1864 — Giacomo Meyerbeer dies

Born in 1791 in Germany, Giacomo Meyerbeer was one of the foremost exponents of the musical and theatrical form known as ‘The Grand Opera’. In his day he was one of the most famed composers in all of Europe, but his reputation has suffered since his death – largely due to the attacks on his character and works by his former student Richard Wagner.

The motivation for these attacks is complex – Wagner was clearly jealous of his teacher’s success and the wealth that it brought him, but also despised Meyerbeer due to the older man’s Jewishness. Among other wild accusations, Wagner accused Meterbeer of bribing critics to ensure favourable reviews.

Referenced in:

Decomposing Composers — Monty Python

1885 – The Congo Free State is established by King Léopold II of Belgium

The Congo Free State was founded by King Leopold II, basically transforming the entirety of this territory (encompassing all the land now claimed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo) into one huge raw material extraction area.

This being the 1880’s in colonial Africa, the extraction was performed by native slave labour under the aegis of the Association internationale africaine – a company of which Leopold was both the chairman and the sole shareholder. For 23 years, it was a private fief of the King, and the site of terrifying cruelties and deaths so numerous that they could reasonably be considered a genocide.

With the end of Leopold’s rule in 1908, the territory became known as Belgian Congo, a colonial territory held by the Belgian government until 1960. Humanitarian policies gradually gained in importance over the five decades of Belgian rule, although the rule of the Belgians remained exploitative and frequently brutal.

Referenced in:

Short Memory — Midnight Oil

1960 – Caryl Chessman is executed

The execution of Caryl Chessman was one of the most controversial in American history. Convicted of 17 assorted counts of rape, robbery and kidnapping in 1948, Chessman was sentenced to death by the state of California. (Kidnapping at that time was punished by execution in California). But there were irregularities in his case and Chessman asserted his innocence from the very beginning. After his conviction, there were many appeals, and Chessman would wind up spending a then-record 11 years and ten months on Death Row, with no fewer than 8 stays of execution.

He was finally executed in the gas chamber in 1960, but his death had become a cause célèbre for those who opposed the death penalty. It was largely as a result of Chessman’s case that California made the death penalty more restrictive in application, removing kidnapping as a charge attracting that penalty.

Referenced in:
Done Too Soon — Neil Diamond
The Ballad of Caryl Chessman — Ronnie Hawkins