Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, and Texas Governor John Connally with his wife, Nellie, in the presidential limousine, minutes before the assassination

Location: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, U.S.

Coordinates: 32°46′45″N 96°48′31″

Date: 22 November 1963; 1230 Hours CST

Target: John F. Kennedy

Attack type: Sniper assassination

Weapons: 6.5×52mm Italian Carcano M91/38 bolt-action rifle

Deaths: John F. Kennedy; J. D. Tippit

Injured: John Connally; James Tague

Perpetrator: Lee Harvey Oswald

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated on Friday, 22 November 1963, at 1230 hours CST in Dallas, Texas, while riding in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza. Kennedy was riding with his wife Jacqueline, Texas Governor John Connally, and Connally’s wife Nellie when he was fatally shot by former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald, firing in ambush from a nearby building. Governor Connally was seriously wounded in the attack. The motorcade rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead about 30 minutes after the shooting; Connally recovered.

After a 10-month investigation, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald assassinated Kennedy, that Oswald had acted entirely alone, and that Ruby had acted alone in killing Oswald Kennedy was the eighth and most recent US President to die in office, and the fourth (following LincolnGarfield, and McKinley) to be assassinated. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson automatically became president upon Kennedy’s death.

A later investigation, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), agreed with the Warren Commission that the injuries that Kennedy and Connally sustained were caused by Oswald’s three rifle shots, but they also concluded that Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy” as analysis of a dictabelt audio recording pointed to the existence of an additional gunshot and therefore “… a high probability that two gunmen fired at [the] President”. The committee was not able to identify any individuals or groups involved with the possible conspiracy. In addition, the HSCA found that the original federal investigations were “seriously flawed” with respect to information-sharing and the possibility of conspiracy. As recommended by the HSCA, the dictabelt evidence suggesting conspiracy was subsequently re-examined and rejected. It was determined that the dictabelt recorded sounds at another location in Dallas about one minute after Kennedy had been shot.

In light of the investigative reports determining that “reliable acoustic data do not support a conclusion that there was a second gunman”, the U.S. Justice Department concluded active investigations and stated “that no persuasive evidence can be identified to support the theory of a conspiracy” in the assassination. However, Kennedy’s assassination is still the subject of widespread debate and has spawned numerous conspiracy theories and alternative scenarios. Polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that up to 80 percent of Americans suspected that there was a plot or cover-up.


Kennedy chose to travel to Texas to smooth over frictions in the Democratic Party between liberals Ralph Yarborough and Don Yarborough (no relation) and conservative Texas governor John Connally. The visit was first agreed upon by Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (a Texas native), and Connally during a meeting in El Paso in June.

Kennedy later decided to embark on the trip with three basic goals in mind:

 1) to help raise more Democratic Party presidential campaign fund contributions;

 2) begin his quest for reelection in November 1964; and

3) to help make political amends among several leading Texas Democratic party members who appeared to be fighting politically amongst themselves since the Kennedy–Johnson ticket had barely won Texas in 1960 (and had even lost in Dallas).

 The trip was publicly announced in September 1963; the exact motorcade route was finalized on 18 November and publicly announced a few days before 22 November.

Route to Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza showing the route of Kennedy’s motorcade. In the overhead view north is at left

Kennedy’s itinerary called for him to arrive at Dallas Love Field via a short flight from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. The motorcade route through Dallas – with Kennedy, Connally, and their wives together in a single limousine, and Johnson and his wife two cars behind – was intended to give Kennedy maximum exposure to local crowds before his arrival for a luncheon at the Trade Mart, where he would meet with civic and business leaders.

The Dallas Trade Mart was preliminarily selected as the site for the luncheon, and Kenneth O’Donnell, Kennedy’s friend and appointments secretary, had selected it as the final destination on the motorcade route. Leaving from Dallas Love Field, the motorcade had been allotted 45 minutes to reach the Trade Mart at a planned arrival time of 1215 hours. The itinerary was designed to serve as a meandering 10-mile (16-km) route between the two places, and the motorcade vehicles could be driven slowly within the allotted time.

Special Agent Winston G. Lawson, a member of the White House detail who acted as the advance Secret Service Agent, and Secret Service Agent Forrest V. Sorrels, special agent in charge of the Dallas office, were the most active in planning the actual motorcade route. On 14 November, both men attended a meeting at Love Field and drove over the route that Sorrels believed was best suited for the motorcade. From Love Field, the route passed through a suburban section of Dallas, through Downtown along Main Street, a right turn on N. Houston Street for one block, a left turn on Elm Street passing through Dealey Plaza, and finally to the Trade Mart via a short segment of the Stemmons Freeway.

Kennedy had planned to return to Love Field to depart for a fundraising dinner in Austin later that day. For the return trip, the agents selected a more direct route, which was approximately four miles, or 6.4 kilometers (some of this route would be used after the assassination). The planned route to the Trade Mart was widely reported in Dallas newspapers several days before the event, for the benefit of people who wished to view the motorcade.

President Kennedy’s motorcade on Main Street, approaching Dealey Plaza

To pass directly through Downtown Dallas, a route west along Main Street, rather than Elm Street (one block to the north) was chosen, since this was the traditional parade route and provided the maximal building and crowd views. The Main Street section of the route precluded a direct turn onto the Fort Worth Turnpike exit (which served also as the Stemmons Freeway exit), which was the route to the Trade Mart, as this exit was only accessible from Elm Street. Therefore, the planned motorcade route included a short one-block turn at the end of the downtown segment of Main Street, onto Houston Street for one block northward, before turning again west onto Elm, that way they could proceed through Dealey Plaza before exiting Elm onto the Stemmons Freeway. The Texas School Book Depository was (and still is) situated at the northwest corner of the Houston and Elm Street intersection.

Three vehicles were used for Secret Service and police protection in the Dallas motorcade. The first car, an unmarked white Ford (hardtop), carried Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, Secret Service Agent Win Lawson, Sheriff Bill Decker and Dallas Field Agent Forrest Sorrels. The second car, a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible, was occupied by driver Agent Bill Greer, SAIC Roy Kellerman, Governor John Connally, Nellie Connally, President Kennedy, and Jackie Kennedy.

The third car, a 1955 Cadillac convertible code-named “Halfback”, contained driver Agent Sam Kinney, ATSAIC Emory Roberts, presidential aides Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers, driver Agent George Hickey and PRS agent Glen Bennett. Secret Service agents Clint Hill, Jack Ready, Tim McIntyre and Paul Landis rode on the running boards.

On 22 November—after a breakfast speech in Fort Worth, where Kennedy had stayed overnight after arriving from San AntonioHouston, and Washington, D.C., the previous day—Kennedy boarded Air Force One, which departed at 1110 and arrived at Love Field 15 minutes later. At about 1140, Kennedy’s motorcade left Love Field for the trip through Dallas, running on a schedule about 10 minutes longer than the planned 45, due to enthusiastic crowds estimated at 150,000 to 200,000 people, and two unplanned stops directed by Kennedy.


Shooting in Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza, with Elm Street on the right and the Triple Underpass in the middle. The white concrete pergola, from which Zapruder was filming, is at the right, and the Grassy Knoll is in front of it (slightly left of it in the picture). The red brick building partially visible at upper right is the Texas School Book Depository. Kennedy was struck by the final bullet when he was just left of the lamp-post in front of the pergola

Ike Altgens‘s photo of Kennedy’s limousine, taken between the first and second shots that struck Kennedy. Kennedy’s left hand is in front of his throat and Mrs. Kennedy’s left hand is holding his arm.

Polaroid photo by Mary Moorman taken a fraction of a second after the fatal shot (detail).

Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill shields the occupants of the presidential limousine moments after the fatal shots. (Background blurred because the camera was panning in to follow the limousine).

Other view of the moment when Hill shields the occupants

Witness Howard Brennan sitting in the identical spot across from the Texas School Book Depository four months after the assassination. Circle “A” indicates where he saw Oswald firing a rifle

In this 2008 photo, arrows indicate the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository and the spot-on Elm Street at which Kennedy was struck in the head. Right of the depository is the Dal-Tex Building.

Kennedy’s open-top 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible limousine entered Dealey Plaza at 1230 hours CST. Nellie Connally, the First Lady of Texas, turned to Kennedy, who was sitting behind her, and commented, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you”. Kennedy’s reply – “No, you certainly can’t” – were his last words.

From Houston Street, the limousine made the planned left turn onto Elm to provide access to the Stemmons Freeway exit. As it turned, it passed by the Texas School Book Depository, and as it continued down Elm Street shots were fired. About 80% of the witnesses recalled hearing three shots. A Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and three shell casings were also found near an open window on the book depository’s sixth floor.

A small number of witnesses recognized the first gunshot (shortly after Kennedy began waving) for what it was, but there was little reaction from most in the crowd or riding in the motorcade. Many later said they imagined what they heard to be a firecracker, or a vehicle backfiring. Although some close witnessesrecalled seeing the limousine slow down, nearly stop, or completely stop, the Warren Commission—based on the Zapruder film—found that the limousine had traveled an average speed of 11.2 miles per hour (18.0 km/h) over the 186 ft (57 m) of Elm Street immediately preceding the fatal head shot. Texas School Book Depository employee Bonnie Ray Williams testified that he recognized Oswald as someone whom he saw on the sixth floor twice before the assassination took place.

Within one second of each other, Governor Connally and Mrs. Kennedy turn abruptly from looking to their left to looking to their right, beginning at Zapruder film frame 162 Connally, like Kennedy, was a World War II military veteran, and was a longtime hunter; he testified that he immediately recognized the sound as that of a high-powered rifle, and turned his head and torso rightward in an attempt to see Kennedy behind him. He testified he could not see Kennedy, so he then started to turn forward again (turning from his right to his left), and that when his head was facing about 20 degrees left of center, he was hit in his upper right back by a bullet that he did not hear fired. The doctor who operated on Connally estimated that his head at the time he was hit had been 27 degrees left of center. After Connally was hit, he shouted, “Oh, no, no, no. My God. They’re going to kill us all!”

Mrs. Connally testified that just after hearing a loud, frightening noise that came from somewhere behind her and to her right, she turned toward Kennedy and saw him raise up his arms and elbows, with his hands in front of his face and throat. She then heard another shot and then Governor Connally yelling. Mrs. Connally then turned away from Kennedy toward her husband, at which point another gunshot sounded, and both she and the limousine’s rear interior were covered with fragments of skull, blood, and brain.

According to the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations Kennedy was waving to the crowds on his right with his right arm upraised on the side of the limo when a shot entered his upper back, penetrated his neck and slightly damaged a spinal vertebra and the top of his right lung. The bullet exited his throat nearly centerline just beneath his larynx and nicked the left side of his suit tie knot. He raised his elbows and clenched his fists in front of his face and neck, then leaned forward and left. Mrs. Kennedy, facing him, then put her arms around him in concern.

According to the Warren Commission’s single bullet theory, Governor Connally also reacted after the same bullet penetrated his back just below his right armpit. The bullet created an oval-shaped entry wound, impacted and destroyed four inches of his right fifth rib, and exited his chest just below his right nipple. This created a two-and-a-half-inch oval-shaped air-sucking chest wound. That same bullet then entered his arm just above his right wrist and cleanly shattered his right radius bone into eight pieces. The bullet exited just below the wrist at the inner side of his right palm and finally lodged in his left inner thigh. The Warren Commission theorized that the “single bullet” struck sometime between Zapruder frames 210 and 225, while the House Select Committee theorized that it struck at approximately Zapruder frame 190.

According to the Warren Commission, a second shot that struck Kennedy was recorded at Zapruder film frame 313. The commission made no conclusion as to whether this was the second or third bullet fired. The limousine then passed in front of the John Neely Bryan north pergola concrete structure. The two investigative committees concluded that the second shot to hit Kennedy entered the rear of his head (the House Select Committee placed the entry wound four inches higher than the Warren Commission placed it) and passed in fragments through his skull; this created a large, “roughly ovular” hole on the rear, right side of the head. Kennedy’s blood and fragments of his scalp, brain, and skull landed on the interior of the car, the inner and outer surfaces of the front glass windshield, the raised sun visors, the front engine hood, and the rear trunk lid. His blood and fragments also landed on the Secret Service follow-up car and its driver’s left arm, as well on the motorcycle officers who were riding on both sides of Kennedy just behind his vehicle.

Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill was riding on the left front running board of the follow-up car, which was immediately behind Kennedy’s limousine. Hill testified that he heard one shot, then, as documented in other films and concurrent with Zapruder frame 308, he jumped off into Elm Street and ran forward to board the trunk of the limousine and protect Kennedy; Hill testified to the Warren Commission that he heard the fatal headshot as he was reaching the limousine, “approximately five seconds” after the first shot that he heard.

After Kennedy was shot in the head, Mrs. Kennedy began climbing out onto the back of the limousine, though she later had no recollection of doing so. Hill believed she was reaching for something, perhaps a piece of Kennedy’s skull. He jumped onto the back of the limousine while at the same time Mrs. Kennedy returned to her seat, and he clung to the car as it exited Dealey Plaza and accelerated, speeding to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

After Mrs. Kennedy crawled back into her limousine seat, both Governor and Mrs. Connally heard her repeatedly say, “They have killed my husband. I have his brains in my hand.” Mrs. Kennedy recalled, “All the ride to the hospital I kept bending over him saying, ‘Jack, Jack, can you hear me? I love you, Jack.’ I kept holding the top of his head down trying to keep the brains in.”

Governor Connally and a spectator wounded

Governor Connally was seated directly in front of Kennedy and three inches more to the left than Kennedy; he was also seriously injured, but survived. Doctors later stated that after the Governor was shot, his wife pulled him onto her lap, and the resulting posture helped close his front chest wound, which was causing air to be sucked directly into his chest around his collapsed right lung.

Bystander James Tague received a minor wound to the right cheek while standing 531 feet (162 m) away from the depository’s sixth floor easternmost window, 270 feet (82 m) in front of and slightly to the right of Kennedy’s head facing direction and more than 16 feet (4.9 m) below the top of Kennedy’s head. Tague’s injury occurred when a bullet or bullet fragment with no copper casing struck the nearby Main Street south curb. A deputy sheriff noticed some blood on Tague’s cheek, and Tague realized that something had stung his face during the shooting. When Tague pointed to where he had been standing, the police officer noticed a bullet smear on a nearby curb. Nine months later the FBI removed the curb, and a spectrographic analysis revealed metallic residue consistent with that of the lead core in Oswald’s ammunition. Tague testified before the Warren Commission and initially stated that he was wounded on his cheek by either the second or third shot of the three shots that he remembered hearing. When the commission counsel pressed him to be more specific, Tague testified that he was wounded by the second shot.

Aftermath in Dealey Plaza

Bill and Gayle Newman dropped to the grass and shielded their children.

The limousine was passing the grassy knoll to the north of Elm Street at the time of the fatal head shot. As the motorcade left Dealey Plaza, police officers and spectators ran up the grassy hill and from the triple underpass, to the area behind a five-foot (1.5 m) high stockade fence atop the knoll, separating it from a parking lot. No sniper was found there. S. M. Holland, who had been watching the motorcade on the triple underpass, testified that “immediately” after the shots were fired, he saw a puff of smoke rising from the trees right by the stockade fence and then ran around the corner where the overpass joined the fence, but did not see anyone running from that area.

Lee Bowers was in a two-story railroad switch towerwhich gave him an unobstructed view of the rear of the stockade fence atop the grassy knoll. He saw four men in the area between his tower and Elm Street: two men who seemed not to know each other near the triple underpass, some 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 m) apart, and one or two uniformed parking lot attendants. At the time of the shooting, he saw “something out of the ordinary, a sort of milling around”, which he could not identify. Bowers testified that one or both of the men were still there when motorcycle officer Clyde Haygood ran up the grassy knoll to the back of the fence. In a 1966 interview, Bowers clarified that the two men he saw were standing in the opening between the pergola and the fence, and that “no one” was behind the fence at the time the shots were fired.

Meanwhile, Howard Brennan, a steamfitter who had been sitting across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, approached police to say that as the motorcade passed he heard a shot come from above, then looked up to see a man with a rifle take another shot from a sixth-floor corner window. He said he had seen the same man looking out the window minutes earlier. Police broadcast Brennan’s description of this man at 1245, 1248, and 1255 hours. After the second shot, Brennan recalled, “This man … was aiming for his last shot … and maybe paused for another second as though to assure himself that he had hit his mark.”

As Brennan spoke to the police in front of the building, they were joined by two Book Depository employees who had been watching the motorcade from windows at the southeast corner of the building’s fifth floor. One reported hearing three gunshots come from directly over their headsand sounds of a bolt-action rifle and cartridges dropping on the floor above.

Dallas police sealed off the exits from the depository approximately between 1233 and 1250 hours.

There were at least 104 earwitnesses in Dealey Plaza who were on record with an opinion as to the direction from which the shots came.

  • Fifty-four (51.9%) thought that all shots came from the depository building.
  • Thirty-three (31.7%) thought that they came from either the grassy knoll or the triple underpass.
  • Nine (8.7%) thought that each shot came from a location entirely distinct from the knoll or the depository.
  • Five (4.8%) believed that they heard shots from two locations, and
  • 3 (2.9%) thought that the shots originated from a direction consistent with both the knoll and the depository.

The Warren Commission additionally concluded that three shots were fired and said that “a substantial majority of the witnesses stated that the shots were not evenly spaced. Most witnesses recalled that the second and third shots were bunched together”

Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby

Jack Ruby shooting Oswald, who was being escorted by police detective Jim Leavelle (tan suit) for the transfer from the city jail to the county jail.

Depository employee Buell Wesley Frazier, who drove Oswald to work, testified that he saw Oswald take a long brown paper bag into the building which Oswald told him contained “curtain rods.” After Oswald’s supervisor at the depository reported him missing, police broadcast his description as a suspect in the shooting at Dealey Plaza.  Police officer J. D. Tippit subsequently spotted Oswald walking along a sidewalk in the residential neighborhood of Oak Cliff (three miles from Dealey Plaza) and called him over to the patrol car. After an exchange of words, Tippit got out of his car; Oswald shot Tippit four times, emptied the bullet casings from his gun, and fled. The long brown bag which Frazier described was also found by six Dallas police officers near the sixth-floor window were Oswald was determined to have fired gunshots at President Kennedy and was revealed to be 38 inches long with marks on the inside consistent with those of a rifle.

Oswald was subsequently seen “ducking into” the entrance alcove of a store by the store’s manager, who then watched Oswald continue up the street and slip into the Texas Theatre without paying. The store manager alerted the theater’s ticket clerk, who telephoned police at about 1340 hours. Officers arrived and arrested Oswald inside the theater. According to one of the officers, Oswald resisted and was attempting to draw his pistol when he was struck and restrained. Oswald was charged with the murders of Kennedy and Tippit later that night. He denied shooting anyone and claimed he was being made a “patsy” because he had lived in the Soviet Union.

On Sunday, 24 November at 1121 hours CST, as Oswald was being escorted to a car in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters for the transfer from the city jail to the county jail, he was fatally shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. The shooting was broadcast live on American television. Unconscious, Oswald was taken by ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy had died two days earlier; he died at 1307 hours.  Oswald’s death was announced on a TV news broadcast by Dallas police chief Jesse Curry. An autopsy later that day, by Dallas County Medical Examiner Earl Rose, found that Oswald had been killed by a gunshot wound to the chest.  Arrested immediately after the shooting, Ruby said that he had been distraught by Kennedy’s death and that killing Oswald would spare “Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of coming back to trial”.

Carcano rifle

An Italian Carcano M91/38 bolt-action rifle was found on the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository by Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman and Deputy Sheriff Eugene Boone soon after the assassination. The recovery was filmed by Tom Alyea of WFAA-TV.

This footage shows the rifle to be a Carcano, and photographic analysis commissioned by the HSCA verified that the rifle filmed was the one later identified as the assassination weapon. Compared to photographs taken of Oswald holding the rifle in his backyard, “one notch in the stock at [a] point that appears very faintly in the photograph” matched, as well as the rifle’s dimensions.

The rifle had been purchased, secondhand, by Oswald the previous March under the alias “A. Hidell” and delivered to a post-office box he had rented in Dallas. According to the Warren Report, a partial palm print belonging to Oswald was also found on the barrel, and fibers found in a crevice of the rifle were consistent with the fibers from the shirt Oswald was wearing when he was arrested.

A bullet found on Governor Connally’s hospital gurney and two bullet fragments found in the limousine were ballistically matched to this rifle.

Kennedy declared dead in the emergency room

Cecil Stoughton‘s iconic photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as President as Air Force One prepares to depart Love Field in Dallas. Jacqueline Kennedy (right), still in her blood-spattered clothes (not visible here), looks on.

In a death certificate executed the following day, Kennedy’s personal physician, George Burkley, recited that he arrived at the hospital some five minutes after Kennedy and – though Secret Service personnel reported that Kennedy had been breathing – immediately saw that survival was impossible. The certificate listed “gunshot wound, skull” as the cause of death.

Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1300 hours CST (1900 UTC) after heart activity ceased. Father Oscar Huber administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Huber told The New York Times that by the time he arrived at the hospital Kennedy had died, so that he had to draw back a sheet covering Kennedy’s face to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Kennedy’s death was announced by White House Acting Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff at 1333 hours. (Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was traveling to Japan that day, along with much of the Cabinet) . Governor Connally, meanwhile, underwent surgery.

Members of Kennedy’s security detail were attempting to remove Kennedy’s body from the hospital when they briefly scuffled with Dallas officials, including Dallas County Coroner Earl Rose, who believed that he was legally obligated to perform an autopsy before Kennedy’s body was removed. The Secret Service pushed through and Rose eventually stepped aside. The forensic panel of the HSCA, of which Rose was a member, later said that Texas law made it the responsibility of the justice of the peace to determine cause of death and to determine whether an autopsy was needed. A Dallas County justice of the peace signed the official record of inquestas well as a second certificate of death.

A few minutes after 1400 hours, Kennedy’s body was taken from Parkland Hospital to Love Field. His casket was loaded into the rear of the passenger compartment of Air Force One in place of a removed row of seats.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson had accompanied Kennedy to Dallas and been riding two cars behind Kennedy’s limousine in the motorcade. At 1438 hours, with Jacqueline Kennedy at his side, he was administered the oath of office by federal judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes aboard Air Force One shortly before departing for Washington.


Kennedy’s body was flown back to Washington, D.C.  His autopsy was performed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, between about 2000 hours and midnight EST, Saturday, 23 November. It was performed at a naval hospital at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, on the basis that President Kennedy had been a naval officer during World War II.


On Sunday, 24 November, Kennedy’s coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the United States Capitol to lie in state. Throughout the day and night, hundreds of thousands of people lined up to view the guarded casket. Representatives from over 90 countries attended the state funeral on Monday, 25 November. After the Requiem Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington in Virginia.

Film and audio captures of assassination events

A Bell & Howell Zoomatic movie camera used by Abraham Zapruder to shoot footage of the motorcade, which later came to be known as the Zapruder film. The camera is preserved within the collection of the U.S. National Archives.

No radio or television stations broadcast the assassination live. Most media crews did not ride with the motorcade, but were instead waiting at the Dallas Trade Mart in anticipation of Kennedy’s arrival there. Members of the media who were with the motorcade were riding at the rear of the procession.

The Dallas police were recording their radio transmissions over two different channels. Channel One was used for routine police communications, while Channel Two was dedicated to the motorcade; until shots were fired, most traffic on the second channel was Police Chief Jesse Curry’s updates on the motorcade’s location.

Kennedy’s last seconds of traveling through Dealey Plaza were recorded on silent 8 mm film for the 26.6 seconds before, during, and immediately following the assassination. This famous film footage was taken by garment manufacturer and amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder, and became known as the Zapruder film. Frame enlargements from the Zapruder film were published by Life magazine shortly after the assassination. The footage was first shown publicly as a film at the trial of Clay Shaw in 1969, and on television in 1975. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, in 1999 an arbitration panel ordered the United States government to pay $615,384 per second of film to Zapruder’s heirs for giving the film to the National Archives. The complete film, which lasts for roughly over 26 seconds, was valued at $16 million.

Including Zapruder, 32 photographers are known to have been in Dealey Plaza that day. Amateur movies taken by Orville Nix, Marie Muchmore (shown on television in New York on 26 November 1963),and photographer Charles Bronson captured the fatal shot, although at a greater distance than Zapruder did. Other motion picture films were taken in Dealey Plaza at or around the time of the shooting by Robert Hughes, F. Mark Bell, Elsie Dorman, John Martin Jr., Patsy Paschall, Tina Towner, James Underwood, Dave Wiegman, Mal Couch, Thomas Atkins, and an unknown woman in a blue dress on the south side of Elm Street.

Still photos were taken by Phillip Willis, Mary Moorman, Hugh W. Betzner Jr., Wilma Bond, Robert Croft, and many others. Ike Altgens, a photo editor for the Associated Press in Dallas, was the only professional photographer in Dealey Plaza who was not in the press cars.

Motion pictures and photographs taken by some of these people show an unidentified woman, nicknamed by researchers Babushka Lady, apparently filming the motorcade around the time of the assassination.

Previously unknown color footage filmed on the assassination day by George Jefferies was released in February 2007. The film was shot over 90 seconds before the assassination, several blocks away. However, it gives a clear view of Kennedy’s bunched suit jacket, just below the collar, which has led to varying calculations of how low in the back Kennedy was first.

Official investigations

Dallas Police

After the Dallas Police arrested Oswald and collected physical evidence at the crime scenes, they held Oswald at their headquarters, questioning him all afternoon about the shootings of Kennedy and Tippit. They intermittently questioned him for approximately 12 hours between 1430 hours on 22 November, and 1100 hours on 24 November. Throughout, Oswald denied any involvement with either shooting. Captain Fritz of the homicide and robbery bureau did most of the questioning; he kept only rudimentary notes. Days later, he wrote a report of the interrogation from notes he made afterwards. There were no stenographic or tape recordings. Representatives of other law enforcement agencies were also present, including the FBI and the Secret Service, and occasionally participated in the questioning. Several of the FBI agents who were present wrote contemporaneous reports of the interrogation.

On the evening of the assassination, Dallas Police performed paraffin tests on Oswald’s hands and right cheek in an effort to establish whether or not he had recently fired a weapon. The results were positive for the hands and negative for the right cheek. Such tests were unreliable, and the Warren Commission did not rely on these results.

Oswald provided little information during his questioning. When confronted with evidence that he could not explain, he resorted to statements that were found to be false.

FBI investigation

On 9 December 1963, the Warren Commission received the FBI’s report of its investigation, which concluded that three bullets had been fired—the first hitting Kennedy, the second hitting Connally, and the third hitting Kennedy in the head, killing him. The Warren Commission concluded that one of the three shots missed, one passed through Kennedy and then struck Connally, and a third struck Kennedy in the head.

The Warren Commission presents its report to President Johnson. From left to right: John McCloy, J. Lee Rankin (General Counsel), Senator Richard Russell, Congressman Gerald Ford, Chief Justice Earl Warren, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Allen Dulles, Senator John Sherman Cooper, and Congressman Hale Boggs.

Warren Commission

The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known unofficially as the Warren Commission, was established on 29 November 1963, by President Johnson to investigate the assassination. Its 888-page final report was presented to Johnson on 24 September 1964, and made public three days later. It concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy and wounding Connally, and that Jack Ruby acted alone in killing Oswald.  The commission’s findings have proven controversial and been variously criticized and supported by later studies.

The commission took its unofficial name, “The Warren Commission”, from its chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren. According to published transcripts of Johnson’s presidential phone conversations, some major officials were opposed to forming such a commission, and several commission members took part only with extreme reluctance. One of their chief reservations was that a commission would ultimately create more controversy than consensus, and those fears ultimately proved valid.

All of the Warren Commission’s records were submitted to the National Archives in 1964. The unpublished portion of those records was initially sealed for 75 years (to 2039) under a general National Archives policy that applied to all federal investigations by the executive branch of government, a period “intended to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case”. The 75-year rule no longer exists, supplanted by the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 and the JFK Records Act of 1992.

Ramsey Clark Panel

In 1968, a panel of four medical experts appointed by Attorney General Ramsey Clark met to examine photographs, X-rays, documents, and other evidence. The panel concluded that Kennedy was struck by two bullets fired from above and behind, one traversing the base of the neck on the right without striking bone, and the other entering the skull from behind and destroying its upper right side. They also concluded that the skull shot entered well above the external occipital protuberance, which was at odds with the Warren Commission’s findings.

Rockefeller Commission

The United States President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States was set up under President Gerald Ford in 1975 to investigate the activities of the CIA within the United States. The commission was led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and is sometimes referred to as the Rockefeller Commission.

Part of the commission’s work dealt with the Kennedy assassination, specifically the head snap as seen in the Zapruder film (first shown to the general public in 1975), and the possible presence of E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis in Dallas. The commission concluded that neither Hunt nor Sturgis was in Dallas at the time of the assassination.

Church Committee

The Church Committee is the common term referring to the 1975 United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church, to investigate the illegal intelligence gathering by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after the Watergate incident. It also investigated the CIA and FBI conduct relating to the JFK assassination.

Their report concluded that the investigation into the assassination by FBI and CIA was fundamentally deficient, and that facts that may have greatly affected the investigation had not been forwarded to the Warren Commission by the agencies. The report hinted that there was a possibility that senior officials in both agencies made conscious decisions not to disclose potentially important information.

United States House Select Committee on Assassinations

As a result of increasing public and congressional skepticism regarding the Warren Commission’s findings and the transparency of government agencies, House Resolution 1540 was passed in September 1976, creating the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) to investigate the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The committee investigated until 1978, and in March 1979 issued its final report, concluding that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The chief reason for this conclusion was, according to the report’s dissent, the subsequently discredited acoustic analysis of a police channel dictabelt recording. The committee concluded that previous investigations into Oswald’s responsibility were “thorough and reliable” but they did not adequately investigate the possibility of a conspiracy, and that Federal agencies performed with “varying degrees of competency”. Specifically, the FBI and CIA were found to be deficient in sharing information with other agencies and the Warren Commission. Instead of furnishing all information relevant to the investigation, the FBI and CIA only responded to specific requests and were still occasionally inadequate. Furthermore, the Secret Service did not properly analyze information it possessed prior to the assassination and was inadequately prepared to protect Kennedy.

Concerning the conclusions of “probable conspiracy”, four of the twelve committee members wrote dissenting opinions. In accordance with the recommendations of the HSCA, the Dictabelt recording and acoustic evidence of a second assassin was subsequently reexamined. In light of investigative reports from the FBI’s Technical Services Division and a specially appointed National Academy of Sciences Committee determining that “reliable acoustic data do not support a conclusion that there was a second gunman”, the Justice Department concluded “that no persuasive evidence can be identified to support the theory of a conspiracy” in the Kennedy assassination.

Although the final report and supporting volumes of the HSCA was publicly released, the working papers and primary documents were sealed until 2029 under Congressional rules and only partially released as part of the 1992 JFK Act.

JFK Act and Assassination Records Review Board

In 1992, the popular but controversial movie JFK renewed public interest in the assassination and particularly in the still-classified documents referenced in the film’s postscript. Largely in response to the film, Congress passed the JFK Act, or

“President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992”.

 The goal of the legislation was to collect at the National Archives and make publicly available all of the assassination-related records held by federal and state government agencies, private citizens and various other organizations.

The JFK Act also mandated the creation of an independent office, the Assassination Records Review Board, to review the submitted records for completeness and continued secrecy. The Review Board was not commissioned to make any findings or conclusions regarding the assassination, just to collect and release all related documents. From 1994 until 1998, the Assassination Records Review Board gathered and unsealed about 60,000 documents, consisting of over 4 million pages. Government agencies requested that some records remain classified and these were reviewed under section 6 criteria of the JFK Act. There were 29,420 such records and all of them were fully or partially released, with stringent requirements for redaction.

A staff report for the Assassinations Records Review Board contended that brain photographs in the Kennedy records are not of Kennedy’s brain and show much less damage than Kennedy sustained. Boswell refuted these allegations. The board also found that, conflicting with the photographic images showing no such defect, a number of witnesses (at both the hospital and the autopsy) saw a large wound in the back of Kennedy’s head. The board and board member, Jeremy Gunn, have also stressed the problems with witness testimony, asking people to weigh all of the evidence, with due concern for human error, rather than take single statements as “proof” for one theory or another.

All remaining assassination-related records (approximately 5,000 pages) were scheduled to be released by October 26, 2017, with the exception of documents certified for continued postponement by succeeding presidents under the following conditions:

 (1) “continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military, defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations” and

 (2) “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

There was some concern among researchers that significant records, particularly those of the CIA, might still remain classified after 2017. Although these documents may include interesting historical information, all of the records were examined by the Review Board and were not determined to impact the facts of the Kennedy assassination. President Donald Trump said in October 2017 that he would not block the release of documents. On 26 April 2018, the deadline set by President Trump to release all JFK records, he blocked the release of some records until 26 October 2021.

Conspiracy theories

The wooden fence on the grassy knoll, where many conspiracy theorists believe another gunman stood

Many conspiracy theories posit that the assassination involved people or organizations in addition to Lee Harvey Oswald. Most current theories put forth a criminal conspiracy involving parties as varied as the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. military, the Mafia, Vice President Johnson, Cuban President Fidel Castro, the KGB, or some combination of those entities.

Public opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Gallup polls have also found that only 20–30% of the population believe that Oswald had acted alone. These polls also show that there is no agreement on who else may have been involved. Former Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi estimated that a total of 42 groups, 82 assassins, and 214 people had been accused in various Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

Reactions to the assassination

The assassination evoked stunned reactions worldwide. The first hour after the shooting was a time of great confusion before the President’s death was announced. The incident took place during the Cold War, and it was at first unclear whether the shooting might be part of a larger attack upon the United States. There was also concern whether Vice President Johnson, who had been riding two cars behind in the motorcade, was safe.

The news shocked the nation. People wept openly and gathered in department stores to watch the television coverage, while others prayed. Traffic in some areas came to a halt as the news spread from car to car. Schools across the United States dismissed their students early. Anger against Texas and Texans was reported from some individuals. Various Cleveland Browns fans, for example, carried signs at the next Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys decrying the city of Dallas as having “killed the President”.

However, there were also instances of Kennedy’s opponents cheering the assassination. A journalist reported rejoicing in the streets of Amarillo, with a woman crying out, “Hey, great, JFK’s croaked!”

The event left a lasting impression on many worldwide. As with the preceding attack on Pearl Harbor of 7 December 1941, and, much later, the 11 September attacks, asking “Where were you when you heard about President Kennedy’s assassination” would become a common topic of discussion.

Artifacts, museums and locations today

The plane that served as Air Force One at the time of the assassination is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The 1961 Lincoln Continental limousine is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink suit, the autopsy report, the X-rays, and President Kennedy’s blood-stained clothing are in the National Archives, with access controlled by the Kennedy family. Other items in the Archives include equipment from Parkland Hospital trauma room; Oswald’s rifle, diary, and revolver; bullet fragments; and the windshield of Kennedy’s limousine. The Lincoln Catafalque, on which Kennedy’s coffin rested in the Capitol, is on display at the United States Capitol Visitor Center.

In 1993 the three-acre park within Dealey Plaza, the buildings facing it, the overpass, and a portion of the adjacent railyard – including the railroad switching tower – were incorporated into the Dealey Plaza Historic District by the National Park Service. Much of the area is accessible by visitors, including the park and grassy knoll. Elm Street is still an active thoroughfare; an X painted in the road marks the approximate spot at which the shots struck Kennedy and Connally. The Texas School Book Depository and its Sixth Floor Museum draw over 325,000 visitors annually, and contains a re-creation of the area from which Oswald fired. The Sixth Floor Museum also manages the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial located one block east of Dealey Plaza.

At the direction of the deceased president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, some items were destroyed by the United States government. The casket in which Kennedy’s body was transported from Dallas to Washington was dropped into the sea by the Air Force, because “its public display would be extremely offensive and contrary to public policy”. The Texas State Archives has the clothes Connally was wearing when he was shot. The gun Ruby used to kill Oswald later came into the possession of Ruby’s brother Earl, and was sold in 1991 for $220,000.

Dealey Plaza and Texas School Book Depository in 1969, six years after the assassination

Plaque on the Texas School Book Depository building (By Tim Jarrett – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Looking southeast across Elm St. in 2006, with the pergola and knoll behind the photographer: The white ‘X’ marks the point at which Kennedy was struck in the head.

By courtesy of

A 1949 air crash that may have changed Pakistan’s history

At 2200 hours on 12th December 1949, a DC-3C Dakota of Pak Airways (AP-ADI) flying from Lahore to Karachi crashed near Jungshahi, 65 km north-east of its intended destination. The cause was termed as navigational error and all 26 on board perished. Amongst them:

Qazi Musa (the brother of the famous Muslim Leaguer Qazi Isa)

Brigadier Sher Khan MC, the Director of Military Operations

Major General Muhammad Iftikhar Khan who was a strong contender for the appointment as the first Pakistani C-in-C. He was junior in service to General Ayub Khan but had been promoted earlier to command 10 Division in Lahore. He was proceeding to the UK to attend a year’s course at the Imperial Defence College to groom him for the appointment as C-in-C.

Iftikhar had very strong military credentials. He belonged to the Minhas Rajput clan of Chakwal and was the son of Khan Bahadur Risaldar Major Raja Fazal Dad Khan. He was one of five brothers in the army. The eldest was

  • PA-1, Major General Akbar Khan, Army Service Corps, who had joined Probyn’s Horse as a sowar and attached the suffix “Rangroot” to his name.
  • Brigadier Muhammad Afzal (16th Light Cavalry)
  • Major General Anwar Khan, the first Pakistani Engineer-in-Chief.

Iftikhar was commissioned from Sandhurst in 1930 and joined 7th Light Cavalry. Of the Indianised cavalry regiments, 7th Cavalry was expensive and attracted wealthy officers like Mucchu Chowdhry or princely family’s scions like “Bhayya” of Cooch Bihar and Dinkie Rajwade of Gwalior.

 Iftikhar was well off as his father had three large estates in the Punjab. When 3rd Cavalry was Indianised in 1932, Iftikhar was assigned to this regiment. As the number of Indian officers in the Indianised Regiments increased, they became eligible for more responsible posts, and Iftikhar Khan was promoted captain and appointed as adjutant with only eight years of service.

Captain Iftikhar Khan as Adjutant 3rd Cavalry

In his book, “The Pakistan Army 1947-49”, Major General Shaukat Riza credits Iftikhar as “[…] a handsome and forceful character who was never slowed by obstacles”. Lieutenant General Yusuf who was concurrently adjutant of 7th Light Cavalry remembers him as “a fine horseman and a strict adjutant.” Iftikhar was hardworking, and while he was adjutant, he wrote in a letter to my father, “I am dammed busy these days. I am a member of a G.C.M. [General Court Martial], which starts at 9. am, and goes on till 4.30 pm and on my return, I go to office and try to do a spot of work there for about a couple of hours […] We are going to work at it [the G.C.M.] tomorrow, a holiday, and on Sunday.”

Known by the nickname of “Ifti”, he belonged to a breed of “native” officers, who were acceptable to the British than others because they had become Anglicized. My father Shahid Hamid (who served with Ifti in 3rd Cavalry recollects that he “[…] was more English than the English themselves and looked down on everything native.” Officers like him including his colleague in 7th Cavalry, Joyanto Nath (Moochu) Chaudhuri, were sometimes referred to as “Brindian”. According to Lieutenant General Fazal Muqeem, a degree of Anglicization was understandably natural. He reflects that the Indian officer “lived among British officers, looked up to them and modeled himself on their pattern.”

Last photo of Gen and Begum Iftikhar, taken in 1949 before their departure for the UK. Behind them is Brig Rodham, who was commanding a brigade in 10 Division, Lahore

Iftikhar was fortunate to be sent to the Staff College Course in Quetta before 3rd Cavalry sailed for Singapore and into Japanese captivity. He was later posted as Grade II General Staff Officer at an Army Headquarters in Ceylon and then posted back to Quetta as an Instructor. He served time in Burma with 45th Cavalry, a regiment that had been raised during the war. Not much is known about his service with this regiment because its war records were not preserved, but it operated with the 28th Infantry Brigade during the siege of Kohima and later fought extensively in the Third Arakan Offensive along with 19th Lancers. By 1945 he was the 2iC of the regiment and when it was disbanded in March 1946, he returned to 7th Light Cavalry.

The first and only Indian to command an armoured regiment during the Second World War was Moochu Chaudhuri, who rose to be the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army in 1962. He and Iftikhar had served together in 7th Light Cavalry but Moochu was given command of 16th Light Cavalry when it moved to Burma. However soon after the war, Iftikhar Khan was also given command of his regiment.

Moochu was an opportunist and Iftikhar did not like him at all. When his regiment moved to Burma from Quetta, he ensured that its progress was reported in the newspapers under the banner of an Indian commanding officer going into battle with his regiment. He also couldn’t hold his drinks.

Iftikhar and Moochu were together at the Staff College as instructors. Major General I.R. Graeme, Royal Artillery, narrates in a letter to Shahid Hamid that Moochu was drunk at a late guest-night and said that he was looking forward to the day when British blood would run deep in India. Iftikhar Khan struck him and said “Over my dead body” and Moochu was carted to bed.

Iftikhar Khan accompanied 7th Light Cavalry to Japan as part of the Allied Occupation Force and was appointed its first Indian commanding officer in September 1946. However, his tenure was for a short three months as he proceeded to attend the Joint Services Staff Course in UK. After Independence he briefly commanded an infantry brigade and was then promoted to command 10 Division in Lahore on the first day of the New Year of 1948. He had 18 years of service and had risen from the command of a regiment to that of a division in three years.

Sardar Bahadur Risaldar Major Raja Fazaldad Khan, father of Maj Gen Iftikhar Khan

Sher Ali who had been a close friend of “Ifti” before the War, found that he had changed “for the better”. In his book, “Unlikely Beginnings: A Soldier’s Life”, Major General A.O. Mitha, the father of Pakistan’s Special Service Group, recollects that, “Iftikhar was a tough commander and had the reputation of eating a brigadier or a colonel for breakfast every day. However, he was big enough to tolerate outspoken, forceful subordinates”.

Apparently, he was also a man of few words. Throughout an inspection of an infantry battalion raised by Mitha in 10 Division at Lahore, Iftikhar spoke no word except when he departed. He asked Mitha, “How much service do you have?” Mitha who had only eight years of service, subsequently received a letter of appreciation from the division headquarters.

In 1949 the Defence Secretary Iskander Mirza went on the first of a number of visits to the US to get military equipment. Iftikhar was the senior military representative of the delegation deemed to be an exemplary leader by the U.S. Military Attaché in dispatches. The military attaché believed that Iftikhar Khan would be the next commander-in-chief. He also believed that Iftikhar would be succeeded by Brigadier Sher Khan, credited with having the “best mind” in the Pakistani Army and a “balanced personality”. Unfortunately, both Iftikhar and Sher Khan died before they could rise to their full potential and even before they could be allotted Pakistan Army service numbers.

While Iftikhar was heading to the United Kingdom, Sher Khan was to fly on an assignment to the United States. Sher Khan called Iftikhar, who was travelling from Lahore to Karachi by train and persuaded him that they travel by air together. This is fate.

The moving finger writes and having written moves on

 Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it

Omar Khayyam

Their death was a shock to a very young Pakistan Army which in one stroke lost two of its finest senior officers who were potential C-in-Cs.

I have analysed the crash and its causes in an article previously published in The Friday Times on Brigadier Sher Khan. The crash scene was several miles from Jungshahi rescue base and the bodies had to be transported on stretchers through very difficult terrain with the aid of ropes. The body of Iftikhar and his wife were identified by his brother Major General Akbar and Sher Khan’s body by a silver cigarette case in his breast pocket which bore his initials “S.K.”

The coffins of Maj Gen Iftikhar Khan and Brig Sher Khan carried at the Armed Forces Cemetery in Karachi. Maj Gen Akbar (elder brother of Iftikhar) is in the foreground. Maj Gen Raza is carrying the coffin in front

The funeral procession was organised at the Frere Hall grounds in Karachi. It proceeded to the Armed Forces Cemetery about a one-and-a-half miles away through Saddar Bazaar and was witnessed by thousands. The coffins of Iftikhar and Sher Khan were carried onto the gun carriages by senior officers including Commodore Chaudhri, Brig Rodham, Brigadier Sher Ali and Group Captain Murad. The procession was headed by chief mourners, Major General Akbar and Lieutenant Colonel Yusuf Khan, the brother of Sher Khan. Next in line was Admiral Jefford, Major General Raza and Ghulam Muhammad who was representing the Prime Minister. Behind them were a large number of diplomats, government and military officials and important members of the Karachi community. It was led by a contingent of 2nd Baloch Battalion and each gun carriage was pulled by eight Junior Commissioned Officers. Over 30,000 mourners attended the funeral prayers at the Armed Forces Cemetery.

Would the history of Pakistan have been different if Iftikhar had survived and been appointed as Chief? Would the army have remained away from politics? Who can say? But let me leave with the last word of my father who was on very good terms with Iftikhar. In his archives are a number of letters written by “Ifty” to him in a friendly way. While comparing Iftikhar with Ayub Khan in his autobiography Shahid Hamid states “Iftikhar was an ambitious officer.”

Courtesy of Friday Times 27 December 2019: A 1949 air crash that may have changed Pakistan’s history by Major General Syed Ali Hamid

Clement R. Attlee

Attlee with Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, 1945

Churchill to Truman on Attlee: There is less there than meets the eye, he has a great deal to be modest about.”

Born in 1883 to a prosperous city solicitor, a product of a Victorian public-school education where he developed a passion for cricket.

Imbued with distinct upper middle-class manners, he always dressed for dinner. After Oxford and the bar, the young patriot volunteered for service in the First World War. He fought at Gallipoli, rose to the rank of major and was wounded by friendly fire in the Middle East.

Beneath the exterior he was a man of ideals and the poverty he witnessed as a social worker in London’s East End, made him choose the Labour Party, standing as Major Attlee, he became a MP in 1922. He also got married that year. Violet was his one and only love and they raised a happy and devoted family. She loyally supported his career, though like many wives of a MP, she resented his preoccupation with politics.

In 1935, the Labour Party toppled its leader and Attlee was chosen as a stopgap, acceptable to right and left. He was cool and organised with a phenomenal memory. In 1940, Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition and Attlee was the Deputy Prime Minister. He played himself as mister average with middle class Britain.

A man of paradox: shy but courageous, respectable yet ready to take risks, a radical who was also deeply patriotic. He was unpredictable, sometimes he would sit tight not knowing what to do, on other occasions he jumped in a direction no one expected.

In the election of 1945, the Labour Government was voted in with Clement Attlee as the Prime Minister. He offered far reaching social reforms

•             freedom

•             democracy

•             social justice

Could they deliver?

The war had almost bankrupted Britain. Within weeks of taking office, Attlee was told he must abandon his cherished reforms and savagely cut the country’s overseas empire. He and colleagues did not deter but pressed on. His is a story of economic crisis and political improvisation, of soaring idealism and petty egos, all held in check by a most unlikely prime minister.

The period after 1945 almost slipped from view. Labour nationalised major industries and created a national health service. It also kept Britain in the game as world power quickly building an atomic bomb. For the Left, this was Labour’s finest hour; for the Right, the moment when Britain almost became a socialist colony.

August 1945:  soon after return from Potsdam, a memo from the Treasury in strictest secrecy from the world-famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, warned that Britain was facing nothing less than a financial Dunkirk. The war had cost Britain a quarter of its national wealth, with industry geared to arms production, exports had fallen to one third of what was needed to pay for essential imports. Financial aid from America had been vital for Britain’s survival but this had been cut as soon as the war ended. Keynes urged the government to bring soldiers home from overseas, both to save money and to get men back into industry.

Attlee faced his first great test. In 1940, Churchill had gambled that Britain could hold out against Hitler. In 1945, his unlikely successor took a gamble that was no less risky. Whatever it takes, Attlee was determined to deliver the government programs and keep Britain in the game as a world power.

3 and 3/4-billion-dollar loan was acquired from Washington to be repaid with interest over fifty years was a bitter pill to swallow. The Labour Left resented this wage slave to capitalist America. Britain was also required to end wartime exchange controls making the pound freely convertible into dollars by July 1947; the looming deadline was like a time bomb. To get the loan Attlee would have to win over a sceptical cabinet.

“Democracy is government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people from talking,”

He managed to override the doubts of the left wingers and a majority of the cabinet approved the US loan; he had bought the country crucial freedom. His reforms of industry and welfare to follow. 347 Acts of Parliament passed over the next four years.

Nationalisation of the country’s main industries, railway, coal, electricity, gas, iron and steel, even the Bank of England were brought under public ownership. It meant government taking responsibility for workers and their rights. It was also about economic plans. Labour wanted to streamline hundreds of small inefficient companies and set production targets for the benefit of the whole economy.

Investing in people was the second priority, a huge extension of the welfare state with national health service at its heart. Aneurin Bevan, 47, was appointed as minister of health; a darling of the left, to his detractors, a socialist and a Welsh windbag. Attlee’s shrewd leadership style: better to have a potential trouble maker back in podium rather than bowling bouncers at you. Bevan made a bold leap beyond Labour’s earlier plans. Not just providing a free health service but he nationalised the country’s 3000 hospitals.

Economics proved Attlee’s Achilles heel though he was a skilled manager of men.

The nationalised hospitals accounted for two-thirds of the health budget. The nationalised industries were run not by workers but by boards under loose ministerial control. The result was a new layer of semi-independent bureaucracy which got in the way of Labour planning the economy. Evans used this model to manage the NHS. Once again Labour’s plan of vision and improvisation had created problems; the NHS was born with a cancer, gnawing away at the inside.

Domestic affairs reflected in the PM radical policy.

Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (left) with Attlee in 1945

Foreign Affairs: Major Attlee, the patriot held sway; appointment of Earnest Bevin to the Foreign Office was a shock greater than the appointment of the Health Minister, Bevan. He had been the minister of Labour in the wartime coalition and was appointed to keep him away from domestic politics and from Herbert Morris, the Home Secretary, Attlee’s arch rival.

Foreign Office had inmates from the upper class, products from Eton and Harrow. Bevin by contrast was illegitimate, he left school at eleven, barely able to read and write. His education came from the Bristol docks and the Trade Union movement. He approached each problem with an earthy common sense, the diplomats soon took him to their hearts.

Attlee did not micromanage. “You don’t keep a dog and bark yourself.”

Bevin: “I will submit to no threat from any nation.”

Two months after Attlee became PM, America dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Britain was to be a nuclear power to stay at the world’s top table. From Germany to China, the Soviet seemed menacing and as the Cold War deepened, Britain needed to be strong. But the Americans would not share their atomic secrets with anyone, not even their closest wartime ally.

So, Attlee and Bevin decided that Britain must develop its own bomb.

Bevin: the atomic bomb was the way to strengthen imperial defence

Attlee:  it exposed the weakness of the empire. Our post war planning is out of date. Strategic bases in the Mediterranean and East Indies are obsolete. Vulnerability of the Empire is the matter.  Britain had two million men and women in the armed forces, a tenth of the total labour force. If those bases were sitting targets for Soviet bombs why not bring our troops back and use them for our industry.

Attlee never debated on the bomb. before the full cabinet, some of them were not fit to be trusted with secrets of that kind. He moved discussion into a secret cabinet committee from which he excluded the economics minister who might question the cost. It was this body which took the decision in January 1947 to go ahead with the British bomb. Attlee manipulated the defence estimates to conceal £100 million of expenditure, the Commons was not told for more than a year.

Machiavellian politics of the highest order, it showed that when Attlee’s mind was made up, he could be quite ruthless of getting his way. Until now his government had combined radical reform at home with continued role on the world stage, he seemed to on the verge of success but in the new year it became clear that Attlee was living on borrowed time.

In late January 1947, a blizzard swept across Britain, snow continued to fall every day till the middle of March. It was the worst winter on record and it nearly buried the Labour Government. In this pre-oil era, 90% of Britain’s energy came from its own coal mines and as roads and railways ground to halt, fuel could not move from the kiln. Factories had to close, nearly 2 million people were laid off and a war style blackout was imposed. Candles were used.

But the crisis had its advantages. It could be used to show the irrelevance of Empire in the nuclear age. As the fuel crisis increased, Attlee seized the chance and the extensive bases worldwide were cut back and he did so against the wishes of Bevin and the chiefs of staff. In one week in the middle of February, Attlee persuaded a shaken cabinet to make three momentous decisions:

•             To cut its losses in Palestine where 100,000 soldiers were trying to control Arabs and Jews from warring. The cabinet agreed to hand the problem back to the United Nations.

•             Pull British troops out of Greece torn apart by a Communist led insurrection and to suspend financial aid to the Greek government. The Americans were invited to pick up the tab.

•             Most important of all was India. Attlee had argued for years that we should give early independence. India was now a financial liability. In the crisis atmosphere of Feb. 1947, Attlee persuaded the cabinet to announce a firm date for British withdrawal. He hoped this would pacify the minds of the feuding Indian politicians and appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten to accelerate the handover. The British had left by August 1947.

At the end of the war, the party chairman, Harold Lasky, told Attlee that Labour party needed a new leader to win the next election:

“Dear Lasky, thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted.” C.R.  Attlee

On the day of the 1945 election victory, there was another attempt to stab him in the back. Herbert Morris, the rival for the leadership ten years before, argued the Labour Party should elect a new leader before the government was formed. Attlee simply drove to Buckingham Palace to take the oath of office.

In India and in Palestine, Britain’s hasty collapse created power vacuums in which thousands died. Churchill was furious at the shambles,

scuttle everywhere is the order of the day,

he told the House of Commons. Attlee had hoped for a more orderly transfer of power but on the basic issue, he was unrepentant. Convinced that Britain had to cut its foreign commitments, he used the crisis of 1947 to wield the axe. Attlee government had escaped its winter of discontent but in glorious summer the time bomb that had been ticking since August 1945 finally exploded.

During the war the government had imposed strict exchange controls to stop the pound being moved out of the country and to protect Britain’s financial reserves. You can take out £5.00 in notes only. The Sterling haemorrhaged because investors tried to get their money out of the weak economy and invest somewhere safer, probably the United States. Attlee and most of his colleagues failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem. Economic confidence collapsed; shares fell by nearly 10%. The cabinet decided to end convertibility and reinstate exchange controls. It was a national humiliation and a massive blow to Labour self-confidence. In 1945, Keynes had predicted a financial Dunkirk, in 1947, it struck with a wrench. When the crisis was over, inevitably there were mutterings, Clem must go. Once again, economics had proved Attlee’s blind spot.

  • Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer,
  • Sir Stafford Cripps, Trade Minister

both wanted Bevin to take over. Both went to tell Attlee so, on the 9th September but Bevin stayed loyal. Cripps made minister of economic affairs. Cripps had entered 10 Downing Street that evening, ready to plunge in the knife. He went out as the PM’s right-hand man. Attlee having botched the economic crisis, handled its political fallout with consummate skill.

The other plotter, Dalton, stupidly leaked some details of his budget speech to a journalist and offered to resign, Attlee accepted his resignation. Dalton had become the main political casualty of the economic crisis.

Sir Stafford Cripps became Chancellor of the Exchequer in addition to being the economics minister. Cripps was a complex figure at the top of the Labour Government. Like Attlee he grew up in a prosperous legal family, but he stayed in the law to become a wealthy barrister and he inherited his parent’s ethical conviction but also their religious faith. Cripps was teetotal and vegetarian.

Churchill on Cripps: there for the Grace of God, goes God.

Cripps suffered miserably from colitis for years (inflammation of the bowels) and this flared up acutely in times of stress. He was a student of chemistry and this gave him a head start in understanding its use in research and development. His policies as Chancellor seemed like an extension of his severe personality.

  • He froze wages despite a rash of strikes especially in the docks.
  • He slashed imports and tightened food rationing to help the balance of payments

Britain was plunged back into an era of almost wartime austerity. The average calorie intake in the first half of 1948 was less than in the last year of the war. The weekly ration was

  • 13 ounces of meat
  • 1 /12 ounces of cheese
  • 6 ounces of butter and margarine
  • 8 ounces of sugar
  • 2 pints of milk
  • 1 egg

Attlee: It is cheerfully facing of difficulties that makes our country strong.

Cripps: preached gospel of productivity. He pushed Bevin and the Defence Chief to release more men for industries such as coal and textile. The economy started to expand and the government could afford to remove some of the food rationing such as on potatoes and bread. The international situation had also transformed. The Americans now feared that without economic recovery, Western Europe might go Communist. Marshall Pact was concluded and Mr. Bevin signed on behalf of Britain. Under the Marshall Plan, the Americans pumped 13 billion dollars into Western Europe over the next four years and Britain would get nearly a quarter of the total aid. Bevin had taken the lead in orchestrating the European end of the plan. He wheeled and dealt with Washington finally persuading the Americans to make a historic commitment to protect Western Europe against the Soviet threat. America’s peacetime alliance with Europe (NATO) provided a new anchor for British foreign policy,  but then Britain’s economic roller coaster lurched downhill. In the summer of 1949, world trade slumped and British exports collapsed. Speculators started a new round on the pound. In mid-July, Cripps left for rest at a sanatorium in Switzerland.

Attlee took over his post, the government was like an orchestra without a conductor. By September, Britain’s reserves had dropped catastrophically and the country once again seemed on the edge of bankruptcy. A solution was to devalue the Sterling. This was anathema to Attlee and his older colleagues because in the Sterling crisis of 1935, Labour had been stigmatised as the party which could not be trusted with the pound. The decision to devalue was led by junior ministers Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. Attlee accepted. The pound was devalued by 30% in September 1949. Reserves rose and exports began to flow once more. His government had plucked victory from the jaws of defeat.

In 1950, the government’s 5-year tenure was coming to an end. Early in the year, Attlee seized his chance to hold an election. Attlee was driven around the country in the family car by his wife. He did the newspaper crosswords while she drove, their luggage was one suitcase and a cardboard box containing a travelling iron. Labour did win a second term, but only just.

Cripps and Bevin were seriously ill. But the health of the economy gave some room for manoeuvre. Labour had finally created conditions for an economic boom.

In June 1950, North Korea invaded the South. Truman deciding correctly that this happened on Stalin’s wink, committed American troops to Korea and expected his new NATO allies to do the same. Britain’s chief of staff had initially advised that this would be militarily unsound but Attlee was deeply impressed by a telegram from the British Ambassador in Washington,

 “the American people are not happy if they are alone.”

The PM took centre stage with Bevin and Cripps exhausted. He said British troops would go as it was a vital test of the alliance with America. He was willing to risk his leadership and his government for the sake of the special relationship. There was fear in Western capitals that Stalin might unleash his army in Germany and France which would trigger WWIII. The Americans offered four combat divisions for Europe’s defence but they were adamant that their allies must also rearm. The Pentagon wanted Britain to commit to a defence budget of 6 billion pounds over the next three years. Labour had set aside only 2.3 billion.

The PM promoted Hugh Gaitskell to Chancellor of Exchequer. He led the campaign with the PM’s support for increased defence spending; they got an agreement to double the defence budget. It was considerably more than Britain could afford. The Left was horrified. Korea and rearmament shattered the unity of the party, it was questioned whether there were really 100 Soviet divisions and how would Britain pay for rearmament.

Earnest Bevin, Foreign Secretary was dying and was let go, Herbert Morison took over his job. Attlee was struck with a duodenal ulcer. Bevan was let go and Gaitskell retained as Attlee had committed the country to a defence budget which was way beyond its means and caused irreparable harm to the economy and split the party.

The balance of payments surplus of 300 million dollars in 1950 became a deficit of 400 million in 1951. Just as France and Germany, Britain’s continental rivals bounced back economically, British exports stagnated. Rearmament proved an economic catastrophe. By the spring of 1951, the Labour government was on its last leg. A new election was arranged in 1951. Labour won more votes but gained fewer seats. Attlee was out, Churchill was back.

The new prime minister, Churchill, ended rationing, cut back on defence spending and exploited the platform Labour had created for economic growth. All this kept the Tories in power for 13 years. None of the big men of Attlee’s cabinet held office again. Bevin died 5 weeks after resigning as Foreign Secretary, Cripps s a year later in 1952 and after fighting and losing the last election in 1955, Attlee resigned as Party leader.

Attlee’s government had a kind of split personality, its leaders were radical reformers but they were men born in the 1880s who saw two world wars and failed to appreciate Britain’s decline as a power. Confronted with the Korean crisis, Major Attlee and his band of brothers opted for a rearmament on a massive scale with distrust economic and electoral results; achievements: Indian independence and NATO.

Courtesy of the BBC

1500-1800 Trade and Empire in Africa

Portuguese explorers sailed south in search of gold, spices and slaves. By Prince Henry’s  death, the lower reaches of The Gambia and Senegal had been reached. Fernao Gomes and Dioga Cao pushed the limit of exploration to the river Congo. In 1488 one Portuguese expedition reached the Cape of Good Hope, and another reconnoitred  east Africa, preparing the way for Vasco da Gama’s journey to India  in 1497.

Between 1500 and 1800 the course of African history developed along both well-established lines and in new ways. The interaction between Mediterranean and Sudanic Africa continued with Islam making deeper inroads into tropical Africa. Many parts of Africa came increasingly under the economic influence of Western European states with profound economic  effects on coastal peoples, particularly through the impact of slave trade.

From the late 15th century, large political units multiplied in Africa. In 1464, Sunni Ali became the ruler of the Songhai people around Gao in the eastern Niger bend. Under Askia the Great (1493-1528), Songhai became a great empire, incorporating a number of important cities including Timbuktu and Jenne, which developed into centres of learning and Muslim piety. In the Savannah and forest country to the south, trading communities gave rise to comparable polities. Well before 1500 Oyo and Benin had emerged in the woodlands to the west of the Niger delta, producing superb terracottas and bronzes.

Elsewhere, similar processes gave rise to centralised states of iron-working agriculturalists and cattle-keepers. Increased populations, diversified economies and trade prompted stronger political control. When the Portuguese arrived south of the Congo mouth in 1484, they encountered the brilliant Kongo kingdom. Inland and to the south were other Bantu-speaking other African states including those of the Luba and Lunda, while in the fertile lands between the east African lakes a series of states evolved, notably Rwanda and Buganda.

Equally prosperous was the Zimbabwe plateau with its kingdom based initially at Great Zimbabwe, later replaced by a number of successors including the Mwenemutapa empire centred northeast of modern Harare. At its peak Great Zimbabwe was the political and religious centre of a major state with trade links extending as far as China.

The Spread of Islam

Between 1500 and 1800 Islam consolidated its position in the Sudanic lands, and spread southward along the east African coast. Bitter rivalry between Christian Ethiopia and Muslim coastal states in the Horn then developed: Sultan Ahmad Gran of Adal invaded the Christian highlands in the 1520s, and was only defeated by Portuguese intervention.

Meanwhile, in 1517, the Ottomans conquered the Mamluks in Egypt, and subsequently extended their control over Tripoli and Tunis; Algiers was ruled by Corsair princes subject to the Ottomans. Only Morocco remained independent, governed for much of this period by Sharifian dynasties. In 1590, Morocco invaded the Songhai empire and set up a client state, disrupting economic life throughout the region. Later, in the 18th century, the politics and commerce of Muslim west Africa recovered again in a burst of Islamic proselytising.

Europeans and the slave trade

Throughout the period, Europeans became more involved in Africa, seeking gold, ivory, wood and, above all, slaves to work the mines and plantations of the America’s. Although by 1800 the number of European territorial possessions was small, their domination of oceanic trade had considerable effects in many parts of Africa. In southernmost Africa, Dutch and french Huguenots settlers arrived after 1652 and subjected the Khoisan peoples, but by 1800 they encountered serious resistance from the southeastern Bantu speakers.

The Dutch French and British established “factories”along the coast where slaves were bought. From 1450 to 1870, some 11,500,000 Africans were exported to the Americas, perhaps 75% of whom survived the passage. Most came from west Africa, though by 1800 east Africa, which had long provided slaves to the Muslim world, was contributing to the Atlantic system. The precise effects of the slave trade are unclear. Overall Europeans gained and Africa’s development was inhibited.

The Beginnings of Indian Civilisation to 500 BC

India was the home of one of the oldest civilisations of history, which grew up along the banks of the Indus River. The Indus Valley culture and the Vedic culture, which succeeded and were influenced by it, were the basis for the development of later Indian society, in particular for the major religious systems of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.




3500 BC: beginning of Early Indus period

2500 BC: beginning of Harappa culture in the Indus valley

1750 BC: Abandonment of Major Indus Valley cities

1650 BC: Indo-Aryans begin to arrive in India

1000 BC: Indo-Aryan settlements established in the Upper Ganges plains.

600 BC: Kausambi and Ujjayini develop as earliest post-Harappa cities

The early history of India is very difficult to recover. Archaeology can reveal something about the way of life of its earliest inhabitants but little can be learned from written evidence. The earliest works of Indian literature, the Vedas, were composed in the centuries after 1200 BC, but they were not written down until probably the 5th century


Map 1



Terracotta figure from Mohenjo-Daro probably representing a mother goddess. A large number of such figurines have been found in the Indus valley. The worship of goddesses was common in this period and became a feature of Hindu worship. The figurine May, however, be more closely connected with Sumerian deities.



Map 2





Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

Although the subcontinent had substantial human occupation from the Stone Age onwards (see Map 1), the first great Indian civilisation was the Harappan culture which emerged in the Indus valley in the third millennium BC. Like the slightly older civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt it was based on flood-plain agriculture, as the cultivation of the fertile land on either side of the Indus was able to provide enough of a surplus to support a complex urban society. Several substantial cities were built (see map 2), of which the best explored are Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

The Indus civilisation also developed writing and about 200 seals with short pictograph inscriptions on them have been discovered. Although it has not yet convincingly deciphered, the language was almost certainly an early form of Dravidian related to languages still spoken in southern India and the hills of Pakistan and distinct from the Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, that became prominent in the following millennium.

The cities of the Indus valley engaged in some kind of trade with Mesopotamia as goods marked with Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian cylinder seals have been found in Mohenjo-Daro. However, in the first half of the 2nd millennium the major Indus Valley cities declined, probably as a result of climatic change, although smaller settlements remained inhabited.

Vedic culture

From around 1500 BC a new culture becomes apparent in India. This is now known as Vedic civilisation, and was characterised by a new language and rituals, and the use of horses and two-wheeled chariots. The traditional way to explain the changes was to talk of an “Aryan invasion” with mounted bands of warriors riding in from the northwest and conquering the indigenous Indus population before moving eastwards to the Ganges. Support for this picture was claimed from one of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, where the Aryans are presented as conquering the cities of the darker skinned indigenous Dasas. It is more likely that the process was gradual and that small groups of nomads entered the subcontinent from the northwest in the early second millennium and settled alongside the existing population. They absorbed elements of the Harappan culture, but were able to establish themselves as the dominant elite (arya is the Sanskrit word for nobility). Over the next centuries their Aryan language was adopted by more of the population and at the same time their influence spread eastwards to the upper Ganges.

The South

Southern India was left largely untouched by the civilisations of the north. There were probably trading links between the Indus valley and the southern tip of the peninsula, but there was no urbanism in the south, where villages were the normal form of social organisation. However, some limited form of common culture in the south is suggested by the distinctive megalithic tombs found over most of the area.

In the north, where unlike the hilly fragmented geography of the south, great plains lent themselves to large-scale agriculture and the growth of substantial kingdoms, cultural coherence became more widespread as, in the centuries that followed the emergence of the Vedic culture, the new civilisation spread gradually east from the Indus to the Ganges. Evidence from finds of pottery characteristic of particular periods suggests that there was also movement southwards (see map 3).


Map 3

The early Aryans had been pastorals, but over time they adopted agricultural practices and as they became increasingly settled, they established larger communities. Once again cities began to be built although they were not on the scale of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, being constructed largely from mud bricks. No known public buildings survive from this period. Yet by the 5th century BC there were political entities that might be called states or polities, most significantly Magadha, with its substantial fortified capital at Pataliputra.

Vedic religion

  • The religious practices of the Vedic society were influenced in part by the earlier Indus Valley culture, and animal sacrifice had a central role in it.
  • Vedic religion was polytheistic, and the Rig Veda includes hymns to a number of deities, including the warrior god, Indra, the fire god, Agni, and Soma, identified with mind altering drug of some kind, possibly derived from mushrooms.
  • Vedic religion is the forerunner of Hinduism, and the urban societies that developed along the Ganges were the communities among whom appeared in the 5th century, Mahavira, the founder of a Jainism, and the Buddha himself.

By courtesy









India the First Empires 500 BC to AD 550



 In 500 BC, north India (map above) was dominated by small polities, one of which, the eastern kingdom of Magadha contained the seeds of empire. Eastern India was also the home of Gautama Buddha who was born in around 486 BC in Lumbini near Kapilavastu, renounced the pleasures of royal life and attained spiritual enlightenment at Bodhgaya. He gave his first sermon at Sarnath and died at Kusinagara from where his remains were carried away by kings and enshrined in burial mounds known as stupas.


Map 2

Chandragupta Maurya transformed the Magadhan kingdom into an empire, which was further extended and consolidated by his grandson Ashoka (map above). After the violent conquest of Kalinga, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and pursued a policy of conquest through moral teachings (dhamma). Many of his edicts are located near Buddhist places of worship. According to Buddhist legends, Ashoka built and embellished 84,000 stupas and sent Buddhist missions to many regions, including the Hellenistic kingdoms to the west, south India and Sri Lanka.


This capital above topped an Ashoka pillar inscription in Sarnath. The capital in its original form has a wheel atop the lions. The wheel symbolised the world, and Ashoka was deemed a chakravartin, an imperial title that meant “wheel turner.

In the first century BC migrations by the Shaka clans had destabilised the northwest. They were followed by new invaders, the Kushans, who reduced the Shakas settled in western India to provincial governors (Satrapas) and subjugated much of north India, although they failed to dislodge the powerful Satavahanas of Central West India (map below). By the 3rd century AD, the Kushan empire had ended: its western reaches were tributary to the Persian Sassanids and its eastern provinces fragmented into small polities.

Map 3

As a result of the martial alliance, the Guptas maintained friendly relations with the Vakatakas (map below), but were hard pressed by the Huns from the late 5th century. After a number of invasions, the Hun king Tormana defeated the Guptas at Airkina and then sacked the Gupta city of Prayaga in AD 511. However, the resulting Hun rule over North India was short lived.

Map 4

The first centuries of the Christian Era witnessed the efflorescence of urban life, in part facilitated by vigorous trade with the Mediterranean world and with China (map below). Roman coins and artefacts indicate an influx of gold in exchange for Indian exports. At the same time, Buddhism spread along the trade routes across central Asia and beyond to China.


From 500 BC to AD 550 south Asia witnessed a succession of metropolitan empires centred in north India – the Kushanas and the Guptas. Although centralised political control was often weak, for the first time the entire subcontinent was integrated within a single but diverse cultural field.

By about 500 BC North India sustained 16 well-articulated polities, or mahajanapadas some still essentially tribal republics and others already monarchies (see map 1). The region witnessed tremendous change, as the consolidation of settled agriculture led to the emergence of cities and more complex political systems. Such changes made the older sacrificial cult of the Vedas, which had its origins in the pastoral communities of the Aryan tribes, increasingly obsolete. In its place, at the end of the 5th century BC in the heart of the Gangetic plains, the founders of Buddhism and Jainism formulated their radical new teachings.

The First Empire

During the 5th century BC, the number of mahajanapadas gradually diminished to four – Vajji, Kosala, Kasi and Magadha. After a century of wars, the single kingdom of Magadha dominated with its splendid new capital of Pataliputra. This was to be the nucleus of the first Indian empire. Shortly after Alexander’s incursion into India in 327 BC, the Mauryan prince Chandragupta seized the Magadhan throne. Chandragupta then conquered the land east of the Indus, swung south to occupy much of central India and in 305 BC decisively defeated Alexander’s successor in the northwest Seleucus Nicator.

The Mauryan empire that Chandragupta founded reached its zenith under his grandson, Ashoka who established his rule over most of the subcontinent (see map 2). Ashoka’s empire was composed of a centralised administrative system spread over a number of thriving cities and their hinterlands. After his conquest of Kalinga in 260 BC, Ashoka publicly converted to Buddhism and adopted a policy of “conquest through righteousness”, or dhammavi jaya. In a number of public orders inscribed on pillars and rock faces throughout the subcontinent Ashoka called for peace, propagated moral teachings (dhamma), and prohibited Vedic animal sacrifices. These edicts written in Prakrit, are the first specimens of royal decrees In South Asia, a type of public communication which would remain important in subsequent times.

 The Kushan Empire

Mauryan rule did not long survive Ashoka’s death in 252 BC. In the 2nd century BC, the northwest was repeatedly invaded, both by Greeks from Bactria and Parthia, and then by new nomad groups themselves displaced from Central Asia. First among these were Scythian tribes called the Shakas, who overran Bactria and the Indus Valley in the first century BC. Then the Kushana branch of the Yuehchih horde who had settled in the Oxus valley after 165 BC, gradually extended their rule inland, subduing the Shakas in western India and reaching Varanasi in the 1st century AD. As well as the Oxus and Indus valleys, large parts of Khotan were included in their cosmopolitan empire, centred in Purusapura. Kushana India was a melting pot of cultures – Indian, Chinese, central Asian and Helleno-Roman. The empire reached its height of power and influence under Kanishka, who patronised Buddhism and became extensively involved in political conflicts in Central Asia.

Both the Shakas and the Kushanas took Indian names and were the first kings to adopt Sanskrit at their courts- the first courtly poems and inscriptions in Sanskrit date from this period – though the native kingdom of the Satavahanas of the Deccan continued to use Prakrit. In the northwest Mahayana Buddhism emerged at this time from the more conservative Episcopalians teachings known as Theravada, and developed a more eclectic outlook emphasising compassion and worship in an enlarged Buddhist pantheon.

In the same period, India’s ancient trading links with the West were revitalised and greatly extended as the Roman Empire rose to power (see map 5). Ports such as Barbaricum on the Indus delta, and the entrepot of Barygaza exported

  • turquoise
  • diamonds
  • indigo
  • tortoise shells

receiving in return a flow of

  • pearls
  • copper
  • gold
  • slaves

from the Arab and Mediterranean worlds. Much of the Chinese silk traffic found its way to the city of Taxila before caravans took it further west. Trade led to other exchanges, as Buddhism spread to Central Asia and China.

By the middle of 2nd century AD, the south had also witnessed economic development. The Satavahanas of the Deccan developed a powerful empire and established overland and coastal trading networks and the weaker Tamil speaking kingdoms of the south established poets on both coasts of the peninsula.

The Guptas

In the 4th century, the native dynasty of the Guptas imposed a new rule based again in Pataliputra. Following the campaigns of Samudragupta and his son Chandragupta II, their suzerainty was acknowledged over an area almost as great as that of the Mauryan empire. Until repeated Hun invasions ended Gupta power in the 6th century, the Gupta power saw the blossoming of earlier cultural trends, and has become known as the classical or epic age of Indian history.

By courtesy



Fall of Constantinople in 1453

Title image: Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, by Gentile Bellini

The Fall of Constantinople was the capture of the capital city of the Byzantine Empire by an invading Ottoman army on 29 May 1453. The attackers were commanded by the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II, who defeated an army commanded by Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos and took control of the imperial capital, ending a 53-day siege that had begun on 6 April 1453. After conquering the city, Sultan Mehmet transferred the capital of the Ottoman State from Adrianople to Constantinople and established his court there.

  • Date: 6 April to 29 May 1453 (53 days)
  • Location: Constantinople (present day Istanbul); N41.0167, E28.9769 degrees
  • Result: Decisive Ottoman victory; fall of the Byzantine Empire
  • Territorial changes: Ottoman Empire annexes the remaining Byzantine territories; Constantinople becomes its new capital; The Morea and Trebizond continue as Byzantine rump states, until their conquest in 1460 and 1461 respectively


Ottoman Empire; Serbian Despotate
Byzantine Empire, Republic of Genoa; Republic of Venice; Kingdom of Sicily; Papal States; Ottoman Defectors

Commanders and Leaders 


  • Mehmet the Conqueror
  • Çandarlı Halil Pasha
  • Zagan Pasha
  • Suleiman Baltoghlu
  • Hamza Bey


  • Constantine XI
  • Loukas Notaras (POW)
  • Theophilos Palaiologos
  • Republic of Genoa Giovanni Giustiniani Longo (DOW)
  • Republic of Venice Gabriele Trevisano (POW)
  • Cardinal Isidore (POW)
  • Orhan Çelebi Executed
  • Don Francisco de Toledo


  • Ottoman: Land forces: 50,000–80,000; 5,000–10,000 Janissaries; 1,500 Serbian Cavalry; various cannon and bombards; Naval forces: 31 Galleys; 75 large row boats; 20 horse transports
  • Byzantine: Land forces: 7,000–10,000; 600 Ottoman defectors; Naval forces: 26 ships

Casualties and losses

  • Ottoman: Unknown but heavy
  • Byzantine: 4,000 soldiers and civilians killed; 30,000 enslaved

The capture of the city (and two other Byzantine splinter territories soon thereafter) marked the end of the Roman Empire, a state which dated to 27 BC, and which had lasted for nearly 1,500 years. The conquest of Constantinople also dealt a massive blow to the defence of mainland Europe, as the Muslim Ottoman armies thereafter were left unchecked to advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear.

It was also a watershed moment in military history. Since ancient times, cities had used ramparts and city walls to protect themselves from invaders, and Constantinople’s substantial fortifications had been a model followed by cities throughout the Mediterranean region and Europe. The Ottomans ultimately prevailed due to the use of gunpowder (which powered formidable cannons).

The conquest of the city of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire was a key event in the Late Middle Ages which also marks, for some historians, the end of the Medieval period.

State of the Byzantine Empire

Constantinople had been an imperial capital since its consecration in 330 under Roman emperor Constantine the Great. In the following eleven centuries, the city had been besieged many times but was captured only once: during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The crusaders established an unstable Latin state in and around Constantinople while the remaining empire splintered into a number of Byzantine successor states, notably Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond. They fought as allies against the Latin establishments, but also fought among themselves for the Byzantine throne.

The Nicaeans eventually reconquered Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, reestablishing the Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos dynasty. Thereafter, there was little peace for the much-weakened empire as it fended off successive attacks by the Latins, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and, most importantly, the Ottoman Turks. The Black Plague between 1346 and 1349 killed almost half of the inhabitants of Constantinople. The city was further depopulated by the general economic and territorial decline of the empire, and by 1453 consisted of a series of walled villages separated by vast fields encircled by the fifth-century Theodosian Walls.

By 1450 the empire was exhausted and had shrunk to a few square kilometres outside the city of Constantinople itself, the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and the Peloponnese with its cultural centre at Mystras. The Empire of Trebizond, an independent successor state that formed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, also survived on the coast of the Black Sea.


When Sultan Mehmet II succeeded his father in 1451, he was just nineteen years old. Many European courts assumed that the young Ottoman ruler would not seriously challenge Christian hegemony in the Balkans and the Aegean. This calculation was boosted by Mehmet’s friendly overtures to the European envoys at his new court. But Mehmet’s mild words were not matched by actions. By early 1452, work began on the construction of a second fortress (Rumeli hisarı) on the Bosphorus, on the European side several miles north of Constantinople, set directly across the strait on the Asian side from the Anadolu Hisarı fortress, built by his great-grandfather Bayezid I. This pair of fortresses ensured complete control of sea traffic on the Bosphorus; and defended against attack by the Genoese colonies on the Black Sea coast to the north. (This new fortress, was called Boğazkesen, which means ‘strait-blocker’ or ‘throat-cutter’, to emphasise its strategic position.) In October 1452, Mehmet ordered Turakhan Beg to station a large garrison force in the Peloponnese to block Thomas and Demetrios (despotes in Southern Greece) from providing aid to their brother Constantine XI Palaiologos during the impending siege of Constantinople.

Michael Critobulus quotes the speech of Mehmed II to his soldiers:

My friends and men of my empire! You all know very well that our forefathers secured this kingdom that we now hold at the cost of many struggles and very great dangers and that, having passed it along in succession from their fathers, from father to son, they handed it down to me. For some of the oldest of you were sharers in many of the exploits carried through by them—those at least of you who are of maturer years—and the younger of you have heard of these deeds from your fathers. They are not such very ancient events nor of such a sort as to be forgotten through the lapse of time. Still, the eyewitness of those who have seen testifies better than does the hearing of deeds that happened but yesterday or the day before.”

Role of the Christian schism

Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI swiftly understood Mehmet’s true intentions and turned to Western Europe for help; but now the price of centuries of war and enmity between the eastern and western churches had to be paid. Since the mutual excommunications of 1054, the pope in Rome was committed to establishing authority over the eastern church. The Union was agreed by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1274, at the Second Council of Lyon, and indeed, some Palaiologoi emperors (Latin, Palaeologan) had since been received into the Latin Church. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos had also recently negotiated union with Pope Eugene IV, with the Council of Florence of 1439 proclaiming a Bull of Union. The emperors efforts to impose union were met with strong resistance in Constantinople. A propaganda initiative was stimulated by anti-unionist Orthodox partisans in Constantinople; the population, as well as the laity and leadership of the Byzantine Church, became bitterly divided. Latent ethnic hatred between Greeks and Italians, stemming from the events of the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 by the Greeks and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins, played a significant role. Ultimately, the attempted Union failed, greatly annoying Pope Nicholas V and the hierarchy of the Roman church.



The Byzantine Empire in the first half of the 15th century. Thessaloniki was captured by the Ottomans in 1430. A few islands in the Aegean and the Propontis remained under Byzantine rule until 1453 (not shown on the map).

In the summer of 1452, when Rumelı Hisari was completed and the threat had become imminent, Constantine wrote to the Pope, promising to implement the Union, which was declared valid by a half-hearted imperial court on 12 December 1452. Although he was eager for an advantage, Pope Nicholas V did not have the influence the Byzantines thought he had over the Western kings and princes, some of whom were wary of increasing papal control, and these had not the wherewithal to contribute to the effort, especially in light of the weakened state of France and England from the Hundred Years’ War, Spain, being in the final part of the Reconquista, the internecine fighting in the Holy Roman Empire, and Hungary and Poland’s defeat at the Battle of Varna of 1444.

Although some troops did arrive from the mercantile city-states in the north of Italy, the Western contribution was not adequate to counterbalance Ottoman strength. Some Western individuals, however, came to help defend the city on their own account. Cardinal Isidore, funded by the pope, arrived in 1452 with 200 archers. One of these was an accomplished soldier from Genoa, Giovanni Giustiniani, who arrived with 400 men from Genoa and 300 men from Genoese Chios, in January 1453. As a specialist in defending walled cities, he was immediately given the overall command of the defence of the land walls by the emperor. Around the same time, the captains of the Venetian ships that happened to be present in the Golden Horn offered their services to the Emperor, barring contrary orders from Venice, and Pope Nicholas undertook to send three ships laden with provisions, which set sail near the end of March.

In Venice, meanwhile, deliberations were taking place concerning the kind of assistance the Republic would lend to Constantinople. The Senate decided upon sending a fleet in February 1453, but there were delays, and when it finally set out late in April, it was already too late for it to be able to take part in the battle. Further undermining Byzantine morale, seven Italian ships with around 700 men slipped out of the capital at the moment when Giustiniani arrived, men who had sworn to defend the capital. At the same time, Constantine’s attempts to appease the Sultan with gifts ended with the execution of the Emperor’s ambassadors—even Byzantine diplomacy could not save the city.

Fearing a possible naval attack along the shores of the Golden Horn, Emperor Constantine XI ordered that a defensive chain be placed at the mouth of the harbour. This chain, which floated on logs, was strong enough to prevent any Turkish ship from entering the harbour. This device was one of two that gave the Byzantines some hope of extending the siege until the possible arrival of foreign help. This strategy was enforced because in 1204 the armies of the Fourth Crusade successfully circumvented Constantinople’s land defences by breaching the Golden Horn Wall. Another strategy employed by the Byzantines was the repair and fortification of the Land Wall (Theodosian Walls). Emperor Constantine deemed it necessary to ensure that the Blachernae district’s wall was the most fortified because that section of the wall protruded northwards. The land fortifications comprised a 60 ft (18 m) wide moat fronting inner and outer crenellated walls studded with towers every 45–55 metres.


Map of Constantinople and the dispositions of the defenders and the besiegers

The army defending Constantinople was relatively small, totalling about 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreigners. At the onset of the siege, probably fewer than 50,000 people were living within the walls, including the refugees from the surrounding area. Turkish commander Dorgano, who was in Constantinople in the pay of the Emperor, was also guarding one of the quarters of the city on the seaward side with the Turks in his pay. These Turks kept loyal to the Emperor and perished in the ensuing battle. The defending army’s Genoese corps were well trained and equipped, while the rest of the army consisted of small numbers of well-trained soldiers, armed civilians, sailors and volunteer forces from foreign communities, and finally monks. The garrison used a few small-calibre artillery pieces, which nonetheless proved ineffective. The rest of the citizens repaired walls, stood guard on observation posts, collected and distributed food provisions, and collected gold and silver objects from churches to melt down into coins to pay the foreign soldiers.

The Ottomans had a much larger force. Recent studies and Ottoman archival data state that there were about 50,000–80,000 Ottoman soldiers including between 5,000 and 10,000 Janissaries, 70 cannons, an elite infantry corps, and thousands of Christian troops, notably 1,500 Serbian cavalry that the Serbian lord Đurađ Branković was forced to supply as part of his obligation to the Ottoman sultan—just a few months before, he had supplied the money for the reconstruction of the walls of Constantinople. Contemporaneous Western witnesses of the siege, who tend to exaggerate the military power of the Sultan, provide disparate and higher numbers ranging from 160,000 to 200,000 and to 300,000, Niccolò Barbaro: 160,000; the Florentine merchant Jacopo Tedaldi and the Great Logothete George Sphrantzes: 200,000; the Cardinal Isidore of Kiev and the Archbishop of Mytilene Leonardo di Chio: 300,000)

Ottoman dispositions and strategies

Mehmet built a fleet to besiege the city from the sea (partially manned by Greek sailors from Gallipoli). Contemporary estimates of the strength of the Ottoman fleet span between about 110 ships (Tedaldi), 145 (Barbaro), 160 (Ubertino Pusculo), 200–250 (Isidore of Kiev, Leonardo di Chio to 430 (Sphrantzes). A more realistic modern estimate predicts a fleet strength of 126 ships comprising 6 large galleys, 10 ordinary galleys, 15 smaller galleys, 75 large rowing boats, and 20 horse-transports.

Before the siege of Constantinople, it was known that the Ottomans had the ability to cast medium-sized cannons, but the range of some pieces they were able to field far surpassed the defenders’ expectations. The Ottomans deployed a number of cannons, anywhere from 12 cannons to 62 cannons. They were built at foundries that employed Turkish cannon founders and technicians, most notably Saruca, in addition to at least one foreign cannon founder, Orban (also called Urban). Most of the cannons at the siege were built by Turkish engineers, including a large bombard by Saruca, while one cannon was built by Orban, who contributed a large bombard.

Orban, a Hungarian was a somewhat mysterious figure.  His cannon was named “Basilica” and was 27 feet (8.2 m) long, and able to hurl a 600 lb (272 kg) stone ball over a mile (1.6 km). The founder initially tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, who were unable to secure the funds needed to hire him. Orban then left Constantinople and approached Mehmed II, claiming that his weapon could blast ‘the walls of Babylon itself’. Given abundant funds and materials, the Hungarian engineer built the gun within three months at Edirne, from which it was dragged by sixty oxen to Constantinople. This was the only cannon that Orban built for the Ottoman forces at Constantinople.  Orban’s cannon had several drawbacks: it took three hours to reload; cannonballs were in very short supply; and the cannon is said to have collapsed under its own recoil after six weeks. The account of the cannon’s collapse is disputed, given that it was only reported in the letter of Archbishop Leonardo di Chio and in the later, and often unreliable, Russian chronicle of Nestor Iskander.



Modern painting of Mehmed and the Ottoman Army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard, by Fausto Zonaro.

Having previously established a large foundry about 150 miles (240 km) away, Mehmet now had to undertake the painstaking process of transporting his massive artillery pieces. Orban’s giant cannon was said to have been accompanied by a crew of 60 oxen and over 400 men. There was another large bombard, independently built by Turkish engineer Saruca, that was also used in the battle.

In preparation for the final assault, Mehmet had an artillery train of seventy large pieces dragged from his headquarters at Edirne, in addition to the bombards cast on the spot.

Mehmet planned to attack the Theodosian Walls, the intricate series of walls and ditches protecting Constantinople from an attack from the West, the only part of the city not surrounded by water. His army encamped outside the city on the Monday after Easter, 2 April 1453.

The bulk of the Ottoman army were encamped south of the Golden Horn. The regular European troops, stretched out along the entire length of the walls, were commanded by Karadja Pasha. The regular troops from Anatolia under Ishak Pasha were stationed south of the Lycus down to the Sea of Marmara. Mehmed himself erected his red-and-gold tent near the Mesoteichion, where the guns and the elite regiments, the Janissaries, were positioned. The Bashi-bazouks were spread out behind the front lines. Other troops under Zagan Pasha were employed north of the Golden Horn. Communication was maintained by a road that had been constructed over the marshy head of the Horn.

Byzantine dispositions and strategies

The city had about 20 km of walls (land walls: 5.5 km; sea walls along the Golden Horn: 7 km; sea walls along the Sea of Marmara: 7.5 km), one of the strongest sets of fortified walls in existence. The walls had recently been repaired (under John VIII) and were in fairly good shape, giving the defenders sufficient reason to believe that they could hold out until help from the West arrived.  In addition, the defenders were relatively well-equipped with a fleet of 26 ships: 5 from Genoa, 5 from Venice, 3 from Venetian Crete, 1 from Ancona, 1 from Aragon, 1 from France, and about 10 Byzantine.

On 5 April, the Sultan himself arrived with his last troops, and the defenders took up their positions. As their numbers were insufficient to occupy the walls in their entirety, it had been decided that only the outer walls would be manned. Constantine and his Greek troops guarded the Mesoteichion, the middle section of the land walls, where they were crossed by the river Lycus. This section was considered the weakest spot in the walls and an attack was feared here most. Giustiniani was stationed to the north of the emperor, at the Charisian Gate (Myriandrion); later during the siege, he was shifted to the Mesoteichion to join Constantine, leaving the Myriandrion to the charge of the Bocchiardi brothers. Minotto and his Venetians were stationed in the Blachernae palace, together with Teodoro Caristo, the Langasco brothers, and Archbishop Leonardo of Chios.

To the left of the emperor, further south, were the commanders Cataneo, with Genoese troops, and Theophilus Palaeologus, who guarded the Pegae Gate with Greek soldiers. The section of the land walls from the Pegae Gate to the Golden Gate (itself guarded by a Genoese called Manuel) was defended by the Venetian Filippo Contarini, while Demetrius Cantacuzenus had taken position on the southernmost part of the Theodosian wall.

The sea walls were manned more sparsely, with Jacobo Contarini at Stoudion, a makeshift defence force of Greek monks to his left hand, and prince Orhan at the Harbour of Eleutherius. Pere Julià was stationed at the Great Palace with Genoese and Catalan troops; Cardinal Isidore of Kiev guarded the tip of the peninsula near the boom. The sea walls at the southern shore of the Golden Horn were defended by Venetian and Genoese sailors under Gabriele Trevisano.

Two tactical reserves were kept behind in the city, one in the Petra district just behind the land walls and one near the Church of the Holy Apostles, under the command of Loukas Notaras and Nicephorus Palaeologus, respectively. The Venetian Alviso Diedo commanded the ships in the harbour.

Although the Byzantines also had cannons, they were much smaller than those of the Ottomans and the recoil tended to damage their own walls.

According to David Nicolle, despite many odds, the idea that Constantinople was inevitably doomed is wrong, and the overall situation was not as one-sided as a simple glance at a map might suggest. It has also been claimed that Constantinople was “the best-defended city in Europe” at that time.


At the beginning of the siege, Mehmet sent out some of his best troops to reduce the remaining Byzantine strongholds outside the city of Constantinople. The fortress of Therapia on the Bosphorus and a smaller castle at the village of Studius near the Sea of Marmara were taken within a few days. The Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara were taken by Admiral Baltoghlu’s fleet. Mehmet’s massive cannon fired on the walls for weeks, but due to its imprecision and extremely slow rate of reloading the Byzantines were able to repair most of the damage after each shot, limiting the cannon’s effect.

The Ottoman Turks transport their fleet overland into the Golden Horn.

Meanwhile, despite some probing attacks, the Ottoman fleet under Suleiman Baltoghlu could not enter the Golden Horn due to the chain the Byzantines had previously stretched across the entrance. Although one of the fleet’s main tasks was to prevent any ships from outside from entering the Golden Horn, on 20 April a small flotilla of four Christian ships managed to slip in after some heavy fighting, an event which strengthened the morale of the defenders and caused embarrassment to the Sultan.  Baltoghlu’s life was spared after his subordinates testified to his bravery during the conflict.

Mehmet ordered the construction of a road of greased logs across Galata on the north side of the Golden Horn, and dragged his ships over the hill, directly into the Golden Horn on 22 April, bypassing the chain barrier. This seriously threatened the flow of supplies from Genoese ships from the—nominally neutral—colony of Pera, and demoralised the Byzantine defenders. On the night of 28 April, an attempt was made to destroy the Ottoman ships already in the Golden Horn using fire ships, but the Ottomans had been warned in advance and forced the Christians to retreat with heavy losses. Forty Italians escaped their sinking ships and swam to the northern shore. On orders of Mehmed, they were impaled on stakes, in sight of the city’s defenders on the sea walls across the Golden Horn. In retaliation, the defenders brought their Ottoman prisoners, 260 in all, to the walls, where they were executed, one by one, before the eyes of the Ottomans. With the failure of their attack on the Ottoman vessels, the defenders were forced to disperse part of their forces to defend the sea walls along the Golden Horn.

The Ottoman army had made several frontal assaults on the land wall of Constantinople, but were always repelled with heavy losses. Venetian surgeon Niccolò Barbaro, describing in his diary one of such frequent land attacks especially by the Janissaries, wrote:

They found the Turks coming right up under the walls and seeking battle, particularly the Janissaries … and when one or two of them were killed, at once more Turks came and took away the dead ones … without caring how near they came to the city walls. Our men shot at them with guns and crossbows, aiming at the Turk who was carrying away his dead countryman, and both of them would fall to the ground dead, and then there came other Turks and took them away, none fearing death, but being willing to let ten of themselves be killed rather than suffer the shame of leaving a single Turkish corpse by the walls.

After these inconclusive frontal offensives, the Ottomans sought to break through the walls by constructing tunnels in an effort to mine them from mid-May to 25 May. Many of the sappers were miners of Serbian origin sent from Novo Brdo by the Serbian despot. They were placed under the command of Zagan Pasha. However, an engineer named Johannes Grant, a German who came together with the Genoese contingent, had counter-mines dug, allowing Byzantine troops to enter the mines and kill the workers. The Byzantines intercepted the first Serbian tunnel on the night of 16 May. Subsequent tunnels were interrupted on 21, 23, and 25 May, and destroyed with Greek fire and vigorous combat. On 23 May, the Byzantines captured and tortured two Turkish officers, who revealed the location of all the Turkish tunnels, which were then destroyed.

On 21 May, Mehmet sent an ambassador to Constantinople and offered to lift the siege if they gave him the city. He promised he would allow the Emperor and any other inhabitants to leave with their possessions. Moreover, he would recognise the Emperor as governor of the Peloponnese. Lastly, he guaranteed the safety of the population that might choose to remain in the city. Constantine XI only agreed to pay higher tributes to the sultan and recognised the status of all the conquered castles and lands in the hands of the Turks as Ottoman possession.

As to surrendering the city to you, it is not for me to decide or for anyone else of its citizens; for all of us have reached the mutual decision to die of our own free will, without any regard for our lives.

Around this time, Mehmet had a final council with his senior officers. Here he encountered some resistance; one of his Viziers, the veteran Halil Pasha, who had always disapproved of Mehmed’s plans to conquer the city, now admonished him to abandon the siege in the face of recent adversity. Zagan Pasha argued against Halil Pasha, and insisted on an immediate attack. Mehmet planned to overpower the walls by sheer force, expecting that the weakened Byzantine defence by the prolonged siege would now be worn out before he ran out of troops and started preparations for a final all-out offensive.

Final assault

Preparations for the final assault were started in the evening of 26 May and continued to the next day. For 36 hours after the war council decision to attack, the Ottomans extensively mobilised their manpower in order to prepare for the general offensive. Prayer and resting would be then granted to the soldiers on the 28th, and then the final assault would be launched. On the Byzantine side, a small Venetian fleet of 12 ships, after having searched the Aegean, reached the Capital on May 27 and reported to the Emperor that no large Venetian relief fleet was on its way. On May 28, as the Ottoman army prepared for the final assault, large-scale religious processions were held in the city. In the evening a last solemn ceremony was held in the Hagia Sophia, in which the Emperor and representatives of both the Latin and Greek church partook, together with nobility from both sides.

Shortly after midnight on May 29 the all-out offensive began. The Christian troops of the Ottoman Empire attacked first, followed by the successive waves of the irregular azaps, who were poorly trained and equipped, and Anatolians who focused on a section of the Blachernae walls in the north-west part of the city, which had been damaged by the cannon. This section of the walls had been built earlier, in the eleventh century, and was much weaker. The Anatolians managed to breach this section of walls and entered the city but were just as quickly pushed back by the defenders. Finally, as the battle was continuing, the last wave, consisting of elite Janissaries, attacked the city walls. The Genoese general in charge of the land troops, Giovanni Giustiniani, was grievously wounded during the attack, and his evacuation from the ramparts caused a panic in the ranks of the defenders.


Sultan Mehmet II’s entry into Constantinople, painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854–1929).

With Giustiniani’s Genoese troops retreating into the city and towards the harbour, Constantine and his men, now left to their own devices, kept fighting and managed to successfully hold off the Janissaries for a while, but eventually they could not stop them from entering the city. The defenders were also being overwhelmed at several points in Constantine’s section. When Turkish flags were seen flying above a small postern gate, the Kerkoporta, which was left open, panic ensued, and the defence collapsed, as Janissary soldiers, led by Ulubatlı Hasan pressed forward. Many Greek soldiers ran back home to protect their families, the Venetians ran over to their ships, and a few of the Genoese got over to Galata. The rest committed suicide by jumping off the city walls or surrendered. The Greek houses nearest to the walls were the first to suffer from the Ottomans. It is said that Constantine, throwing aside his purple regalia, led the final charge against the incoming Ottomans, perishing in the ensuing battle in the streets just like his soldiers. On the other hand, Nicolò Barbaro, a Venetian eyewitness to the siege, wrote in his diary that it was said that Constantine hanged himself at the moment when the Turks broke in at the San Romano gate, although his ultimate fate remains unknown.

After the initial assault, the Ottoman Army fanned out along the main thoroughfare of the city, the Mese, past the great forums, and past the Church of the Holy Apostles, which Mehmet II wanted to provide a seat for his newly appointed patriarch which would help him better control his Christian subjects. Mehmet II had sent an advance guard to protect key buildings such as the Church of the Holy Apostles.

A small few lucky civilians managed to escape. When the Venetians retreated over to their ships, the Ottomans had already taken the walls of the Golden Horn. Luckily for the occupants of the city, the Ottomans were not interested in killing potentially valuable slaves, but rather in the loot they could get from raiding the city’s houses, so they decided to attack the city instead. The Venetian captain ordered his men to break open the gate of the Golden Horn. Having done so, the Venetians left in ships filled with soldiers and refugees. Shortly after the Venetians left, a few Genoese ships and even the Emperor’s ships followed them out of the Golden Horn. This fleet narrowly escaped prior to the Ottoman navy assuming control over the Golden Horn, which was accomplished by midday. The Army converged upon the Augusteum, the vast square that fronted the great church of Hagia Sophia whose bronze gates were barred by a huge throng of civilians inside the building, hoping for divine protection. After the doors were breached, the troops separated the congregation according to what price they might bring in the slave markets.

Ottoman casualties are unknown but they are believed by most historians to be very heavy due to several unsuccessful Ottoman attacks made during the siege and final assault. Barbaro described blood flowing in the city “like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm”, and bodies of Turks and Christians floating in the sea “like melons along a canal”.

Plundering phase

Mehmet II granted his soldiers three days to plunder the city, as he had promised them and in accordance with the custom of the time. Soldiers fought over the possession of some of the spoils of war. Most of the Greek women were raped and enslaved. According to the Venetian surgeon Nicolò Barbaro, “all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city”. According to Philip Mansel, widespread persecution of the city’s civilian inhabitants took place, resulting in thousands of murders and rapes and 30,000 civilians being enslaved or forcibly deported.

The looting was extremely thorough in certain parts of the city. Four days later on 2 June, the Sultan would find the city largely deserted and half in ruins; churches had been desecrated and stripped, houses were no longer habitable and stores and shops were emptied. He is famously reported to have been moved to tears by this, speaking “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction.”


On the third day of the conquest, Mehmed II ordered all looting to stop and issued a proclamation that all Christians who had avoided capture or who had been ransomed could return to their homes without further molestation, although many had no homes to return to, and many more had been taken captive and not ransomed. Byzantine historian George Sphrantzes, an eyewitness to the fall of Constantinople, described the Sultan’s actions:

On the third day after the fall of our city, the Sultan celebrated his victory with a great, joyful triumph. He issued a proclamation: the citizens of all ages who had managed to escape detection were to leave their hiding places throughout the city and come out into the open, as they were to remain free and no question would be asked. He further declared the restoration of houses and property to those who had abandoned our city before the siege. If they returned home, they would be treated according to their rank and religion, as if nothing had changed.— George Sphrantzes

The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, but the Greek Orthodox Church was allowed to remain intact and Gennadius Scholarius was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople. This was once thought to be the origin of the Ottoman millet system; however, it is now considered a myth and no such system existed in the fifteenth century.

After the sack, many feared other European Christian kingdoms would suffer the same fate as Constantinople. Two possible responses emerged amongst the humanists and churchmen of that era: Crusade or dialogue. Pope Pius II strongly advocated for another Crusade, while Nicholas of Cusa supported engaging in a dialogue with the Ottomans.

The Morean (Peloponnesian) fortress of Mystras, where Constantine’s brothers Thomas and Demetrius ruled, constantly in conflict with each other and knowing that Mehmet would eventually invade them as well, held out until 1460. Long before the fall of Constantinople, Demetrius had fought for the throne with Thomas, Constantine, and their other brothers John and Theodore. Thomas escaped to Rome when the Ottomans invaded Morea while Demetrius expected to rule a puppet state, but instead was imprisoned and remained there for the rest of his life. In Rome, Thomas and his family received some monetary support from the Pope and other Western rulers as Byzantine emperor in exile, until 1503. In 1461 the independent Byzantine state in Trebizond fell to Mehmet.

Constantine XI had died without producing an heir, and had Constantinople not fallen he likely would have been succeeded by the sons of his deceased elder brother, who were taken into the palace service of Mehmet after the fall of Constantinople. The oldest boy, renamed to Murad, became a personal favourite of Mehmet and served as Beylerbey (Governor-General) of Rumeli (the Balkans). The younger son, renamed Mesih Pasha, became Admiral of the Ottoman fleet and Sancak Beg (Governor) of the Province of Gallipoli. He eventually served twice as Grand Vizier under Mehmet’s son, Bayezid II.

With the capture of Constantinople, Mehmet II had acquired the “natural” capital of its kingdom, albeit one in decline due to years of war. The loss of the city was a crippling blow to Christendom, and it exposed the Christian west to a vigorous and aggressive foe in the east. The Christian re-conquest of Constantinople remained a goal in Western Europe for many years after its fall to the House of Osman. Rumours of Constantine XI’s survival and subsequent rescue by an angel led many to hope that the city would one day return to Christian hands. Pope Nicholas V called for an immediate counter-attack in the form of a crusade. When no European monarch was willing to lead the crusade, the Pope himself decided to go, but his early death stopped this plan. As Western Europe entered the 16th century, the age of Crusading began to come to an end.

For some time Greek scholars had gone to Italian city-states, a cultural exchange begun in 1396 by Coluccio Salutati, chancellor of Florence, who had invited Manuel Chrysoloras, a Byzantine scholar to lecture at the University of Florence. After the conquest many Greeks, such as John Argyropoulos and Constantine Lascaris, fled the city and found refuge in the Latin West, bringing with them knowledge and documents from the Greco-Roman tradition to Italy and other regions that further propelled the Renaissance. Those Greeks who stayed behind in Constantinople mostly lived in the Phanar and Galata districts of the city. The Phanariotes, as they were called, provided many capable advisers to the Ottoman rulers.

Third Rome

Byzantium is a term used by modern historians to refer to the later Roman Empire. In its own time, the Empire ruled from Constantinople (or “New Rome” as some people call it, although this was a laudatory expression that was never an official title) was considered simply as “the Roman Empire.” The fall of Constantinople led competing factions to lay claim to being the inheritors of the Imperial mantle. Russian claims to Byzantine heritage clashed with those of the Ottoman Empire’s own claim. In Mehmet’s  view, he was the successor to the Roman Emperor, declaring himself Kayser-i Rum, literally “Caesar of Rome”, that is, of the Roman Empire, though he was remembered as “the Conqueror”. He founded a political system that survived until 1922 with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Stefan Dušan, Tsar of Serbia, and Ivan Alexander, Tsar of Bulgaria, both made similar claims, regarding themselves as legitimate heirs to the Roman Empire. Other potential claimants, such as the Republic of Venice and the Holy Roman Empire have disintegrated into history.

Impact on the Churches

In 17th-century Russia, the fall of Constantinople had a role in the fierce theological and political controversy between adherents and opponents of the reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church carried out by Patriarch Nikon, which he intended to bring the Russian Church closer to the norms and practices of other Orthodox churches. Avvakum and other “Old Believers” saw these reforms as a corruption of the Russian Church, which they considered to be the “true” Church of God. As the other Churches were more closely related to Constantinople in their liturgies, Avvakum argued that Constantinople fell to the Turks because of these heretical beliefs and practices.

The fall of Constantinople has a profound impact on the ancient Pentarchy of the Orthodox Church. Today, the four ancient sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople are almost completely devoid of followers and believers because of Islamisation and the Dhimma system to which Christians have been subjected since the earliest days of Islam. As a result of this process, the centre of authority in the Orthodox Church changed and migrated to Eastern Europe (e.g., Russia) rather than remaining in the former Byzantine Near East.


There are many legends in Greece surrounding the Fall of Constantinople. It was said that the partial lunar eclipse that occurred on 22 May 1453 represented a fulfilment of a prophecy of the city’s demise. Four days later, the whole city was blotted out by a thick fog, a condition unknown in that part of the world in May. When the fog lifted that evening, a strange light was seen playing about the dome of the Hagia Sophia, which some interpreted as the Holy Spirit departing from the city. “This evidently indicated the departure of the Divine Presence, and its leaving the City in total abandonment and desertion, for the Divinity conceals itself in cloud and appears and again disappears.” For others, there was still a distant hope that the lights were the campfires of the troops of John Hunyadi who had come to relieve the city.

Another legend holds that two priests saying divine liturgy over the crowd disappeared into the cathedral’s walls as the first Turkish soldiers entered. According to the legend, the priests will appear again on the day that Constantinople returns to Christian hands. Another legend refers to the Marble King (Constantine XI), holding that an angel rescued the emperor when the Ottomans entered the city, turning him into marble and placing him in a cave under the earth near the Golden Gate, where he waits to be brought to life again (a variant of the sleeping hero legend).

Cultural impact

Guillaume Dufay composed several songs lamenting the fall of the Eastern church, and the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, avowed to take up arms against the Turks. However, as the growing Ottoman power from this date on coincided with the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Counter-Reformation, the recapture of Constantinople became an ever-distant dream. Even France, once a fervent participant in the Crusades, became an ally of the Ottomans. Nonetheless, depictions of Christian coalitions taking the city and of the late Emperor’s resurrection by Leo the Wise persisted. 29 May 1453, the day of the fall of Constantinople, fell on a Tuesday, and since then Tuesday has been considered an unlucky day by Greeks generally.

Impact on the Renaissance

The migration waves of Byzantine scholars and émigrés in the period following the sacking of Constantinople and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is considered by many scholars key to the revival of Greek and Roman studies that led to the development of the Renaissance humanism and science. These émigrés were grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians. They brought to Western Europe the far greater preserved and accumulated knowledge of their own (Greek) civilisation.

Renaming of the city

The name of Istanbul is thought to be derived from a Greek phrase and it is claimed that it had already spread among the Turkish populace of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest. However, Istanbul only became the official name of the city in 1930 by the revised Turkish Postal Law as part of Atatürk’s reforms.

By courtesy of

The Colonial Heritage


The eighteenth, nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, during which most of the Asian and African countries were European colonies, was a period of great political and social change. The Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, they Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War and the emergence of communist China as a world power, were events that had a profound effect on the thinking of people in Asia and Africa. These events of great historical importance had a worldwide effect and provided the downtrodden all over the world with the hope of a better future. The idea of social equality and a move towards egalitarianism gathered strength and peoples’ hopes and aspirations gained a fresh momentum. The people, who had been enslaved for years, built up an idealistic picture of a post-independence society. The harsh economic realities that must inevitably influence any evolution from a colonial to a modern state were generally overlooked and those who spearheaded the movements for independence usually painted an unrealistic picture of a post-colonial society. They also did not take into consideration the numerous social and political handicaps which would impede progress in the immediate post-independence era. The ravages of the Second World War weakened the colonial powers both militarily and economically. Those who had emerged as victors suddenly found themselves confronted with stark reality and the inescapable conclusion that they could no longer hold sway over their colonies.
Although in a number of regions, particularly Indo-China, Algeria and other parts of Africa, the colonial powers failed to see the writing on the wall and vacated these territories only after they had been left with no other option, independence came to some of these colonies rather earlier than expected. Even the leadership in some of these countries which had been struggling for national freedom was not fully prepared for it. In most of these countries, the leadership, which had launched a struggle for liberation and made great sacrifices for the realisation of their cherished goal, had done little if any homework for running the administration. These countries, therefore, awoke at the dawn of independence to find that they had an organised army and an experienced bureaucracy trained by their erstwhile masters but no political leadership conversant with statecraft. It was, therefore, not surprising that the political leadership found itself at the mercy of the bureaucrats and the military, and with the passage of time their vulnerability increased.

After the initial flush of independence, it was, in the circumstances, only natural that disillusionment should cast its shadow over most of the newly emerging countries. Dissatisfaction with the slow pace of development and disappointment with the virtually unchanged social, administrative and economic conditions characterised the mood and the climate in most of these countries. In a few cases, where leadership of a high order was available- generally in the person of the founder of the state – the country was able to settle down under normal democratic institutions. Where, however, national leadership of the right kind was not available, the country became an easy prey for ambitious generals. In the apparent untidiness of political life and slow functioning of political processes, the military appeared to be a tidy set-up which was able to work with speed and apparent efficiency. As the political governments’ stock fell in the eyes of the people, the armed forces began increasingly to appear as an alternative. Few of these countries possessed strong democratic traditions which might have prevented a drift towards authoritarianism. The displacement of civilian governments by the military has, therefore, been a common feature in most countries which gained independence from colonial rule in the second-half of the twentieth century. Wherever the social and political conditions deteriorated and an ambitious general was at hand, the country went through a period of military rule. The bureaucracy, claiming to be the natural rulers, found it convenient to function for the military much as they had done for their colonial masters.

Most of these colonial countries had been dominated by foreign commercial interests. In such conditions, a national bourgeoisie had not developed. In its absence, the foreign business classes continued to play an important role in the post-independence era much as they had done in the colonial days. An army takeover suited them as the army, because of its authoritarian outlook and la k of a nationalistic economic philosophy, was willing and able to protect their interests. The national bourgeoisie, therefore, found it difficult to develop and the new middle class found itself without the leadership that could assert itself in national affairs and check the power of the armed forces and the bureaucracy.

This is what happened in Pakistan. It lost its founding father and guiding figure, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, barely a year after its creation. Three years later, when it had hardly overcome the pangs of birth and was still in the throes of a host of problems, including the absence of a consensus on a constitutional framework, it lost its first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, through the bullet of an assassin. This development brought to an abrupt end the little supremacy that the political leadership had over the bureaucracy and the army. This situation thus paved the way for a painfully long series of traumatic developments that left their scars on the body politic of the country, unleashing the forces of adventurism and palace intrigues. However, Pakistan had a few special features that further complicated the picture. The armed forces, or about 85% of them, belonged to one province of West Pakistan, the Punjab, whereas the majority of the population was in East Pakistan and had virtually no representation in the armed forces. The situation vis a vis the bureaucracy was about the same. Whereas the army takeover, when it first happened, was generally accepted by the Punjab, it was resented in East Pakistan. To the various anti-democratic decisions taken by the rulers sitting in Karachi and later in Islamabad, the reaction of East Pakistan was different from that of the Western wing for a number of reasons. Apart from the lack of geographical contiguity of the two wings, there was the fact that the people of the eastern wing were politically more conscious than those living in West Pakistan, who were suffering under the age-old domination of feudal lords and the serfdom imposed by tribal chiefs. Linguistic, racial and social differences aggravated this situation and the military rulers could not ignore for long the feelings of the people of the more populous part of the country. The restraint that East Pakistan exercised on unbridled leadership was a factor which led those who supported these regimes to feel that they would be better off without the eastern half of the country. For such people, East Pakistan was an encumbrance. The ruling class of West Pakistan, therefore conditioned itself to believe that Pakistan would do better without its eastern wing.

The involvement of the army in active politics goes back to the mid-1950s. The martial law of 1953 in Punjab gave the army its first taste of power and it discovered that it could control seemingly unruly mobs with the power of the gun. Ayub Khan’s ambition, which was the normal response of a general in a classic situation, received encouragement from Ghulam Mohammad, the governor-general. A bureaucrat to the hilt, Ghulam Mohammad neither believed in democracy nor in equal treatment for East Pakistan. He dismissed Khawaja Nazimuddin, the prime minister, in April 1953, when Nazimuddin commanded a majority in the Constituent Assembly which had just passed the annual budget. This was the first major blow to democracy and could not have been struck without the tacit support of Ayub Khan, the commander -in-chief of the army. Chaudhary Mohammad Ali, the federal finance minister, and Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani supported Ghulam Mohammad in this move and six of the nine members of Nazimuddin’s cabinet, led by Chaudhary Mohammad Ali, joined the new government of Mohammad Ali Bogra, who was brought in from the USA where he was Pakistan’s ambassador. Another federal minister, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, who refused to be a party to this ignoble and unconstitutional act, shared the fate of Nazimuddin. The civilian governor of East Pakistan, Chaudhary Khaliquzzaman, who could not agree to the dismissal of the United Front ministry of A.K. Fazlul Haq in Dhaka, was removed and replaced by General Iskander Mirza. The governor’s rule clamped down over the province. Encouraged by his arbitrary actions against the central and provincial governments, which remained unchallenged, Ghulam Mohammad chose in October 1954 to dissolve the Constituent Assembly which had just prepared a draft constitution restricting the governor-general’s powers. The constitution contained a clause which provided that the governor-general could not dismiss a ministry as long as it commanded a majority in the House.

Ghulam Mohammad, who by then had suffered a series of strokes, was very ill but not too ill to destroy any remaining semblance of democratic propriety in the running of the country’s affairs. Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan, the President of the Constituent Assembly, challenged the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in the Sindh High Court which gave a verdict in his favour and against the action of the governor-general. However, the appeal of the governor-general against the decision of they High Court was upheld by a majority judgement of the Supreme Court delivered by Chief Justice Mohammad Munir. In the new cabinet that was formed, Iskander Mirza became the interior minister and Ayub Khan the defence minister. The fact that Ayub Khan insisted on retaining at the same time the post of commander-in-chief of the army and was allowed to do so, speaks for itself. The bureaucracy-military collaboration was thus total and complementary. Despite their rivalries, both needed each other; the bureaucracy wanted the military to lend it support while the latter sought the skilled and adroit assistance of the former in elbowing out the professional politicians who were relegated to the status of junior partners. It was therefore, not surprising that a half-dumb, half-paralysed Ghulam Mohammad ruled the country for more than a year.

That the generals deemed it necessary to mould the national politics to suit their whims and interests is evident from a significant development of those days. Soon after the unification of the provinces of West Pakistan into a single administrative unit, Dr Khan Sahib, a non-Muslim Leaguer and a close friend of General Iskander Mirza was made its chief minister. Realising that the Muslim Leaguers, who were in an absolute majority in the assembly, were in no mood to cooperate with Dr Khan Sahib, Governor-General Iskander Mirza, in active collaboration with Governor Gurmani – also a one-time bureaucrat – tore the Muslim League asunder and founded the Republican Party. This was a motley crowd of office seekers and it failed to be resurrected as a political organisation in 1962 when political parties were restored by President Ayub Khan. A large number of politicians, most of whom claimed to have worked for the freedom movement, allowed themselves to be used as puppets by the bureaucracy-military clique only to share power as junior partners. In the eastern wing, they United Front was dismembered by arraying A.K. Fazlul Haq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani against one another and by trying every conceivable move in the intrigue-ridden game of formation and dismissal of ministries.




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Balochistan has been menaced by the overspill of the war in Afghanistan since 2001 which has brought the Afghan Taliban to the Pathan areas of Balochistan; the Pathans who make up as much as 40% of Balochistan’s population, are a majority in Quetta itself. According to US intelligence, much of the Taliban leadership regrouped itself in the so-called “Quetta Shura”, and was still based in Balochistan in late 2009. So far, this hasn’t been bad for Balochistan. On the contrary, the Afghan Taliban seem to have struck a deal with Pakistani security forces whereby they will not stir up militancy among the Pathans of Balochistan in return for being left alone.

Given Pakistan’s problems with Baloch militancy, Islamabad considers it especially important to keep the Pathans of Balochistan loyal. This is an additional reason for the shelter that Pakistan gives to parts of the Afghan Taliban leadership in Balochistan. Until early 2007, local journalists told me, the presence of these leaders was so open that it was very easy for Pakistanis (not Westerners) to gain interviews with them. Since then, however, US pressure has made Pakistan more careful and the “Quetta Shura” has been moved out of Quetta to more discreet locations in the Pathan areas in the north of the province.

The Afghan Taliban’s presence risks provoking the US into launching the kind of cross-border attacks that have been going on for years in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)* to the north; and there is also the risk that US and British military actions in southern Afghanistan will lead to a major influx of Taliban fighters into Pakistani Balochistan. This could well be disastrous for the province.

*amalgamated into Pakhtunkhwa province [former Northwest Frontier Province with capital at Peshawar].

If the Pathans of the province are stirred up against the Pakistani state, their latent tensions with the Baloch would also be awakened, above all concerning who should rule Quetta itself. Baloch nationalists who say that an independent Balochistan would be prepared to let the Pathan areas break away to joins new Balochistan, fall very silent when you ask them what then would happen to Quetta. With Pathans against Pakistan and Baloch (and other Pathans), and Baloch against Pathans, Pakistan and Iran (and other Baloch), and Hazaras and others caught in the middle, that would have all the makings of a really unspeakable mess.

Disputed history and population

Balochistan is closely linked to Sindh and many Sindhis and southern Punjabis are in fact from Baloch tribes which retain their tribal loyalties and much of their tribal way of life. Like the Sindhis, the Baloch tribes worship saints and shrines, and most have been impervious to the appeals of modern radical Islamist thought. Neither the Islamist political parties nor the Taliban have made any serious inroads among the ethnic Baloch. There does however seem to be some Baloch support for the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba movement, which has carried out savage terrorist attacks on the Shia Hazara community in Quetta.

Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan in size with 134,000 square miles and some 43 % of Pakistan’s land area, but with a small population of only 9-11 million people, being about 7% of Pakistan’s population.

Until 2010, the Pakistani central state allocated its support to provincial budgets according to population, resulting in a very small share for Balochistan. By the new Financial Commission Award of that year, however, the allocation was rebalanced to take account of poverty and revenue generation. This meant that Balochistan’s share went up from 7% to 9.09%, around 50% above Balochistan’s share of Pakistan’s population. This was not nearly enough to satisfy more radical Baloch nationalists, but increased Pakistan’s appeal to more moderate Baloch.

The contrast between territory and population largely shapes Balochistan’s particular situation and problems. Balochistan’s huge territory is home to the greater part of Pakistan’s mineral and energy resources (with the colossal exception of the Thar coalfields of Sindh). Its tiny population means that it has little to say in Pakistani national politics and little control over how its huge resources are developed.

The British put together the territories of what is now the Pakistani province of Baluchistan for geographical, administrative and security reasons, but from historically and ethnically disparate elements; in fact, the province is almost as much an artificial creation as Pakistan itself. Moreover, just as was the case with the Pathans and Afghanistan to the north, the British drew a frontier with a neighbouring state which cut the ethnic Baloch lands in two, dividing them between the British empire of India and the Persian empire  to the west (with a small number in the deserts of Afghanistan to the north).

Baloch nationalists today claim a large chunk of Iran as part of the ‘Greater Balochistan” that they hope to create – thereby guaranteeing the undying hostility of the Iranian as well as the Pakistani state. The Jundullah movement for the independence of Iranian Balochistan is active in the western parts of Pakistani Balochistan on the Iranian border in alliance with Baloch tribal gangs who smuggle heroin from Afghanistan to Iran and the Gulf states through Pakistani territory. Pakistani and Iranian officials both firmly believe (though with little real evidence) that the US and British intelligence services are supporting Jundullah so as to put pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme. In October 2009, Jundullah killed several senior Iranian officers in a suicide bombing in Iranian Balochistan. The Iranian government accused US, British and Pakistani agents of being behind the attack. Pakistan hit back by arresting what it said were several Iranian intelligence agents operating in Balochistan.

However, in a sign of hellish complexity of this part of the world, Jundullah and the Baloch smugglers are also responsible for smuggling weapons and recruits to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Thirteen suspected international Islamist volunteers, including three from Russia (apparently Tatars), were intercepted by the Pakistani army during my stay in Balochistan. One was a doctor, seemingly on the way to boost the Taliban’s primitive medical services. I do not know what happened to them.

To the Kalat territories and those of the independent tribes, the British added Pathan territories to the north. These were taken from the nominal sovereignty of Afghanistan and, like the tribes of FATA, the tribes of northern Balochistan were split in two by the Durand Line drawn by the British to divide their sphere of influence from Afghanistan. They retain close tribal links to southern Afghanistan, and strong sympathies for the Afghan Taliban.

Some of the leading Pathan tribal families of northern Balochistan originated in what is now Afghanistan, and fled to British territory to escape from the ruthless state-building of Emir Abdur Rahman towards the end of the nineteenth century. After 1977, Pathan numbers in Balochistan swelled greatly by a new wave of Pathan Afghan refugees, this time from the wars which erupted after the Communist takeover and the Soviet and Western occupations of Afghanistan.

Balochistan‘s third major ethnicity, the Hazara, also fled from Afghanistan to escape from Abdur Rahman. They are Shia of Mongolian origin from the central highlands of Afghanistan, and between 200,000 and 300,000 of them now live in Quetta and a few other towns.  Like the Mohajirs of Sindh, their uprooting from their ancestral territory in Afghanistan has helped turn the Hazaras of Quetta into a remarkably well-educated and dynamic community (possibly also with the help of aid from Iran, though they deny this fervently). They have by far the best hospitals and schools outside the cantonment, and their cemetery breathes a sort of Victorian municipal pride in their community’s heroes. They are especially proud of their prominence in the Pakistani military, and of the fact that a Hazara woman has become the first female fighter pilot in the Pakistani Air Force. Tragically, though, their cemetery also bears witness to the many Hazaras killed in recent years in anti-Shia terrorist attacks by the Sunni sectarian extremists.

Finally, there are the Punjabi and Mohajir “settlers” (as they are known by the Baloch), who moved to the region under British and Pakistani rule. Put all these other ethnicities together, and the ethnic Baloch (i.e. the Baloch-and Brahui-speakers) are at best a small majority in Balochistan. In Quetta itself, Baloch may be as little as a quarter of the population, with Pathans the majority. But nobody really knows for sure.

In 1901 British officials conducted a census which recorded down to the last child the population of all but the most remote tribes in Balochistan. More than a century later, in 2009, the Commissioner Quetta Division could not tell me within half a million people the population even of Quetta itself. This, however, was not mostly his fault. Apart from the general weakness of the Pakistani bureaucracy when it comes to gathering information, the main parties among the Pathans successfully urged their Pathan followers to boycott the last census in 1998, in the hope that this would help the Pathan Afghan refugees to merge with the local Pathan population, become Pakistani citizens, and boost Pathan political weight in Balochistan.

This boycott means that the official figure of 6.5 million people for that year (4.9% of Pakistan’s population) was almost certainly a serious underestimate. According to the 1998 census, ethnic Baloch formed 54.7% and Pathans 29.6%, with the rest divided between Punjabis, Hazaras and others. But the Pathans claim to be 35-40% of the population, and they may well be right. Almost as many ethnic Baloch live outside Balochistan as within it, though the figures are very hard to determine because many no longer speak Baloch but, while retaining Baloch tribal customs, consider themselves Sindhis or Punjabis.

Fear of ethnic swamping has been one factor in repeated Baloch revolts in both Iran and Pakistan, and the development of Gwadar has only increased these fears. In Pakistan, until the Islamists revolts after 2001, the Baloch were the most persistently troublesome of all the ethnic groups. There was armed resistance in 1948-49, after Kalat’s  accession (under considerable duress) to Pakistan; unrest again in the late 1950s after Balochistan was merged into the “one unit” of West Pakistan and the promises of full autonomy to Kalat state were broken; and a serious revolt between 1973 and 1977, after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto dismissed the moderate nationalist government of Balochistan as part of his moves to centralise power in his own hands, and arrested its leading members.

In all of these cases, however, most of the unrest was concentrated chiefly in one tribal group, and only parts of that group -in the late 1940s and 1950s, parts of the Mengal and other tribes of the old Kalat state and, in the 1970s, parts of the Marri tribe with certain allies. This allowed the Pakistani state to play on the deep traditional rivalries between the tribes and between sub tribes of the same tribe, and eventually through a mixture of force and concessions to the Sardars of the rebel tribes, to bring these revolts to an end. It was also never entirely clear if the rebellions concerned were themselves really aiming at full independence, at greater autonomy within Pakistan, or at benefits and redress of grievances for the particular tribes concerned.

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First World War

In Britain popular interest in the First World War runs at levels that surprise almost all other nations, with the possible exception of France. For a war that was global, it is a massively restricted vision: a conflict measured in yards of mud along a narrow corridor of Flanders and northern France. It knows nothing of the Italian Alps or of the Masurian lakes; it bypasses the continent of Africa and Asia, and it forgets the war’s other participants – diplomats and sailors, politicians and labourers, women and children.

Casualty figures do provide a satisfactory explanation for such insularity. British deaths in the First World War may have exceeded those of the Second, and Britain is unusual, if not unique in this respect. The reverse is true for Germany and Russia, as it is for the United States.

By the mid-1920s, the population of Britain, like those of other belligerents, was recovering to its pre-war levels. In the crude statistics of rates of marriages and reproduction there was no ‘lost generation.’ But the British and particularly the better educated classes, believed there was. The legacy of literature, and its effects on shaping memory, have proved far more influential than economic and political realities.


War as a general phenomenon: “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” is he insists, “an old lie.” – Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.  His mother did not receive the news until after the fighting was over. The war both did for Owen and made him. The war gave him material which transformed him into one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century. For school children throughout Britain his verses are often their first and most profound encounter with the First World War. Owen did not achieve canonical status until the 1960s. The first edition of his poems sold 730 copies in December 1920. A further 700 copies printed in 1921 were still not sold out by 1929.

By then, the collected poems of another victim of the war, Rupert Brooke, had run to 300,000 copies. For Brooke’s “The Soldier” death in battle was both sweet and fitting. Of course, Brooke’s continuing popularity reflected in large measure the desire of wives and mothers, of parents and children, to find solace in their mourning. They needed the reassurance that their loss was not in vain. But it makes another point that the First World War was capable of many interpretations, and that until at least the late 1920s those different meanings co-existed with each other. Every adult across Europe, and many in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, had his or her own sense of the war’s significance. The conviction that the war was both wasteful and futile was neither general nor even dominant.


Units from the martial races from India were sent to France in the autumn of 1914

When the great powers of Europe embarked on war in 1914 popular conceptions of combat were shaped more by the past than by prognostications of the future. The literature of warning, both popular and professional, was abundant. But hope prevailed over realism, and in truth the circumstances of the outbreak created little choice: for every nation the war seemed to be one of national self-defence, and the obligations on its citizens was therefore irrefutable. By December 1916 the nature of war, its costs and casualties, and their threat of social upheaval were self-evident. But even then, none of the belligerents seized the opportunity of negotiations which the United States held out. The differences in values and ideologies look less stark than they seemed then only because we have been hardened by the later clashes between Fascism and Bolshevism, and between both of them and western liberalism. The very fact of the United States entry into the war in April 1917 makes the point. Woodrow Wilson had been “too proud to fight.” He was deeply opposed to the use of war for the furtherance of policy, and the evidence of the battles of Verdun and the Somme in 1916 should have consolidated that belief. So, when he took the United States into the war, he laboured under few illusions as to the horrors which men like Wilfred Owen had experienced at first hand. But he concluded that the United States had to wage war if it was to shape the future of international relations. It may have been a vision which the Senate rejected in the war’s immediate aftermath, but it still inspires American foreign policy.

This is of course the biggest paradox in our understanding of the war. On the one hand it was an unnecessary war fought in a manner that defied common sense, but on the other it was the war that shaped the world in which we still live. When the First World War began, historians, especially in Imperial Germany, identified a “long” nineteenth century, starting with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending in 1914. For their successors that was when the “short” twentieth century began, and it ended with the conclusion of the Cold War in 1990. The subsequent conflicts in the Balkans brought home to many the role played by the multinational Hapsburg Empire in keeping the lid on ethnic and cultural difference before 1914. Between 1917 and 1990, the Soviet Union’s ideological confrontation with the west performed a not dissimilar function. But the Soviet Union was itself an heir of the First World War, the product of the Russian revolution. Its authoritarianism established a form of international order, especially in eastern Europe after 1945. The sort of localized war which had triggered world war in 1914 was suppressed precisely because of that precedent: the fear of a big war now contained and defused the dangers inherent in a small one. However, for eastern Europe there was another lesson from the First World War, and it was a very different one from that which it is commonly associated in the west today. War was not futile. For the revolutionaries, as for the subject nationalities of the Hapsburg Empire, the war had delivered.

In the Middle East, the reverse applied. The war satisfied nobody. The British and French were given temporary control of large chunks of the former Ottoman Empire, thus frustrating the ambitions of Arab independence. Moreover, contradictory promises were made in the process, in particular Arthur Balfour, the former British prime minister, declared that the Jews would find a homeland in Palestine. The roots of today’s Middle Eastern conflict lie here.

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