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29: Australia, Part II

Though it started as a convenient dumping ground for Britain’s human refuse, the colony of Australia was not destined to remain a prison forever. Despite the grandiose plans of some of its visionaries, however—like Lachlan Macquarie, Colonial Governor—it would take a great deal of labor, money and innovation if it was ever to rise above its convict roots. Macquarie began with an ambitious program of building and urban design, in the process cheating the British government and Australia’s...


28: Australia, Part I

In the 1810s, the British penal colony of Australia, known then as New South Wales, was barely 20 years old. Already it had sunk into a morass of drunkenness, corruption and hopelessness, even suffering a military coup by the soldiers tasked to keep the unruly convicts in line. There were deep social divisions between the “Emancipists,” freed convicts who hoped to own their own land, and “Exclusives,” white settlers who came voluntarily. This is to say nothing of the tragic effects that...


Second Decade Off Topic: Benihana Nights

This is an Off Topic episode, involving historical topics outside the scope of the main podcast. This episode spins off Episode 27 of the main podcast (“The Belle of Nagasaki”). Japan and the United States face each other across the largest, most contested space in the world: the Pacific Ocean. From American attempts to cash in on the China trade in the 1780s, right after the Revolution, to complicated geopolitics and open warfare in the 1940s, these two countries have loomed large in...


27: The Belle of Nagasaki

In the Second Decade, Japan was the most exotic, unknown and isolated country in the world. Since the early 17th century the Tokugawa Shoguns had deliberately closed the country to trade and cultural exchange with the rest of the globe, wanting especially to avoid the religious influences of European countries. Japan’s only outlet to Western trade was a trading post on a tiny island in Nagasaki harbor. In 1817, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Holland sent a new director-general to...


26: The Queenston Hostages

In October 1812, over 900 American troops surrendered to the British after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Most of these P.O.W.s were exchanged immediately, but the British singled out 23 specific men among them and refused to return them, claiming they were actually British citizens. Against the vociferous protests of the American government, the British shipped the “Queenston 23” to England, intending that they would be tried for treason and, if found guilty,...


Second Decade Off Topic: The Sunn Also Rises

This is the first in a projected series of bonus episodes called Second Decade: Off Topic, which examine historical topics outside the scope of the main podcast. This episode spins off a matter mentioned in Episode 25 of the main podcast (“The Man in the Buffalo Fur Suit”). Unless you’re a movie nerd, chances are the name “Sunn Classic Pictures” doesn’t mean anything to you. But in the 1970s, the Utah-based studio, owned by a company that made shaving razors, had a string of bizarre hits...


25: The Man in the Buffalo Fur Suit

You’ve probably heard of Daniel Boone and “Grizzly” Adams, the quintessential frontier mountain men who helped forge America’s frontier identity in the 19th century. But you’ve probably never heard of Estwick Evans. An eccentric New Hampshire lawyer, something compelled to Evans put on a skin-tight suit made of buffalo fur, hoist a 6-foot rifle across his shoulders and take off into the snowy wilderness of New England on a frigid day in February 1818. Evans’s epic journey covered over...


24: New England's Cold Friday

Church steeples, horse-drawn sleighs, picket fences, snow-covered this what you think of when you picture an old-time winter in New England? The cultural and historical roots of these images go back to Colonial times, but the historical reality isn’t always so idyllic. On January 19, 1810, a strange and sudden cold snap, accompanied by violent winds, plunged the region into a sudden deep freeze that nearly everyone who lived through it remembered vividly for the rest of their...


23: Murder in Charleston

You may not have heard of David Ramsay, but if you lived in Charleston, South Carolina in the second decade, you would probably know him—if you were part of the city’s rich white elite, that is. Ramsay, born in Pennsylvania, Princeton-educated, served in the South Carolina State Legislature and the Confederation Congress, was a protegé of revolutionary doctor Benjamin Rush—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—and tried to rid Charleston’s steamy streets of yellow fever by predicting...


22: Old Ironsides

The early months of the War of 1812 served up a relentless drumbeat of bad news for the United States: our untrained and ill-equipped forces, fighting a war they were unprepared for in the first place, suffered reverse after reverse on the battlefield. But on the high seas, the exploits of one remarkable ship, the USS Constitution, provided the only bright spot in the gloom and demonstrated that the new republic could, when circumstances called for it, compete militarily even with the...


21: Frankenstein

The image and concept of Frankenstein’s monster—most notably personified by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal horror film—are indelible in literature, cinema and popular culture. Far more than just an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein is a philosophical journey as well as a cultural phenomenon. But how did it come about? The idea for the novel was famously hatched at a lakeside chateau in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati, in the late spring and early summer of 1816 by...


20: Second Decade on Film

Since the beginning of film as a narrative and artistic medium, historical events and eras have been popular subjects for filmmakers. The decade of the 1810s, however, has not tended to show up in movies or on TV as frequently or consistently as other eras—but there are still plenty of examples of the second decade on film. Beginning in the 1920s with French filmmaker Abel Gance, depictions of the 1810s, many involving Napoleon or adaptations of popular and classic novels, have woven their...


19: Curious King George

Despite being one of the longest-reigning British monarchs as well as wildly popular among his own people, King George III gets a bad rap as the “mad king who lost America.” In truth the story of George’s life is touching and sad. After dealing with not one but two world wars that occurred on his watch, as well as two world-shaking revolutions in America and France, George was ultimately felled by a mysterious illness that affected his body as well as his mind. Signs of his recurring...


18: Let China Sleep

Despite seeming to the West as if it was “sleeping,” China in the 1810s was in fact experiencing the crucial transition of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty from its cultural and political zenith under the Qianlong Emperor to the ruin and chaos that would ramp up in the later 19th century. Ruled at this time by Aisin Gioro Yongyan, also known as the Jiaqing Emperor, China rebuffed not one but two British diplomatic missions and continued its policy of isolation and indifference to the West. But at...


17: The War of 1812, Part III

The year 1814 was one of the bleakest in American history. It opened with the country embroiled in war, with most of its coast blockaded by the British Navy, the economy collapsing, the frontiers aflame with violence, and the government teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. And now that Britain’s war with Napoleon was effectively over, things were bound to get even worse for the United States. American troops scored a few victories in the field, some of them surprising, but the capture and...


16: The War of 1812, Part II

Having declared war at a time it was woefully unprepared to face the world’s most powerful country on the battlefield, the United States spent the first phase of the War of 1812—at least on land—lurching from disaster to disaster, with most efforts aimed at the theoretically achievable goal of conquering Canada. Unable at first even to feed or supply its troops competently, and with serious doubts about the objects of the war still lingering in the public mind and the halls of Congress,...


15: The War of 1812, Part I

What was the War of 1812? Which countries were involved? What were the stakes? Why is it so obscure? Why does it have such a funny name? How come you were never taught much about it in school? These questions, and many more, lie at the heart of understanding the first military conflict fought by the United States since the founding of the Constitution. The causes of the war are surprisingly murky and confusing, everything from a mutual misunderstanding between the U.S. and Great Britain as...


14: Down & Out at Harvard

Harvard, America’s first college, is thought of as a bastion of privileged patricians, a place filled with old brick buildings, ivy-covered walls and inscrutable ancient traditions. But it’s also a real college where real young people live, learn, struggle and try to find themselves. In 1813 two boys, Stephen Salisbury and Aaron White, fifteen and sixteen, respectively, left their homes in Massachusetts to become freshmen in the Harvard College class of 1817. The remarkable personal...


13: Kid Lincoln

Most of us were taught in school about Abraham Lincoln’s humble origins: the log cabin on the Kentucky frontier, his lack of formal education, and colorful tales of rail splitting and backwoods adventures. But the traditional American mythology leaves out a lot about Lincoln’s formative years. Lincoln was born at the beginning of the Second Decade into a complex and deeply contested environment, shaped by economic hardship, conflict with Native Americans, and simmering resentments over...


12: Napoleon in Russia, Part III

Why did Napoleon, with the largest army the world had ever seen up until that time, lose his war with Russia so badly and so tragically? You may have heard that it’s because he didn’t take the threat of the cold Russian climate seriously enough, and his army froze to death on the retreat from ruined, burnt-out Moscow. This is at best a half-truth. The French Army was already disintegrating even before Napoleon occupied Moscow, and despite the “alternative facts” that Bonaparte desperately...


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