This Week in History

A very special week in history, since we start with…

The 100th Post
Writing the landmark post in my office

August 29, 2011 – I make my 100th post at The Pietist Schoolman

Namely, this one. How to properly assess the historical significance of this moment as compared to the other landmarks we’ll be commemorating today? Well, only time will tell, but I think we can all make a pretty good guess right now.

August 30, 1799 – The entire Dutch fleet surrenders to the British near Wieringen

Now, this might seem like a minor event: a glory-less episode (the Dutch surrendered without a shot because several crews were mutinying) in the history of a small nation (then ruled by a government set up by the French revolutionaries: the Batavian Republic) during a minor war (“of the Second Coalition”) that quickly faded in memory as the Napoleonic Age began.

But not too many decades before, Holland was one of the most powerful states in Europe. Like a smaller version of the 19th century British Empire, the Dutch Empire included far-flung colonies and trading posts (several dedicated to trade in human beings) protected by a modern navy. And like the British, the Dutch possessed enormous financial power, with Amsterdam being one of the central banking cities in the Western world (thanks in part to the reckless borrowing of the French kings). This non-battle in the English Channel in 1799 constituted one more step in the decline of Dutch power and the rise of Britain.

August 31, 1945 – Van Morrison and Yitzhak Perlman are born

The two men that make up our Odd Couple of the Week share another connection beyond their birthdate and accomplishments in different hemispheres of the world of music: both were born in outposts of the British Empire (Morrison in Northern Ireland, Perlman in British-administered Palestine) as it entered its final decay. Which would make a great theme if and when they collaborate on an album; royalties may be paid to Christopher Gehrz, c/o Bethel University.

September 1, 1894 – The Great Hinckley Fire

I’m going to resist the temptation to discuss two events in German military history (the Battle of Sedan in 1870 and the invasion of Poland in 1939) and instead turn to my own state’s past. Hinckley, Minnesota is about 75-80 miles due north of St. Paul. In the 1890s it had about 1500 inhabitants and was a center of northern Minnesota’s lumber industry. Logging in those days left a great deal of flammable debris, which served as kindling for a firestorm that lasted four hours, blackened 400 square miles, and wiped out Hinckley and five neighboring settlements. Between 400-800 people died.

Boston Corbett
Thomas P. "Boston" Corbett (1832-1894?)

That number may or may not have included one of the most peculiar celebrities in 19th century America: Thomas P. Corbett. Known as “Boston,” Corbett was an English emigrant who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, was captured and managed to survive imprisonment at Andersonville, and then entered the history books as the soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth two days after Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

Less well known is that Boston Corbett later went insane (not a long journey — before the Civil War he castrated himself to curb sexual temptation) and was committed to an asylum. Legend has it that he ended up living in Hinckley and died in the fire, though I’ve never seen any confirmation of this story beyond its appearance in the menu at Tobies, a pitstop for generations of Minnesotans needing gas and a caramel roll en route from the Twin Cities to the North Shore.

September 2, 1666 – The Great Fire of London

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), diarist and lover of wine and cheese

Let’s just go ahead and make conflagration the theme o’ the week, shall we? I don’t recall that any mentally disturbed, assassin-killing eunuchs died in this one—indeed, surprisingly few people perished, but it did rage for four days and consume the abodes of something like seven out of eight Londoners (plus St Paul’s Cathedral and other buildings). It’s one of the main subjects of one of the great sources of early modern history: the diary of Samuel Pepys. You can read his entry for 9/2/1666 here, and then click ahead for the remaining days of the fire.

My favorite line in the whole diary comes from his entry at the end of the third day of the fire. Pepys reports that he dug a hole in his garden and there buried some important documents; then “in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan [sic] cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.”

What would you save if London (bridges and all) was burning down, burning down? Sensitive papers? Check. Expensive bottles of wine? Check. Wedge of Italian cheese? Check.

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