The Massacre at Mỹ Lai

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50 years ago, on the 16th March 1968,  100 American GIs of the 23rd Infantry Division slaughtered 500 men, women and children in the village of Son My, South Vietnam. The soldiers herded the unarmed civilians into ditches and opened fire. Others went from house to house gang raping the younger women. Houses and granaries were burned, the water supply defiled and bodies scalped and mutilated. Not even the livestock were spared.  Despite the death toll no weapons were seized and no Americans killed. The perpetrators claimed they were ‘just following orders’.

Son My, or ‘Pinkville’ to the US military, was a network of rural hamlets in the contested Quang Ngai province, a Viet Cong stronghold and the presumed base of operations for the notorious 48th battalion. Whilst the Saigon government controlled the cities of the south and benefited from US armaments and military support, the Viet Cong fought from the jungles and rice paddies of the countryside, drawing supplies and recruits from sympathetic villages like Son My.

The US strategy was ‘search and destroy’. Mobile helicopter based squadrons sought out enemy hideouts, destroyed them and retreated to friendly territory. Success was measured by ‘body count’.

The 23rd ‘Americal’ Division was tasked with regaining the advantage lost in the Tet Offensive of January 1968. In the leadup to My Lai, Charlie Company lost 28 men, mostly to land mines, booby traps and sniper fire. They itched for revenge.

When Charlie Company assaulted the hamlets of My Khe and My Lai 4 they were expecting to engage the 48th battalion. Captain Ernest Medina, informed his troops that, with all innocents supposedly at the market, those who remained would be ‘either Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathisers’.

Colonel Barker, the task force’s commander, gave orders to ‘neutralize the area’; destroy the houses, food supplies, wells and tunnels. No mention was made of the village’s inhabitants.

At 7.30 AM, first the artillery and then the gunships opened fire on My Lai 4. The first recorded ‘hostile’ casualty was an old man running from his home, arms waving. By 8.40 the ground troops had landed and were forcing the villagers into ditches. Overhead, the gunships rained death upon anyone who dared an escape. By 8.40 the reported kill count ended at 138 dead ‘Vietcong’. At 11.00 the task force stopped for lunch then continued the slaughter.Image result for my lai massacre

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Although not every soldier in Charlie Company partook in the killing, not one reported, or attempted to prevent it.

A division chaplain noted:

“I became absolutely convinced that as far as the United States Army was concerned there was no such thing as murder of a Vietnamese civilian. I’m sorry, maybe it’s a little bit cynical. I’m sure it is, but that’s the way the system works.”

Image result for hugh thompsonNoticing the plumes of smoke, Major Hugh Thompson of the 123rd Airborne division landed his helicopter at the scene. He witnessed corpse filled ditches and Captain Medina shooting an unarmed woman at point blank. Thompson threatened to open fire if Medina’s men continued the killing. Reluctantly they complied, and he evacuated the survivors.

Knowing it would reflect badly, the division command covered the incident up and instead touted it as a victory.

Image result for seymour hersh 1970Journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story to the American public. His 1969  New Yorker piece exposed the full horrors of the massacre and the men responsible.  He heard of the event from GI Ronald Ridenhouer, who had pieced together the evidence independently reported it to the Pentagon. Hersh extensively interviewed the soldiers and officers of Charlie Company. His story won him the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and contributed massively to the antiwar movement.

Because he testified, Hugh Thompson’s comrades shunned him as a traitor and departed mess halls at his entrance. The US military did not recognize his heroism until 1998, 30 years later, when he and his two crew mates were awarded the Soldiers Medal. He lived the rest of his days plagued by substance abuse and PTSD.

A single officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was quietly charged with the murder of 22 civilians, court martialed and sentenced to life imprisonment. 69% of the public believed Calley was unfairly scapegoated, however, and President Nixon intervened. He reduced Calley’s sentence to three and a half years of house arrest. 26 other soldiers, including Captain Medina, were court martialled. All were acquitted the following year.

Garry Crosley of Charlie Company:

“We didn’t believe this would be such a publicity stunt. We felt this was happening many times before, and it had probably happened many times since.”

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Image result for three billboards outside ebbing missouri accolades

Disclaimer: The following is a summary of this film with no spoilers. If you are the type of person who prefers to see films completely blind, however, I would not recommend reading.

This is the film that should have won best picture at the Academy Awards. It was written and directed by Martin Mcdonagh, a British-Irish playwright-come-director who brought us ‘In Bruges’ (2008), another favourite of mine. Witty, suspenseful, vulgar and violent, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is one hell of a film.

While driving along the American interstate 10 near Vidor, Texas in 2000, Mcdonagh passed a strange billboard. Pictured below, it condemned the local police’s failure to solve the case of Kathy Page, who was killed nine years earlier.

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The event inspired Three Billboards. In it, Mildred Hayes, a bereaved mother of a murdered girl, rents three billboards along a little used road outside town. By keeping the case of her murdered daughter in the public eye she hopes to increase the chance of it being solved.

The billboards read:

Raped while dying

And still no arrests?

How come, chief Willoughby?

Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, is Ebbing’s head cop and a pillar of the community. For seven months his men have failed to turn up any evidence over the Angela Hayes case. His popularity puts the town at odds with the billboards and the woman who put them up.

Frances Mcdormand, wife of Joel Coen, plays Mildred Hayes in one of the the best performances of her career. Foul mouthed and abrasive, her determination to see justice for her daughter makes her a perfect antihero.

Sam Rockwell plays Jason Dixon, a moronic and uninhibited police officer with a violent temper who lives with his equally hateful mother. Fanatically loyal to Chief Willoughby, he takes personal offence to the billboards and launches a vendetta to see their removal.

Despite losing the Oscar for Best Picture to Guillermo Del Toro’s Shape of Water, Three Billboards was still an Academy Awards favourite, nominated for:

  • best picture
  • best original screenplay
  • best film editing
  • best original score (Carter Burwell)

and winning:

  • best actress (Frances McDormand)
  • best supporting actor (Sam Rockwell)

Additionally Three Billboards won four Golden Globes and five BAFTAs. Both included best picture, best actress and supporting actor and best screenplay.

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The film is intense. Its plot is turbulent and themes heavy: police brutality, grief, cancer and nihilism to name a few. Racism is touched on too, though somewhat clumsily. Like much of Mcdonagh’s work it couples dark comedy with deep emotional resonance. Few films have made me go from laughing out loud to hovering at the edge of my seat so much in a single sitting. Though the plot relies a little too strongly on coincidental encounters, at no point was it predictable.

Three Billboards was not without its share of controversy. Tim Parks of the New Yorker describes it as “a film so empty of emotional intelligence, so devoid of any remotely honest observation of the society it purports to serve”. Parks’s main criticism is that Three Billboards reduces complex social issues to a struggle between individuals and that he reinforces familiar stereotypes of the conservative Midwest. What he seems to forget, however, is that a film can only be so long, and exploring social issues and themes through characters is not transgression but the nature of narrative.

Another, more pressing criticism of Three Billboards is the handling of one of its main character arcs. Revealing more would call for a spoiler warning so I will stop short here. Suffice to say, I recommend you watch it first and come to your own conclusions. I will be happy to discuss mine in the comments below.

Verdict: 5/5

(Warning: Contains bad language)

Christopher Tin – Baba Yetu

This song is the theme for the 2005 computer game Civilization IV. American composer Christopher Tin took the Swahili Lord’s Prayer and set it to his own tune and orchestration. Baba Yetu means ‘Our Father’. The song was officially released in 2010 and won the grammy  for Best Instrumental Arrangements with Accompanying Vocalists, the first piece of video game music to do so.

Sung variously by Stanford Talisman, Angel City Chrorale and Prime Vocal Ensemble, the Soweto Gospel Choir sang it on Tin’s grammy winning debut album ‘Calling all Dawns’. This is the version I have linked. The video is tacky, but its the music that counts.

Baba yetu, yetu uliye
Mbinguni yetu, yetu amina!
Baba yetu yetu uliye
M jina lako e litukuzwe.

Utupe leo chakula chetu
Tunachohitaji, utusamehe
Makosa yetu, hey!
Kama nasi tunavyowasamehe
Waliotukosea usitutie
Katika majaribu, lakini
Utuokoe, na yule, muovu e milele!

Ufalme wako ufike utakalo
Lifanyike duniani kama mbinguni.


The Historical Context of Cheddar Man

Related imageThe Cheddar Man is the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain.  He died a violent death around 7150 BC in Gough’s Cave in Chedder Gorge, Somerset, where his remains were uncovered in 1903. Cheddar Man made headlines when the latest forensic reconstruction from London’s Natural History Museum depicted him as dark skinned, a surprising revelation some criticised as politically motivated.

What we know:

  • Cheddar Man was not the first Briton: human fossils have been found in Gough’s cave predating Cheddar Man by 5,000 years. However these early inhabitants did not survive the ice age, and bear no relation to either Cheddar Man or modern Britons.
  • He was young, most likely in his mid 20s.
  • Cheddar Man belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup U5 (from the female line), a genome found mainly in Finns and Laplanders today.
  • His Y chromosomal haplogroup was I2A2
  • He was 5’4 tall.
  • He was lactose intolerant.
  • According to the latest genome sequencing Cheddar Man had blue eyes, ‘dark to black’ skin and curly, black hair.

Cheddar Man belonged to a wave of ‘Mesolithic’ (Middle Stone Age) settlers, blue eyed hunters gatherers who crossed to Britain by land as the ice sheets retreated.  Typical of hunter gatherers, their numbers were small; probably only 12,000 in Cheddar Man’s time. They are not the main ancestors of modern Britain.

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Europe in Cheddar Man’s time

In the Neolithic Era (New Stone Age), lighter skinned, brown eyed farmers of Middle Eastern origin settled across Europe, introducing livestock herding, grains and a milk based diet. They interbred with, and ultimately replaced the smaller indigenous population. In Britain they constructed Stonehenge and the ruins of Skara Brae. Neolithic farmer ancestry is strongest in Sardinians today.

A third wave settled in Britain during the mid-Bronze Age, 5,000 years after Cheddar Man’s time. The demographic transformation is evidenced by the spread of Bell Breaker pottery around the time and the replacement of stone monoliths with humbler burial mounds. The ‘Bell Beakers’ were part of a larger migration of Indo-European speakers across Europe and South Asia. They introduced horses, bronze weaponry and the Y chromosomal haplogroup R1-B, which was not present in Western Europeans before but dominates today. More numerous, they engulfed the earlier populations and left a stronger genetic imprint. They were the progenitors of the ancient Celts.

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Modern European Y chromosomal haplogroups

Further, better known migrations of the Anglo Saxons and Norse followed in the Middle Ages. Disproportionate to their cultural influence, the Roman and Norman invasions had little impact on Britain’s genetic makeup.

In a recent article published by the ‘New Scientist’, published on the 21st February 2018, geneticist Susan Walsh, who worked on Cheddar Man project, admitted the data on Cheddar Man’s skin colour is not conclusive.

“It’s not a simple statement of ‘this person was dark-skinned’, it is his most probable profile, based on current research.”

The article further stipulates that recent genetic research on indigenous populations in Southern Africa by Brenna Henn of Stony Brook University demonstrated substantial variations in skin colour among individuals with similar genotypes. Like the colour of dinosaurs, discerning Cheddar Man’s complexion is educated guesswork.

Related imageDespite this, scientists have speculated Mesolithic Europeans were dark skinned for some time. The genes for blue eyes evolved before the genes which determine light skin and blond hair. The Spanish LaBrana man (pictured right), a contemporary of Cheddar Man, exhibited similar traits.

Britain’s Mesolithic population, of which Cheddar Man belonged, were healthy and ate mainly fish, which is rich in vitamin D. Europeans evolved light skin to extract more vitamin D from the sun, so when excessive sunlight or a high seafood diet makes it abundant, these genes do not develop. This is why the Inuit maintain dark skin despite living in the boreal extremes of North America.

Originating from Anatolia and the steppes of southern Russia respectively, and eating milk products and bread over seafood, the Neolithic farmers and Bell Beaker people were lighter skinned than Cheddar Man’s ilk. It is normal for dark skinned people to develop lighter skin after millennia in cold European climates too, as did Ashkenazi Jews.

Today 10% of British DNA traces back to the Mesolithic hunter gatherers like Cheddar Man, roughly 10% from Neolithic farmers and the rest, perhaps even up to 90%, from the Bell Beakers and later immigrants.

Genetics is a dynamic discipline. New technology, discoveries and research is constantly introducing new evidence and debunking the old. Yes, media coverage of the Cheddar Man was sensationalist, but that is their nature.

It is important to remember these migrations occurred over centuries, with interbreeding always occurring. What information we can discern from a handful of fossilised cavemen remains a murky glimpse to a long lost past.

Note: Studies on prehistoric migrations and genomes is convoluted but fascinating. I’ve linked some resources for further reading. The Eupedia and Nature posts are particularly detailed.


  • Nature
  • National Geographic
  • New Scientist
  • Eupedia
  • BBC
  • The Guardian
  • Abroad in the Yard

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Modern Kosovo

Kosovo flagNestled in the centre of the Balkans, the Republic of Kosovo is Europe’s youngest country, both politically and demographically. Alongside Bosnia and Albania, it is one of only three majority Muslim states in Europe. It is a small country of only 1.8 million, mostly ethnic Albanians and an Orthodox Serb minority. Like Bosnia, Kosovo emerged from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, governed by a UN mandate until 2008. This week marks its tenth birthday. 

Kosovo is recognised by only 113 of the 193 UN states.  This puts it in the ambiguous category of ‘partially recongised state’, alongside Taiwan, Palestine, Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus. Serbia’s fellow Orthodox Christian nations like Greece, Romania and Russia, and the former USSR do not recognise Kosovo though the Muslim world is curiously split. Kosovo is neither a member nor observer of the UN.

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Green countries recognise Kosovo. Crucially security council members Russia and China do not.

Yugoslavia’s sectarian strife of the 1990s was a legacy of Ottoman imperialism. The divide and rule policy of empires breeds ethnic hatred wherever it is implemented. Most wars since WW2, from the Middle East to the partition of India and the Rwandan Genocide result from old imperial policies that kept subject populations divided and favoured one group over another. This leaves deep seated hatred and mistrust along ethnic and religious lines, particularly when land rights are involved.

The Balkans, though under Muslim Turkish, not Christian European rule, was no different. The Ottomans favoured Muslims while taxing Christians higher and stealing their boys to raise as devout soldiers. When the Ottoman Empire retreated from the Balkans in the 19th century, the Austrians and the Russians took their place. The Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire favoured the Catholic Croats while the Russians favoured the Serbs. The nationalist zeitgeist, while having unified Italy and Germany, only divided and ‘balkanised’ ethno-religious lines further.

Kosovo was a tricky case. The small territory is dear to the hearts of many Serbs, being the centre of their old kingdom and the site of the heroic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the invading Turks. Despite this, by the 20th century, the majority population were ethnic Albanians, a non-Slavic folk who adopted Islam under Ottoman rule.

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Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were formerly a part of Yugoslavia

Broz Tito united the region after WW2 through both his magnetic personality and the internationalist appeal of Pan Slavism and socialism. Each state in the federation were allowed equal rights and the promotion of nationalism was banned. After Tito’s death, however, Yugoslavia became increasingly Serb dominated and, beginning in 1990, its constituent republics seceded.

In the following wars Kosovo was the last dispute to be settled. Slobidan Milosevic, who rose to power on a Serb nationalist platform, installed a Serb administration and clamped down on Albanian Kosovar rights. In 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army launched an insurgency. Milosevic responded with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, massacring up to 10,000 Albanians and expelling almost a million others. The KLA committed war crimes too, though firepower was on the Serbian side. It was only after NATO aircraft bombed Serb targets into submission that Milosevic relented. Peace was ratified in 1998 and Kosovo gained independence a decade later.

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Bill Clinton Boulevard, Pristina. The US President is a hero in Kosovo for guaranteeing  independence from Serbia in 1998

Ten years on and Kosovo is the second poorest nation in Europe after Moldova. Mistrust between Serbs and Albanians remain high, most of the latter group still yearning for reunification with Serbia. Unemployment stands at 57% and the country struggles to attract foreign investment. Kosovo’s diplomatic status does not help either. Foreign travel is virtually impossible: even the Prime Minister was recently refused visas to Britain and the USA.

Despite this, there are faint glimmers of a brighter future. Kosovo is remarkably debt free and in the capital of Pristina, a cultural scene is booming. Power outages, which were common in the early days of independence, are now rare. In a continent plagued by low birth-rates, Kosovo’s young population just might be its saving grace.


  • BBC
  • New York Times
  • CIA Factbooks
  • Kosovo Info

See Also:


For Whom the Bell Tolls

hemingway cover.jpg‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is Ernest Hemingway’s third and best-selling novel. It tells the story of a dynamiter tasked with destroying a bridge in the Spanish Civil War.

Drawing from Hemingway’s time as a journalist in that conflict, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ deals with the themes of death, duty, camaraderie and war. The cliché of ‘the earth moving’ during intercourse derives from this book.

I picked a hardback copy in a rushed visit to a Thai bookstore in 2017, a couple hours before a plane flight. It was my introduction to Hemingway, and I was not disappointed.

The title is drawn from John Donne, a 17th century English poet. In Donne’s time church bells tolled when someone had died:

‘No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

His Communist superiors describe Robert Jordan ‘a young American of slight political development but a great way with the Spaniards and a fine partisan record.” Jordan has lived in Spain for a decade and dreams of returning to his native Montana to teach the language at university. He fights not for ideological reasons like his peers, but a sense of duty to his adopted home and its people.

Jordan is a demolitionist with the International Brigades, the antifascist volunteer force of Wily Brandt and George Orwell. At the start he is ordered to join a Republican partisan band in the Sierra Guararamma. When the Republican army launches its attack on Segovia he will detonate a bridge and thwart the fascist retreat.

The novel takes place over three nights and four days. For much of the book, Jordan wrestles with his mortality. Pablo, the partisan leader, is the only one to recognise the mission’s danger and this strikes tension between the two.  Bonding with the lively guerrillas and falling for the innocent yet long suffering Maria, in four days Jordan learns there is more to life than duty.

The book’s dialogue is written to give the impression it has been transliterated. Italicised Spanish phrases pepper the chapters and the characters address one another as ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ to represent their rural, old fashioned dialect. Whilst this has drawn criticism, my personal complaint is the handling of curse words. Phrases like ‘mucked off’ and ‘go and obscenity thyself’ replace expletives. It is frustrating, but can be overlooked.

The story reflects the dangers of doctrinal belief. Horrendous atrocities on both sides are accounted, including a rural township’s humiliating anti-fascist purge and the murder of a Republican mayor and his family by Falangist troops. So too is the bone wrenchingly frustrating suspicion and mistrust of the Communist leadership.

Some of the characters are based on real people.

  • Robert Jordan is a combination of Hemingway’s friend Robert Merriman, who fought in Spain, and himself.
  • Karkov, ‘the smartest man I knew’ writes for the Soviet newspaper and mentors Jordan. He is based on Hemingway’s friend Mikhail Kolstov, whom Stalin purged in 1939.
  • Andre Marty, the head of the International Brigades who appears near the end, was a historical figure.

Hemingway described ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ as ‘the most important thing I’ve ever done’. It would have won a Pulitzer Prize were it not for Columbia University president and fascist sympathiser Nicholas Murray Butler. He vetoed and no prize was awarded for 1941.

The Moor’s Last Sigh

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On the road south from Granada, high along the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, there is a pass where one can see the Alhambra palace  for the last time. El Puerto del Suspiro del Moro is named for Spain’s last Moorish king, who turned to look back on his birthplace before he left forever.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil to the Spanish, was Emir of Grenada, the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia and the peninsula’s most sophisticated city.  The Emirate of Grenada covered the far south of Spain, known now as Andalusia. It was here Boabdil’s forbearers first invaded six centuries earlier.

As the Moorish yoke waned the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Portugal and Navarre grew ever bolder. Their petty raids and skirmishes evolved into full scale crusades by the 1000s. In 1236 the Castilians conquered the capital of Cordoba, and the Muslim presence was reduced to a handful of petty kingdoms in the south.

Two factors spared Grenada the fate of its peers; geography and diplomacy. The Sierra Nevada sheltered the Emirate just as the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyranees restricted the Moorish advance of the 800s. The Emirs of Granada could feel the winds of change. Knowing it was better to work with, rather than against, their aggressors, they accepted protectorate status. For two hundred years Granada paid tribute to Castile in exchange for its autonomy.

In 1469 Queen Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting the kingdoms into what we now call Spain. Though the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ shared their ambition, piety and zeal, Isabella was the true power behind the throne. She had earned her spurs in the court politics of Castile and proved an adept politician with a strict sense of justice. Isabella eliminated Castile’s violent crime and the crown debt within twenty years.Isabela of Castile.jpg

Previous Castilian kings had let Granada be, as a friendly Muslim neighbour provided a conduit to the lucratic West African gold trade. Isabela’s unwavering Catholic faith was paramount; she would complete the Reconquista no matter the cost.

The opportunity arose when Boabdil, then a mere prince, rebelled against his father over an inheritance dispute. Captured by the Spanish, Boabdil promised to swear fealty if they helped him overthrow his father. The Pope called a crusade and the Catholic Monarchs assembled the largest army Spain had seen. The conquest was swift. Spanish cannons made short work of the Moorish castles that would have held out for years a century earlier and Boabdil’s plan to fight back fell to pieces.

When the Spanish besieged Granada, the Emir knew resistance was futile.  Boabdil surrendered on the condition Ferdinand and Isabella would spare the libraries and mosques of Granada and respect the faith of its subjects. They agreed then broke their word. The Spanish burned the library to the ground and converted by the sword.

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On the road out of the city, Boabdil turned towards the distant walls of the Alhambra where he had spent his days and emitted his famous sigh. His mother was not impressed. “Weep like a woman,” she chided. “For what you could not defend as a man.”

The episode has captured the western imagination ever since. It was the subject of numerous paintings, and the allusion behind Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.

An Italian merchant in the Castilian employ was present at Granada:

“I saw Your Highnesses’ royal banners placed by force of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, … and I saw the Moorish king come out to the city gates and kiss Your Highnesses’ royal hands and those of my Lord the Prince.”

1492 ranks among the most significant dates in world history. Since the fall of Rome, the East had led the world in science, technology and culture. Even Constantinople, not Rome, was the centre of Christian civilization until its fall to the Ottomans.  In 1492 not only did the Catholic soldiers of Isabella and Ferdinand drive their Moorish nemeses from Europe forever but, with Moorish gold, Isabella gave this Italian merchant the funding he needed to sail westward. The wheels were in motion. No longer would Eurasia’s Atlantic fringe be a backwater, but the seat of world power for years to come.