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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Man of Mystery, the Pirate Jean Lafitte

By Rocky Wilson
Author of Sharene:
Death: A Prerequisite For Life

A Man of Mystery, the Pirate Jean Lafitte

Questions about the birth and death of the pirate Jean Lafitte may never know answers this side of heaven. Whether he was born in France, Spain, St. Dominique, or Haiti in about 1779--the best of guesses suggested by many historians--are just that: guesses.

Even the date and location of the pirate’s death are unknown; one theory saying he moved to the Yucatan Peninsula in 1821 and died of diseases there in 1826, and another saying he traveled extensively in Europe, lived in the Midwest states, and died in Akron, Ohio, in 1851.

What is known is that he had about forty New Orleans warehouses in the early 1800s, had from 3,000 to 5,000 followers who helped him plunder seafaring ships, and distributed smuggled goods and slaves to willing buyers.

Lafitte was known as a dashing, handsome ladies man who fluently spoke English, French, Italian, and Spanish, yet consciously told differing stories about his past to keep anyone from knowing where he and his two brothers came from, and what they planned to do next.

Louisiana Governor William Claiborne declared war on the privateer, even though Lafitte reportedly never attacked an American ship and was a strong U.S. ally during the War of 1812. Claiborne was mocked by Lafitte who walked the streets of New Orleans without fear, and even replaced reward signs for his capture with signs of his own offering three times the reward, or $1,500, to anyone bringing Governor Claiborne to his stronghold, the island of Barataria.

Interesting facts about Jean Lafitte include:
* Is thought to have migrated to Louisiana in about 1803, possibly from Santo Domingo

* 1807 owned 40 warehouses for distribution of hijacked supplies; slave pens; a hospital; residences; a fort with a cannon; and commanded up to 5,000 men

* 1812 after long search, Governor Claiborne captures Lafitte who’s working as ally on war effort, but soon Lafitte is out on bond

* 1814 British offer Lafitte money, land, pardon, captaincy in British army if he’ll fight against Americans; turns down offer, though Claiborne burns down his home

* After New Orleans warehouses are closed, opens new ones in Galveston, Texas

* No accurate count of how many ships were robbed by Lafitte and his men, though many were slave ships headed to Cuba

* At one point, Lafitte hires New Orleans district attorney Randolph Grymes to quit his public position and protect Lafitte from Governor Claiborne

* Those who knew Lafitte relay vastly different stories about the pirate’s stated past, indicating an intentional desire to maintain an aura of personal mystique that still baffles historians

Even today, from 150 to 180 years after his death, depending on who’s keeping score, there are major gaps in the life story of the pirate Jean Lafitte, whose playground was New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. Yet, historically speaking, the man who resented being labeled a “pirate” created a legacy that continues to grow.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The History of Congo Took Two Directions

By Rocky Wilson
Author of Sharene:
Death: A Prerequisite For Life

The History of Congo Took Two Directions

The history of Congo, in equatorial Africa, has taken two directions: the Republic of the Congo, once a French colony; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to its south, formerly under the control of Belgium.

The biggest difference between these two countries which separately became independent in 1960--although both are beset by poverty, high incidences of A.I.D.S. (well over four percent of total populations), and extremely youthful median age figures at about 16 years--is in the area of political stability.

Although the Republic has had its share of problems since 1960, including more than 25 years under Marxist rule, few places on planet earth have been the site of more political unrest, civil war, strife, and abuse of human rights since that time than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire and, before that, the Belgium Congo. And the main reason for that recent strife was a despot ruler named Joseph Desire Mobutu who ruled 32 years prior to 1997.

The Republic of the Congo is slightly larger than the state of New Mexico, while the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo is about one-fourth the size of the U.S.

Indigent populations in both countries were Pygmies. Still, hundreds of ethnic groups, many derivatives of various Bantu tribes, followed them into those areas of west and central Africa; still speak many languages; and in large degree have displaced Pygmies.

It was during the Conference of Berlin in 1885 when Congo and what’s now Angola were divided between France, Portugal, and Belgium.

France assumed sovereignty over territory that included what became the Republic of the Congo, formerly Middle Congo. In 1908, France organized French Equatorial Africa from Middle Congo, Gabon, Chad, and modern Central African Republic. In 1960, French Equatorial Africa split into separate countries, including what’s now the Republic of the Congo.

And from 1885 until 1908, what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo became a killing grounds far worse than Mobutu would impose. During those years, King Leopold II of Belgium, ruling from Belgium, imposed such inhumane tactics on the Congolese people to gain ivory and rubber that the nation’s population dipped from about twenty-five million to about nine million.

Key dates and events in the history of the Congo include:

* Pygmies earliest known inhabitants

* 1482 Portuguese discover Congo River, launch slave trade

* 1885 Conference of Berlin divides territory between France, Portugal, Belgium

* 1885-1908 Tyrannical rule of King Leopold II of Belgium; Democratic Republic of the Congo’s population dips from 25 million to nine million

* 1908 France organizes French Equatorial Africa which includes what’s now the Republic of the Congo

* 1960 Democratic Republic independent of Belgium; Republic independent of France

* 1997 Coup in Republic empowers socialist Sassou-Nguesso, in power in 2009

The history of Congo is replete with centuries of violence, avarice, and greed, as witnessed today where countless African children are trafficked in forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

The History of Kent State University, 1970

By Rocky Wilson
Author of Sharene:
Death: A Prerequisite For Life

The History of Kent State University, 1970

Although the university will become 100 years old in 2010, the history of Kent State University always will remain linked to one day, May 4, 1970.

For it was on that sunny day in Kent, Ohio, when four students were killed and nine students wounded when Ohio National Guardsmen fired on a group of unarmed students protesting President Richard Nixon’s decision to expand the controversial, undeclared Vietnam War into Cambodia.

Although repeatedly researched, written about, discussed, and theorized, consensus never has been reached about precisely why, or even if National Guardsmen needed to fire up to 67 M-1 rifle shots into a crowd of demonstrating students over a thirteen second span.

Even the residual outcome of those deaths doesn’t fit into a comfortable, historical niche. Some historians claim the shootings at Kent were pivotal in bringing about an earlier conclusion to the Vietnam War. Others disagree, however, and say following initial student outrage, that demonstrations to end the war soon became quieter, giving President Nixon more time to dictate closure on his own terms.

It wasn’t as if Kent State was the only U.S. campus with angry students protesting the Vietnam War, as hundreds of colleges and universities were experiencing the same unrest. Too, Kent wasn’t the only campus where demonstrating students were killed. Yet, Kent State University 1970 became a rallying cry for a generation.

More than a year before the shootings, in 1969, militant groups staged a nine-day strike on the KSU campus, and on May 3, 1970 Ohio Governor James Rhodes called them, “ … the strongest, well-trained militant revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”

But history, especially about Kent State University 1970, can be murky. Not only was Governor Rhodes the man who called the Ohio National Guard to the Kent campus in May 1970, but the primary election he was stumping for as a U.S. Senator (and lost), was held May 5, 1970.

Major events concerning Kent State University 1970 include:

* 1968 Richard Nixon elected president on platform to end Vietnam War

* April 1969 Students for a Democratic Society and Black Student Union stage nine-day KSU student demonstration

* April 30, 1970 Nixon announced invasion of Cambodia

* May 1 Rioting of unknown origins in Kent; bonfires on downtown streets, store windows smashed

* May 3 Ohio National Guard (1,000) arrives on campus, ROTC building burned to ground

* May 4 About 3,000 assemble for outlawed rally; Manned Jeep advances to crowd, seeking dispersal; rocks thrown at Guard, tear gas canisters fired at crowd

* May 4 Guard unleashes 13-second bullet barrage; four students dead, nine wounded

* 1979 State of Ohio, not National Guard, pays $675,000 settlement to wounded students, parents of dead students; official letter of regret, no apology or admission of wrongdoing

The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, a painful memory for many, has a better opportunity of not being repeated if we learn from the history of Kent State University.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Components of the Life of Henry Ford

By Rocky Wilson
Author of Sharene:
Death: A Prerequisite For Life

Components of the Life of Henry Ford

Although remembered historically for his contribution to the automobile industry, the life of Henry Ford (1863-1947) was replete with a wide array of interests and ventures that both gained supporters and drew adamant opposition.

The man who transformed America by building and selling more than 15 million affordable Model T automobiles from 1908 to 1927, thanks to the assembly line construction process he developed, drew both raves and criticism by sponsoring a ‘Peace Ship’ to Europe during World War I and bashing Jews in a newspaper he owned, the Dearborn (Michigan) Independent.

Raised on a farm in Dearborn, Ford worked as an apprentice machinist and ran a sawmill before, at age 28, becoming an engineer for the Edison Illumination Company, in Detroit. Within two years, he was chief engineer of that company and, though not the first to build a self-propelled vehicle with a gasoline engine, soon became a pioneer in that field. His first self-made such vehicle, the Quadricycle, was completed In 1896.

In 1918, when more than one-half of the total number of cars in America were Ford Model T’s, Henry Ford campaigned for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and lost.

Although an innovative employer who shortened the work week of employees and raised wages, Ford was a staunch believer that employees shouldn’t unionize. Ford Motor Company, then 38-years-old, finally signed a contract with the United Auto Workers in 1941, near the outset of World War II.

Important events in the life of Henry Ford include:

* July 30, 1863 Born in Greenfield Township, Michigan

* 1879 Leaves family farm to work as apprentice machinist in Detroit

* 1888 Marries Clara Bryant

* 1891 Becomes engineer with Edison Illuminating Company, Detroit

* 1893 Only son, Edsel Bryant Ford is born

* 1896 Completes construction of first automobile, Quadricycle

* 1903 Ford Motor Company incorporates

* 1913 Introduces first moving automobile assembly line

* 1915 Oscar II, Ford’s “Peace Ship” sails to Norway

* 1918 Loses campaign for U.S. Senate seat

* 1932 Builds first V-8 Ford

* 1941 Ford Motor Company signs agreement with United Auto Workers

* 1947 Dies of natural causes

Ford’s impact on America was far reaching. By selling Model T’s at affordable prices ranging from $950 to $280, automobiles no longer were a rich man’s toy and people could move away from city cores. Assembly line production was the main reason automobiles became so inexpensive. Through that innovative means of construction, the speed of making a car became eight times faster, and in 1914 Ford Motor Company was producing a new car every twenty-four seconds.

Henry Ford’s other interests ranged into the fields of aviation, the use of agricultural products in industrial production (such as soybean-based plastic automobile components), schools, and museums.

Anyone studying the life of Henry Ford can get caught up in his genius or his eccentricities, yet maybe it’s his impact on today‘s society we should focus on most.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A History of Cozumel; From Maya Origins to Tourism

By Rocky Wilson
Author of Sharene:
Death: A Prerequisite For Life

A History of Cozumel; From Maya Origins to Tourism

The history of Cozumel, Mexico, settled shortly after the time of Jesus Christ, is replete with diversity ranging from Mayan inhabitants, Spanish conquest, disease, pirates, an island refuge from war, and crystalline waters that attract tourists from around the world.

Thought by Classic Period Mayans (300 -900 A.D.) to be sacred, where women were sent to pay homage to their fertility goddess, Ix Chei, the thirty -by-ten mile island of coralline limestone and sandy soils sits in the Caribbean Sea, just east of the Yucatan Peninsula.

In about 800 A.D., when the Mayan civilization is thought to have peaked, it’s estimated the population reached 14 million.

In 1519, Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes launched from Cozumel his five-year conquest of what remained of the Mayan Empire in the Yucatan, Guatemala, and western Honduras. Cortes not only destroyed many Mayan temples on the island, but left behind a smallpox epidemic that eventually left Cozumel uninhabited. Although pirates such as Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan used the picturesque island as a base of operations in the 17th Century, it wasn’t until 1848 when Mayans revolted against Spanish landlords on the mainland that Cozumel again was populated by refugees from that bloody war.

For more than 100 years that followed, Cozumel remained a quiet, rural fishing community.

Then, in 1961, French explorer Jacques Cousteau discovered and told the world about the underwater paradise around Cozumel where scuba divers can see distances of up to a 250 feet in a coral wonderland. Cozumel now is a popular destination resort, especially for scuba divers.

Dates of interest in the history of Cozumel, Mexico, include:
* 300 A.D. First Mayan settlers

* 300-900 A.D. Ceremonial religious site; women from throughout empire come to honor fertility goddess, Ix Chei

* 1200 A.D. Becomes important trade route

* 1518 Spanish explorer Juan de Grijaiva arrives on island, conducts first Catholic service in Mexico

* 1519-1524 Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes destroys temples on Cozumel, then conquers the Mayan Empire; smallpox decimates population

* 17th Century Pirates Jean LaFitte and Henry Morgan raid Caribbean ships, using Cozumel as their base

* 1848 Caste War between Mayans and Spanish on mainland causes refugees to relocate to Cozumel

* 1961 Jacques Cousteau discovers island’s clear waters and helps open doors to island’s growing tourist trade

Visitors to Cozumel today can explore the largest reef system in the Americas at more than 600 miles in length, see as many as 250 different fish species, and possibly see the Toad fish, found nowhere else in the world. From 12 to 16 inches in length, the Toad fish’s claim to fame is its ability to catch and eat a fish faster than the blink of an eye.

Visitors wanting to experience the history of Cozumel, including historic Mayan sites on the mainland such as Chichen Itza and Coba, which still is being uncovered and includes the tallest Mayan temple, can take day trips from the island.

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