Saturday 31 January 2009

Cholera in Zimbabwe

As Morgan Tsvangirai announces that he will join a government of “national unity” with Robert Mugabe, the World Health Organisation reveals that 3,000 people have died of cholera in Zimbabwe since the epidemic started in August last year. More than 60,000 have caught the disease.

Cholera may have been present in India as early as the 4th century BC, but the first pandemic struck the world in 1817. It appeared for the first time in Britain in 1831, claiming its first victims in Sunderland, and killing about 60,000 people across the whole country. Doctors were completely baffled by its cause – a fungus, infected air, electricity? The Lancet lamented; “we are at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture.”

During the third pandemic in the 1850’s – generally regarded as the most deadly – Queen Victoria’s anaesthetist Dr John Snow, who practised as a family doctor in London’s Soho, famously discovered the link between cholera and contaminated water, but it was decades before the medical profession as a whole accepted his conclusion.

Nowadays cholera can be treated very effectively with antibiotics and mixtures that replace the fluids and salts lost by the body, but that doesn’t help in a country like Zimbabwe, where Mr Mugabe’s regime has brought the collapse of sewage systems and water supply, and the closure of hospitals.

Friday 30 January 2009

Two related anniversaries

On this day......76 years ago, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. In the dying months of the First World War, Hitler had been awarded the Iron Cross (the officer who recommended him for the decoration was Captain Hugo Guttman, a Jew). After the war, his dream of becoming an artist never came true, and he went off to run the propaganda operation of the National Socialist (Nazi) party.

After an abortive Nazi coup, he spent nine months in prison, and used the time to write the first volume of Mein Kampf in which he denounced Communism and the Jews. During the 1920’s the Nazis never managed to poll more than 6.5% in Reichstag elections, but then came Hitler’s big break – the Great Depression. Terrified by the spectre of Communism, big business began bankrolling him, and the rest is disaster history. The Nazis were setting up concentration camps within weeks, and through murder, forced labour, starvation, medical experiments etc, they killed perhaps 20 million people.

On the 12th anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power, on January 30, 1945, a ship named the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying German refugees along with soldiers and sailors across the Baltic away from the advancing Russian forces. There were up to 10,500 people on board when she was hit by a torpedo from a Soviet submarine. It is believed that not more than 1,000 survived, making this the worst shipwreck in history.

Thursday 29 January 2009

It's only money (2) + unhappy country

So now it’s official. Labour have been telling us that we are uniquely well placed to face the economic recession, but in fact we are uniquely badly placed. The International Monetary Fund has let the cat out of the bag, saying that we will be worse hit than the United States, Western Europe or Japan, and that we're heading for our worst slump since the 1930's with the economy shrinking by 2.8 per cent this year.

There is something we could do to mitigate this financial disaster, of course, but Labour are far too doctrinaire to try it. The economy needs people to spend. Poorer people are much more likely than better off people to spend their money rather than saving it, and more likely to spend it on local goods and services, rather than foreign holidays for example. Rich people, unfortunately, were given huge tax cuts by Mrs Thatcher (then the richest further rewarded themselves with huge pay rises). Many believed these tax cuts were unsustainable, and, indeed, they are now destroying our economy. We need tax increases for those at the top, with the proceeds distributed to poorer people as tax cuts or benefit increases. How nice to be able to do something that is not only right but profitable, but Labour won’t.

At the Congo war crimes trial of Thomas Lubanga yesterday, the first prosecution witness changed his story and said he had not been one of the 30,000 child soldiers recruited to fight in the civil war in the Ituri region. The court was then adjourned amid worries about intimidation of witnesses.

Today war is still raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and altogether more than 5 million people have died since 1998, making this the world’s deadliest conflict since World War Two. Back in the 19th Century, the region was taken over by King Leopold II of Belgium as his personal domain. During a 23 year reign of terror, according to official estimates, half the population of the Congo was wiped out, by murder, forced labour, starvation and disease. See A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

End of a civil war + cricket "disaster"

Some observers believe that the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers is nearing an end after a series of successes for government troops over the last few weeks, including the taking of Kilinochchi - the Tigers’ political and administrative centre. The Red Cross is warning that the fighting is causing a humanitarian crisis with over a quarter of a million civilians fleeing their homes. Altogether about 70,000 have been killed in the conflict over the last three decades.

On this 1887 – a sporting disaster. England were bowled out for 45 by Australia in Sydney – their lowest ever test score. George Lohmann, coming in at 9, was top scorer with 17. It proved an important contribution. Australia made 119 in their first innings. Then England replied with 184, leaving Australia needing just 111 to win, but they were dismissed for 97. Astonishingly, England had won by 13 runs. Lohmann took three wickets in each innings.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Gaza - the EU has the solution! + explosive anniversary

So the EU’s humanitarian aid chief (!) has visited Gaza, seen the murder and destruction described in yesterday’s blog, and got to the bottom of the problem – it’s all the fault of Hamas! The EU, which gives Israel all manner of privileges, dismisses the Palestinians’ democratically elected government as “terrorist”. Now politicians like Mr Michel (a former Belgian Foreign Minister, no less) tend to avoid any definition of “terrorist” so they can use it to describe anyone they don’t like, but surely what it means is someone who kills, injures or terrorises civilians in order to achieve a political objective.

So here’s a little competition (Mr Michel may enter if he wishes). Using the facts from the Gaza massacre – summarised in my blog of yesterday – who better fits the definition “terrorist”. Is it (a) Hamas or (b) Israel ? For people like Mr Michel and Labour in Britain, it is all so very simple. If only the Palestinians would just knuckle down under the occupation, blockade, theft of land, killings, kidnappings or whatever else Israel cares to inflict on them, there’d be no problem. Let me let you into a little secret, Mr Michel and co. It is not going to happen. The Palestinians will continue to resist until they are free. Giving them their liberty is the only route to peace.

On this years ago, a huge explosion at a military barracks in Lagos, Nigeria flattened whole streets nearby and sent shells, grenades and bullets flying through the air. People thought it was a military coup, or a terrorist attack and an estimated 20,000 fled their homes. Many were trampled to death in the streets, others drowned in a canal, and perhaps 2,000 were killed altogether. See A Disastrous History of the World for more details.

Monday 26 January 2009

Gaza - return to oblivion

So the massacre in Gaza is over and the world can forget about the Palestinians until the next one begins. After a brief flurry of sympathy and understanding for the people inhabiting the world’s biggest open prison, normal service is rapidly being resumed. The BBC and Sky are refusing to broadcast an appeal to help those Palestinians made destitute, homeless, disabled, hungry and thirsty by the Israelis. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear that no Israeli war criminals will be prosecuted whatever the circumstances. But what do you expect from a man who killed hundreds of Palestinian children to improve his election prospects ?

Because of Israeli censorship, it’s impossible to be certain about how many Palestinians were killed, and the figure is likely to rise as more and more bodies are pulled from the rubble. However, it seems that at least 1300 Palestinians have been killed, nearly a third of them children. It is almost certain that the majority of the people Israel killed were civilians and not members of the Palestinian resistance.

The Israelis have injured at least 5,000 more and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings – houses, universities, factories, schools, mosques, orchards etc. 50,000 Gazans have been made homeless, and 400,000 have no water. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including ten soldiers. Literally 99% of the casualties have been inflicted by the Israelis, so what is Labour’s analysis of the problem? We have to stop Hamas getting weapons! Not a dicky bird from Labour, or the rest of the “free world” on stopping the flow of arms to Israel.

Indeed, Gordon Brown has even offered to prostitute the Royal Navy to the service of the Israelis as a jailer for the Palestinians.

If you want to defy the BBC and Sky and donate to the Gaza appeal, this is the link.

But there is little point in just rebuilding Gaza again so the Israelis can destroy it again. Reconstruction this time needs to be allied to political and military action to ensure Israel can never again massacre Gazans and destroy their homes.

Sunday 25 January 2009

Israel breaks the ceasefire + a stormy anniversary

Just imagine if Hamas had fired off a rocket and injured an Israeli, what a song and dance there would have been from the British media and from Labour ministers. Well, on Friday, the Israelis shot another two Palestinian children and at least another three Palestinian adults and there was barely a peep. The adults do not even appear to have been part of the Palestinian resistance. Some of the victims were in a fishing boat which, according to the Israelis, had “strayed off course.” The Israeli gunboat also hit a number of other boats and a house on the shore.

And where is the Silent President? Mr Obama excused his uncharacteristic lack of loquacity during the massacre in Gaza on the grounds that he was not yet in office. But, I seem to remember he assured us, he would have much to say once he was. Well, we’re still waiting Mr President, and time is running out.

On this day.....250 years ago, of course, Robbie Burns was born. More significant for the disaster history blog, though, is that on January 25, 1990, the “Burns’ Day” storm hit southern England. Gusts of 87 miles an hour were recorded in London, and altogether, 47 people were killed, while the actor Gordon Kaye, star of ‘Allo, ‘Allo was seriously injured. The winds were less strong than in the “Great Storm” of just over two years before, but the death toll was much higher because this time the winds came during the day when there were more people out and about.

See The Disastrous History of London for the full story.

Friday 23 January 2009

Congo - a glimmer of hope? + a deadly anniversary

News that General Laurent Nkunda, leader of one of the main rebel groups fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been arrested. Nkunda, a Tutsi, had helped protect Rwanda against attacks by Hutus who had fled to the Congo after being driven out by the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1994.

The RPF put a stop to the Rwandan genocide by Hutu extremists that killed 800,000 people – mainly Tutsis – in just 100 days. The Rwandan government has been accused of backing the general, but it now seems to have turned against him. It remains to be seen whether the arrest will help end a conflict that has seen up to five million people killed.

On this day.....453 years ago. On January 23, 1556, China suffered one of the world’s deadliest earthquakes. From its epicentre in Shaanxi, it devastated ten provinces and claimed about 830,000 victims – many of them people who lived in caves they had dug out of the soft earth.

Thursday 22 January 2009

A result!

In Saturday’s blog, I wrote about the way in which Labour’s attacks on our civil liberties were slowly but surely turning us into a police state, and I contrasted our MP’s relaxed inaction in the face of this threat with their enthusiastic hyperactivity when it comes to stopping us finding out about their expenses.

What do you know? Yesterday Gordon Brown announced he was shelving this latter plan. Even Disaster History blog doesn’t normally get results this quickly! But typically Labour has managed to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Was the government dropping the idea because it had seen the light and realised it was outrageous to try to hide MP’s expenses from the rest of us who pay for them? No. The problem was that opposition parties were refusing to support the cover-up, grumbled the PM.

FACT. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, was once legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty). What is she doing supporting the authoritarian changes I wrote about on Saturday?

INTERESTING BLOG. Witty and stimulating thoughts on music, art, language and liners at

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Perils of queueing + debut of a mass murderer

An Australian behavioural economist (!), David Savage has analysed the figures for those who died when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, and discovered that American passengers were 8.5% more likely to survive than those from other countries, and British passengers 7% less likely. He seems to put this down to the idea that the British formed orderly queues to get into the lifeboats (which did not have enough space for everyone on board) while the Americans behaved, as one newspaper delicately put it, in a “brasher” way. The study concludes that even the Americans, though, were not beastly to female passengers. Women were, on the whole, allowed to get into the boats first, and there was little difference between the survival prospects for Britons and Americans.

Mr Savage concedes, however, that there might be another explanation for the figures. We know that passengers in first and second class had a much better chance of getting away than those in steerage. Only one child in first and second class died, while two out of three of those in steerage perished. Maybe there were just fewer Americans travelling steerage. Overall, after analysing four disasters, the behavioural economist comes up with the reassuring thought that "the whole concept of mass panic – everyone looking after themselves – doesn't hold that strong."

On this day......85 years ago, the creator of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, died. Although he tried to prevent it, he was succeeded by Josef Stalin, who, through doctrinaire economic policies, purges, reigns of terror and fearsome labour camps, was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 30 million people, making him one of the greatest mass murderers in history.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

It's only money

Financial disasters are not normally within the scope of this blog, but with RBS shares heading fast towards zero, closures and redundancies everywhere, and countless (literally) billions more being pledged by Labour to bail out the banks, it seemed churlish to ignore our present plight.

In 1999, RBS shares stood at £14. Yesterday, they fell below 12p. It seems the government is not clear quite how many additional tens of billions of pounds of our money it has pledged to the banks this time, but it should lead to some interesting discussions on the next occasion when someone is told the NHS can’t “afford” a drug costing a few thousand, or that public transport fares have to rise above the rate of inflation, or that people have to be bullied off benefits, get the idea.

Last week the Economist ran an interesting, and disturbing analysis of some research from a couple of American academics. They found that recessions spawned by banking crises are particularly long and deep. Unemployment keeps going up for five years, house prices fall for five years, and shares lose half their value.

It would be nice to think, wouldn’t it, that while Labour was handing out all these billions to the banks, someone in the bowels of the government was drawing up a comprehensive and binding agreement for them to sign, ensuring that we never again return to the excessive salaries and bonuses, and reckless lending and investment policies that have characterised the sector in recent years. Money talks and it’s saying that banking is too important to be left to the bankers – certainly the ones that got us in this present mess. It would be nice to think, but don’t hold your breath.

Monday 19 January 2009

Return of the Black Death

Reports today that the “Black Death” – bubonic plague – has broken out in a training camp for al-Qaeda insurgents in Algeria. The disease, which swept through Europe and Asia starting in the early 1330’s, was perhaps the biggest disaster in human history, wiping out around a third of the population in the areas it attacked. It reached Britain in the summer of 1348, allegedly first appearing at Melcombe Regis in Dorset.

With death rates at this level, it is hardly surprising that many people thought they were witnessing the end of the world. A dying Irish monk compiled an account of the epidemic, saying he had written it just in case “any man survive.” Nowadays some scientists question whether the Black Death was actually bubonic plague, and argue it may have been some other viral infection.

Whatever the truth of that, the plague lives on. In 2006, an outbreak claimed at least 50 lives in the chaos of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there are fears it may soon appear in Zimbabwe.

Sunday 18 January 2009

The madness of crowds

In its review of A Disastrous History of the World, Geographical Magazine wrote “Perhaps most chilling are the tales of stampedes and mass panics – those tragedies that occur, in other words, when people are attempting to escape from something that might have proved less fatal.”

One such story has its anniversary today. On January 18, 1887, the Hebrew Dramatic Club in London’s Spitalfields was putting on a “benefit night” for members with financial problems. It attracted about 400 people, and as the show moved towards its climax, some young men in the gallery wanted to get a better view, and tried to haul themselves up on a gas pipe. It cracked, and as the audience smelt gas, someone shouted “fire”. There was no fire, but the gas was turned off, and the hall plunged into darkness. As people rushed desperately for the exits, 16 – mainly women and children – were crushed to death in the stampede.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Police state - a disaster in the making

Reasonably free societies do not turn into police states overnight. It is a journey of many steps. We have already taken some. Cardinal de Retz said back in the 17th Century that of all the emotions, none clouds the judgment so much as fear, and fear – especially fear of terrorism - has been the main weapon used, wittingly or unwittingly, by Labour to move us along the road to tyranny.

Labour has created something like 3,000 new crimes, and imprisoned tens of thousands more British people. “Anti-terrorism” legislation allows people to be locked up for longer without trial, and it has also been widely misused against, among others, a leading opposition MP, a Holocaust survivor who dared to question what the then Foreign Secretary was saying, and a staggering 7,000 (!) trainspotters.

More steps are planned – like identity cards, logging everyone’s emails, and holding inquests in secret. Our MP’s meanwhile do not bother to scrutinise much of this destruction of our liberties, allowing the government to use so-called secondary legislation to bypass the increasingly irrelevant House of Commons – for more details see

Thank God our MP’s have time for much more important matters, like making sure we can’t find out about their expenses.

We can still stop and reverse the drift to a police state, but if we don’t take the opportunity now, one day it will be too late.

Friday 16 January 2009

Bird strikes and an anniversary

It seems that a bird strike brought down the US Airways passenger jet which the pilot managed to land with such skill on the Hudson river in New York City yesterday. Mercifully no one was killed. America’s Federal Aviation Administration says it received nearly 76,000 reports of bird strikes between 1990 and 2007, and the incidents resulted in a total of 11 deaths. Last November, a Ryanair 737 had to make an emergency landing at one of Rome’s airports after birds had been sucked into one of the engines. There were only minor injuries.

The worst accident involving a bird strike came in 1960 when an Eastern Airlines flight hit a flock of starlings just after take-off from Boston in the United States damaging all four engines. It crashed into the sea killing 62 people out of 71 on board.

On this day......647 years ago. On January 16, 1362, the Grote Mandrenke or “great drowning of men” carried off at least 25,000 people, as a massive Atlantic gale caused floods in England, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

Thursday 15 January 2009

A skating disaster

On this day......142 years ago today, on January 15, 1867, hundreds of people went skating on the frozen lake in London’s Regent’s Park in spite of warning notices. The thousands of spectators were horrified when the ice cracked and about 200 people were flung into the water. Some were able to survive by clinging to lumps of ice, but many were dragged beneath the water by their heavy winter clothing.

Those around the lake dragged out survivors by tearing branches from trees, and a local boat builder managed to launch his craft and rescue others, but altogether 40 drowned. For the full story see Capital Disasters or The Disastrous History of London.

An even worse skating disaster happened at Des Moines in Iowa in 1900 when ice broke on a frozen river and 49 children were drowned.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

The worst sporting riot

The world’s worst sporting riots did not happen in some citadel of modern football -even though more than 300 did die in a running battle over a disallowed goal at a match between Argentina and Peru in Lima in 1964, and another 70 people were killed on the terraces in Buenos Aires in 1968.

No, the most disastrous came in ancient Constantinople between supporters of two rival chariot racing teams – the greens and the blues. The fans had generally been creating mayhem - breaking into houses, robbing and murdering, and they got even worse when the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great tried to clamp down. At the games held 1,477 years ago today, on January 13, 532, it looked as though Justinian might be deposed. The crowd hurled insults at him, and for the next two days, mobs roamed the city burning down buildings. In the end, by means of the emperor’s fearsome cavalry and some judicious bribery, order was restored, but not before an estimated 30,000 people had been killed.

Monday 12 January 2009

Really Cold Weather

We’ve just had the coldest December for a decade in England and Wales, and the icy weather has continued into January, but if you’re feeling a bit chilly, think for a moment what it must have been like to have been caught up in what became known as the “Schoolhouse Blizzard” which hit the Great Plains of the United States 121 years ago today on January 12, 1888.

It got its name because many of the victims were children being taught in the one-room schoolhouses that then dotted rural America. One teacher in Nebraska found hers running out of fuel and decided to take her three pupils to her boarding house just 80 yards away, but they immediately got lost in the blinding snowstorm and all the children died. Altogether more than 230 people perished.

Saturday 10 January 2009

The Real "Warlords"

January 11, 2009

Last year’s acclaimed Chinese film “The Warlords”, which may still be showing in the odd art house, tells a compelling story set during the anarchy of the Taiping rebellion in 19th century China. (And is well worth a viewing if you haven’t seen it.) One of the rebellion's key events came 158 years ago today, on January 11, 1851 when Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself ruler of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace, Taiping Tianguo.

He had been converted to Christianity and started seeing visions after failing the Chinese civil service examination for the fifth time. The rebellion lasted more than 25 years and cost the lives of perhaps 20 million people (though Hong himself died of food poisoning in a city under siege in 1864). The Taipings were against gambling, opium, tobacco, prostitution and polygamy, but Hong kept a harem of 88 concubines. To find out more about this extraordinary story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

An aftermath and an anniversary

January 10, 2009
Sources in the United States and Pakistan are claiming that two men America says were involved in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have been killed. Kenyans Usama al-Kini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan were said to have been hit by a missile from a US drone in Pakistan’s South Waziristan, close to the Afghan border. The bombing in Nairobi killed 257 people, only 12 of them Americans, while the one in Dar es Salaam claimed a total of 11 victims. More details on the bombings are available in A Disastrous History of the World.

On this 1838, London’s Royal Exchange was burned down for the second time. The weather was bitterly cold and firemen were hampered as their hoses froze. A large crowd gathered to watch, and the biggest cheer came when porters flung a bag of sovereigns out of the window and some of the onlookers helped themselves. You can find the full story in The Disastrous History of London.

Friday 9 January 2009

Disaster in Gaza

With Israel banning the media from Gaza, it is hard to come up with firm numbers for those killed in the present Israeli attack, but at the moment it seems to be more than 700 Palestinians, including in excess of 200 children and nearly 100 women. About ten Israelis have been killed. Of course, the Palestinians are used to casualties. Israel killed more than 400 last year, a similar number the year before, and more than 600 in 2006.

Although we hear a great deal about the threat of terrorism, states and governments tend to kill many more people, and those who claim to be trying to avoid civilian casualties, e.g. Israel, tend to kill and injure far more than those accused of deliberately targeting them, e.g. Hamas

Wednesday 7 January 2009

End of a tyrant

Thirty years ago today, Pol Pot was deposed by the Vietnamese, ending one of the most murderous regimes the world has ever seen. He and his Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas had taken control of Cambodia in 1975. Inspired by Chairman Mao, they drove millions of people – some still in their hospital beds – out of its cities into the country.

“Bourgeois” professionals like lawyers, doctors and teachers were killed along with their families. Even wearing glasses was enough to put your life in danger. In addition to those deliberately murdered, thousands of others died from the hardships and hunger of Pol Pot’s labour camps so that by the time he was driven from power, 1.75 million out of a population of 8 million were dead.

As Israel today continued its bombing and bombardment of Gaza for a twelfth day, it is interesting to note the key role played by the US bombing of Cambodia from 1969 onwards in bringing Pol Pot to power. One Khmer Rouge leader remarked: “Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and then their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.” Assaults designed to destroy resistance often have the opposite effect.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Mao's Great Famine 1959-61

2009 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Great Chinese Famine. Estimates of the number who died range as high as 40 million. There were floods, there was drought, but above all there was the chaos produced by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward.” Peasants were dragooned into huge inefficient centralised farms, or were diverted from the land to make steel by melting down pots and pans in backyard furnaces, or to build giant, shoddy dams – many of which soon collapsed.

Other madcap schemes included killing all the birds, and planting seeds more closely together so they choked each other. The trouble was that even as people starved, the government propaganda machine was claiming that harvests were at record levels and that there were dazzling agri-technological achievements like crossing cows with pigs.

The full story is in my book A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 5 January 2009

A new blog

Invasions, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, bird flu – the world seems to get more dangerous by the day. Or does it? In this blog, I am going to be examining disasters in their historical context, and recalling some of the major disasters of the past. The first posts will begin this week.

I am the author of three histories of disasters – “The Disastrous History of London” (which appeared in hardback as “Capital Disasters”), “A Disastrous History of Britain”, and “A Disastrous History of the World” – the latest, which appeared in November. They provide a comprehensive account of the worst disasters to have afflicted mankind whether natural, like volcanic eruptions, hurricanes or disease; accidental such as fires or shipwrecks; or deliberately inflicted like wars, massacres or terrorism.

For further details, see my website