The Amritsar Massacre

On 13 April falls the 100th anniversary of the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh. For the uninitiated, this is a garden in the Indian city of Amritsar. The garden is pretty close to the city’s famed Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism.

On the day in question, British troops led by one Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on the crowds in the garden. At least 379 people were killed. That number is the British estimate. The Indian estimates for the death toll are much higher.

It is depressingly easy to think of other incidents of British troops firing into harmless crowds. Think of Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday of 30 January 1972 with its 14 dead, or the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 where five people were killed.

Those incidents are separated by a total of 202 years and you should not mistake my meaning. I ascribe no special malice or talent for massacres to the British. Indeed, I lived in England for quite a few years and retain special fondness for the people of the United Kingdom.

It would be more accurate to repeat a piece of wisdom imparted to me by an old Spanish woman, who shocked me with her praise for Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1936 to 1975. Every country, she told me, has bad things in its history. There are no exceptions to this rule.

She was blinkered in her praise for Franco but her remark was absolutely on the money. We all want to think good things about our own country’s past but there were always bad things that happened alongside the good. Every country that has ever been has produced bad men and psychopaths.

Anyway, given the sweep of history you might think it strange that the three incidents I’ve listed are remembered so clearly. India has suffered worse massacres than Amritsar; the United States has seen three school massacres in the past decade alone with higher body counts than Boston; and Northern Ireland’s Troubles saw multiple massacres that killed more people than Bloody Sunday.

In other words, on a statistical basis alone it makes no sense to remember these particular events.

But none of them were about sense or statistics. Each was about unarmed people getting killed, and each had an outsize impact on events that followed. That’s why they’re so important.

Legal proceedings over events associated with the Troubles will probably continue for many years to come. Likewise, I believe that every American child learns about the Boston massacre.

And so it is that every Indian child will probably learn about the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. This 13 April, being the 100th anniversary it will be remembered to an extra degree. And for the impact it had on everything that came after, that’s how it should be.

The Melancholy Roman

Revealing moments

Ted Kennedy. Image from

There’s an old saying that character is what you are like when no one’s watching. That’s probably true but it’s not a useful definition. It’s better to describe character as what you’re like when things go wrong.

The name Mary Jo Kopechne is probably not that well known today. It probably wasn’t even well known in the past, but if I tell you that she was 28 years old and was born in 1940 it should give you an idea of the era I’m talking about. She didn’t live to be 29.

I should also say that when I was younger, once or twice in news coverage of American politics I heard the term “Chappaquiddick.” The sound of the word was unusual, clearly Native American, and caught my ear. It was obviously shorthand for a scandal. If you don’t understand the reference I’ll come back to it in a minute. It shall suffice for the moment to say that it links back to the name I mentioned in the last paragraph, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Let me shift a gear. Embedded below is a YouTube video. In it, a girl named Natalie Gilbert tries to sing the American national anthem at a basketball game. Partway through she forgets the words and stops, not knowing what to do. The head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, comes to her aid and they finish the song together.

For the record I love this video. It’s a good tonic when you want cheering up.

But perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne? Let me explain.

The Kennedy family was and is legendary in American politics. The eldest Kennedy boy was killed in World War II. The next one was JFK and I don’t have to explain what happened to him. His marginally less famous brother, Robert Kennedy, was leading the campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968 when he too was assassinated. That left the remaining brother, Ted Kennedy, to carry the family hopes.

On the night of 18 July 1969, Ted Kennedy, then a 37 year old and already a United States senator, was driving back from a party on Chappaquiddick Island. Kopechne was the only other person in his car. She had been one of a small team of women who’d worked together on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign and she and Ted Kennedy had been to a party for that same, small team.

In the dark, Kennedy made a mistake and accidentally drove off a bridge. His car fell into water and became submerged.

There is no suggestion that this was anything other than a mistake. The area was ill-lit and the bridge had no guardrails.

Kennedy was able to escape and swam to safety. Kopechne, on the other hand, was trapped in the car.

According to Kennedy, he repeatedly dived down to try to free her but was unable to do so.

And here’s the critical detail: having failed to rescue Kopechne from the car, Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours.

In slightly more detail, rather than go to the nearest house to try to summon help, he walked back to the party. He told two friends what had happened. They returned with him to the scene and all three tried to swim down to effect a rescue. None were able to.

Kennedy’s friends both insisted that the authorities should be alerted. Kennedy assured them that he himself would ensure this happened. They took him at his word. In fact Kennedy only reported the accident the next morning when he learned that the car had already been discovered and Kopechne’s lifeless body removed from it.

There have been books, documentaries, at least one movie, and lots of press articles that have covered the case, but the crucial detail concerns the fate of Kopechne – who it should be remembered, was a real human being and not just a name in a news report. You see, it is possible that she was caught in an air pocket in the submerged car and might have lived for several hours. In other words, after Kennedy had promised his friends that he would alert authorities, it’s possible that she could have been rescued had he done so.

Alternatively she may have already drowned. We don’t know for sure and never will.

If we return our attention to the story of Mo Cheeks and Natalie Gilbert, one reason for the video’s popularity is that we get to see what Cheeks is really like, and we like what we see.

By contrast, at Chappaquiddick we saw what Ted Kennedy was really like, and we don’t. It destroyed his presidential prospects for all time. His character had been revealed.

You may argue that that was unfair. Ted Kennedy went on to become an influential senator and if you share his political beliefs, you would probably say that he was a great force for good. He was proof that some people have second lives.

But still… that 10 hour delay…

Whatever his legacy, we still don’t like the character he showed at Chappaquiddick.

The Melancholy Roman

Galileo Galilei, Siri, and escalator 3 at Piccadilly Circus

Pisa Cathedral, with the Leaning Tower in the background

The most famous building in Pisa in Italy is the Leaning Tower. The lean became obvious soon after construction began in 1173 and the builders tried to adjust for the tilt even as they built higher. Obviously that didn’t work.

Not nearly as famous as the Leaning Tower but barely any distance away, is Pisa’s cathedral. I doubt that one tourist in a hundred gives it much thought and yet it, too, has a claim to fame. It was there that Galileo Galilei discovered the secret of pendular motion.

According to legend, he was in the cathedral and he was bored. It must have been a hot day because the windows were open. He watched as one of the chandeliers was blown about by the wind.

For whatever reason, he decided to time how long it took for the chandelier to return to the vertical after each wind gust. He did this by counting with his pulse. And he discovered something odd. It didn’t matter if the chandelier was moved only a little bit, or a lot. When it swung back towards the vertical it always took the same length of time to do so.

Galileo was fascinated enough by this phenomenon that he repeated the experiment when he got home. And he got the same result. The angle through which a pendulum swings is irrelevant. The time taken is dependent only on the pendulum’s length.

According to Wikipedia, the Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens followed up these observations a century later. He went further than Galileo and realised that the back-and-forth of a mechanically impelled pendulum could be used as a timing device. From this insight he invented the pendulum clock.

Pendulum clocks aren’t used much anymore. They’ve been superseded in the quest for greater accuracy. To understand why, I’m going to tell my Piccadilly Circus story.

Like most people, I’ve done different jobs in my working life. One day quite a few years ago I found myself monitoring escalator number three at Piccadilly Circus Station.

I was there because one of the other escalators in the station was out of order and it was important that number three remain in service. My task was to stand near the bottom of the escalator and watch it. If it stopped, I was to get it restarted as soon as possible.

This was exactly as boring as it sounds but sometimes in life you do boring jobs. I might add that nothing went wrong with the escalator that day.

Still, as I stood there I eventually noticed that someone had stuck an Arsenal FC sticker to one of the steps. I would see it every now and then as the escalator completed another revolution.

It occurred to me that I could work out the duration of a full rotation by using the sticker as a marker. When I did this, from one sighting of the sticker to the next took something like 112.5 seconds.

But of course, my timing might have been inaccurate. I might have fractionally delayed either starting or stopping the stopwatch. I reckoned that my timing could have been off by as much as a second.

But what if I counted two rotations? Or if I let the escalator perform fully 10 rotations?

If I counted 10 rotations, my overall timing could still be wrong by one second. But I could divide this time by 10 and if the escalator had been moving at a consistent speed, my timing for a single rotation would now be accurate to 1/10 of a second. If I let it go for 100 rotations, my timing would be accurate to 1/100 of a second.

And you see the pattern? Any process that repeats with an absolutely regular pattern can be used for timekeeping. And the more repetitions, the better.

Clock-makers were well aware of this and you might think they would have preferred shorter to longer pendulums. After all, they move faster. And clockmakers would, but they had to take other factors into account. Fast-moving pendulums wear out faster.

Pendulum clocks eventually became obsolete from the 1930s onwards. Quartz crystal oscillators were developed that were capable of thousands of accurate oscillations every second.

The very best clocks nowadays are atomic clocks, which are very expensive and very rare. They use technology that I won’t pretend to understand to count the switching of caesium atoms between two different states. This happens at the rate of 9,192,631,770 times a second.

So accurate are atomic clocks that we now know that the speed of rotation of the Earth can vary slightly. They’ve also been used to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Einstein predicted that time would pass more slowly for an object moving at high velocity and this was first tested in 1971 in an experiment where several atomic clocks were put in jet airliners while another remained on the ground. When the clocks were reunited the clocks showed different times, vindicating Einstein’s theory.

But what’s all this got to do with Siri, that I mentioned in the title?

Well, nothing. Except that Siri, and other products like Amazon’s Alexa, are part of the same trend towards greater accuracy. Perhaps I should explain.

Machine learning is an umbrella term for various computing techniques where data is processed to find useful information. One such technique involves the use of simulated neural networks, where linear algebra and calculus are used to try to simulate how brains process information. If that sounds unlikely it should be pointed out that this is exactly how number plate recognition systems work.

One of the holy grails of the tech industry is to produce a truly effective computerised voice recognition system. Using simulated neural networks, voice recognition software has been created that can transcribe spoken English with more than 95% accuracy. The industry goal is 99%.

The thing is, to achieve 99% will require a lot of number crunching and that in turn requires a lot of data. Just as counting more and more rotations of the escalator at Piccadilly Circus would have enabled me to give a more and more accurate rotation time, so having more and more voice data enables voice recognition systems to become ever more finely tuned.

Which is where Siri and Alexa come in. If it has ever occurred to you that Apple and Amazon have let you access their systems for an incredibly low price, it’s because they have. The big tech companies need to get voice data in huge quantities to feed and fine-tune their systems. Giving you cheap access to the systems is the most cost-effective way they’ve found of doing that.

The Melancholy Roman

The murders on the Andalucía Express

This image is from the page

I’ve already written a blog post about the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba. Time, then, to write about a crime that was discovered in that city: “El Crimen del Expreso de Andalucía.” That is, the Crime of the Andalucía Express.

It was 1924. The Andalucía Express was a train service that ran from Madrid, in the centre of Spain, to Andalucía in the south. Some of the route is now covered by the high-speed AVE service but in 1924 things were vastly different. The train service was slow but important.

The mail car of the train was important in its own right. Spain’s post office had a banking branch and the mail car carried cash and valuables in addition to letters. At each stop of the train’s journey, one of the workers in the carriage would open a door to exchange sacks with a colleague on the platform. This would continue all the way to Córdoba. There, one worker would change trains and continue to Málaga. The other would stay on the original train and finish in Cádiz.

On the evening of 11 April, train 92 left Madrid’s Atocha Station at about 8:20pm. In addition to the mail car there was a locomotive, passenger carriages and a dining car. The mail car was off-limits to everyone but the two postal workers.

It is recorded that on this trip, after Aranjuez Station there was no response at each stop when officials tried knocking on the door of the mail car. Nor were any lights on inside.

Were the men inside drunk? It wouldn’t be the first time. But just in case, at least one of the stations telegrammed ahead to Córdoba remarking on the fact that no response had been received.

The train arrived in Córdoba at 6am. There was again no response to repeated shouting and knocking but action was now unavoidable. Someone broke a window to access the carriage to find out what was going on. And that’s when they discovered that the train had been robbed and both workers murdered.

So what had happened after Aranjuez Station?

The planning and botched execution of a robbery

The idea of robbing the Andalucía Express was the brainchild of 36 year old José María Sánchez Navarrete, an employee of the banking arm of the post office. The son of a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Guard, he was nonetheless something of a black sheep. In the past he’d worked the Andalucía Express and other routes but had taken the opportunity to become involved in tobacco smuggling.

He was also gay, circulated in high society and loved gambling. And he was deeply in debt, owing money to a man named Honorio Sánchez Molina.

Molina likewise circulated in high society and was fond of gambling, but unlike Navarrete he was wealthy in his own right. He owned several properties including a boarding house.

In order to pay off his gambling debts, Navarrete made Molina a suggestion. The mail car of the Andalucía Express would carry cash and jewellery worth 250,000 to 500,000 pesetas. With Molina’s assistance and that of a friend, José Donday, he would rob the train.

The plan was simple. Thanks to his position he had access to the details of all the trains and the personnel working on them. He also knew the security protocols for accessing the mail car. Because it was off limits and there were two civil guards protecting every train, it was widely believed that a robbery was impossible.

However this belief was probably based on a scenario where a train is forced to stop and is then assaulted. The presence of the two civil guards meant that such an attempt would indeed be difficult.

Navarette had a different plan. He knew that the civil guards would ride in a different part of the train. He also knew that any postal worker with a valid permit was allowed to access and ride in the mail car. He was confident that he could get himself and his accomplices inside.

Here he would make use of his friend Donday’s expertise. José Donday was probably his lover, but was also an expert in drugs. He could prepare a bottle of cognac laced with sedative to make both workers fall asleep. Once they were unconscious a robbery would be easy. They could get down at the next stop and make a clean getaway. There would be no need for violence.

Molina agreed to the robbery but soon realised they would need assistance. Donday in particular was a weak link. He was a well-travelled, highly cultured man who spoke English, French and German, and like Molina and Navarrete he mixed in high society. But he was a timid man and no one’s idea of a natural train robber.

As the owner of a boarding house, Molina knew people from all sections of society. To get assistance he therefore invited a career criminal, Antonio Teruel López, aged 35, to participate in the robbery. Teruel in turn recruited Francisco de Dios Piqueras, aged 34. Teruel and Piqueras became the fourth and fifth members of the gang.

Their final, agreed-upon plan was that Teruel, Piqueras and Navarrete would travel to Aranjuez to wait for the train. Navarrate, having full access to crew details, would ensure that one of the postal workers would be someone he recognised. He would ask to be invited in. After gaining entry to the mail car and drugging the workers they would steal all the money and valuables and leave the train when it arrived at the next station, Alcázar de San Juan. There Donday would meet them with a car and they would return to Madrid. Molina, meanwhile, would remain in Madrid and ensure that he had an alibi.

The peculiar stupidity of Navarrete’s plan was that it involved him being recognised and invited into the mail car. How he thought he could get away with it remains a mystery.

The other detail that should be mentioned is that it was left to Donday to provide the car that would pick them up.

The plan having been agreed, Navarrete selected the night of 11/12 April for the robbery.

The mail car that night was staffed by Santos Lozano León, aged 45, and Ángel Ors Pérez, aged 30. The initial part of the plan at Aranjuez Station went as anticipated. Ors recognised Navarrate and was persuaded that he and his companions had permits to travel. They were allowed to enter the mail car and carried with them a suitcase.

One of the men produced the cognac from the suitcase and invited Lozano and Ors to have a drink. Both did so quite readily. Lozano then retreated to his office at the back of the carriage and resumed sorting the mail, his back turned to the office door.

What nobody knew was that Donday had made a mistake in preparing the cognac. It contained morphine, codeine and heroin. Each of these is a painkiller but none induces drowsiness. In other words, there was nothing in it to make Ors or Lozano fall asleep. Donday had never thought to check that his mixture actually worked.

Unaware of this, Navarrete engaged Ors in conversation. Were they carrying much of value?

Ors replied that they weren’t. On this trip they had only 12,000 pesetas.

Hearing this, Navarrete wanted to abort the plan. The amount was hardly worth the effort. However Teruel and Piqueras were both poor men to whom 12,000 pesetas was a lot of money.

Time passed. Neither Ors nor Lozano seemed the slightest bit drowsy. Navarrete’s plan had been that the robbery should not involve violence but it is unclear if this had ever been communicated to Teruel. Growing impatient, Teruel seized a pair of bolt cutters, entered Lozano’s office and struck him on the head. Lozano died almost instantly.

Teruel then turned on Ors. Ors was younger and more athletic than Lozano and had an unusually thick skull, a fact later discovered at post mortem. Repeated blows to his head did not disable him and of course he had been inadvertently given painkillers. He was actually getting the better of the fight with Teruel until Piqueras and Navarrete intervened. Teruel then pulled out a gun and shot him twice, fatally.

To make sure both men were dead, Teruel wrapped ligatures around their necks.

Their plan having gone so catastrophically wrong, the men did not carry out the rest of the robbery efficiently and left some of the more valuable items behind. However they left the train at Alcázar de San Juan Station as planned and remembered to climb down on the side away from the platform. They also had the presence of mind to extinguish the lamps in the carriage as they left.

What they hadn’t counted on was the sheer stupidity of José Donday. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to him to tell his accomplices that he couldn’t drive. Charged with the task of meeting them with a car and getting them back to Madrid, he’d hired a taxi for the purpose. Even more incredibly, his companions got into the taxi with him and none of them made any attempt to harm the driver.

When the crime was discovered it was publicised throughout Spain. Among the people who came forward as witnesses was the taxi driver. How could he forget the four strange men, two clearly wealthy and two clearly not, who’d caught a taxi together from Alcázar de San Juan to Madrid in the early hours of the morning?

It took police six days to visit Teruel’s address. He hid. They arrested his wife and he must have realised that he couldn’t get away with it.

Two days later he shot himself. He left a suicide note confessing to the crime and naming his accomplices.

The remaining four were soon arrested. Navarrete’s father pleaded for his son’s life but this was the era of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera and there would be no mercy. Navarrete, Piqueras and Molina were all executed less than a month after the crime had taken place.

And Donday? A month after the crime he was the sole survivor. He was spared execution but sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. During his time in prison he dedicated himself to translation and it’s still possible to buy his translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. After his release it is believed that he migrated to a South American country where he died in obscurity.

And that is the story of the murders on the Andalucía Express.

Links about the case (all in Spanish):

The Melancholy Roman

The cathedral-mosque of Córdoba

The cathedral-mosque of Córdoba is one of the most famous buildings in all of Spain. It is quite literally a large former mosque with a cathedral built in the middle of it.

There’s a famous quote associated with the building. Carlos, the king of Spain, was the person who ordered the construction of the cathedral. On seeing the result he is said to have remarked,

‘Habéis destruido lo que era único en el mundo, y habéis puesto en su lugar lo que se puede ver en todas partes.’

You have destroyed something that was unique in the world, and have put in its place something you can see anywhere.

Whether or not the quote is accurate we can agree with the sentiment. However the cathedral’s builders were only obeying his orders. Moreover, if you actually visit the building it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they did the best possible job under the circumstances. The architecture of the mosque remains intact around the cathedral and the cathedral itself is magnificent.

I must confess, though, that I only recently realised how ignorant I was about Spanish history. I have been to Córdoba twice and always assumed that Carlos gave the order for the cathedral’s construction once the city had been captured from its Muslim rulers. It isn’t so.

In fact Córdoba was captured by Fernando III in 1236. And thanks to the two excellent RTVE series Isabel, and Carlos, I now know that Carlos was the grandson of the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando. These were the same Isabel and Fernando who completed the Reconquista of Spain in 1492 and who financed Cristóbal Colón’s* first expedition the same year. Grandson Carlos came to power in 1516. In other words, the partial destruction of the mosque came about 300 years after the capture of Córdoba. That’s right: 300 years.

There are other points that are worth tidying up: the Fernando who captured Córdoba was Fernando III of Castilla; the Fernando who completed the Reconquista was Fernando II of Aragón. They were very different men: Fernando III of Castilla was considered a saint and has literally been canonised; Fernando II of Aragon was so cunning, devious and ruthless that he was one of Machiavelli’s inspirations for “The Prince.”

But back to the cathedral-mosque. Why did Córdoba have such a large mosque in the first place? The answer is that in 1000AD the city was one of the largest in the world. Its population has been estimated at 500,000. A large mosque was entirely warranted.

By the time Carlos ordered the cathedral’s construction the city’s glory had long vanished. Spain’s, on the other hand, was just beginning. Carlos wasn’t just the king of Spain; he was also Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor. His was the first empire on which the sun did not set.

Still, he wasn’t very good at preserving the architectural legacy he inherited. The cathedral-mosque is only the second-best surviving example of Islamic architecture in Spain. The best is the Nasrid Palaces, part of the Alhambra complex in Granada. To get to them you have to walk past a not-especially interesting palace – one built on Carlos’ orders.

*Christopher Columbus is known as Cristóbal Colón in Spain.

The Melancholy Roman