5 Fascinating Historical Events You Won’t Learn About at School
History is peppered with fascinating events, yet history as an A-level subject is unfairly dismissed as “boring” by too many students.
Perhaps that’s because the subjects covered on the school curriculum are failing to strike a chord with students. In this article, therefore, we’re going to look at some of the interesting historical events that you don’t tend to hear about at school – and we’re pretty sure that by the end of this article you’ll be loving history just as much as we do!
1. The Year of the Four Emperors (AD 69)
AD 69 was a turbulent year for the Roman empire. Rome had been ruled for 13 years by the despotic Nero, and everyone had had enough. If contemporary historians are to be believed, Nero was enormously unpopular. To illustrate this, the Great Fire of Rome, which had ravaged the city for five long days five years previously, was said to have been started by Nero himself because he’d wanted to get rid of buildings so that he could build his palace on the land they occupied; rumours that he’d sung or played the lyre as he watched Rome burn didn’t do anything to help his terrible reputation.
He remained emperor for a further four years after that, until two major events happened that ultimately resulted in his being driven from the throne. First, the Gaulish Roman governor Gaius Iulius Vindex rebelled against one of Nero’s tax policies. Second, Roman troops in Spain declared their loyalty to Galba, to all intents and purposes proclaiming him emperor, in a move that showed just how much power the Roman army really wielded (and, arguably, how precarious the emperor’s power was). Nero was declared a public enemy, and he promptly fled Rome and became the first Roman emperor to commit suicide. What followed – the so-called ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ – actually took place over the following year and a half, and saw Rome witness civil war and the successive rise and fall of Galba, then Otho, then Vitellius, and finally Vespasian, the latter managing to establish peace and stability. His rule lasted ten years and, with his son taking over on his death, created a new dynasty, the Flavians, which followed the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had previously established the rule of an emperor in Rome.
The story of H.M.S. Bounty will be familiar to those who’ve seen one of the several movie versions of the tale, but it’s not a story that appears on the school curriculum. It was 1787 when H.M.S. Bounty set sail for the Pacific under the leadership of the infamous Captain Bligh. The Bounty got to Tahiti ten months later, and the crew spent five months cavorting with the local women. Over a thousand samples of breadfruit were collected, which were to be transported to the West Indies to be grown as food for slaves. The men grew used to the idyllic way of life on the island, and by the time the Bounty set sail for the West Indies, they had grown to resent the reportedly harsh treatment they received from their captain. 23 days later, led by Fletcher Christian (the master’s mate), the men mutinied, casting Captain Bligh adrift in a small boat with 18 of those loyal to him. The mutineers took the Bounty and some of them settled back on Tahiti. The rest ended up on Pitcairn Island, where they burned the Bounty in an attempt to evade detection.
The follow-ups to the story are as interesting as the original mutiny. Captain Bligh somehow managed to navigate 3,618 nautical miles to East Timor in his little boat, without a map and with only basic provisions. He eventually made it back to Britain to report the mutiny, whereupon the British Admiralty dispatched H.M.S. Pandora to search for the mutineers. The Pandora reached Tahiti in March 1791 and its crew managed to arrest fourteen of the mutineers. But disaster struck on the return journey, when Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and sank, resulting in the deaths of 31 of the crew and four Bounty mutineers. The ten surviving mutineers were still brought back to Britain and tried; three were hanged, three pardoned and four acquitted. To this day, descendants of the remaining Bounty mutineers live on Pitcairn Island.
3. The Bristol Channel ‘tsunami’ (1607)
Living in the UK, tsunamis – devastating waves generated by undersea earthquakes – are something we thankfully only ever see on television. But on 30 January 1607, an event happened that was so catastrophic that scientists and historians speculate that it may have been a tsunami. It’s estimated that around 2,000 people drowned. The local economy suffered badly, too, as around 200 square miles of farmland were wiped out by the floodwater and countless livestock lost their lives. The Somerset Levels were inundated, and the floodwater went as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles from the sea.
Several plaques in local churches survive to mark the level of the water, some as high as eight feet, and a pamphlet was published soon afterwards entitled “God’s warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters or floods.” Previously thought to have been the result of a storm surge caused by a combination of bad weather and high tide, recent research has suggested that the cause of this terrible flood was in fact a tsunami. There’s a fair bit of evidence to support this scary contention, including the fact that the floodwaters were of sufficient force to move massive boulders up the beach (though powerful storm surges could potentially do this too). Geologists studying boreholes surrounding the Channel have found an anomalous eight-inch layer of sand, shells and stones consistent with tsunami deposits, and they’ve also found rock erosion of the sort generated by high-speed water.
Supporting this environmental evidence, contemporary accounts describe a recession of the water followed by a wave so fast that men were unable to outrun it – classic tsunami characteristics. Some reports even describe ‘sparks’ coming off the top of the wave, which is another strange tsunami feature, and, refuting the storm surge hypothesis, some accounts say that it was a sunny day. So what would have caused a tsunami in the UK, if that is indeed what it was? A possible explanation is that it was caused by an underwater earthquake on an unstable Irish faultline. Luckily, it’s not thought too likely that it will happen again, but it just goes to show that even in the UK, we’re not completely immune to the forces of nature.
4. Amelia Earhart’s final flight (1937)
Pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart has a number of aviation ‘firsts’ to her name, being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the first woman to fly solo from Hawaii to California; so she was pretty used to long-distance flying when she set out on her ambitious round-the-world flight, which was to be her last. She had to abandon her first attempt due to damage sustained to her aircraft, a Lockheed Electra 10E, upon take-off from Hawaii on the second leg of the journey. After it was repaired, Amelia’s second attempt began on 1 June 1937 from Miami, accompanied only by navigator Fred Noonan.
Flying west to east (a reversal from the first attempt), they managed 22,000 miles across South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, leaving only the Pacific stretch to complete. Bound for a tiny island called Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific, they set off from New Guinea on 2 July 1937 and were never seen again. Nobody really knows what became of them; their last known position was near the Nukumanu Islands, but issues with the on-board radio equipment and communication with a ship based at Howland Island meant that contact was lost. Her final radio transmissions suggested that they were lost: she believed they were over Howland Island, but couldn’t see it, and they were running low on fuel. Search efforts ensued and it was thought that Amelia may have landed the plane on Gardner Island, about 400 miles away, because there was a lagoon into which she could have ditched the plane and there were “signs of recent habitation” on the island (which had been uninhabited for forty years), suggesting that they may have survived a crash and swum ashore. However, the search plane gave up after finding no people waving back to them.
Tantalising evidence has been found on Gardner Island since, including 1940s reports of a skeleton, possibly that of a woman, from which subsequent tests produced conflicting results as to its gender and origins; the bones were misplaced in Fiji and never found again. Evidence was found in expeditions to the island in 2007 and 2010 that provided more support for the Gardner Island theory, as American beauty products, a pocket knife and water bottles with heat-warped bottoms (consistent with their being used to heat water) were found, all dating to the 1930s, along with other traces of habitation, such as campfires and prized open shells. A bone was also found that may have been human, but DNA testing was unable to establish this. Improvised tools, plexiglass and metal similar to that of the Electra aircraft, and the heel of a 1930s woman’s shoe have also been identified. Ultimately, the Gardner Island evidence has proved inconclusive and the final resting place of Amelia Earhart remains a mystery. Whether she and her navigator landed on an island and survived for several weeks, or their lives were lost when the plane crashed, we’ll probably never know. Sonar surveys conducted last year found a possible crash site, but nothing has been proven, and conspiracy theories live on.
5. The River Thames Frost Fairs (17th-19th centuries)
A period known as “the Little Ice Age” brought very harsh winters to the UK, to the point where the River Thames fairly regularly froze over in London. The Thames then was wider and slower than it is now, with no embankment, and the Old London Bridge also slowed it down. Between the mid-17th century and the early 19th century, frost fairs were held whenever the river froze over – usually only once every ten years, but it happened four times between 1649 and 1666. In 1683-4, the country witnessed “The Great Frost” and saw the river completely frozen for two months; the ice reached a depth of 28cm. The freezing over of the river severely affected shipping and other river-based trades, and frost fairs made the most of this situation by providing entertainment for cold Londoners.
Though there are records of monarchs including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I going out onto the frozen river in the decades previously, the first recorded frost fair took place in 1608, with the most famous held in 1683 and described by the diarist John Evelyn thus: “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.” Later accounts describe fairground booths, puppet shows and roundabouts put up on the ice. These events didn’t usually last very long, because the weather would turn and melt the ice. Due to the climate becoming milder, the last frost fair was held in 1814, lasting four days and featuring an elephant and an enterprising printer, George Davis, whose book Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, was printed in a makeshift printing stall set up on the ice.
These are just five of the innumerable fascinating tales to be found in the history books – just not necessarily in the classroom. There’s so much more to history than what we learn at school, so if you’re struggling to engage with this subject, don’t give up on it just yet!