Mangal Pandey – a summary

As schoolchildren in Britain, we’ve always used the term the ‘Indian Mutiny’ to describe the momentous and violent events of 1857 in India. But the ‘First War of Independence’ or the ‘First Nationalist Uprising’ is perhaps a more realistic name. The events that led to the uprising stemmed from decades of grievances and unrest but it was something quite mundane that sparked the rebellion and it was a single man, Mangal Pandey, that fired the first shots.

The sepoys had been issued with a new Enfield rifle. In order to use the rifle, the soldier had to bite off the end of a lubricated cartridge before inserting the powder into the weapon. The problem was that the grease used to seal the cartridge was made from animal fat – both cow, a sacred beast to Hindus, and pork, an insult to the Muslim soldiers.

The East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of India acting on behalf of the British government, made amends by substituting the forbidden fats with that of sheep or beeswax. Too late. The sepoys saw it as a deliberate ploy to undermine their respective religions and to convert them, through this perfidious route, to Christianity. The fact this was not the case did nothing to squash the rumour.

The first symptom of unrest came in January 1857, when the recently-opened telegraph office in Barrackpore (now Barrackpur, about 15 miles from Kolkata, or Calcutta) was burned down as a protest against the march of Westernization.

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Nikolai Bukharin – a summary

On 15 March 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading members of the post-Russian Revolution politburo, was executed.

Nikolai BukharinBorn in Moscow on 9 October 1888 to two primary school teachers, the 17-year-old Bukharin joined the workers’ cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and, the following year, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Like many of his radical colleagues, he was arrested at regular intervals to the point that, in 1910, he fled into exile. At various times he lived in Vienna, Zurich, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Krakow, the latter where he met Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and began working for the party newspaper, Pravda, ‘Truth’.  In 1916, he moved to New York where he met up with another leading revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

‘Favourite of the whole party’

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar, Nicholas II, Bukharin returned to Moscow and was elected to the party’s central committee. Bukharin clashed with Lenin on the latter’s decision to surrender to Germany, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the First World War, believing that the Bolsheviks could transform the conflict into a pan-European communist revolution. Lenin got his way, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky was duly signed in March 1918.

Bukharin was a thinker and produced several theoretical tracts, works that didn’t always meet with Lenin’s full approval. In Lenin’s Testament, in which he passed judgement on various members of his Central Committee, Lenin wrote that Bukharin was ‘rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party,’ but ‘his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him.’ (Lenin’s Testament was particularly damning of Joseph Stalin but, following Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, was quietly suppressed).

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Fanny Kaplan – the woman who shot Lenin

Late in the evening of the 30 August 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, emerged from a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow when he was approached by an unknown woman who called out his name. Detained momentarily by a colleague, who was remonstrating about bread shortages, Lenin was about to get into his car, his foot on the running board, when the woman produced a revolver and fired three shots. One shot missed him, ripping through his coat and hitting his colleague in her elbow, but the other two struck him down – one bullet went through his neck, the other into his left shoulder.  Lenin survived – just. It had been the second attempt on Lenin’s life in just seven months.

Vladimir Lenin’s would-be assassin was 28-year-old Fanny Kaplan. Born Feiga Chaimovna Roytblat in the Ukraine on 10 February 1890, Kaplan, one of seven children, was drawn to revolutionary politics from a young age.

Dora Kaplan / Fanny Kaplan

Fanny KaplanAt the age of sixteen, she joined an anarchist group based in Kiev, was given the name Fanny Kaplan, sometimes Dora Kaplan, and charged with assassinating the city’s governor. But the bomb she was preparing detonated in her room, almost blinding her. She was arrested and, had she not been so young (she was still under twenty-one), she would have faced the death penalty. Instead, she was sentenced to ‘eternal penal servitude’ in Siberia. During her time of forced labour, her eyesight deteriorated to the point of near blindness.

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, Kaplan was released as part of a post-revolutionary political amnesty. She suffered from severe headaches and bouts of blindness but, following an intensive course of treatment, she regained partial sight.

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Mary Queen of Scots – a summary

Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow in Scotland on December 8, 1542, the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise. Her father had been ailing for some time, possibly of a complete physical and mental breakdown and finally died six days after Mary was born. Mary was crowned Queen on September 9, 1543 at Stirling Castle. Mary’s great uncle, King Henry VIII of England, made it clear he wanted the baby Mary to marry his young son Edward when she turned ten, and come to England to be brought up. The Treaty of Greenwich confirmed the marriage.

Mary Queen of ScotsWhen, in January 1547, the nine-year-old Edward became King of England as Edward VI, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was appointed his Protector and ran his government. His regime was to harass the Scots unmercifully with the object of capturing the Queen. The government of Scotland decided the young Queen must be spirited out of the country and negotiated a treaty for her to marry the Dauphin of France, thus breaking the Treaty of Greenwich. She left Scotland for France where she grew up with the French royal children in the Catholic Faith. She and the Dauphin Francis were married in April of 1558. She was fifteen. Henry II, King of France died from a grisly jousting accident and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France on July 10, 1559.

Make sacrifice of me

Francis suffered acutely from an abscess in his inner ear and died on December 5, 1560. Mary had been Queen of France for less than two years. It was decided her best option was to return to Scotland and take over her government. Before leaving she asked permission from Elizabeth I, who had been queen of England, and Ireland, since November 1558, to have safe passage through England if she was blown off course. Elizabeth refused permission. In response, Mary said if Elizabeth “shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure, and make sacrifice of me; peradventure that casualty might be better for me than to live. In this matter, God’s will be fulfilled.” Little did she know she was predicting her own denouement.

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Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I

On the afternoon of 20 January 1649 a slightly-built 48-year-old man with long greying hair stood before a court in London, charged with treason. But this was no ordinary court of law; it was the High Court of Justice sitting in Westminster Hall. And this was no ordinary charge of treason against the Sovereign; it was treason against the people by the Sovereign. For the man who stood trial was the King himself.

The trial and execution of Charles I was a microcosm of the English Civil War which had preceded it, in that both trial and war hinged on whether the King should be accountable for his actions to his people. The war had been bitterly fought since 1642 between the Royalist supporters of Charles I and the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell and had claimed an estimated 185,000 lives.

The Royalists defended the ‘divine right’ of the King to rule unfettered by Parliament, and to account for his actions ‘but to God alone’. By contrast, the Parliamentarians sought to limit the King’s powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of the House of Commons: what we now recognise to be a constitutional monarchy. Many of them, including Cromwell, were devout Protestants who believed that God was on their side.

The Immovable Object

By 1647 the Parliamentarians had won the military battle, scattering the Royalist armies and holding Charles in custody at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Their leaders, Cromwell and General Henry Ireton, made a number of attempts to negotiate a new constitutional settlement with Charles but he refused to co-operate with any of them. Indeed Charles, who was by turns awkward, aloof and devious, had no compunction about lying or breaking agreements.

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Edith Cavell – a summary

When the First World War broke out, Edith Cavell was working as a matron in a Brussels nursing school, a school she had co-founded in 1907 and where she’d helped pioneer the importance of follow-up care. But at the time, July 1914, she was on leave, holidaying with her family in Norfolk, England. On hearing the news of war, her parents begged her not to return to Belgium – but of course she did.

Following the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell refused the German offer of a safe conduct into neutral Netherlands. She continued her work and in the process hid refugee British, Belgian and French soldiers and provided over 200 of them the means to escape into the Netherlands from where most managed the journey back to England. With the Germans watching the work of the hospital, and its comings and goings, her arrest was inevitable. It duly came on 3 August 1915. Edith Cavell, arrested by the Germans, readily admitted her guilt.

‘Patriotism is not enough’

Cavell was remanded in isolation for ten weeks, not even being allowed to meet the lawyer appointed to defend her until the morning of her trial, a trial which lasted only two days. Cavell, along with 34 others, was found guilty. Her case became a cause célèbre but the British government, realising the Germans were acting within their own legality, was unable to intervene. However, the Americans, as neutrals, pointed to Cavell’s nursing credentials and her saving of the lives of German soldiers, as well as British, but to no avail. Along with her Belgian accomplice, Philippe Baucq, the nurse was found guilty and sentenced to be shot. Continue reading

William Wallace – a summary

‘We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard to beard.’

This, in 1297, was the manner in which William Wallace was reported to have lured the English into the first significant defeat they had suffered in 30 years – at the battle of Stirling Bridge.

William Wallace was the younger son of a minor landowner from the west of Scotland, and is perhaps the best known character from the early battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Wallace was born some time around 1274 and was only a teenager at the time of the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland.

Fighting the English

William Wallace grew into a huge young man; estimates place him at six feet seven inches tall.  This would truly have made him a giant of the era and afforded him an enormous advantage in a medieval battle, where strength was of great importance. He wasted little time in using this muscle as he would fight the English at any given opportunity, killing them with impunity and without mercy.

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Mata Hari – a summary

She enticed audiences with her dancing, her exoticism and eroticism – and her bejewelled bra, but in 1917, Mata Hari, a Malayan term meaning ‘eye of the day’, was shot by firing squad.

Margaretha Zelle

Born to a wealthy Dutch family, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle responded to a newspaper advertisement from a Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch army officer of Scottish descent, seeking a wife. The pair married within three months of meeting each other and in 1895 and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) where they had two children. The marriage was doomed from the beginning – 22 years older, MacLeod was an abusive husband and Zelle was never going to play the part of the dutiful wife. Their son died aged 2 from syphilis, reputably inherited from his father (their daughter would die a similar death, aged 21) and in 1902, on their return to the Netherlands, they separated.

Unable to find work and uncertain about her future, Zelle moved to Paris and there changed her name to Mata Hari, claiming she originated from India and was the daughter of a temple dancer. She started to earn a living by modelling and dancing, and found work in a cabaret. Exotically dressed, she became a huge success and was feted by the powerful and rich of Paris, taking on a number of influential lovers. She travelled numerous times between France and the Netherlands. But by now war had broken out and Mata Hari’s movements and high-ranking liaisons caused suspicion.


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Benito Mussolini – the socialist

Brash, arrogant and vain in the extreme, Benito Mussolini dreamt of making Italy a superpower, akin to the great Roman Empire of old with him at its helm. Il Duce, ‘the Leader’, as he liked to be known, ruled Italy from October 1922 to his downfall in 1943, increasing his power from that of prime minister to fascist dictator. But as a boy, Mussolini was brought up with firm socialist ideals and, as a young man, became a leading figure in Italian socialist circles.

Born in the northern Italian town of Predappio in Forli on 29 July 1883, Benito Mussolini was the son of Alessandro Mussolini, a blacksmith by trade and a republican socialist and ardent anti-Catholic, and a schoolteacher mother, a devout Catholic. Despite his parents’ opposing views on religion, the couple had married and bore three children, Benito being the eldest. Named after three leading socialists, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini helped his father working in the forge and inherited Alessandro’s political views – nationalistic, socialist and republican.

A Catholic Education

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Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacist Uprising

In Berlin on 15 January, 1919, an un-named man was delivered to a morgue with gunshot wounds. That same night a woman was hit with the butt of a rifle, before being shot in the back of the head. Her body was then thrown into a nearby canal. These two acts of violence were neither mindless nor random. Rather, these two murders were fundamentally linked. The man and woman in question were Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and together they had led the Spartacist Uprising, an attempt to overthrow the post-war government and begin a socialist revolution in Germany.

Their uprising ended with their murder, and begs a number of questions. Who were these two people? What drove them to lead this uprising? And what events led to their violent and tragic deaths? This article will search for the answer to these questions.

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg was born on 5 March 1871, in the town of Zamość, in present-day Poland. At the time of her birth, however, it was part of the Russian Empire. Luxemburg’s will-power, determination and political convictions became clear from an early age. Whilst still a small child, she became bedridden with a hip complaint and although she later recovered, she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. As a teenager, she joined the left-wing Proletarian Party and even after the group was disbanded – having fallen foul of the authorities – she remained involved in radical, underground activities.

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