Happy April, everyone! More specifically, happy April Fools’ Day. I thought I would use the day as a gimmick and share with you five crazy historical events — except only four of them are true. The other, though it certainly might fit against relatively accurate historical context, is fabricated for the purposes of today’s post. Your job, dear reader, is to guess which one is largely fiction. (Just don’t look it up before you finalize your guess. Seriously, write it down or something. Lock it in first! It’s no fun otherwise.) I’ll reveal the answer with my next post.
So you don’t think I’m trying to trick you with a premeditated order, I’ll list them in the chronological order of when they supposedly took place.
Unusually for PPFA, I’ll have few hyperlinked citations in today’s post, as they’d spoil your challenge.
Without further ado…
Event A) The War of Jenkins’s Ear
The year was 1731. A British merchant vessel conducting business in the Caribbean came under suspicion by the Spanish coast guard for violating the terms of a recent trade agreement between their two countries. This agreement — an asiento, from the verb asentir (which means to consent, or “assent”) — allowed British merchants to sell slaves to Spanish colonies in the Americas. The asiento, however, did not apply to endless other commodities, as the mercantile Spanish Crown aimed to keep most imports in-house. As a result, the British, in exchange for access to slave markets, had agreed to allow the Spanish navy to board British ships suspected of using the asiento as a means to smuggle other goods. On one April day in 1731, a Spanish ship exercised that authority and boarded an British merchant ship to search for contraband. Captaining the British merchant ship was a master mariner named Robert Jenkins.
Jenkins, a proud Brit with perhaps something to hide, did not readily asiento to the asiento. In response, the overzealous Spanish commander tied Jenkins to the mast and sliced his ear with a sword. Another Spanish officer then yanked it off and handed the bloody appendage to the maimed British Captain. By some accounts, Jenkins’s attackers then released Jenkins, his ship, and his ear with a warning for future smugglers: “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same.”
Jenkins returned to London and reported the incident to King George II and other British leaders. Though it did not immediately lead to hostilities, by the end of the decade there were many in Britain who desired war with Spain for various reasons, not the least of which was that the people in Britain were British and the people in Spain were Spanish. To secure public and Parliamentary support for action against Spanish American claims, war hawks dusted off Jenkins’s ear as a sort of casus belli — a case for war. The act of slicing off Jenkins’s ear insulted all of Britain, they said, and the proud country should not stand for it. What’s next, a nose? A probably false report echoes across history describing Jenkins’s severed body part getting splattered onto the floor of the House of Commons so all could see that not one British ear should be left behind.
The ear, ultimately, was but the first casualty in a nine-year Caribbean war where hundreds of ships were lost and thousands died. This “War of Jenkins’s Ear” was eventually won by the British, which helped shift the balance of power in the West Indies.
Your dilemma: Well, of course Spain and Britain had a bunch of naval wars with each other… but did one man’s ear really goad the British into starting one of them?
Event B) A Greek siege offers Turkish enemies more bullets
The history of Greece goes back three thousand years, but most agree its peak was long ago. Modern Greece, in fact, hasn’t even been independent for all that long. After having been controlled by the Ottoman Turks since the fifteenth century, the Greeks waged their successful War of Independence from 1821 to 1829. And yet, despite those Greek rebels’ profound sense of nationalism, or perhaps because of it, they recognized that protecting their proud history as Western civilization’s cultural progenitors might be more important than independence — and maybe even their very lives.
When the rebellion began in 1821, the Greek revolutionaries in Athens seized the advantage. A concentrated initiative drove nearly 200 Turkish occupiers up to the city’s highest point — the historic Acropolis upon which the famed Parthenon stands. The Parthenon, Greece’s most recognizable relic from its golden age, dates back to the fifth century BCE, and it was surely a sickening site for the Greeks to see the Turkish military take refuge inside and around it. In hopes to get the Ottomans to surrender the hill, the Greeks laid siege to it. For nearly 48 hours the two sides exchanged gunfire — the Turks on the Acropolis, the Greeks surrounding them below. After about two days, however, the besieged Turks ran low on ammunition. Rather than wait to be killed, they began chipping the columns of the Parthenon and used the lead wedges that kept together the marble as bullets.
Three columns came down before the horrified Greek rebels quickly assembled a war council to determine their course of action. Option 1 was to let the Turks take down all the columns and use up all the lead until the Turks ran out of them, too. After that, the Greeks could easily take back the Acropolis. This course of actions was probably safest for the rebels. But then, the Parthenon would be gone forever. That resolution would not have reflected the kind of idealism their ancestors so consistently promoted.
Option 2 was more creative, and they ended up going with it. It boasted the kind of Greek ingenuity that made them the founders of Western civilization in the first place. They sent up to the Acropolis a small caravan with fifty boxes and a note. In the boxes were five thousand rounds of ammunition. On the note was a plea scribbled in their best Turkish. It read: “Here are bullets, don’t touch the columns.”
The Turks, whose long and storied history of their own engendered some empathy for the Greek’s guardianship of their golden age, agreed, and they began using the new bullets to resume their defense of the Acropolis. In time, the Greeks were able to take the hill, and Athens was theirs again as the war for independence pressed on in other parts of the country.
Your dilemma: Well, of course the Greeks fought for independence against their Ottoman occupiers… but did they really offer bullets in exchange for the Parthenon’s protection?
Event C) Franz Ferdinand’s assassination resulted from dumb luck
Most people know that Gavrilo Princip‘s 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, after a century’s buildup of nationalism, militarism, imperialism, industrialization, and a series of alliances, triggered the First World War. What is less known, however, is that the assassination itself was badly bungled and only accidentally carried out anyway.
The terrorist group behind the murder was the nefarious Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist group that resented the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s occupation of nearby Slavic regions that the Serbs had hoped would unite with them to form their own formidable Slavic nation in the Balkans. When the Archduke announced he’d conduct a motorcade through the streets of Sarajevo, the capital of a Slavic region recently annexed by the empire, that was the final insult for the Black Hand. The terrorist group resolved to send six assassins at various points of the motorcade in the hopes that one would successfully end Ferdinand’s life.
The procession began at 10:00 on the morning of June 28. The first assassin was placed about ten minutes into the motorcade’s route. He was given a bomb to throw into the Archduke’s convertible car, its top folded back. However, the would-be assassin’s nerves got the better of him, and he watched the Archduke’s carriage roll by. A second assassin was placed near him, armed with both a pistol and a bomb, but once he saw the first assassin fail to act, he joined him in his failure.
Further up the route, the third assassin played the role of fail-safe. At least he tried to. Armed with a grenade, he followed his orders and tossed it at the royal couple from close range. His throwing form, however, wasn’t exactly varsity material. He missed the seating area and instead hit the convertible’s folded-back portion. It bounced off and rolled away. The timer then exploded it underneath the following car, wounding about 20 people. This third Black Hand member, with authorities in pursuit, swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into a river. Unfortunately for him, his body rejected the pill in a quick vomit, and the river into which he leapt, thanks to a dry summer season, stood less than one foot deep. The incompetent and slightly moist terrorist was promptly taken into custody.
The Archduke and his motorcade reacted to the near miss and quickly left the scene, ending the procession. That left the last three of the six assassins, among them Gavrilo Princip, unable to act. Princip pocketed his pistol and went to a café to calm his nerves.
Later, after Archduke Ferdinand gathered himself, he asked to visit those injured in the failed bombing. He, his wife Sophia, and his motorcade again assembled and left on its unplanned trip to the hospital. There was confusion among the drivers and trip-organizers about the safest route through the city. At one point, the Archduke’s driver determined he made a mistake and had to turn around. As the cars slowly backed down a street and turned onto a side street, it passed a café. Sitting at the café was none other than a surely astonished Gavrilo Princip, perhaps his mouth agape at the coincidence. He walked up to the Archduke’s coach and shot the royal couple. Both died, and one month later World War I began.
Your dilemma: Well, of course Princip shot Ferdinand and World War I followed… but did Princip and the Black Hand have a sharper execution, or did they truly luck into one of history’s most influential assassinations?
Event D) The 38-minute war
During the mightiest days of its empire, Britain had grown quite experienced bringing many parts of the world into its sphere of influence. In the seventeenth century, they began colonizing North America. In the eighteenth century, India and Australia joined the Crown. The late nineteenth century then hosted decades of African conquest from not only Britain, but other European empires as well. As you can imagine, though African defenders certainly boasted their fair share of underdog victories, industrialized European militaries usually had their way with the outgunned African kingdoms.
Nowhere was that more evident than when the United Kingdom and Zanzibar went to war in 1896. Actually, that’s too broad. They went to war in August, 1896. No, wait, still not specific enough. They went to war on August 27, 1896. No, no, hang on, still too broad. Nowhere was European domination more evident than when the United Kingdom and Zanzibar went to war from 9:02 AM to 9:40 AM on August 27, 1896.
Zanzibar’s Sultan had just passed away on the 25th, two days before the war, and Zanzibaris were torn on who should succeed him. The late, pro-British Sultan ruled as a political ally for the UK, and UK leadership had essentially handpicked a pro-British successor. In fact, ten years earlier, an 1886 treaty guaranteed the British government a voice in picking the next Sultan. However, before London’s chosen Sultan could enter the palace, a cousin of the previous Sultan, with some local support, seized the throne for himself.
The British, as they so often do, protested vociferously. They issued an ultimatum, giving the usurper until 9:00 AM on the morning of the 27th to voluntarily abdicate or face the consequences. The new Sultan chose the consequences. Thus, two days into his reign and two minutes after 9:00 AM on the morning of the 27th, the British let slip their dogs of war. Thirty-eight minutes later, the Anglo-Zanzibar war was over. Zanzibar lost its sovereignty, the British installed a puppet government, and Zanzibar remained a British Protectorate until 1963.
Your dilemma: Well, of course European empires often had their way with underdeveloped African kingdoms… but is 38 minutes really enough time to resolve a war, no matter how one-sided?
Event E) Operation Paul Bunyan
Unlike the four events above, this one might actually be remembered by people reading this piece, since it took place within the last 50 years. Or did it?
As is evident still today, North and South Korean animosity did not end with cessation of hostilities at the end of the Korean War in 1953. In fact, no peace treaty was ever signed between the two sides, leaving some to wonder if the war is ongoing but in a prolonged cease fire. Separating the two countries is a thin Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ), the heart of which is a massive compound called the Joint Security Area (or JSA). The U.S. military continues to maintain a presence on the southern half of the Korean peninsula and at the JSA, as it did for a strange few summer days in 1976.
Back then, near the edge of the JSA was a 100-foot tall tree that North Koreans claimed was planted by Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s first dictator (the father of Kim Jong-Il and grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong-un). Despite this hallowed planting, the size of the tree became something of a nuisance to Americans and South Koreans in the JSA, as, during the summer months, when the tree’s leaves were most dense, it blocked a line of sight between the command center and a lookout post. Therefore, on August 18, 1976, a small group of allied personnel drove over to the tree with some axes in the hopes of merely trimming some of its obstructive branches.
Soon, a North Korean contingent barked over to stop desecrating their Great Leader’s tree, and the Americans responded with some iteration of “make us.” Few firearms were allowed in the JSA, so the Americans reasoned that any threatening demands were considerably exaggerated. This obstinacy convinced the North Korean onlookers to call for backup, and soon 20 more North Koreans stormed the surprised tree-cutters, who dropped their axes. Horrifically, the one of the North Koreans picked up one of the axes to bludgeon one American on the spot and soon another who had run away. Both men died, and American forces in the region were elevated to DEFCON 3 by the following day.
The American response was not to go to reignite the Korean War or demand compensation of any kind. Instead, a cool-headed President Ford and a high-ranking general authorized one simple goal: we’re ripping that goddamned tree out of the ground.
And so, on the morning of August 21, 1976, “Operation Paul Bunyan” commenced. It involved 23 allied vehicles that protected two eight-man teams of military engineers carrying chainsaws. They were flanked by two 30-man security platoons with pistols. Outside of the JSA, on the South Korean side, a 64-man task force of South Korean Special Forces, armed with clubs, rifles, and grenade launchers, to say nothing of their taekwondo training, waited in the wings, just in case they were needed. Behind and above them was the American military, including 27 helicopters, a B-52 bomber, a supersonic jet, and South Korean fighter planes. Meanwhile, an U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, moved to a nearby station offshore. All told, Operation Paul Bunyan consisted of over 800 military personnel and considerable firepower.
The tree never had a chance, and it remained the operation’s only casualty. The forces did, however, leave the stump. You know, something for the North Koreans to think about in the future.
Your dilemma: Well, of course tensions are always high in the DMZ… but really, a tree led to two murders and a massive showing of military force?
Well, PPFA readers, there you have it. This is not a trick. Though all five events have real historical backdrops, only four stories in front of those backdrops were true. The question is: which one wasn’t?
If you like history, feel free to take a look at my other history posts.
Happy April Fools’ Day, everyone!