Category Archives: Places

An Oriental foothold in South America

The River Plate (known locally as Rio de la Plata) is perhaps better remembered today as the site of the first naval battle of WWII (known as Battle of the River Plate), but it is also where “this side of the river” led to an Oriental Republic.

In the US the film was retitled “Pursuit of the Graf Spee”

The story starts in late 18th century, when Portugal and Spain agreed to divide South America in a number of treaties, which included an area to the east of the Uruguay River and north of the River Plate that was given to Spain and was called the Banda Oriental del Uruguay, simply meaning “Eastern Strip of the Uruguay River”.

With the independence of the US, and with Spain falling under French control during the Napoleonic wars, this created an atmosphere of defiance and independence which erupted in 1810 with the May Revolution and the eventual creation of United Provinces of the Río de la Plata incorporating most of Spanish South America and based in Buenos Aires.  Despite initially attempting to capture Montevideo and surrounding lands from Spain, the Uniterians became allies, this betrayal prompting the people of Banda Oriental to separate themselves and establish the League of Free People, based in Montevideo.

This new found freedom did not last long, and the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves soon invaded and occupied this area in what was to become the Cisplatine War, renaming it the Cisplatina Province.  Cisplatina simply meant “This side of the River Plate”.

The spanish speaking residents resented the Brazilian occupation and a revolutionary group led by Juan Antonion Lavalleja called themselves the Treinta y Tres Orientales (Thirty Three Orientals) as an objection to the name of the province, as they insisted they were not onBrazil’s side of the River, but rather on the Eastern (Oriental) side of the River Uruguay.

The flag of Uruguay.

By 1825 the revolutionaries decided to declare independence and war broke out, with the Argentine navy coming to the revolutionaries’ assistance.  Neither side was able to gain the upper hand, and by 1828 a stalemate was recognised.  The British, who relied on heavy trade in the region, forced both sides to sign the Treaty of Montevideo, finally giving the Uruguayans their independence.

As a reminder of their revolution, the new country was officially declared as República Oriental del Uruguay, though most people recognise it simply as Uruguay.

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Posted by on Friday 13th July 2012 in History, Places, Wars


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How the French maintained Patton’s latrine

General George S Patton is today remembered as a somewhat brash commander from WWII who was so feared by Germany that the Allies were able to successfully use him to dupe their enemy into believing their forces were massing to attack Calais instead of Normandy.  He courted controversy with many of his comments and was widely criticised when he slapped a soldier who was suffering from battle fatigue (a second similar incident was not as widely reported)

However, there was more to Patton than this image.

Patton fencing in the 1912 Olympics

A little known fact about Patton is that he was the first American to compete in the Modern Pentathlon when it was introduced in 1912.  He eventually finished 5th from a field of 32, and was the only non Swede in the top seven places.

Patton may well have medalled if not for a controversy in the pistol shooting event, when he placed 20th after the judges decided he must have missed the target completely with one of his shots, despite his claim that it went through the hole of his previous shot.

After the Olympics Patton trained at the French Cavalry School and became the US Army’s youngest ever Master of the Sword at Fort Riley and went on to design the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber, the last saber issued to the US cavalry.

During WWI Patton was asked to establish the Light Tank Training School after gaining experience using French tanks.  He soon found a small village called Bourg (near Langres) where he decided to set up his school and as the war was soon to end this episode in his life might be forgotten if not for an encounter 24 years later.

As the US army drove through Bourg in 1944, with Patton leading from the front, he spotted a man in the street and asked him if he was there during the last war.  “Oh, yes, General Patton” replied the man, “and you were here then as a Colonel.”  He then formed a triumphal procession of all the village armed with pitchforks, scythes, and rakes, and proceeded to rediscover Patton’s old haunts, including his office and his billet in the Chateau of Madame de Vaux.

They also visited the grave of “Abandoned Rear”, which Patton described thus:

The grave of that national hero, “Abandoned Rear,” was still maintained by the natives. It originated in this manner. In 1917, the mayor, who lived in the “new house” at Bourg, bearing the date 1700, came to me, weeping copiously, to say that we had failed to tell him of the death of one of our soldiers. Being unaware of this sad fact, and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the “grave,” so we went together and found a newly closed latrine pit with the earth properly banked and a stick at one end to which was affixed crosswise a sign saying, “Abandoned Rear.” This the French had taken for a cross. I never told them the truth.

Patton WWI/WWII Tank Monument at Bourg, Haute-Marne, France

I couldn’t find a photo of the grave of “Abandoned Rear”, but there is still a monument to Patton at Bourg to remind us of his exploits.

After the war ended Patton returned to Germany and while on a day trip to hunt pheasants in the country, the truck in front made a sharp turn which caused his driver to hit the back of the truck at a low speed.

Though neither vehicle were hardly damaged, and everyone else escaped with minor injuries, Patton had been thrown forward from his seat at the back and struck his head on the partition between the front and back seats. The accident caused a cervical spine cord injury and he was rushed to hospital, but a few days later Patton died from a pulmonary embolism.

General Patton is buried with his men in Hamm, Luxembourg.


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Posted by on Monday 29th August 2011 in History, People, Places


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Dracula, Wales, Walnuts, the Romans and William Wallace

In the third century BC there were a number of tribes from Germany which were collectively called the Volcae.  These people controlled the trade routes between Germanic tribes and the Mediterranean and their name was soon adopted for new tribes from as far as France and Turkey.

To the Germanic people these people who traded in foreign goods were naturally identified as foreign themselves, and the Old German word for Volcae, Walha, came to mean foreign.  When the Germanic tribes met Celts, and later Romans, they were also called Walha.  Because the Romans were known to geld their horses, these horses also became known as Walha.

Old German influenced a lot of modern languages, and we see this influence in Polish, where Wlochy means Italy, and Walach is a gelding.  In Czech, a Vlach is an Italian, and a Valach is a gelding.  Several languages call Romanians Vlah, Voloh, Valah, Vlahi, Vlachen and other variations.

As early Germanic tribes, such as the Franks, came to dominate Europe, variations to Walha were used to describe foreign people, and stuck till today.  In the lowlands we now know as Belgium and Netherlands, the French speaking people who came to settle were deemed foreign, and therefore called Walloons.

On the other side of Europe, an area of land that acted as a barrier between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, a new country was created when several Romanian noblemen rebelled against the Hungarian King. Possibly because of a legend that their leader came from a foreign land, this new country was a “foreign land” and became known as Wallachia. While Romanian history will recount many great and infamous leaders, the one most known to the rest of the word is Vlad III, commonly known as Vlad the Impaler, who belonged to the royal house of Draculeati. He is seen as the inspiration to the story of Dracula.

In Britain, the Old English word for the foreign Romans was Wealh, and when these Romans brought over a new nut (Hnutu in Old English), this nut was called Walhnutu, which literally meant “Roman nut”, and this is our modern Walnut.  Later, as the Anglo Saxons came to settle, they saw the Cymru language as foreign, and called it Welsch, later to become Welsh. The suffix “wall” was also added to names of areas which resisted the initial Anglo Saxon invasions, such as Cornwall.

Finally, there’s a strange connection which is often overlooked. Many people assume that Gaul in English, and Gaule or Gaulle in French are from the Latin Gallia, but the problem here is that words from Latin which became French would usually change G to a J, whereas words that migrated from German into French often changed W to G. Gaul was ironically used to call the Romanised Celts, but was then used to mean other foreigners as well, so that while the Anglo Saxon English used Wales to refer to the land of foreign speakers, the Frankish French called it Pays de Galles, which means the same.

Considering the origin of these words, it sheds new light on characters from history, such as William Wallace, the Scottish hero, whose name means “The Foreigner”, and raises the question why the heir to the British throne is Prince of the Foreigners?

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Posted by on Sunday 31st July 2011 in History, People, Places


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Where is Ghana?

Today we know the country of the Republic of Ghana as a small country in West Africa, which achieved independence in 1957, and is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world (estimated growth of 20% in 2011 alone).

But what of the history of Ghana?

The country is named after the Ghana Empire which existed until the mid 13th century.  However, the modern country was made up of the Gold Coast and British Togoland and was home to the Ashanti Empire, whereas the Ghana Empire itself existed in an area where we now have Mauritania, Mali and Senegal and the nearest it got to modern Ghana was about 500 miles north of the present country.

The word Ghana itself means “Warrior King” and the name Guinea is derived from this word as well. Another name for the ancient Ghana Empire was Wagadou or Ouagadou, and more often the longer name was used Ouagadougou which means “where people get honour and respect”, this is used by Burkina Faso as the name for their capital city, though the territory of Burkina Faso is also outside the area ruled by the Ghana Empire.

The reason for the links in the name is probably down to the theory that the Ashanit Empire itself was made up of migrants from the Ghana Empire after it’s demise in the 13th century, though this is based mostly on linguistic similarities than any written evidence.

So instead of the Republic of Ashanti, we now have the Republic of Ghana.


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Posted by on Sunday 24th July 2011 in History, People, Places


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Brazil’s Irish roots

Most countries have a clear definition of where their name comes from, but the 5th largest country on Earth, and certainly the most successful footballing nation, is not one of them.

Do we need a reason to show this girl supporting Brazilian football?

One thing many historians agree on is that Brazil probably got it’s name from the Brazilwood which was traded from that region to Europe.  However, not everyone agrees, and there are some holes in that theory.

There is another theory which exists, which has been around since the 16th century, almost immediately after the country was first discovered, that Brazil may have been named after a mythical island named Hy-Brasil, which was often simply known as Brasil.

The story goes that when Pedro Alvares Cabral landed in South America, his men thought it was an island and called itIlha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross), and that when tales of his discovery reached Europe, those who read his exploits thought this may very well be the mythical island of Brasil, which is why they named it such.

But what was this mythical island?

A 1572 map of Ireland, with Brasil shown to the west.

Many sailors tried to find this magical island, said to be shrouded in mist except for one day in every seven years, and it appeared on many maps from as long ago as early 14th century, and still popped up in some until as late as 1865.  There were a number of expeditions sent to find this island, including one led by John Cabot (credited with discovering North America), and several reported sightings, the last one in 1872.

A number of known islands have been identified at one time or another as Brasil, including Terceira, one of the larger islands in the Azores.

Though mythical, the island of Brasil was famous across western Europe, and it was accepted by some that the name came from the Portuguese word Brasa, which meant Ember, which is where the name for Brazilwood came from, because of the colour of the wood when polished.

However, there was never any proof for this origin of the word, and it’s worth noting that this mythical island was also identified strongly with Ireland, who had strong trading connections with the Iberian coast.  In Ireland, the legend of the island identified it with an ancient clan called Ui Breasil, Ui translates as Clan, and Breasil could mean Beauty, Worth or Great Mighty.

So there we have it, is Brazil actually named after the beautiful and mighty Irish people?

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Posted by on Wednesday 20th July 2011 in History, Places


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Minack Theatre, carved out of rock

In 1929, a local village group of actors around Crean, Cornwall decided to stage an open air version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a meadow. The show proved popular and next year they staged The Tempest.

A local woman, Rowena Cade, offered to build a stage and seating in her garden, overlooking Minack rock, and with the help of her gardener they were able to stage a repeat of The Tempest in 1932. Rowena was only 38 when she decided to dedicate the next 51 years building one of the most remarkable theatres ever seen.  She even left sketches of further improvements on her deathbed.

With the help of Billy Rawlings and Charles Angove she would haul sand from the beach, as well as huge beams which had to be dragged up from the shore.  As they built ever more elaborate stage and seating, Rowena would carve Celtic designs onto the drying cement with the tip of a screwdriver.

Today the theatre stages professional productions during the summer evenings, but attracts many visitors during the day because of the amazing structures and gardens, as well as the view out to sea.

The theatre as also been used in a number of films and television productions, and most recently as part of a BBC ident featuring several dancers on the stage.

Here are some other images of the theatre from various angles:

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Posted by on Friday 15th July 2011 in Places


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