswords had been invented earlier in the 19th century, it was not until Arthur Wynne, an English journalist from Liverpool, published the crossword that this time-killer became popular worldwide.

Following the first publication of Wynne’s crossword in 1913, the word puzzle quickly spread to other newspapers. Much like the Sudoku craze that took over in the mid-2000s (hard to believe it is only that old!), the crossword puzzle was an instant hit. Interestingly, in the 1920s there were negative reactions to the increased popularity of the crossword. Here are a few I found particularly interesting (taken from the Wikipedia article):

The New York Public Library (1921): “The latest craze to strike libraries is the crossword puzzle,” and complained that when “the puzzle ‘fans’ swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the Library’s duty to protect its legitimate readers?”

The New York Times (1924): “A sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

The New York Times would not print crosswords in its pages until 1942; ironically, the New York Times crossword is now one of the most played crosswords in America.

Crosswords have appeared in multiple languages since Wynne’s 1913 crossword, including many European languages such as French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Russian. Japanese crosswords also exist, where instead of placing a letter in a box, a syllable is often placed (in katakana, one of the three written “alphabets” in the Japanese language).

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December 20th – Portugal returns Macau back to China

The Macau handover ceremony from Portugal to China, December 20th, 1999.

The Macau handover ceremony from Portugal to China, December 20th, 1999.

On this day in 1999, Portugal returned Macau back to the People’s Republic of China, ending 442 years of formal Portuguese rule over that colony (1557 – 1999). Macau was the last and last European colony on the Asian continent.

In the mid-16th century, during Portugal’s golden age of empire and commerce, Portugal sought a port to conduct trade in Asia and China. With the permission of the Ming Dynasty government officials, Portugal established a trading base on the southeastern coast of China in 1557 on Macau, near the city of Canton (known today as Guangzhou), paying an annual rental fee of 20 kilograms of silver. Though the Portuguese were paying rent on Macau, at this point in time Portugal did not hold sovereignty over Macau, as the territory had not been officially handed over to Portugal, but rather, rented. It was not until 1887 that the Chinese and Portuguese governments signed the “Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Amity and Commerce”, which gave Portugal the right to occupy Portugal in perpetuity.

After the downfall of the Estado Novo and Antonio Salazar’s fascist government in 1974, Portugal proceeded to relinquish its overseas possessions, including Macau. In 1987, an agreement was signed between the Chinese and Portuguese governments to return Macau back to China. Similar to the agreement in 1984 concerning the British handover of Hong Kong back to China, Macau was to be handed over to China on December 20th, 1999 as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR for short).

As an SAR, Macau is permitted to retain its institutions and system of governance that it had under Portuguese rule for fifty years after the handover (from 1999 to 2049). As a consequence, tremendous differences exist between Macau and China today. Portuguese remains an official language of Macau, has its own parliamentary system (democracy exists in Macau), a legal system based upon Portuguese law, and its own currency (the Macanese pataca). China retains sovereignty over Macau however, as China is in charge of Macau’s foreign affairs and its defense. Today, Macau is often known as the “Las Vegas of the Far East”, with its many casinos attracting visitors from nearby Hong Kong, Mainland China, and other parts of Asia.


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December 13th – The Rape of Nanjing begins

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial

On this day in 1937, the city of Nanjing (then the capital of China) fell to Japanese forces, beginning a six-week period known as the ‘Nanjing Massacre’ or the ‘Rape of Nanjing’. During this period, hundreds of thousands of civilians and unarmed soldiers were murdered by Japanese soldiers, with rape and looting rampant throughout the city. Historical estimates of the number of those killed in the massacre are roughly 250000 to 300000.

This topic is highly exhaustive; therefore, I could not write a complete blog post that would befit this event. Rather, I will give a general synopsis of what happened and how it currently impacts geopolitics in East Asia.

While the Second World War started in Europe in 1939, war was already well underway in Asia. Starting in 1937 (some would argue as far back as 1931 however), China and Japan were at war, following the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland. By December 1937, the Japanese had surrounded the Chinese capital of Nanjing (which literally means “southern capital”, as opposed to Beijing, the “northern capital”). Although it remains difficult to determine the motives for the Nanjing Massacre, some historians have claimed that the heavy casualties sustained by the Japanese army in the recent Battle for Shanghai angered many Japanese soldiers, who then wished to exact revenge. As well, the Japanese military had become indoctrinated to believe that the fight against China was a “holy war”, one that the racially superior Japanese would win and conquer over the lowly Chinese.

Regardless of motivation, the Nanjing Massacre began in earnest on December 13th, 1937. Unarmed Chinese soldiers were sent to dig their own graves, and shot en masse in them. Large-scale contests were held by the Japanese soldiers in the city to see who could be the first to behead 100 Chinese, both military and civilians. Mass-scale rape was also prevalent during this time, with an estimated 20000 women raped within the 6 weeks. Both the elderly and infants were not immune to victimization by the Japanese soldiers. There were also reports of forced incest during the Nanjing Massacre, where sons would be forced to rape their mothers, and fathers would rape their daughters. Women were often killed after their ordeals.

As the capital of China, Nanjing housed many Western foreigners and diplomats. These Westerners did their best to shelter and offer refuge to Chinese in their homes and in the international district of the city. John Rabe was the most well known of the foreigners in Nanjing at this time. A German businessman for Siemens, Rabe attempted to use his influence as a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party to save as many Chinese from the hands of the Japanese. It is estimated that Rabe rescued between 200000 to 250000 Chinese.

A recent movie was released in 2011 concerning the Rape of Nanjing. Flowers of War ( Christian Bale as an American in Nanjing during the Massacre. Pretending to be a Catholic priest, Bale’s character takes in Chinese women seeking refuge from the Japanese at the Catholic convent. Here is the trailer to the film:

The Nanjing Massacre has continued to have consequences on Chinese-Japanese relations. To this day, the Japanese government has refused to recognize the events in Nanjing as a “massacre”, believing the number of those killed in the city to be far below those commonly accepted by historians. As well, the Japanese had refused to acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers through the six-week period. The dismissal of the Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese government has infuriated Chinese citizens and the Chinese government, and has drawn severe anti-Japanese sentiment amongst the Chinese populace. This refusal to recognize the Nanjing Massacre is an important source of tension that exists to this day between China and Japan.

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December 12th – Marconi receives the first transatlantic radio signal


Marconi raising his kite at Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland to pick up the radio signal from Cornwall, December 12th, 1901.

On this day in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio, received the first transatlantic radio signal.

Prior to the transatlantic radio signal, telegraph messages travelling across the Atlantic Ocean had to be transmitted through an actual physical cable that was laid down on the floor of the Atlantic. The total time taken to transmit the message using the physical telegraph cables cable was a matter of minutes, far shorter than the ten days it would take to deliver a message by ship moving across the Atlantic. Wireless long-distance telegraph messaging had yet to be developed, until Marconi, using his brand new radio technology, did so in 1901.

In 1901, Marconi wished to demonstrate the viability and utility of his new radio. Earlier in the year, Marconi established a radio transmitter in Cornwall, England (the county in the southwestern tip of Great Britain), which served to emanate strong radio signals. On December 12th, 1901, Marconi was at Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland to receive signals from Cornwall. Using a 152-metre kite supported antenna to pick up the signal, on that day, Marconi successfully received the signals transmitted by Cornwall. This scientific achievement was remarkable to the people living in the nascent twentieth century, and the reaction to it (I am postulating here of course) would be similar to the reaction we twenty-first century citizens had of the first colour pictures we saw of Mars’ terrain in 2012 by the Curiosity Rover.

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