Friday, December 27, 2013

April 14, 1865 – Booth Conspiracy brings Night of Terror

As the American Civil War looked to be coming to an end, famed actor and Southerner John Wilkes Booth determined that he must do something to help the cause. He had sworn to his concerned mother that he would not join as a soldier, yet he wrote her, “I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence.” While he would not go back on his word, he decided that the war could be fought with civilian hands in a more untraditional fashion. He began a conspiracy with fellow sympathizers to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln in March of 1865. The plans to kidnap Lincoln had all gone awry due to poor intelligence, and, upon hearing a speech by Lincoln encouraging the extension of the vote to freed slaves, Booth decided to go all out.

Booth wrote in his diary that “something decisive and great must be done.” Not only would he assassinate the president, but his coconspirators would kill the vice-president and secretary of state as well, decapitating the government. On Good Friday, picking up his mail from his box at Ford’s Theater, he happened to learn from the owner’s brother that the president and General Ulysses S Grant would be attending Our American Cousin that night.

Booth called his the band of assassins together and ordered Alabaman Lewis Powell, just days shy of his twenty-first birthday, to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Powell refused, saying he had only volunteered for kidnapping. Booth began a long and passionate speech, noting the horrors of war that the Union had performed upon the South and the duty of vengeance for them. Powell conceded, and the other conspirators were fired up by Booth’s rhetoric. George Atzerodt, a German immigrant who had settled in Maryland as a child, was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Fellow Marylander David Herold would act as guide for Powell and then manage the escape after the quartet reached the rendezvous outside of Washington, D.C.

The assassinations were performed with intensity and efficiency. Powell and Herold went to the Seward residence just after 10 PM, knocking as casually as a messenger. Powell talked his way past the butler, claiming to have medicine for Seward, who had recently been treated after a carriage crash. Seward’s son Frederick tried to stop him, and Powell leaped forward with his Bowie knife, stabbing Frederick deeply in the chest. Frederick’s sister Fanny opened the door to complain of the noise disturbing their father and found Powell in a sudden bloodlust. Powell shoved her aside and stormed into the room, drawing his revolver to shoot Seward as he lay in bed. He meticulously shot the other patrons in the room, Seward’s nurse Sergeant George F. Robinson and his other son Augustus. On the way out of the house, Powell found Herold scuffling with a legitimate late-night messenger. Powell killed the messenger, and the two escaped Washington with Herold at the lead.

Before the assassinations, Atzerodt had rented a room at the Kirkwood Hotel, Johnson’s residence while the vice-president was in Washington. Atzerodt was tempted to spend the evening in the bar but, as he lived precisely one floor above, determined to wait until 10:15, listening for the Johnson’s movement. When the prescribed time arrived, he walked calmly downstairs and knocked on the door. Johnson himself answered, and Atzerodt stabbed him with his knife. He then fled, leaving the knife where it had struck the vice-president.

Booth was the only hiccup in the evening as his intelligence once again had proved faulty. Due to Mrs. Grant’s dislike of the First Lady, the Lincolns had gone to the theater with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. Nonetheless, Booth struck at 10:25, giving a card to the usher, who showed him to the presidential box. Booth barricaded the outer door to the box and waited for the cue “sockdologizing” to act: the roar of laughter from the crowd covered up the sound of his derringer’s shot. Major Rathbone jumped to stop Booth from escaping, but Booth planted his knife firmly into Rathbone’s arm before leaping from the box to the stage. One of his spurs became caught, making him land off-balance. Always the performer, Booth cried out “Sic semper tyrannus!” to the 1,700 people in the crowd and fought his way through the chaos to his horse.

The assassins met successfully at their rendezvous and fled into Maryland. Herold guided them in the night, going on even as Booth refused to stop for treatment to his leg after the fall. They crossed the river into Virginia and disappeared.

The Union was filled with despair over the lost leaders and anger that the assassins had escaped. Any connections to the conspirators were arrested and thoroughly interrogated, leading to the execution of Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where many of the conspiracy meetings had taken place. Many called the execution unfair, but the North howled for blood. The new government, largely Radical Republicans under Lafayette Foster, treated the South as an area of military occupation rather than states in reconstruction. Freedman laws and punishments for former Confederates were enforced by Federal troops, who themselves turned corrupt with power.

While many Southerners initially despised Booth and his men for their cowardly actions, they came to hate the North further. Secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan began guerrilla raids prompted by Booth, who became a wandering speaker whose left-legged limp became a trademark and a clandestine sign for fellow rebels. The violence earned more ire from the North, who began relocating criminals to camps in the Dakotas. As the South burned, many Southerners fled, ex-Confederates to Latin America or South Africa and Freedmen to the North or to protected cities where soldiers stood guard against routine attacks and arson. The violence turned generational with deadly bombings and costly sabotage lasting well into the twentieth century until purges and propaganda during the World War finally ended the Southern revolt.


In reality, Booth only told Powell that they had come too far to give up now. Powell did as he was told but panicked and merely injured the Sewards. Herold heard the screams from inside and fled, leaving Powell stranded in unfamiliar Washington, where he wandered and hid in a tree for three days before finding Surratt’s boarding house. Atzerodt never worked up the nerve to assassinate Johnson and instead sat in the hotel bar and talked with the bartender about Johnson before wandering the streets drunk. Booth assassinated Lincoln but was soon shot himself during his escape. The other conspirators were hanged.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Guest Post: 20th December, 1999 - Portugal Relinquishes Macau At Last

On this day the Macau Peninsula, Taipa, Coloane along with the islands Lapa, Dom João and Montanha were handed over (strictly speaking, back) to China. The territory had been administered by Portugal from the mid-16th century until late 1999, when it was the last remaining European colony in Asia.

The Portuguese presence dated back to the end of the 17th century when a group of missionaries established themselves on these Chinese islands. Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, the Portuguese had officially occupied these three lightly populated islands in order to create a larger more economically viable Macau (the colony had previously consisted of Macau Peninsula itself and the islands of Taipa and Coloane).  Because of their alliance status as an Axis Power [1], Japan respected Portuguese sovereignty. However, as the Greater Asian Prosperity Sphere began to flourish, Japan had grown to see the wisdom of working with them to diminish the influence of Hong Kong and Singapore as regional entrepôts.

As Great Britain and her Far Eastern Empire waned, China rose again as a civilization that had endured for millennia and was certain to out-live the few centuries of European belligerence. After Allied occupation, Portugal maintained its colonies, struggling against post-colonization with assistance from France. Eventually its influence diminished, and under the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration, Macau was classified as "a Chinese territory under (temporary) Portuguese administration" taking a slow transition into full sovereignty. This was in reality merely a "smoke and mirrors" deal simply to avoid capital flight. On the eve of the twenty-first century, China quietly closed the door on the wreckage of the previous four hundred years. For Western Capitalists, it was the end of an era.
Addendum: Despite the official end of capitalism in Macau, it would become one of the strongest influences of special economic zones in Communist China, a gateway of foreign investment that would bring change of its own.

[1] In reality, followed by Japanese invasion of China in 1938, the neutral Portuguese officially occupied these three islands, with an excuse to better protect Portuguese missionaries residing there. In 1941, the Japanese Army threatened the Portuguese troops to force abandonment of these sparsely populated islands. Consequently, these islands were occupied by Japan. At the end of World War II, China was able to reoccupy the three islands.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

April 13, 1657 – Oliver Cromwell Recommends Henry for the Crown

Not even a decade after the Parliamentarians of England convicted their king of treason in trial and executed Charles I by beheading, a new crown was offered to Oliver Cromwell, the man who had third signed the previous king’s death warrant. The English had fought for years in a brutal Civil War that killed nearly 100,000 over the question of kingship. Even as the hated Charles I was beheaded, clergyman Phillip Henry wrote the crowd gave a cry “as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again.” England wanted a king.

In all but name, and he had another Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell had become the new king of England. Cromwell spent the early years of his life as a moderately successful member of the gentry in Cambridgeshire. During his thirties, Cromwell underwent a radical religious conversion and dedicated himself as a Congregationalist Puritan, outspoken and willing to fight for his beliefs of individuality under God. He was elected to Parliament in the tumultuous years in the 1640s, soon joining the Roundheads as the Civil War began.

Cromwell flourished in the war. His unbreakable nerve and daring spirit led to his nickname as “Old Ironsides.” He raised his own cavalry troop on silver captured from Cambridge colleges intended to arrive in support of the king and expanded his troop into a regiment in the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester. The war dragged on, and Cromwell came into conflict with his superiors, demanding more personal investment into the war. Manchester accused Cromwell of taking on “men of low birth,” to which Cromwell replied, “I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.” Cromwell’s ideals contributed to the New Model Army of 1645, of which he became the second-in-command.

In 1647, the Scots surrendered King Charles to the Parliamentary forces in exchange for ransom and in hopes of establishing a Presbyterian system. Cromwell refused to give up hard-won religious freedoms for a new hierarchy and instead began consulting directly with the captive king to establish a constitutional monarchy. While Cromwell managed to create a satisfactory Head of Proposals, others in the army did not think it went far enough, and the mission stalled until Charles’ escape that November, which incited the Scots into another wave of Civil War. Cromwell and the New Model Army crushed the invasions and resulting uprisings. The king sought to return to negotiations, but the Army refused and eliminated sympathetic members of parliament until it was clear the king would be executed.

The new Rump Parliament led to the smaller ruling council that brought on the Commonwealth while the Royalists attempted to rally in Ireland, calling upon Catholic sympathies. Cromwell was dispatched to Ireland, where he put down the insurrection ruthlessly and efficiently. While his death tolls were perhaps lower than larger invasions in the history of Ireland, he would forever gain notoriety as a murderous brute. His second son, Henry, became entwined with Ireland as major-general and later lord-deputy of the green isle, where he became popular for fairness between the Irish and the English settlers.

Cromwell’s power grew until he was promoted as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, establishing a powerful executive position managed by a constitution. He sought to rebuild England and heal its many fractures in both body and soul. When Parliament became bent on radical ideals of republicanism, he dismissed them to avoid political strife over debating bills. Cromwell also liberalized the religious orders of England, allowing for local parishes and even informally granting Menasseh Ben Israel’s request to overturn the 1290 law expelling Jews from the country. Due to his popularity, the reformed Parliament invited him to become king under a new constitution in the Humble Petition and Advice.

Cromwell became tortured over the idea. He saw the great chance of healing, bringing philosophical royalists together with Cromwell’s allies on the more republican side. Yet, he had dedicated a decade of his life to eliminating the crown and establishing a new, fairer system. He consulted with his sons, as they would suddenly become princes in line for the throne. The eldest, Richard, had not fought in the Civil War and was only partially invested in politics. Henry, who had once suggested himself that Oliver become king, warned his father not to take the throne as it was a place of ill power.

Henry’s advice caused Oliver to reevaluate his position, which he had determined as a “policeman” for the nation, guiding it through executive power based on his moral standings. Without another man of such convictions, Cromwell questioned his legacy. Finally, in a speech on April 13, seven weeks after being offered the crown, Cromwell announced that he refused to become king, though he understood why the stability of a hereditary kingship was so important. To that end, he suggested his son Henry become king and that he himself remain as a weakened Lord Protector until his time to be replaced by election.

The split of power shocked Parliament but proved to be a compromise. Cromwellians were pleased to retain their leader and his executive office, Royalists were proud to have a hereditary line once again, and republicans enjoyed reinforced rights of Parliament for taxation and law under a king few knew. Henry was shocked as well and attempted to refuse, but his father would not let him and recalled his son from Ireland. Henry conceded and was crowned June 26, 1657. Anti-royalists were thrilled by the idea of a humble king, while the royalists admired how dedicated Henry was to his office as Henry IX.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, spending the last year dedicating himself to cementing his son’s position despite increasing illness. Cromwell was replaced by election, which was applauded by men such as the governor of Scotland George Monck for its smoothness and clarity. Lord Protectors would serve as long as they maintained leadership and could be ousted by bills overseen by the king. Henry died in 1674, succeeded by his son Henry X, who reigned until 1711 and was succeeded in turn by Thomas I until 1748.

During the term of Oliver I, who came to the throne at the age of six, Parliament took the opportunity to expand its powers widely, largely eclipsing the king. As Oliver came of age, he displayed his great-great-grandfather’s strength and served valiantly in the Seven Years’ War. He turned his popularity into political power, spurring the disenfranchised in charterless towns such as Manchester and those in the colonies to demand voting power. The issue threatened to spark another civil war as insurrections broke out in the American colonies, but ultimately in 1783 Oliver would win out and stack Parliament in his favor with thousands of new voters. Oliver continued to rule until 1821, overseeing the defeat of the French Empire and establishing England as the greatest naval and colonial power in the world.

Oliver I’s only surviving child was Elizabeth II (Elizabeth-Oliveria), whom he refused to allow to marry unless his son-in-law took the surname Cromwell to continue the line.


In reality, Cromwell refused the crown for himself or anyone else. His son Richard followed him as Lord Protector, but Richard’s lack of politicking caused him to resign after one year. The factions of Parliament proved unable to elect a successor, so George Monck marched the New Model Army on London, seizing the city and restoring Charles II. The Catholic Stuarts took the throne again until being ousted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

12th June, 1964 - Mandela Imprisoned for Life

Guest post from Today in Alternate History, inspired by @uchrotweets "Black South-african leader dies in prison, aged 95 #althistory"
Judge-president of the Transvaal Dr. Quartus de Wet addressed the accused as Rolihlahla Mandela, respecting his request to be known henceforth by his Xhosa tribal name. Mandela and his fellow members of the African National Congress (ANC) were convicted as violent communist agitators and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Christian moniker "Nelson" was a result of British bias in the education system, his teacher Miss Mdingane having insisted that he use the name on his first day when he became the first member of his family to attend school. And yet Mandela's personal decision to drop "Nelson" as his first name was only a small part of a much bigger picture. The ANC had made an ideological gear shift, embracing Chairman Trotsky's vision for "International Revolution" instead of the "Socialism in One Country" concept advocated by Commissar Stalin.

Thereafter the ANC began to operate more broadly across the continent. Mandela's death was announced on 5th December, 2013, with the simplest of tweets "Black South-african leader dies in prison, aged 95 #history" [1]. It was a moment of overwhelming sadness and yet triumphant defiance as recorded half a century before in his trial declaration: 

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die".

Addendum by Jeff Provine His native South Africa, like many African states, continues to struggle. Post-colonial Africa served as a hotbed of Cold War activity as well as decades of exploitation and oppression. Racial and ethnic divides formed battle-lines, all promoting local warlords. South Africa itself faced waves of unrest, each contributing to major economic downfalls and rampant inflation, though it still acts as a regional center under the shadow of wealthier Nigeria.

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