Nevertheless, there are many instances where the course of history has turned on chance. Let us examine a few.
The tragedy of Burke and Wills is (supposed to be) taught in every Australian school, but it is worth repeating. It was all about crossing Australia from south to north, which, considering that the greater part of the route would be desert, was a daunting prospect. Unlike the explorers who faced the Sahara, they had no time-honoured caravan routes to follow.
On 9 October 1860, the expedition left the last outpost of civilisation, Menindee on the Darling River, heading for Cooper's Creek. On 29 October, one of the party, William Wright suggested he return to Menindee to bring up the heavier stores, and Burke, unwisely, agreed. Cooper's Creek itself was reached on 11 November. But what was Wright doing? Very little. It was this man's laziness and slackness which ultimately doomed the expedition.
Burke got tired of waiting. The team would divide into halves. Four men - Burke, Wills, King, and Gray - would head north with three months' provisions. The remainder, under the command of William Brahe, were instructed to wait for three months before turning back to the Darling. The four left on 16 December, in the height of summer. Logically, they could have waited a bit longer. After all, since Wright had departed twenty days into the trek, he should have taken six or seven weeks to catch up.
The away team did not quite reach the Gulf of Carpentaria; a narrow band of mangroves barred their way. It had taken eight weeks, and the hardships of the journey can be imagined. It was necessary to return on half rations. Gray died of malnutrition, and the other three took off a day to bury him and rest. That day was to prove fatal.
Meanwhile, back at Cooper's Creek, four months had passed, and Brahe decided it was time to pull up stakes. For this, he has come in for criticism, but it is hard to justify it. He had waited a month longer than was required. Those for whom he was waiting were probably dead, and if he did not move off, his own team would not have enough provisions to return to Menindee. That this last danger was very real is shown by the fact that one of his team did die from scurvy on the way back. So, after burying a third of the provisions, plus a note, next to a tree on which he carved the word, DIG, they departed.
That was about 10 a.m. on 21 April 1861. Later that day, exhausted and emaciated, Burke, Wills, and King staggered into the depot. They were nine hours late!
It gets worse. Brahe's note had indicated that his horses were in good condition, so Burke assumed they would have no hope of catching up. He decided they should head for a station near Mount Hopeless 150 miles away. The cause was hopeless. Burke and Wills both died. Only King, whose sister had arranged a prayer vigil on his behalf, survived, having been taken in by some friendly Aborigines.
The irony was, Brahe had been slow. They could have caught up with him if they had tried. Not only that, but on the way back, whom should Brahe encounter but Wright! He had finally got his act together. They returned to Cooper's Creek, but managed to miss all the signs that anyone had been there in their absence, so they departed again. Thus, if Burke and Wills had followed Brahe or had they stayed at the depot, they would have been all right. Who says fate is fair?
The Battle of the Metaurus, 207 BC is listed by Sir Edward Creasy as one of the great decisive battles which changed the course of history. Rome was a republic, not an empire, and controlled little more than Italy when they defeated Carthage the first time, and so made a permanent enemy of one of the great military geniuses of all time, Hannibal. He invaded Italy via the Alps and, in 216 BC, totally annihilated a Roman army at Cannae. Thus commenced a protracted conflict which ranged over the entire peninsula, causing terrible loss of life and property. After nine years, he decided to call in reinforcements: his brother, Hasdrubal, who again invaded Italy from the north, while Hannibal remained in the south. Two great Carthaginian armies were thus let loose on the peninsula. If they could combine, Rome would be finished.
Hasdrubal camped at the Metaurus River. He now had two routes by which he could link up with his brother, but he had to notify him of his intentions. Telegraphs and radios had yet to be invented, so he sent off a written message with six horsemen, who managed to traverse the whole length of Italy without falling foul of the enemy. But here is where the best laid plans of mice and men gang aglae when matched against the fickle finger of fate. Hannibal had moved. While attempting to follow him, the messengers strayed too close to a Roman held town, and were captured by enemy foragers. For some reason, they failed to destroy the letter before it fell into Roman hands and, worst of all, it wasn't written in code, although such codes existed.
Pulling out every available man, the Roman consul made a forced march to join the army facing Hasdrubal at the Metaurus. The battle lacked finesse; it was just a hard slog, and the bigger side won. It was the Romans. If the two Carthaginian armies had managed to combine, Rome would have been defeated, there would have been no Roman Empire, and Western Civilisation as we know it would not have existed. But it was foiled by the accidental capture of an uncoded message.
Jamestown, 1610. Americans make a big deal about the Pilgrim Fathers of 1620, but the fact remains that the first permanent English settlement in North America was at Jamestown, in what is now Virginia, in 1607. Indeed, without the success of Jamestown, the Pilgrims probably would not have been inspired to make their own attempt. But for a long time it was touch and go at Jamestown.
For a start, in 1609 it was decided to dispatch Lord De La Warre (after whom Delaware would be named) as Governor, but ahead of him would go the Third Supply, consisting of several hundred immigrants under Deputy Governor, Sir Thomas Gates. It was struck by a hurricane, and the flagship, the Sea Venture, with Sir Thomas aboard was lost. The Third Supply arrived in mid-August, and immediately began in-fighting. The original leader of the settlement, John Smith, sick and demoralised, left for England.
Now began the Starving Time. Crops failed. The Indians turned hostile. The chief's daughter, Pocahontas, ceased her role as protector once Smith was gone. A few turned to cannibalism. Almost nine out of ten perished.
Meanwhile, the Sea Venture had not sunk. It had run aground on a reef in Bermuda, where Sir Thomas gathered together the survivors, and built two pinnaces out of the wreckage of the flagship. On 23 May 1610, they arrived at Jamestown with 150 people - to a scene of absolute horror. The fort was in total disarray, and of the 500-odd inhabitants alive in October, only 60-odd remained. There was nothing left to do but abandon the colony. On 7 June, to a roll of drums, the colonists were marched aboard the two pinnaces. Within a few minutes, rampaging Indians were ransacking the abandoned fort. Moving slowly down the James River, the two boats anchored for the night at Mulberry Island, near the river mouth.
At the crack of dawn the following day, what should appear but the flagship of De La Warre's fleet! The colony was saved. If the Governor had arrived just a few hours later, he would have found his settlement ruined and abandoned. And then everybody would have remembered the loss of the Roanoke colony a generation before. Two failures in a row would not have been a good sign.
Now, I can't say for sure that the English would never have attempted a third settlement. But if they did, it would have been only after a long delay, and the geopolitical dynamics of North America would have been irrevocably altered.
Of course, it might be argued that, if Sir Thomas Gates had not arrived two weeks before, there would have been no abandonment. So two rolls of the dice cancelled each other out.
The English East India Company. In the seventeenth century nutmeg was more valuable than gold, and the only place where it grew was the Banda Islands in the Molucca (Maluku) Archipelago of what is now Indonesia. The story of England's attempt to gain a part of the nutmeg trade has been excellently chronicled in Giles Morton's 1999 book, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, and it amply reveals how a few key events became the hinges of history, which ultimately affected the whole world.
The English initially made contact with the inhabitants of the tiny island of Run, which they called Poolaroon (Pulau Run = "Run Island"), and which was virtually covered with the fragrant nutmeg trees. This was not an exercise in empire building, but merely an attempt to trade with the natives. Unfortunately, the Dutch were in the business of empire building, and were busy assailing and conquering all the other Banda islands until only Run, the westernmost, was left. So when, two days before Christmas in 1616, an English ship put in at Run, the inhabitants greeted the captain and crew as their saviours, and happily signed a treaty.
Thus began a four year siege which had ramifications across the world. England sent a fleet under Admiral Dale, who defeated the much smaller Dutch fleet off Jakarta on 2 January 1619. Now followed the first hinge of history. When the Dutch fleet cut and ran the following day, he did not follow it up and destroy it. Eventually, after a siege of 1,540 days, Run fell to the Dutch. In later years, as part of the consolidation of their holdings in the Bandas, they cut down all the trees on Run.
That was not all. In 1623, the few Englishmen on the Dutch Island of Amboyna (Ambon) were massacred after being put to horrific tortures. A pamphlet describing the suffering of the victims inflamed the passions of their countrymen and led to bitterness between the two countries which lasted for decades.
Meanwhile, the English East India Company were going down the plughole financially. One by one their "factories", or trading posts throughout the east were failing. Even the factory in Madras was on the verge of collapse due to famine. By 1657 the Company was about to be wound up. At the last minute, however, Cromwell and his Council of State examined its position and took action. A new charter was drawn up, the Company became a modern joint-stock corporation, and private individuals rushed in to invest.
Before that, however, in 1654 the Treaty of Westminster had been signed, requiring that Run be handed back to England. It didn't happen. It was not till 1660 that the Company was able to dispatch a fleet, and when it arrived, the Dutch administration found excuses for keeping it their hands. There was nothing that the Company could do but write back home and complain.
This was too much for the Duke of York. In 1664, citing the Amboyna massacre, he crossed the Atlantic, and captured New Amsterdam, which was promptly re-christened New York.
England never managed to recover Run. What they did get was complete control of the eastern seaboard of North America north of Florida. They also found that it was profitable to trade with India. Again, this was not an exercise in empire building, but merely trading with the natives. But there was a catch. India was largely under the control of a foreign dynasty, the Moguls, but for most of its history the subcontinent has been divided into as many separate nations as Europe. In the following century it began to tear itself apart again, with the rebellion of the Hindus against their Muslim overlords. Suddenly, the English found they had to fight to defend their trading posts, first against the French, and then against the new principalities springing up. Thus began the process which ultimately led to the subcontinent being re-integrated under British rule - which, I do not hesitate to proclaim, was the best thing that could have happened to it.
Have a look at the hinges of history in this episode.
- If Admiral Dale had followed up his victory at Jakarta, it would probably have led to British rule in the east of what is now Indonesia - but the Indian Empire would not have been founded.
- If Cromwell hadn't stepped in at the last minute in 1657, there would have been no Indian Empire.
- If the capture of Run and the Amboyna massacre had not left such bitterness, New Amsterdam would not have been conquered. A foreign enclave would have separated the northern and southern British colonies in North America. That would have weakened their position against the French, prevented the Revolution, and the growth of the United States.
The Tudors were the dynasty which dominated England throughout the turbulent sixteenth century.
Henry VIII was never meant to be king. We should have had a King Arthur. His older brother, Arthur married Catherine of Aragon at the age of 15 and died less than five months later. Because the marriage was apparently unconsummated, Henry received Papal dispensation to marry Catherine and, despite a couple of lapses, he was mostly faithful to her. Unlike so many other kings, Henry preferred wives to mistresses. The trouble was, Catherine could not produce an heir. Her six pregnancies all resulted in still births or early deaths except for the fifth, a girl. (One historian has suggested it was all consistent with Rh negative syndrome.)
Even before he got involved with Anne Boleyn Henry appears to have worried that this might have been God's punishment for marrying his brother's wife. He sought an annulment. Note: an annulment, not a divorce. A divorce, which wasn't possible in those days, ends a valid marriage; an annulment declares that the marriage was never valid in the first place. He would never have requested one if an heir existed, for it would make the heir illegitimate.
The Pope didn't refuse; he just didn't get around to making a decision. When Anne was found to be pregnant, Henry took matters into his own hands; he declared himself head of the Church of England and his marriage to Catherine invalid. After that followed everything which has made his reign notorious: the multiple marriages, the executions, the closing of the monasteries. In religion he preferred to run with the hares and bay with the hounds, beheading Papists as traitors and burning Protestants as heretics. Finally, he forced the succession through Parliament: first his son, followed by his daughters, irrespective of the legitimacy of their mothers' marriages.
Next came Edward VI, aged just over nine years. Under the regency, the Protestants came out of the woodwork and reformed the church. Edward lived only another 6½ years. He was followed by his half-sister, Mary who set about burning Protestants at the stake. Negotiations for her marriage in her youth had broken down, and now, at 37½, she was an old maid. She contracted an unpopular marriage with the King of Spain, but it proved childless. She died after a reign of just over five years. The last of the Tudors was Elizabeth I, under whom the church was completely reformed, and the nation commenced on its road to becoming a great power. Because Elizabeth never married, after her death the King of Scotland also became King of England.
What has all this got to do with the matter in hand? Everything! The whole progress of the country was hostage to the fertility and mortality of royalty. The whole of English history would have played out differently if Arthur had survived, if Catherine had borne a living son, if either Edward or Mary had survived long enough to have a "normal" reign, or if Mary had been married in her youth. And who knows how the paths of England and Scotland may have diverged if their monarchies had not been united?