1798 – France invades Egypt

Napoleon had grand dreams of empire when he embarked for the Middle East in 1798. And at first, they seemed warranted. His forces took Malta in June 1798, and then eluded the British Navy for nearly two weeks as they crossed the Mediterranean to Egypt. On July 1, the fleet landed at Alexandria, although Napoleon himself was still at sea.

Perhaps this is why his orders were ignored, and his forces invaded the city during the night, taking it with little resistance. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was a mixed success: on land his forces triumphed over the Egyptians and ended the rule of the Mamelukes; at sea, they lost a disastrous engagement with the British. Undaunted, Napoleon continued with his plans to invade Syria, but a combination of harrying from the British at sea and the Ottomans on land, coupled with uprisings of the conquered (notably at Cairo in October 1798) eventually forced him to withdraw. The lasting results of his invasion were few: Egypt remained an Ottoman possession, although the decline of the Ottoman Empire was now undeniable; and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone led to great advances in archaeology, making it possible to translate hieroglyphics into modern languages.

Referenced in:
Done with Bonaparte – Mark Knopfler

1733 – Jeremiah Dixon born

Jeremiah Dixon was born in Cockfield, in the English county of Durham. He was the fifth of seven children born to George Dixon and Mary Hunter. His father was a wealthy coal mine owner, and Dixon became interested in astronomy and mathematics during his education, interests that would define his career.

He first served as an assistant to Charles Mason in 1761, when the two travelled to Cape of Good Hope to observe the Transit of Venus, but the pair were equals on their most famous deed: surveying the borders of Pennsylvania and Maryland, which would afterwards be known as the Mason-Dixon Line.

Referenced in:

Sailing To Philadelphia — Mark Knopfler

1932 – Charles L. ‘Sonny’ Liston born

It’s possible that this isn’t actually the birthday of Sonny Liston – certainly he looked older than his years for most of his life – but it’s the one he always claimed. Born in Arkansas, he was the 12th of 13 children and was frequently beaten by his father (leaving him with scars he would bear his entire life). Perhaps that’s why he started boxing – and it’s hard to imagine that it wasnt a motivation of his. In the course of his professional career, Sonny Liston would become one of the most successful boxers of all time.

He fought a total of 54 fights, of which he won 50 (and 39 of those via knockout), over the course of a career that spanned the years 1953 to 1970. Of his four defeats, two of them were to Muhammed Ali and one to Marty Marshall (whom Liston defeated in the rematch).

Referenced in:

Song for Sonny Liston – Mark Knopfler

1728 – Charles Mason born

Born some time in April of 1728, Charles Mason is probably best known as one of the two drawers of the Mason-Dixon Line separating Pennsylvania and Maryland. In his day, though, he was better known for his work for the Royal Society, including observing the Transit of Venus in 1761 (the first time he worked with Jeremiah Dixon), and most particularly, his long and ultimately successful struggle to perfect the Lunar Tables (which were used to determine the longitude of ships at sea).

Referenced in:

Sailing To Philadelphia — Mark Knopfler

1970 – Sonny Liston dies in suspicious circumstances

Sonny Liston was found dead by his wife on January 5, 1971, but the date that appeared on his death certificate is December 30, 1970. This date is based on a police estimate, but since the police also ruled that his death was due to a heroin overdose and Liston’s autopsy showed no evidence of such an event, the date may also be suspect.

In addition, several things one would expect to find at the site of a heroin injection, such a tourniquet or similar to tie off with and a spoon to cook in, were absent from the scene of Liston’s death. Nor did Liston have any history of heroin use – and it’s hard to believe that he could have kept such a thing a secret, given his well-known love of drinking and partying to excess.

It is widely believed that his death was a result of a criminal hit, ordered by unknown underworld figures, and that the police investigation and its findings were a coverup.

Referenced in:
Song for Sonny Liston — Mark Knopfler

1793 – Mason and Dixon arrive in Philadelphia

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were a pair of English astronomers who were hired by Thomas Penn and Frederick Calvert, respectively the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to resolve a boundary dispute between the two colonies in 1763. The two had worked together for two years before that, Dixon serving as Mason’s assistant.

The survey took three years to complete – and the pair remained in America for another two years after that, being admitted to the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, in 1768, before they left American in the same way they had entered it: via Philadelphia.

Referenced in:

Sailing To Philadelphia — Mark Knopfler

1812 – French begin retreat from Moscow

It is possibly the most notorious defeat in military history, a textbook example of strategic and logistical errors: Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, in the chilly Winter in 1812. This day, December 14, marks the date upon which the French were finally expelled from Russian territory.

A combination of factors – worsening weather, an over-extended supply chain, the scorched-earth policy of the Russian peasantry and the guerilla tactics of the Russian military being the most well-known – came together to make the French position in Moscow untenable. When Napoleon left the army to shore up his political position in France, the already poor morale of the French army sank lower still, and the remaining commanders ordered a retreat, most likely in order to prevent a mutiny.

Thus began one of the most infamous and fatal retreats the world has ever seen. In addition, the defeat was the beginning of the end for Napoleon, whose fortunes declined over the next few years, finally culminating in his defeat in the battle of Waterloo in 1815

Referenced in:

Done With Bonaparte – Mark Knopfler

1767 – Mason and Dixon complete the surveying of the Line between Maryland and Pennsylvania

Charles Mason, a fellow of the Royal Society and noted astronomer, and his sometime assistant, land surveyor and amateur astronomer, Jeremiah Dixon, were hired by certain wealthy interests in what was then the British colony of America to conclude a number of difficult boundary disputes in the young colonies.

Landing in Philedelphia in 1763, Mason and Dixon spent the next four years painstakingly measuring and fixing the proper boundaries between the various colonies, ceasing their work on October 18, 1867. (A team of their subordinates completed the survey in 1787.)

The lines they laid down, although resurveyed since that time, formed the basic lines of the borders between the colonies (and later the states) of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Later, as these states took different sides in the Civil War, the line came to symbolise the political and cultural border between the southern and northern states.

Referenced in:

Sailing To Philadelphia – Mark Knopfler

It is also possible that Dixon’s name is the origin of the south’s nickname of “Dixie”.

1808 – Asturias declares war on Napoleon

Although Napoleon’s forces had originally met with considerable success in this war, conquering and subjugating several provinces, it was on this day that the Peninsular War started to go badly for Napoleon, at least symbolically.

The tiny province of Asturias, located on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, declared war on Napoleon and cast out its French governor. Within weeks, it had been joined by every other Spanish province. By August, French forces withdrew by Portugal, by October, they controlled only the two northernmost provinces of Spain, those closest to France. But here the tide turned once more, as Napoleon had fresh armies to draw upon and the Spanish none.

Referenced in:

Mark Knopfler – Done With Bonaparte