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Witness History


History as told by the people who were there.

History as told by the people who were there.


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History as told by the people who were there.




BBC World Service Bush House Strand London WC2B 4PH


China's 'Kingdom of women'

The Mosuo community in China’s Himalayan foothills is matrilineal, so a family’s ‘bloodline’, inheritance and power is passed down through the female side. There is no such thing as marriage and monogamy is actively discouraged. The women rule and the men don’t mind. Rebecca Kesby has been speaking to Choo Wai Hong, a Singaporean corporate lawyer who came across the community as she travelled through her ancestral homeland of China. She liked it so much she learnt the language and built a...


The vultures saved from extinction

South Asian vultures started dying in huge numbers in the 1990s but no one knew why. They were on the verge of extinction before scientists worked out what was killing them. Bob Howard has been hearing from Munir Virani of the Peregrine Fund, who discovered that the vultures’ livers were being damaged when they fed on the carcasses of cattle which had been treated with a widely-used painkiller. White-backed vultures in their enclosure at the Vulture Conservation Centre run by World Wide Fund...


Fighting for Castro at the Bay of Pigs

On April 17 1961 a group of Cuban exiles launched an invasion of communist-ruled Cuba in a failed attempt to topple Fidel Castro. After 72 hours of fighting many of the invaders were captured or killed. Gregorio Moreria was a member of the local communist militia who fought against the US-backed invaders. He was injured and briefly captured during the fighting. He spoke to Mike Lanchin for Witness History in 2016. (Photo: Members of Castro's militia during the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion....


How a worm helped explain human development

After the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA in the 1950s, South African biologist Sydney Brenner was searching for a model animal to help him tease out the genes involved in human behaviour and human development from egg to adult. Brenner chose a tiny nematode worm called caenorhabditis elegans (c.elegans for short), whose biological clockwork can be observed in real time under a microscope through its transparent skin. The worm has since been at the heart of all sorts of...


The US Supreme Court's first woman justice

In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman judge to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. She was nominated by newly-elected Republican president Ronald Reagan, who'd made the pledge to appoint a woman part of the campaign that led to his landslide victory. Justice O'Connor served for 24 years and had the decisive vote in many landmark cases. Her friend and former law clerk, Ruth McGregor, has been talking to Louise Hidalgo. Picture: Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in at the Senate...


Discovering the Jet Stream

The Jet Stream is formed by powerful high-altitude rivers of air which circle the globe and help determine our climate. The existence of these winds was first documented in Japan in the 1920s, but only became more widely known during World War Two, when American airmen encounter high-speed winds on bombing missions over Japan. At the same time, the Japanese military also began to use these powerful transcontinental winds to carry innovative balloon bombs all the way to the West Coast of...


From Leningrad to St Petersburg

As the communist system in the former Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, the people of Leningrad voted to drop Vladimir Lenin's name abandoning the city's revolutionary heritage and returning to its historic name of St Petersburg. Dina Newman spoke to Ludmilla Narusova, wife of the first St Petersburg mayor, Anatoli Sobchak, who campaigned for the hugely symbolic change. This programme is a rebroadcast - it was first aired in 2018. Photo: Communist campaigners demonstrate against the name...


David Attenborough's first expedition

In 1954, the BBC broadcast a new television programme in Britain. It was called Zoo Quest and it launched the career of a man who has since brought the natural world into millions of homes around the world, the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Louise Hidalgo has been listening back through the BBC archives to Sir David telling the story of the first natural history expedition for Zoo Quest, to Sierra Leone in West Africa. Picture: David Attenborough, producer of the BBC wildlife...


Mexico's female serial killer

Former female wrestler Juana Barraza was found guilty in March 2008 of murdering at least eleven elderly women in Mexico city over a period of seven years. Barraza, who became known as the "little old lady killer", admitted to murdering three women, and told investigators that it was because of her lingering resentment for the abuse that she'd suffered as a child at the hands of her alcoholic mother. Mike Lanchin has been hearing from Mexican neuro-psychologist Dr Feggy Ostrosky, who spent...


The women who reclaimed the night

How women in the North of England took to the streets in the late 1970s to protest against a serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. Police advised them to stay indoors to avoid being attacked but the feminist protestors wanted greater protection for women and girls. Rebecca Kesby has been hearing from Al Garthwaite one of the organisers of Britain's first "Reclaim the Night" march. Photo: women taking part in a Reclaim the Night march. Credit: BBC


Black Jesus

On Easter Sunday 1967 the Reverend Albert Cleage renamed his church in Detroit the Shrine of the Black Madonna. He preached that if man was made in God's image there was little chance that Jesus was white as most of the world's population is non-white. Reverend Cleage also pointed to the many depictions of black madonnas all over the world throughout history. Claire Bowes has been speaking to his daughter Pearl Cleage, a writer and activist, about her father's belief in black representation...


Kidnapped on an orchid hunt

In March 2000, two young English travellers, Tom Hart-Dyke and Paul Winder, were kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas while attempting to cross the notoriously dangerous Darien Gap region on the border with Panama. Hart-Dyke is a gardener who was on a mission to collect orchids, and he survived a nine-month ordeal by building a nursery in the cloud forest and planning his own dream garden for the family castle back home in Kent. He talks to Simon Watts. PHOTO: Tom Hart-Dyke (l) with Paul Winder...


Mrs Thatcher’s ground-breaking Soviet TV interview

How Mrs Thatcher shook up the Soviet media with a landmark interview in Moscow in 1987 focusing on nuclear disarmament. It was broadcast unedited and helped bring in the era of “glasnost.” Bob Howard talks to Boris Kalyagin, one of the three Soviet journalists who interviewed the British prime minister. Margaret Thatcher, circa 1993. copyright Jeff Overs / BBC


When the prisoners ran the prison

In March 1973 guards went on strike at Walpole maximum security prison in the US state of Massachussetts, and the prisoners took over. For the next three months the inmates, organised in the National Prisoners Reform Association, ran daily life in the prison. They were helped by a group of outside observers, drawn from members of the community. Mike Lanchin has been hearing from the organiser of the observer teams, Rev. Ed Rodman, about his memories of this unique, but ultimately doomed,...


Anorexia nervosa

The American singer, Karen Carpenter, died in 1983 of anorexia nervosa. She was one half of a world famous brother and sister duo called The Carpenters. She was aged just 32. Up until then anorexia nervosa had often been referred to in the media as the "slimmer's disease". Skinny celebrities were seen as both beautiful and successful and anorexia was somewhat glamorised. Claire Bowes has been speaking to Dr Pat Santucci, a psychiatrist who helped set up the world's first national...


South Africa takes on big pharma

At the end of the 1990s, tens of millions of people across Africa had been infected with HIV and in South Africa hundreds of thousands of people were dying from AIDS. People were demanding cheaper drugs, but the big pharmaceutical companies didn’t want to play ball. They took the South African to court over the right to import cheap drugs in a case which would last three years and which would pit the big pharmaceutical companies against Nelson Mandela and the rainbow nation. Bob Howard talks...


The woman who got America talking about sex

Dr Ruth Westheimer first became popular on a radio show in New York in the early 1980s. Her frank and open approach to giving advice on all sorts of different questions about sex soon made her a TV personality too. Photo: Dr Ruth Westheimer. Credit: Getty Images


Jamaica’s ‘drug lord’

The Jamaican government issued a warrant for the arrest and extradition of the drug lord Christopher Coke, otherwise known as “Dudus” in May 2010. The United States wanted him extradited to face charges of racketeering and bringing drugs and guns into America. Coke controlled an area of the Jamaican capital Kingston, called Tivoli Gardens. Dozens of people in the district he dominated were killed as the police and military stormed the stronghold, even using mortar bombs to try and disperse...


The Ulster Workers' Strike

An early attempt at power-sharing in Northern Ireland ended after protestant workers went on strike and bomb attacks killed dozens in the Republic of Ireland in 1974. Matt Murphy has been hearing from Austin Currie, the former SDLP politician, about the events of that time. Photo: Dr Ian Paisley addresses a mass gathering of supporters, in the Protestant Shankhill Road area of Belfast in 1974. The Ulster Workers' Council declared that "everything stops at midnight" in an attempt to bring...


The dirtiest chess match in history

In 1978, the World Chess Championship between the Soviet champion and convinced communist, Anatoly Karpov, and the dissident and defector, Viktor Korchnoi, turned into one of the most infamous clashes in the history of the game. At a time of peak Cold War tension, the two players traded allegations about yoghurts containing messages, the use of psychics and the mysterious appearance of a meditating yoga cult dressed in orange robes. David Edmonds tells the story of the match through the...