For the last few years, when the holiday season has come around, I've looked back to previous centuries for the newsworthy events of the year. Today, please join me on a whistle stop tour through 1811 ....
If you thought that 2011 was an interesting year to live through, you should try 1811!
The Great Comet
The Great Comet draws the eyes of many to the night sky, including artist and poet William Blake who incorporates it into one of his most famous paintings, "The Ghost of a Flea" (which is also one of his smallest at less than 9x7 inches). The comet would be sufficiently memorable that Tolstoy, writing War and Peace almost 60 years later, has the character of Pierre observe this "enormous and brilliant comet [...] which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world."
Good Year for Wine
1811 was also an exceptional year for wine, a fact that winemakers of the time (and perhaps even today) would say is not coincidental as some of the strongest vintages of the last two centuries have been in years with visible comets. But it is a bad year for the 41-year-old Beethoven who, having lost his patron and most of his hearing, enters a period of physical illness and low output. Meanwhile, in Germany, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué begins the peak period of his popularity with the publication of Undine - the much translated and retold story of a water spirit who marries a knight in order to gain a soul, which is considered one of the earliest German romances.
Austen and Shelley
Jane Austen's first book, Sense and Sensibility, is published. She will see three more books published before her untimely death six years later at the age of 42. Percy Bysshe Shelley is in fine form, publishing a novel and a treatise on atheism. The latter results in him being expelled from Oxford. Married twice (having run away with both women when they were 16), fathering at least six children by three women, and burning through all his money, Shelley will drown eleven years later in dubious circumstances.
The Madness of King George, Luddites and War in Europe
War rages through much of Europe as Napoleon's empire reaches its apex. Britain achieves decisive victories at sea but the land war on the Portuguese frontier grinds to a stalemate. Back in Britain, George III is officially declared mad and his son, the future George IV, is named Prince Regent; while in the North of England English textile artisans, calling themselves Luddites, destroy mechanized looms in protest of the ever increasing industrialization and subsequent loss of jobs.
Africa and Asia
There's war in the south and north of Africa. In what will be South Africa, Xhosas clash with white settlers starting the 4th Cape Frontier War, part of one hundred years of fighting leading up to the eventual loss of all Xhosa land in 1879. In Egypt, a long running civil war is drawing to a close as Albanian Muhammad Ali, a commander in the Ottoman army, seizes power. Ali is considered the founder of modern Egypt for his sweeping military, economic, and cultural reforms.
In China, a second year of famine wipes out millions (probably more than 20 million in two years). In Afghanistan, years of in-fighting between the brothers of the ruling house leads to the deterioration of the empire established sixty years earlier, which covered present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Iran and Northern India. Sikh rebels take advantage of the empire's weakness to wrestle back control over much of what is now Pakistan including the strategically important Khyber Pass.
Independence for South America; Uprisings Quashed in North America
Across the Pacific things are far from calm. Revolutionaries in Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela all declare independence; while Argentine patriotic forces are one year in to an eight year battle for independence. In Chile, Jose Miguel Carrera, considered the founding father of Chile, is sworn in as President, but intermittent warfare will continue until 1817. In North America, Charles Deslondes leads a slave uprising in what will be Louisiana, leading to the death of two white men and the execution of 95 slaves; and US forces defeat a number of Native American tribes at The Battle of Tippecanoe in the future Indiana.
Where people aren't fighting, they're building and discovering. In New York, city bigwigs agree on the original plan for Manhattan (between 14th and 155th street - Central Park, not part of the original plan, will be added in 1853); and the first steam-powered ferry opens between New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey. A little farther north, the finishing touches are being put to the House wing of the United States Capitol. Back in the old country John Nash is preparing his plans for Regent Street and Regents Park in London.
Science & Exploration
Meanwhile, in what is now Northern Italy, Amadeo Carlo Avogadro publishes a paper on molecular theory showing the relationship between the masses of gases and their molecular weights. Although not appreciated in his life time, today he is considered a founder of the atomic-molecular theory (whatever that is!)
Farther south, archaeologists are busily excavating at Pompeii and the Colosseum in Rome. Elsewhere, marsupials get their own classification as a subclass of mammals, iodine is discovered, and Charles Bell publishes a revolutionary essay, An Idea of a New Anatomy of the Brain, distinguishing for the first time between sensory and motor nerves - a foundation of clinical neurology.
At the same time, far away from the big city lights in the small English coastal village of Lyme Regis, twelve-year-old Mary Anning finds a fossilized skeleton, which is quickly sold for £23, providing welcome income for the family who had been left destitute after the death of Mary's father the year before. This would be the start of a profitable, albeit dangerous, family business. The skeleton was soon on display in London where it caused considerable consternation among people, most of whom still believed in the Biblical account of creation.
And in Germany, after a long expedition over glaciers and high passes, four men achieve the first successful ascent of Jungfrau, the third highest mountain in the Bernese Alps. As they stand on the summit, lords of all they survey, I doubt any of them could have imagined that, just one hundred years later, railway passengers would be able to admire much the same view when the highest railway station in Europe opened at Jungfraujoch. This would have been a feat particularly hard to foresee considering that the first commercial steam powered train journey would not take place until the following year, and it would be almost 20 years before the first railway opened between two cities!
Images top to bottom:
"The Ghost of a Flea" by William Blake
Sense and Sensibility original jacket
Percy Bysshe Shelley
A modern redrawing of the 1807 plan for Manhattan, which was adopted in 1811