Sunday, 28 March 2010

Financial disasters

Apologies for the silence over the last few days. I have been updating The Disastrous History of London which will appear, with a new title, later in the year.

The main update covers the London bombings of July 7, 2005, which happened after the book was written. I have also added a fresh chapter on financial disasters, which includes the South Sea Bubble of 1720, the stock market crashes of the early 1970’s and of 1987 (“Black Monday”) and the banking crisis of the last couple of years.

The South Sea Bubble is great fun to write about – a story full of fascinating characters like the wonderfully named Sir John Blunt of the Sword Blade Company, who played a key role in ramping the share price through misinformation and bribery. Then, among those who made a mint were two mistresses of King George I – one enormously fat, the other spectacularly thin.

As with house prices in the banking crisis, so long as the South Sea Company share price kept climbing, the powers that be never noticed there was a problem. And, in spite of the havoc that its collapse wrought, the company carried on happily for another 130 years. Who would bet against the same thing happening with the banks today?

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Icelandic eruptions

An Icelandic volcano that had been dormant for two centuries has erupted, sending lava 300 feet into the air. About 500 people have been evacuated from the sparsely populated area about 75 miles east of Reykjavik.

Iceland is a mysterious country of volcanoes, geysers, bubbling, spitting mud and lunar landscapes, and there are fears that the eruption could cause flooding, or spark off the much more dangerous nearby Katla volcano.

Iceland’s deadliest ever eruption, and one of the deadliest in human history, came in 1783 when the Laki volcano threw the equivalent of Mont Blanc into the air. Burning lava overwhelmed 20 villages, blocked rivers burst their banks, and many also died from toxic fumes.

As with so many disasters, though, the real damage came in the aftermath (see my blog of March 17). In Iceland itself, crops failed, livestock starved, fish disappeared, and about 10,000 people – a quarter of the island’s population – died. Much of the Western hemisphere was enveloped in a volcanic winter, and some estimates say that this climate change caused more than 200,000 deaths. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday, 19 March 2010


New research in Germany has concluded that about 25,000 people were killed in the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Quite enough, but a good deal lower than the previous estimate of around 40,000, while some far-right groups claimed the true total was half a million.

The Dresden Historians' Commission spent five years examining city archives, cemetery and court records, and official registries. But feelings in the city still run high, and within an hour of the report’s publication, 150 protestors had marched on the town hall.

Before February 13, 1945, Dresden had barely been targeted, but on that night more than 750 British bombers attacked its railway marshalling yards, to try to disrupt plans to strengthen German forces on the Eastern Front. World War Two bombing raids, though, were never particularly accurate, and this one also started a ferocious firestorm in the city centre.

The following day, 450 USAF aircraft renewed the attack. Some fires burned for a week afterwards, but rail services were put out of action for only three days. (see also my blog of Feb 13, 2009)

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Lingering disasters

Disasters do not always claim all their victims at once. It has been revealed that perhaps 800 people have died, and up to 10,000 have become ill, as a result of poisons they were exposed to in the aftermath of 9/11. There is now an argument in the USA over who should pay for their medical care. Just under 3,000 died in the attack.

Sometimes the aftermath is far deadlier than the original event. In the world’s worst ever dam burst (see my blog of March 15), human rights campaigners estimate that 85,000 were drowned, but that another 145,000 died of starvation and disease after the event.

A similar pattern can be seen in other floods. When the Yellow and Yangtze rivers burst their banks in 1931, the immediate death toll was around 130,000, but up to 3 million more starved or died from illness later.

As with 9/11, poisons wreak their havoc over many years. The initial death toll from Bhopal was about 3,800, but it’s claimed that another 20,000 died from poisoning over the years that followed (see my blog of Aug 1). While at Chernobyl, only about 30 people died in the first few weeks after the explosion, but some believe it will eventually cause fatal cancers in up to 200,000 (see my blog of April 14).

Monday, 15 March 2010

Bursting dams

Two dam bursts in southern Kazakhstan have killed 35 people. They happened after heavy rains, and two villages in the Almaty region were swept away by the resulting floods. President Nazarbayev has suggested that the dams may have been poorly maintained, and is threatening to prosecute those responsible.

The world’s worst ever dam disaster happened in China’s Henan province in 1975 when 60, built shoddily as part of Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, gave way after heavy rains. More than 4,000 square miles were flooded, and the death toll is disputed to this day. The official figure is 26,000, but others say it was really as many as 230,000 if you include those who died from starvation and disease in the aftermath. (see my blog of March 27, 2009)

One of India’s worst floods happened when the Machchu-2 dam burst in 1979, flooding the town of Morvi in Gujarat and killing up to 15,000 people. Once again there had been heavy rains.

While America’s worst flood followed the collapse of what was then the world’s biggest earth dam, 14 miles from Johnstown in Pennsylvania. The dam held back the USA’s biggest man-made lake. It burst on May 31, 1889 after weeks of rain, and the waters careered through four villages and then devastated Johnstown itself, killing at least 2,200 people. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Who remembers the Armenians?

“Who remembers the Armenians?” was supposed to have been Hitler’s scornful question as he tried to stiffen the backbone of his generals on the eve of the invasion of Poland. And the failure of the victorious allies of World War One to call anyone to account for the massacre of this Christian minority in Turkey was said to have made him believe he could, literally, get away with murder.

But 90 years on, the answer to Hitler’s question seems to be “quite a lot of people.” Yesterday, the US Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee, despite pleas from Hilary Clinton, has declared that the massacre amounted to genocide.

Turkey had sent MPs to Washington to lobby against the resolution, and the country’s president, Abdullah Gul, has branded the committee’s decision "an injustice to history". It has recalled its US ambassador for consultations and hints that further sanctions may be on the way.

It is estimated that 600,000 Armenians were massacred and that another 400,000 perished from the hardships and brutality of forced deportations. Turkey accepts that atrocities were committed but argues they were a by-product of the Great War, in which Turkey fought on Germany’s side, and that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Landslides - this time it's Uganda

The latest country to be hit by landslides caused by heavy rain is Uganda. More than 300 people are feared dead in the mountainous Bududa region about 170 miles from Kampala.

Because roads are blocked, mechanical diggers cannot get through to the stricken villages, and rescuers are having to work with their bare hands. President Museveni has criticised farmers for stripping hillsides and residents for building on flood planes.

One survivor said he was in a church when mud suddenly engulfed it. The five people sitting next to him were killed, but he managed to keep his head above the mud. The region often suffers from landslides, but this one is unusually deadly, and more heavy rain is forecast. (See also my blogs of April 17, Oct 10, Nov 12 and 19, 2009, and Feb 21, 2010)

This day….66 years ago saw perhaps the world’s weirdest ever rail disaster. There was no collision, no derailment. Instead a train became stranded in a tunnel in the Italian Apennine mountains because of ice on the track, and more than 520 people – almost everyone on board – died from carbon monoxide poisoning. For the story see A Disastrous History of the World.