Tuesday 21 December 2010

Lockerbie + 22 - the tangled web

On the 22nd anniversary of Britain’s worst ever terrorist outrage – the Lockerbie bombing – the only man ever convicted of it, the Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, is said to be in a coma and close to death.

Later today, a US senator is due to unveil the results of his own personal inquiry into Megrahi’s compassionate release last year. What the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic seem desperate to prevent, though, is any inquiry into who really planted the bomb that blew up the Pan-Am jumbo.

Megrahi was released only after he agreed to drop his appeal against conviction, and ten days ago it was revealed that an 800 page dossier compiled by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, examining the flaws in the case against him, is to be kept under lock and key. The commission had identified at least six grounds for thinking Megrahi may have been wrongly convicted. The UK government has also rejected requests for a full public inquiry.

Dr Jim Swire, who daughter was one of the 270 victims of the bombing, believes Megrahi was released in order to prevent an appeal that the authorities might have found ‘very embarrassing’. Now two of the Libyan’s children say they are preparing to sue the powers-that-be in Scotland for wrongfully imprisoning their father. Will that lead to the issues finally being properly examined? Or will the authorities just pay up so they can maintain the silence? Come on Wikileaks!

Saturday 18 December 2010

Lancashire pit disaster exhibition

A new exhibition at the Museum of Wigan Life in Lancashire commemorates the 100th anniversary of the county’s worst ever mining disaster, and the third worst in British history.

On December 21, 1910, about 900 men and boys were working on the day shift at the Hulton Colliery No. 3 Bank Pit, Westhoughton, known locally as the Pretoria Pit. Just before eight o’ clock in the morning, flames shot out from the main shaft, following an explosion below.

In all 344 miners were killed. As ever they were drawn from tight-knit communities around the pit. One local woman lost her husband, four sons and two brothers. An inquest jury decided that the probable cause was that an overheated safety lamp had ignited gas and coal dust.

The worst mining disaster in British history occurred at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, less than three years later, on October 14, 1913. A total of 440 miners died after an explosion there. The chief inspector of mines said there had been ‘a disquieting laxity in the management of the mine’, and the manager was fined £24 for five breaches of mining regulations.

For more on both disasters, see A Disastrous History of Britain. The exhibition at Wigan entitled ‘Don’t go down the mine’ runs until March 22, 2011.


Thursday 16 December 2010

Boat people

The deaths of at least 28 people, and possibly many more, in the shipwreck on Christmas Island is a reminder of the lengths to which people desperate to leave their country will go. A flimsy wooden boat carrying suspected asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran was dashed onto jagged rocks in very high seas.

More than forty people have been rescued, but it may be that the boat was carrying more than 100. It is believed it may have been on its way from Indonesia to Australia. The engines seem to have failed, and the craft was quickly smashed to pieces. It seems to have managed to evade detection and the alarm was raised only when local residents heard screams from the passengers.

Perhaps the biggest unofficial exodus by sea ever mounted was by the Vietnamese boat people. During the late 1970’s, an estimated 2 million fled South Vietnam as the Communists took over.

Apart from the usual hazards of taking to the ocean in small and often unseaworthy vessels, they had to run the gauntlet of pirates, and even if they made it to refugee camps, they were often ill-treated there too. An estimated half million died.

Sunday 12 December 2010

A date for your diary

I am giving a free talk on London's Disasters at Shoe Lane Library, 1, Little New Street, London EC4A 3JR at 1230 on January 4, 2011.

See you there!

Saturday 11 December 2010

Rwanda genocide - preserving history

An archive of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 has just opened at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the country’s capital. It includes thousands of documents, photographs and video and sound recordings collected from survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the mass murder.

It’s a joint initiative by the Rwandan government and the Aegis Trust, which works to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, and the memorial site is on slopes above mass graves believed to hold the bodies of up to a quarter of a million victims.

The site’s director, himself a survivor of the genocide says that many people in Rwanda still deny the genocide, and that the archive will help ‘fight them with facts.’ The Aegis Trust is also working with the UK’s University of Nottingham to create a comprehensive map of Rwanda’s genocide sites. So far more than 1,000 have been identified in Kigali alone.

The Rwanda genocide, during which Hutu extremists murdered moderate Hutus and Tutsis was the most rapid in history, with 800,000 people murdered in 100 days. (See also my blogs of Jan 23, March 1, 4, 23; April 9, July 16, May 6, Sept 3, 9, 23; Oct 8, 30; Dec 15, 2009, 25 Feb, 2010.)

Thursday 9 December 2010

Chile prison fire

A fire in a Chilean prison has killed more than 80 inmates. The blaze at the San Miguel prison in Santiago is reported to have been started when mattresses were set on fire during a fight between rival gangs.

The blaze is the worst ever in a Chilean prison. More than 5,000 people gathered outside the gaol, and many complained they could get no information about the fate of their loved ones. There were also reports that prison guards at first refused to let in firefighters.

Chile has one of the highest per capita prison populations in Latin America, and the San Miguel gaol was grossly overcrowded. Built for 700, it was holding nearly 2,000. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera described the system as ‘inhumane’ and called for reform.

Overcrowding was also a factor in perhaps the worst ever prison fire, which swept through the Ohio State Penitentiary in the USA on April 21, 1930. The prison should have held 1,500 inmates, but 4,300 were packed inside, and more than 320 died. The following year Ohio set up a parole board that eventually released thousands of prisoners.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Progress on AIDS

Slow but sure progress appears to be being made in fighting AIDS across the world. Last year was the 12th in succession in which there was a fall in the number of deaths, and in the number of new cases.

Even so, according to the United Nations, about 2.6 million people contracted the HIV virus last year, though this is nearly 20 per cent fewer than the figure in 1997, the worst year ever recorded. The worst year so far for deaths was 2004, when the total was 2.1 million. Last year, it was down to 1.8 million.

The executive director of the UN’s AIDS programme, Michael Sidibe said: ‘We have halted and begun to reverse the epidemic.’ There are more than 33 million people living with HIV; two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa, still the worst affected region. (See also my blogs of Sept 4, 2009 and Sept 18, 2010.)

*For the history of AIDS, see A Disastrous History of the World. Reviews of the new paperback edition:-



Wednesday 24 November 2010

Haiti cholera gets worse

The cholera epidemic in Haiti (see my blog of Nov 12) is spreading even quicker than was feared. So far more than 1,400 people have died, and the UN’s co-ordinator for humanitarian relief, Nigel Fisher, is expecting to see 200,000 cases. He has called on aid agencies to send more medical staff.

As this is the first time the disease has struck Haiti in a century, there appears to be little natural immunity around. Last week, there were riots against UN peacekeepers from Nepal who were accused by some Haitians of having introduced cholera to the country. The UN says there is no evidence to support this accusation.

The first global cholera pandemic began in 1817 in India, and swept through much of Asia and East Africa over the next six years. The second started in Russia in 1830, reaching most of Europe before crossing the Atlantic to infect North and Central America. However, the disease may have been present in India as early as the fourth century BC.

*Here's a new article I’ve written on the worst disasters ever to afflict London.


For Spanish readers – an article about me:-


Tuesday 23 November 2010

The madness of crowds

At least 378 people have been killed, and more than 750 injured in a stampede at the end of a festival in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. A bridge across the Bassac river got overcrowded, and people panicked and began pushing from both ends.

More than two million people had been attending the festival, and the crush followed two of the highlights – a concert and a boat race. People were pushed to the ground and trampled. Some jumped in the river, while others climbed up and grabbed electric cables and got electrocuted. Many of the victims are believed to have been teenagers.

Fatal crushes have happened in many places, such as the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where a late goal by Spartak Moscow in a UEFA Cup match with HFC Haarlem in 1982 caused some fans who had decided to leave to try and turn back. On an icy staircase, chaos ensued, and up to 340 people were killed.

At the Hajj in Mecca in 1990, a crush developed in a tunnel , and more than 1,400 pilgrims were killed, while perhaps the worst of all happened in an air raid shelter in Chungking in 1941. During a Japanese raid, the ventilation system broke down, so while there seemed to be a lull, many people slipped outside for a breath of fresh air. At that moment, the alarm sounded again, and up to 4,000 people were killed in the panic.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Good Queen Bess

On this day….441 years ago, a somewhat half-hearted uprising against Queen Elizabeth I began in the northern counties of England. This was a part of her realm she had never visited, and where attachment to Roman Catholicism remained strong.

On November 14, 1569, 300 armed horsemen rode into Durham. They entered the cathedral, ripped up English bibles and prayer books and declared that no more Protestant services would be held there. Then a huge crowd turned up to hear a Catholic mass.

All over the North, people began replacing communion tables with high altars and restoring Catholic services, while the rebels marched south, hoping to free the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who was Elizabeth’s prisoner. But when they had got as far as Wetherby, their leaders lost their nerve, and told them to go home.

If the rebellion was half-hearted, the repression that followed it certainly wasn’t. The queen’s instructions were that rich rebels should be put on trial, while the poor were just to be summarily hanged. At one point, Elizabeth complained about how few executions there had been of the “meaner sort of rebels”, and in the end around 500 were put to death, while beggars became a common sight in the North, as many families were reduced to destitution.

Friday 12 November 2010

Cholera threatens to "overwhelm" Haiti

As had been feared (see my blog of Oct 23), cholera is now spreading rapidly through the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The disease broke out last month in the Artibonite River valley about 60 miles away, and it was hoped for a while that it might be prevented from reaching the capital where more than a million people are still living in tents after January’s earthquake.

Eighty Haitians have died of cholera in the last 24 hours, taking the total to more than 720, and there are about 11,000 cases, with 1,000 new ones each day. The head of infectious diseases at Port-au-Prince’s main public hospital has warned that if this goes on, they will be “overwhelmed”. The situation has been worsened by Hurricane Tomas, which caused widespread flooding last week, in addition to killing at least 20 people.

Cholera is spread by water and causes diarrhoea and vomiting, leading to severe dehydration. It can kill very quickly and horribly, but it can be easily treated through antibiotics and replacement of lost fluids and salts, so long as these are available. (For more details about cholera, see A Disastrous History of the World.)

The billions of dollars of aid promised by the rest of the world to Haiti after the earthquake has been slow in arriving, with only just over a third delivered so far.

*Yesterday was Remembrance Day. See http://www.flickr.com/photos/clemypix/5165934757/

Tuesday 9 November 2010

London - 7.7 inquest

The inquest into the 7.7 tube and bus bombings in London – the worst terrorist outrage on British soil – heard yesterday from one of the most seriously injured survivors. Thirty-one year old Daniel Biddle lost both legs and an eye.

Mr Biddle’s presence on the train was down to a chapter of accidents. When he was waiting on the platform at Liverpool Street, he let the first train go because it was so crowded. Then he boarded the ill-fated service, meaning to get off at Baker Street, but missed his stop because he was texting, and so was still on the train when Mohammad Sidique Khan detonated his bomb at Edgware Road.

Mr Biddle said Khan was sitting about eight feet away from him. The bomber took a quick look up and down the carriage, then there was a rapid movement of his arm, and a “big, white flash”. The carriage expanded quickly, and then contracted just as fast, and Mr Biddle was blown off his feet and through the carriage doors into the tunnel. Adrian Heili, a trained first aider, clambered under the train to reach him, and freed him from under a carriage door.

Mr Biddle spent weeks in a coma. Seven people, including the bomber, died on the train. Another 50 people, including 3 more bombers, were killed in the 2005 attacks, and more than 700 were injured.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Pompeii - disaster history in danger

A week ago I was looking at paintings of the destruction of Pompeii. Today I’m reading bad news about the bits Vesuvius spared in AD79.

It seems that yesterday morning the Schola Armaturarum, the building that was used for training gladiators, was found in ruins. Italy’s president said it was an occasion for national shame, while the president of the country’s National Association of Archaeologists called the collapse "an irreparable wound to the world's most important archaeological site".

More than two years ago, the Italian government declared a state of emergency over the condition of the site. In many ways, it had been an archaeologist’s dream as the pumice and ash from the volcano preserved much of the town in miraculous detail.

*Want to know what are the worst disasters ever to overtake humanity and the worst things ever to happen to London? See me on youtube:-



Monday 1 November 2010

Volcanoes, eruptions and art

Visited a fascinating exhibition at Compton Verney Museum, near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, examining the way in which artists have portrayed volcanic eruptions. Vesuvius figures prominently, with a number of imaginative recreations of its devastation of Pompeii in AD79.

The 19th century British artist John Martin, some of whose wonderfully demented pictures of the Last Judgment are exhibited in the Tate Britain, has a suitably fiery painting included. While Andy Warhol has a typically Warholesque picture of Vesuvius going up in smoke in lurid primary colours.

Also featured are a series of paintings by another 19th century British artist, William Ascroft, who painted sketches of the psychedelic sunsets that we experienced in our skies after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, across the world in Indonesia. Volcanic eruptions made perfect subjects for perhaps the greatest of all British painters, J M W Turner, but like a number of artists represented in the show, he never saw one, and relied instead on written accounts and other people’s pictures.

Unfortunately, the exhibition is now over. I caught it on its last day.

*Latest about me on the internet:-



Thursday 28 October 2010

Indonesia - land of tsunamis and volcanoes

Indonesia has been living up to its reputation as the most seismically active country on earth. At least 300 people have been killed on the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra by a tsunami, which has washed away at least 13 villages.

After the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, that killed 94,000 people on Sumatra, a new early warning system was installed, but Indonesian officials say two buoys off the Mentawai Islands that formed part of it had been vandalised and were out of service. Even if the system had been functioning properly, though, warnings may still have reached local people too late.

Meanwhile, in central Java, 32 people have been killed by the eruption of the volcano, Mount Merapi. It is regarded as Indonesia’s most active, but the area around is heavily populated, and tens of thousands of people are now in temporary shelters.

Indonesia has seen many major eruptions – the most famous being Krakatoa in 1883, which killed around 36,000 people, though much more powerful was Tambora in 1815, which was responsible for perhaps 80,000 deaths in Indonesia, and thousands more around the world because of the volcanic winter the eruption caused. For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

*Latest about my books on the internet:- http://hexham.myvillage.com/article/hexhams-disastrous-history

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Iraq - justice for war criminals

While accusations swirl around that the USA turned a blind eye to torture by its Iraqi allies, Saddam Hussein’s former foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, has been sentenced to death by the Iraqi Supreme Court for persecuting Shia Muslim religious parties.

The website Wikileaks has published 400,000 US military logs, which are alleged to demonstrate that Iraqi security forces assaulted detainees with acid and electric drills, beat, mutilated, and summary executed them, and that coalition forces handed prisoners back to them even when there were signs that they had been mistreated.

Tariq Aziz, who spoke good English, was often the front man for Saddam’s regime on Western television. He had already been given prison sentences for his role in the execution of 42 merchants for profiteering and in driving Kurds from their homes.

Aziz, now 74, is reportedly ill after suffering a stroke. He may appeal against the sentence. Two other Saddam aides in the case were also sentenced to death.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Black Thursday + 81

This day…..81 years ago was dubbed “Black Thursday” – generally regarded as the start of the Great Crash of 1929. During the 1920’s, US share prices had gone mad, as investors piled in – many of them buying shares for just a few dollars down and borrowing the rest of the price.

It was all fine so long as stocks kept climbing, but in September 1929, they began to stall. Thursday, 24 October was the first real day of panic, with a record 12.9 million shares traded. As the market began to fall, banks and investment companies piled in, buying huge blocks of shares to try to hold the line.

But even they did not have the money to stave off the inevitable. October 28, “Black Monday”, saw the market fall by 12%, and it was followed by a similar fall on “Black Tuesday.” Politicians fell over each other in the rush to proclaim that there was no problem, but this was actually the beginning of the Great Depression, which overhung the world’s economy for a decade, and blighted millions of lives.

Last week, the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, warned that Britain faces a grim decade was we try to recover from the banking crisis.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Haiti - cholera strikes

Back in January, there were fears that the devastating Haiti earthquake might be followed by epidemics, particularly of cholera. Nine months later, the disease has finally arrived.

So far there have been more than 2,600 cases, and nearly 200 people have died. The areas affected are about 60 miles from the heavily populated capital, Port-au-Prince, where tens of thousands of people are still living in crowded tents with poor sanitation and little access to clean drinking water, though there are suspected cases in a suburb of the capital.

Officials say the victims were infected through drinking contaminated river water. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and for a time people were being treated in car parks. The World Health Organisation says this is the first time cholera has struck Haiti in a century.

See also my blogs of Jan 31, 2009 and Jan 14, 15, 16, 19, 22, 23 and 24; July 12 and Aug 26, 2010. The new paperback edition of A Disastrous History of the World also contains a section on the earthquake.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Malaria - is it even worse than we thought?

A new report, produced by the US National Institutes of Health among others, claims there are perhaps 13 times more deaths from malaria in India than official figures suggest. In rural India, well over 1 million people a year die from infectious diseases, where acute fever is the main symptom, but beyond that the condition often goes undiagnosed.

By interviewing a sample of bereaved families, the researchers came to the conclusion that there are up to 205,000 malaria deaths a year in India, compared to the World Health Organisation’s figure of 10-21,000. The WHO does not accept this conclusion, but agrees there might be limitations in its own calculations.

Across the world, malaria is thought to kill more than 1 million people a year, though, if the researchers are right about India, this may be a serious underestimate. The number of cases has risen over the last 30 years, partly through mosquitoes becoming resistant to drugs and insecticides. (See also my blogs of 11 April, 30 May, 24 Sept, 2009.)

*Out next month in paperback! A Disastrous History of the World. http://www.littlebrown.co.uk/Title/9780749909796

Monday 18 October 2010

Mumbai appeal

The only surviving gunman from the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai has begun his appeal against the death sentence. 23 year old Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, a Pakistani national, was one of ten assailants who caused the deaths of more than 170 people.

Qasab and an accomplice carried out the attack on the city’s main railway station, killing 52 people. In May, he was found guilty of mass murder and waging war against India.

For security reasons, the convicted man is appearing via video link from his prison. Reporters in the courtroom say he smiled frequently as he looked into the camera. The hearing is expected to last three months.

(See also my blogs of July 23 and Nov 26, 2009.)

Saturday 16 October 2010

Mining accidents - now the bad news

Amid the euphoria over the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, a reminder of how dangerous mining can be – especially in China. An explosion at a coal mine at Yuzhou in Henan province has killed 20 and trapped another 17 underground.

Official reports say that 239 miners got to the surface safely, and that attempts are being made to reach the missing men. China’s mining industry is the most dangerous in the world, with more than 2,600 killed in accidents last year.

The government has tried to improve standards, closing down more than 1,500 illegal pits this year. It also brought in new regulations saying that mine managers have to go and work underground with their men. This tougher approach has helped to reduce the number of deaths from nearly 7,000 a year in 2002, but many miners are poorly trained migrant workers, and rules are often broken.

(See also my blog of Nov 23, 2009.)

*The Glasgow and Leicester edition of myvillage.com have kindly put up articles about my books.



Friday 15 October 2010

Chile - disaster averted

Just back from Turkey in time for the wonderful news of the rescue of all 33 of the trapped Chilean miners, after 69 days underground. There are some dental and eye problems and one case of pneumonia, but overall they seem in remarkably good shape.

When it was first discovered they were still alive after 17 days, it was thought that it might take until Christmas to get them out. The dramatic reduction in the time needed appears to be thanks to the drafting in of a drill normally used in the oil industry.

Two other drills, which each start with a small, pilot hole before widening the shaft, were also used, but the Schramm T-130 starts with a wide hole, and soon outpaced the other two. Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, has promised “very radical” improvements to health and safety regulations in mining and other industries.

For other stories of people trapped for long periods underground, see my blog of August 24.

*Latest articles on London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the Banking Crisis – Fire News (Aug/Sept issue) and H&F News (Hammersmith & Fulham) Sept 21 edition.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

North Korean disasters

In hyper-secretive North Korea, an extremely rare conference of its ruling “Workers’ Party” is expected to pave the way for 20-something Kim Jong-un to be confirmed as successor to his father, Kim Jong-il as the country’s third hereditary Communist dictator.

Meanwhile, the few fortunate enough to have escaped their regime tell stories of people starving in the streets as the economy performs even more disastrously than usual. Famine is nothing new in North Korea. In 1998, a visiting research team from the US Congress estimated that at least 900,000, and possibly as many as 2.4 million, had died of hunger over the previous 3 years.

The following year, overseas aid reduced the number of deaths, but in 2000, there were still reports of famine in most parts of the country outside the capital Pyongyang, and it was estimated that 10 million people were undernourished.

Earlier this month, North Korea was hit by Typhoon Kompasu, which, according to the official state media, destroyed more than 8,300 homes and 230 public buildings, as well as damaging roads, railways and power lines. “Several dozen” people were killed.

Monday 20 September 2010

Air India + 25 years - a conviction

More than 25 years after the deadliest ever terrorist attack on a single aircraft, a Canadian Sikh who helped make the bomb has been convicted of perjury. On June 23, 1985, an Air India Jumbo jet flying from Montreal to London exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board.

In 2003, Inderjit Singh Reyat, who had already been gaoled for his role in another bombing at Tokyo’s Narita airport, was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter in connection with the Air India attack. It was widely believed that he had been given a light sentence in return for promising to testify against two other suspects.

At their trial in 2005, though, he said he could not remember anything about them, and they were acquitted. The bombings were believed to be in retaliation for the storming of the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, by Indian troops in 1984. Reyat will be sentenced at a later date.

The Canadian security services were heavily criticised for a "cascading series of errors" that led up to the bombing. It was claimed that warnings were ignored, unauthorised people were allowed to wander freely on the aircraft, and that a sniffer dog had arrived too late to search it. For more on the attack, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday 18 September 2010

AIDS - some progress in Africa

More than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa – the world’s worst affected region – have seen a reduction of over 25% in new cases of HIV infection. The United Nations says it is because of greater awareness and wider use of condoms. On the other hand, says the UN, cases are on the increase in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and among gay men in developed countries.

Anti-AIDS drugs are having an increasing impact, with more than five million people now taking them – a 12-fold increase over the last six years. This has meant there were 200,000 fewer deaths in 2008 than in 2004.

Worldwide, though, there are still 7,400 new cases every day – with 40% of them among young people aged 15 to 24. Of every five people newly infected, only two get treatment. Tuberculosis remains one of the main causes of death among people infected with HIV, even though it is preventable and curable. Over half a million died this way in 2008.

The UN is calling for another £6 billion to be invested in the worldwide fight against the disease. (See also my blogs of Feb 18 and Sept 4, 2009.)

Thursday 16 September 2010

Another Khmer Rouge trial

Less than two months after the conviction of former Khmer Rouge prison boss Comrade Duch (see my blog of July 26), another four of its leaders have been indicted for genocide and torture in Cambodia in the 1970’s.

Duch was the first person convicted by the UN-backed war crimes court. Now Nuon Chea, deputy to the notorious KR leader Pol Pot, former head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith will come before it. All of them deny the charges.

Justice has been a long time coming. The events to which the charges relate took place more than 30 years ago. The defendants have all been held since 2007, and the trial is not expected to start before the middle of next year. All of them are now elderly, and Ieng Sary is in poor health.

The Cambodian genocide was one of the most vicious in history, accounting for perhaps one in four of the country’s people. Apart from those who were murdered – “bourgeois” elements such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and their families - many others died from hunger or overwork, as Pol Pot’s Maoist fanatics emptied the cities and drove people out into the countryside.

(See also my blogs of Jan 7, March 4, June 29 and Nov 22, 2009.)

Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Great Fire of Moscow

On this day…..198 years ago, Napoleon entered Moscow. It was virtually deserted, and the French army was unnerved by the eerie silence. In some parts of the city, fires were burning.

The next day, a strong wind began whipping up the flames, setting ablaze the stores on Red Square and soon burning debris had spread the fire to the Kremlin where the emperor had set up his headquarters. French soldiers interrupted their looting to help him out of the city.

By the following day, the whole of Moscow was ablaze, and many of the French army decided to follow their leader and get the hell out. Eventually rain put the flames out, but not before three-quarters of the city had gone up in smoke. An estimated 2,000 wounded Russians and up to 20,000 wounded French soldiers perished, plus an unknown number of Russian civilians.

Who started the fire? The Russians blamed the French, and the French blamed the Russians. Certainly the Russians had burned down depots holding ammunition, food and forage to deny them to the invaders. On the other hand, the French had been plundering and fires they started may have got out of control. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday 10 September 2010

"War on drugs" spills over

Mexico’s “war on drugs” (see my blogs of June 10 and Aug 18) is spilling over. Police in Honduras say that street gangs linked to Mexican drug cartels were responsible for the murder of 18 men in a shoe factory in San Pedro Sula.

A group of gunmen armed with assault rifles burst in and started shooting. It is believed to be part of a territorial dispute between rival groups of drug traffickers. The region where the attack happened is one where gangs refine cocaine before moving it north towards Mexico and the USA.

The drugs gangs have tens of thousands of members in Central America. Neighbouring El Salvador has been severely disrupted for three days by a strike in protest at a new law making gang membership illegal.

Many businesses closed after gangs circulated leaflets saying they would have to “face the consequences” if they stayed open. The law was introduced after gang members set fire to a bus, killing 17 people.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Genocide begets genocide?

The Rwandan government’s threat to withdraw its 3,400 personnel serving with the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur (see my blog of Sept 3) seems to have had the desired effect. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon quickly jetted into the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to tell President Paul Kagame that he was “disappointed” about the leaking of a UN report accusing Rwandan forces of murdering tens of thousands of Hutus in the Congo.

A team from the UN’s office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights has catalogued more than 600 incidents, and it claims that President Kagame’s Hutu forces were involved in more than 100 of them.

In 1996, for example, Rwandan troops are said to have gone to the Chimanga refugee camp. They told the refugees they would be going back home. Then, on an apparently pre-arranged signal, they opened fire, killing up to 800.

Back in 1994, it was President Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front that put an end to the mass murder of Tutsis by extremist Hutus in Rwanda. Many of the perpetrators fled to the Congo, where they hid among a million other Hutus who had fled fearing for their lives under the new regime. It was when the genocide organisers started re-grouping that President Kagame ordered the invasion.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Pakistan still flooding

Pakistan’s monsoon flood ordeal is far from over. Hundreds of thousands more people have had to flee their homes after fresh flooding in the southern Sindh province, which has had 19 of its 23 districts inundated.

Aid agencies say that at least 8 million people have been driven from their homes, and 1,600 have died. More than 45 major bridges and thousands of miles of roads have been destroyed or badly damaged.

Agriculture has also been severely hit. The Minister for Food says about a fifth of Pakistan’s crop growing areas have been flooded. More than a million farm animals have been drowned, farm equipment and irrigation infrastructure has been damaged, and there are worries that fields will be too waterlogged for farmers to sow winter wheat.

The total damage suffered by the country is put at up to £26bn. With Russian wheat production also badly hit by a drought, there’s growing concern about world food supplies.

* My book London’s Disasters has been reviewed by the Londonist website. http://londonist.com/2010/09/book_review_london_disasters_by_joh.php

Saturday 4 September 2010

Pakistan - normal terrorism resumed

The monsoon floods have disrupted many things in Pakistan, but not, it seems, religious terrorism. A suicide bomb has just killed at least 50 people at a Shia Muslim rally in Quetta in the south-west of the country. Sunni Taliban militants say they carried out the attack.

It came just two days after another suicide bombing operation directed at a Shia procession in Lahore, which killed 31 people. Again the Taliban said they were responsible, and that the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Sunni leader last year.

In Pakistan, Sunni Muslims outnumber Shias by about four to one. A Shia leader has appealed for calm.

This is the same murderous sectarian feud that has claimed so many lives in Iraq. One of the worst outrages there came on November 23, 2006 when a series of bombs went off during a Shia religious festival in Sadr City, killing at least 215 people. Shias retaliated with a series of attacks on Sunni targets.

(See also my blogs of March 28 and Oct 28, 2009 and Jan 3 and Feb 6 , 2010.)

Friday 3 September 2010

Another African genocide?

The mainly-Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front is justly praised for ending the genocide in that country in 1994, after 800,000 people had been slaughtered by Hutu extremists in just 100 days – the fastest mass murder in history. The story is chronicled in the film Hotel Rwanda.

Now though, the Tutsis find themselves accused in a leaked United Nations report of genocide in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the genocidal Rwandan government was overthrown, more than two million Hutus are thought to have fled into the Congo, where some resumed attacks on Tutsis.

The Rwandan government then began backing Tutsi militias, who eventually overthrew the regime in Kinshasa. Other countries got involved – Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola – with the suspicion that they were trying to get their hands on a share of the Congo’s immense mineral wealth, and at least 5 million people died.

The leaked report accuses the Rwandans of killing tens of thousands of Hutu men, women and children. Rwanda has dismissed the findings as “insane”, and threatened to pull out of UN peace-keeping missions, which could be quite a blow for the organisation. The current commander of the joint UN-African Union mission in Darfur is a Rwandan.

(See also A Disastrous History of the World and my blogs of Jan 23, March 23, Sept 23, Oct 30, Dec 15, 2009 and Feb 25, 2010)

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Mao's great famine

A new book on the great Chinese famine of 1958-62 confirms the figure I use in A Disastrous History of the World – that chairman Mao was responsible for at least 50 million deaths. In Mao’s Great Famine, Prof Frank Dikotter concludes that the famine itself killed at least 45 million, and on top of that, of course, there was the Cultural Revolution, the reign of terror that established Communist rule in the first place etc.

Prof Dikotter battled tenaciously for access to Chinese archives, and exposes how the party ruthlessly used food as a weapon, punishing with starvation anyone who stood in its way. He says that the state terror was imposed so efficiently that no photographs are known to exist of the famine.

The disaster had its origins in two of Mao’s doctrines – the forced collectivisation of agriculture, even though this had been clearly shown to reduce food production, and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ – designed to catapult China into the big league of industrial nations.

It involved getting peasants to abandon the land to construct gerry-built dams (which often collapsed with catastrophic results) or make useless steel by melting down agricultural implements in backyard furnaces. While his people starved, Mao cut food imports and doubled exports – handing out free gain to North Korea, Vietnam and Albania. (See also my blogs of 6 Jan and 27 March 2009.)

Thursday 26 August 2010

Rain and cholera

More trouble being caused by heavy rains. Now they’re being blamed for a cholera outbreak that has hit a third of Nigeria’s 36 provinces. Doctors say the whole country is now threatened. So far, there have been more than 6,000 cases and more than 350 people have died.

The outbreak has also killed 200 people in neighbouring Cameroon, and in Pakistan doctors are also seeing cases in the wake of the monsoon floods. In the 19th Century, cholera was driven out of most of the industrialised world by improved hygiene, living conditions and public health measures.

The disease may have struck India as early as the 4th century BC, but the first pandemic is reckoned to have begun in 1817 at Jessore and then spread through the rest of India before attacking much of Asia as well as Russia and East Africa.

The UK was struck for the first time during the second pandemic, which started in Russia. It reached every corner of Britain and killed an estimated 60,000 people. Hungary and Russia lost perhaps 200,000 each. It managed to cross the Atlantic, causing many deaths in Canada, the USA, Mexico and Cuba. (See also my blogs of Jan 31 and July 20.)

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Mining disaster survivors

After the scenes of wild celebration in Chile when it was revealed that 33 men trapped on August 5th by a tunnel collapse at the San Jose copper and gold mine are still alive, comes the sober realisation that it may take four more months to free them.

They do have access to some water, but they have been living on two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk and a biscuit every 48 hours. They are in a shelter, said to be about the size of a one-bedroom flat, though some argue they have about a mile of space to move around in.

There have been other extraordinary escapes after mining accidents. Europe’s worst was at Courrieres in northern France in 1906, when nearly 1,100 were killed. Twenty days after the explosion, to general astonishment, 13 survivors emerged from the pit. They had lost all sense of time, and believed they had been trapped for only four or five days.

After China’s Tangshan earthquake of 1976, some coalminers survived for 15 days below ground without food or clean water. They too believed they had been trapped for only a few days, but their bodies told the true story. They had each lost up to three stones. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 23 August 2010

Pakistan floods - an ungenerous response?

Three weeks after the monsoon floods were unleashed on Pakistan, Louis-Georges Arsenault, director of emergency services for UN agency UNICEF, has blasted the international response as “extraordinarily” inadequate.

M Arsenault says this is the biggest humanitarian crisis “in decades.” The UN had called for around £300m in emergency aid, and says it has raised nearly 70% of this, but the Pakistan government says the cost of rebuilding could be as high as £10bn, and up to 17m people have been hit by the floods.

So if the response has been rather lukewarm, what are the reasons? One offered is that the death toll has been relatively small - “only” about 1,600 compared with around ¼ million in the Haiti earthquake and the Boxing Day tsunami, and that the flood has been a more slowly developing and less dramatic disaster

Then there are said to be worries about corruption, a feeling that oil-rich Muslim countries have failed to do enough, the perception that Pakistan has been an exporter of terrorism, and the global financial crisis. Against that, the people of the UK have stumped up £30m out of their own pockets, and India, which has often believed itself a victim of Pakistani-inspired terrorism, has provided around £3m.

Friday 20 August 2010

Financial disasters 3 - the banking crisis

Earlier this month, the BBC’s business correspondent, Robert Peston, revealed that the new Basel rules designed to prevent a repeat of the banking crisis have been watered down into ineffectiveness. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/robertpeston/2010/08/basel_allows_banks_to_play_the.html.

That’s a shame. In London’s Disasters, I tell the story of the crisis, and of how the bail-out of Britain’s banks had cost £850 billion by December 2009. That’s about £14,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

I mentioned in my blog of Aug 13th that those responsible for the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century had their estates confiscated. (They got off lightly. One MP wanted them to be tied up in sacks and thrown into the Thames.)

No such problems for those responsible for the banking crisis. We all know the story of Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, and of how in February 2010, RBS announced that even though it had lost £3.6 billion in 2009, it wanted to pay out £1.3 billion in bonuses. (See also my blog of Jan 20, Feb 10 13, 16, 18, 2009.)

*More coverage of the book from the Wandsworth Guardian:-http://www.yourlocalguardian.co.uk/news/local/wandsworthnews/8331276.Wandsworth_s_past_disasters_revealed/

and Docklands 24 http://www.docklands24.co.uk/content/docklands/news/story.aspx?brand=Docklands&category=news&tBrand=docklands&tCategory=znews&itemid=WeED17%20Aug%202010%2015%3A35%3A37%3A037

Thursday 19 August 2010

Goodbye Iraq - Part 94

Today the last US combat brigade left Iraq. Now the only Americans left are a few “advisers” – all right, 50,000 of them if you want to be pedantic. What a disaster they and the British Labour government that so foolishly helped them are leaving behind.

Earlier this week, a suicide bomb outside an Iraqi army recruiting centre in Baghdad killed at least 59 people. July was the most violent month for two years, though the Americans contest the figure of more than 530 killed. This denial represents progress of a kind. For a long time the American and British authorities were profoundly uninterested in how many Iraqi civilians were killed. This means we have had to rely on unofficial estimates, like the one from Iraq Body Count which reckons the figure is around 100,000.

Five months after the Iraqi elections, there is still no government. An ethnically and religiously divided country has patently dissolved into enemy factions, with the promise of more death and destruction.

Labour constantly told us that invading Iraq would make Britain more secure. Well, before we launched our attack, al-Qaeda were a nonentity there – you see they were Saddam Hussein’s enemy too. Now they are a power, and, many fear, a growing one. And still none of the conspirators who conjured up this disastrous war has said “sorry”. (Use the search button to find many earlier Iraq blogs.)

Wednesday 18 August 2010

The War on Drugs continued

A staggering 28,000 people have been killed in the last four years in Mexico's "war on drugs." In one of the most bizarre episodes, last month a group of prisoners in Durango was apparently released from gaol for a night so they could murder 18 guests at a party.

Now President Calderon has called for a debate on whether drugs should be legalised. Meanwhile, in California, people will vote in a referendum in November on whether to legalise and tax marijuana.

In the UK, Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, has also called for drugs to be decriminalised, on the grounds that it would improve health and reduce crime. Depressingly, the government reflected for about three seconds, before dismissing the idea on the grounds that "we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good."

It would be lovely if nobody took drugs, just as it would be lovely if nobody smoked, but millions of people do, and intelligent policy making has to start from that point. There is absolutely no evidence that the government's present policy is achieving its objectives and it is certainly generating a huge violent criminal industry. It's claimed that use of drugs in Portugal has actually fallen since they were decriminalised in 2001.

(See also my blogs of June 10 and 12.)

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Russian droughts and Pakistani floods - the connection

I have already blogged about the Pakistan monsoon floods (Aug 11) which have killed at least 2,000 and driven perhaps 20 million from their homes, and Russia’s worst known heatwave (July 15) which has killed more than 50 people in wildfires, and has doubled the death rate in Moscow through soaring temperatures and acid smog.

So what is the connection? Air movements called Rossby waves are supposed to move through the upper atmosphere, but sometimes they get stuck. That has apparently happened this year, and when they do they trap the weather beneath them.

This has brought persistent high pressure over Russia, and troughs over Pakistan . Once you get this gridlock, the weather tends to be self-reinforcing. So as Russia warms up, the ground gets hotter and drier. Grass, brush and forest starts to catch fire, and the soot that’s produced heats the air even more.

Disturbingly, some scientists say that they are exactly the kind of trends you would expect to see with global warming, and that they will get worse. There’s more detail in an interesting article in the British magazine The Economist. http://www.economist.com/

Monday 16 August 2010

Financial disasters 2 - stock market crashes

The worst two Stock Market crashes in the UK both happened within the last 40 years. From 1972 to 1974, the market lost 70% of its value. Investor confidence was undermined by a spate of bad news, particularly the oil embargo and four-fold price increase that followed Israel’s Yom Kippur War with Egypt.

The market did not recover the ground it had lost in real terms until May 1987. Then five months later, it crashed again. On Friday, 16 October, 1987 hardly anyone was at work in London’s City financial district because of the disruption caused by the Great Storm, the worst in Britain for more than 280 years.

While they were away, prices in New York had been falling steeply. The reasons are not altogether clear - a drop in the price of the dollar, poor trade figures, just that headless chicken panic that seems to grip markets every so often? Anyway, by the time London opened on Monday, 19 October, there was huge pent-up demand to sell. £50 billion was wiped off share prices, and the date went down in history as ‘Black Monday’.

The next day’s collapse was even more precipitous, and by November 9, the index had fallen 34%. The main blame was put on ‘programme trading’ which meant that computers automatically sold shares when they dropped to a certain level, though others thought Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ deregulation had also played its part.

Friday 13 August 2010

Financial disasters - The South Sea Bubble

In my books, I have usually restricted myself to writing about disasters in which human beings are killed or injured, but for London’s Disasters I have broken new ground by devoting a section to financial disasters.

It begins with the story of the South Sea bubble, which is quite a story. In 1720, a British company whose core activity was transporting slaves from Africa to Spain’s South American colonies, was chosen by the government to get down the National Debt by inducing people to swap the government debt they held for shares in the company.

A judicious campaign of bribery and misinformation drove the share price up to dizzying heights, and some made fortunes. Then when, as it tends to, reality set in, the stock fell just as dramatically and other people were ruined.

Perhaps most striking to us today is the way the government did try to hold those responsible to account – confiscating their wealth, and using it to compensate the losers. It’s still a gripping and fascinating tale, full of colourful characters like the secretary of the Sword Blade Company, Sir John Blunt (really) and King George I's two anatomically contrasting mistresses – the” hop-pole” and the “Elephant and Castle”.

*The love Clapham website has an item on London's Disasters:-


Thursday 12 August 2010

China's landslide

Heavy rain is continuing to disrupt rescue efforts after Sunday’s landslide in north-west China. Mudslides have blocked a road and river used for bringing in supplies, while emergency shelters have been flooded, and more downpours are forecast.

At least 1,117 people have been killed, and another 600 are still missing. Zhouqu county, where the disaster has happened, has suffered ten major landslides over the last two centuries, but there are complaints that the authorities’ cavalier attitude to the environment in recent times has made things worse.

More than 120,000 hectares of forest were felled between 1952 and 1990, and mining and the building of dams in the steep valleys is said to have made things worse. A report in 2006 by the University of Lanzhou – the provincial capital - had drawn attention to the dangers.

The deadliest landslide in history was probably the one that devastated Venezuela’s coastal region in December 1999. Thirty-six inches of rain fell in just a few days, and flash floods and mudslides are reckoned to have killed up to 30,000 people. (See also my blogs of 17 April, 12 and 19 November, 2009.)

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Monsoon floods

The death toll in the Pakistan monsoon floods is now put at about 1,600. With perhaps 14 million people driven from their homes, and crops and animals being wiped out, it is rightly being seen as a major catastrophe.

However, this is not yet the deadliest monsoon flood in history. There have been at least ten over the last 40 years that have claimed more lives. The worst hit countries have been India and Bangladesh.

A monsoon flood in Bangladesh in 1974 is said to have killed nearly 29,000, though some of these may have perished in the famine that followed. It happened just two years after the country had won independence and less than four years after the deadliest cyclone in history had killed perhaps half a million of its people.

*The Croydon Guardian has written a piece on London’s Disasters. http://www.croydonguardian.co.uk/news/8313593.Author_masters_London_s_disasters/

Sunday 1 August 2010

London's Disasters - my new book

Sorry about the lack of blogs over the past few days. I’ve been working on publicising my new book – London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the banking crisis, published by the History Press. http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/products/Londons-Disasters-from-Boudicca-to-the-Banking-Crisis.aspx. It is an update and expansion of my Disastrous History of London which was first published seven years ago as Capital Disasters.

I was interviewed this morning on Time 107.5, the local radio station for Havering, Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge http://1075.timefm.com/ about the sinking of the Princess Alice on September 3, 1878 on the Thames close to the Barking Creek sewage treatment works.

About 640 people drowned after the pleasure steamer collided with a collier on a lovely evening. It is perhaps not surprising that this was the worst shipwreck in London’s history. When you think of the fierce storms that strike our coasts, and the treacherous rocks around them, it is more surprising when you realise this was one of the worst shipwrecks in British history.

One of the consequences of the disaster was a tightening up of the rules of navigation on the Thames. Confusion over how vessels should pass each other was one of the factors that caused the accident. For the full, dramatic story, see London’s Disasters.