Saturday 21 December 2013

London theatre disasters

Last Friday (the thirteenth, of December) I was watching a play at the Apollo Theatre in London. Six days later, the ceiling fell in on the dress circle, where I had been sitting, injuring 76 people.

Still, that was not nearly as bad as some of the earlier disasters that struck the capital's theatres. The first Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was burned down in 1672. The second was declared unsafe and closed, while the third lasted just 15 years before it too caught fire, and was razed to the ground in 1809.

In the 17 years from 1863, there were 14 major fires in London theatres, and the head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, produced a report lambasting the inadequacy of their safety precautions.

Shaw was a great friend of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and would tip the prince off if there was a particularly 'good' fire, so he could tag along for a bit of amateur firefighting. One blaze at the Alhambra in Leicester Square almost cost the future king his life when a wall collapsed, narrowly missing him.

For more, see London's Disasters.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Joseph Stalin - unhappy birthday

On this day........134 years ago, Joseph Stalin was born. The Russian Communist dictator went on to be one of the greatest mass murderers in history, being responsible for the deaths of perhaps 30 million people.

In 1928, he embarked on a forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture, but millions of peasants would have nothing to do with it, often slaughtering their animals rather than hand them over to the state. Hundreds of thousands of villagers died as they were marched off to Siberia.

Even when famine swept through the Ukraine in 1932, the government carried on seizing grain from farmers. How many died? ‘No one was counting’, shrugged Khrushchev, then one of Stalin’s aides. An official estimate in 1990 put the number at four million, but many believe it was far more.

Then came the purges - intellectuals, artists, engineers, army officers, police chiefs, communist officials, people who had made an unwise comment.  Millions were sent to the gulags, where the commandants were given a quota of inmates - 28% - who had to be shot or otherwise punished for anti-state agitation.

For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Plague hits Madagascar

Plague has struck Madagascar again. More than 40 people in five districts have been killed by the bubonic version, spread by rats’ fleas, while two have died from the even more lethal pneumonic type, which is spread from person to person and can kill in 24 hours.

Last year, the island suffered more deaths from the disease than any other country – 60. There has been a programme to exterminate rats and fleas in Madagascar’s prisons, but the Red Cross warned in October that there was danger of an epidemic, following a fall in living standards since a coup in 2009.

Health officials have gone to the areas affected to investigate, but the local WHO office says medicines are in short supply.

Most, though not all, scientists believe bubonic and pneumonic plague caused the world’s deadliest epidemic – the Black Death, which killed perhaps a third of Europe’s population and countless more in Asia from about 1334 to 1351. 

Saturday 14 December 2013

Bangladesh war crimes execution

The execution that attracted most attention over the last few days was the killing – apparently by machine gun fire – of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, but there was another of great significance in Bangladesh.

An Islamist leader, Abdul Kader Mullah, was hanged after being found guilty of crimes during Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence in 1971, which cost the lives of up to 3 million people. He was the first person to be executed following conviction by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal.

At his trial, he was described by prosecutors as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, a suburb of the capital, Dhaka, where he is alleged to have been involved in the massacre of unarmed civilians and of intellectuals who supported independence from Pakistan. Mullah always denied the charges, and human rights groups have expressed concern about the court’s fairness.

Another 4 members of Mullah’s Jamaat-e-Islami party are also facing the death penalty. His execution has led to clashes in which at least 5 people have died.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Chile: the world's deadliest fire in a single building - 150th anniversary

On this day............150 years ago, the Chilean capital, Santiago, was the scene of perhaps the world's deadliest fire in a single building.  It happened in the church of La Campania on December 8, 1863 and up to 2,000 people perished.

The building was packed for a religious festival, and was 'hung from roof to floor with floating gauze and rich drapery'. There were also 'innumerable' paraffin lamps. A few, at the foot of a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, set fire to some fabric.

The flames spread through the building in no time and people rushed for the exits.  Women and girls fainted and were trampled to death, and soon the exits were so crammed with bodies that no one could get out.

Melting lead from the roof and burning oil from the lamps fell on the desperate congregation, and finally a huge bell came crashing down. At the time, the city had no organised fire brigade, but the disaster provided the necessary spur.  For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Disasters and politics

When the Maxima supermarket collapsed in the Latvian capital, Riga, last month, with the deaths of at least 54 people, (see my blog of Nov 22) it also brought down the government.  Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned after the president, Andris Berzins, described the disaster as ‘murder’.

Disasters often have important political consequences. The Bangladesh cyclone of 1970 was the deadliest in history, killing up to a million people. It was also the last straw in the fractious relationship between East and West Pakistan. The response of the government in the West was seen as grudging and inadequate, and the East began a war of independence from which it emerged as the new nation of Bangladesh.

In 2008, another cyclone, Nargis, killed perhaps 140,000 people in Myanmar. Again, the government was heavily criticised, for the slowness of the relief effort and its reluctance to accept foreign help. Many saw this as the beginning of the current transition to democracy.

Going further back into history, a devastating hailstorm  that flattened crops across much of France in 1788 played a crucial role in fomenting the Revolution that came the following year, as it bankrupted the government through loss of tax revenues, and sent food prices into the stratosphere.