Commonwealth Day

Second Monday in March
March 12, 2012

Here’s a geography quiz:

1. What is the official language of Belize?

2. Whose portrait adorns the Canadian loonie?

3. What comprises 53 countries, covers over a fifth of the world’s land area, and accounts for 2 billion of the earth’s population?

If you answered

  1. English.
  2. Queen Elizabeth II
  3. The British Commonwealth

you got 1 and 2 right. The word ‘British’ was axed from The Commonwealth to reflect the fact that 98% of its subjects are not British at all, and 93% of the Commonwealth’s population live in Asia and Africa.

Today because of British influence in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, English is an official language of over 50 countries, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Liberia, Jamaica, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, The Gambia, Mauritius, Swaziland, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Guyana, the Solomon Islands, Malta, the Bahamas, Barbados, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, Grenada, Seychelles, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru. (Note: not all the above are in the Commonwealth.)

Views around the web on Commonwealth Day…

Our integration with our continental neighbours has had the effect of weakening our ties with our Commonwealth friends.


…a staggering 1,921,974,000 people around the world will be celebrating Commonwealth Day, unless that is you’re British. We Brits it seems still suffer from an imperialist hangover, too embarrassed (dare I say ashamed?)…


The origins of Commonwealth Day date back to 1898 when Clementina Trenholme, author and social organiser, introduced Empire Day in Canadian schools on the last school day before May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday…In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in accordance with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire…


Nuclear Victims Day – Marshall Islands

March 1

Marshall Islands flag
Marshall Islands flag

In the 12-year period from 1946-1958, when the Marshall Islands was a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States, the United States conducted 67 atomic and hydrogen atmospheric bomb tests in islands, with a total yield of 108 megatons, which is 98 times greater than the total yield of all the U.S. tests in Nevada. Put another way, the total yield of the tests in the Marshall Islands was equivalent to 7,200 Hiroshima bombs. That works out to an average of more than 1.6 Hiroshima bombs per day for the 12-year nuclear testing program in the Marshalls…

—From the Marshall Islands’ Four Atolls Submit Statement before the Senate Energy Committee to Address Nuclear Testing Issues

Over a tenth of that 12-year yield was delivered in a single day: March 1, 1954.

The hydrogen bomb known as Castle Bravo was expected to yield a 5 megaton blast, equivalent to over 300 Hiroshima sized blasts. The starter alone on Castle Bravo (Hydrogen bombs required the detonation of a smaller atomic device known as a ‘primary’ to kick-start the fusion process) was itself twice the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

A miscalculation of the reactive properties of the lithium isotope present in the fusion fuel resulted in a runaway chain reaction that created an explosion three times larger than scientists had predicted.

The Castle Bravo explosion was visible from 250 miles, it left a mile-wide crater on the atoll, and the mushroom cloud stretched  60 miles across. It remains to this day the largest nuclear weapon the U.S. ever tested.

The high yield, combined with shifting winds, resulted in hundreds of residents of the nearby atolls receiving dangerous doses of radiation. A Japanese fishing vessel was also in the path of the radiation fallout; the crew became ill and one member died. Japanese and English scientists were able to use radiation samples from the vessel to determine that fallout caused by thermonuclear tests in the Pacific was much higher than the U.S. had claimed.

According to the Marshall Islands’ Report, “The Bikinians have been exiled from their homeland since 1946, except for a brief period after President Johnson announced in 1968 that Bikini was safe and the people could return.”

That announcement, it turns out, was premature. The residents were moved off the island permanently 10 years later.

Short clip of Bravo and aftermath

Another clip
Nuclear Survivors Say They Were Fed Lies

Waitangi Day – New Zealand

February 6


New Zealand’s national holiday celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on this day (February 6) in 1840.

The word ‘celebrate’ is disputed though. The treaty was the original agreement between representatives of the British Crown and the Maori chieftains, and its signing is considered the birth of New Zealand. However, to many Maori—the indigenous descendants who make up about a sixth of New Zealand’s population—the Treaty represents the country’s ‘original sin’.

The problem with the Treaty of Waitangi stems from discrepancies between the English and Maori translations (translated by a well-meaning but less-than-fluent English missionary in a single night) so the chieftains and the British never precisely agreed on the same stipulations. The New Zealand government solved this dilemma by, when in doubt, not honoring the Maori version. This didn’t sit well with the Maori, whose protests against the loss of their lands fell on deaf ears for over a century.

Once heralded as a symbol of victory for indigenous rights, the Treaty has become the cornerstone of a growing awareness of social injustices committed against the Maori, who protest each Waitangi Day.

But as Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Maori Party, said:

“It’s critically important that people understand that the Treaty is not about settlement, it’s not about grievance. The Treaty was a document of unity, and all of us should understand it.” – New Zealand Herald

Marae, Waitangi, © 2009 Alison MacCallum

And if there’s one thing that unifies the New Zealand people, it’s that nobody outside New Zealand understands them. Here are some “Kiwi-isms” to help you better communicate with these fun-loving but linguistically-challenged people:

A into G: arse into gear (to get going)

Box of birds: cheerful, very good

Carked it: kicked the bucket

Cellotape: scotch tape

Cotton buds: Q-tips

Dag: an amusing character

Dunny: toilet

Eketahuna: the NZ “Timbuktu”

Fanny: you don’t need to know, just never say “fanny pack”. It’s called a”bum-bag.”

Guts for garters: in big trouble

Ice block: popsicle

Judder bar: speed bump

Kia ora: “hello” in Maori

Money for jam: easy money

Off yer face: intoxicated

Pavlova: tasty dessert named for a Russian ballerina who visited NZ (though Australians try to claim it)

Rattle your dags: hurry up

Throw a wobbly: become angry

Your shout: your turn to buy drinks

More at the official NZ-to-English Dictionary

Oh, and Waitangi is the name of the river that was the site of the Treaty’s signing. It means “noisy” or “weeping river”.

Nauru Independence Day

January 31

Over 40 years ago the small island of Nauru was granted its independence from Australia.

According to People and the Earth: Basic Issues in the Sustainability of Resources and the Environment, Nauru is the only nation in the world whose economy is based on bird droppings.

“Nauru survives by  the mining of the natural fertilizers that were produced over many millennia by the interaction of bird droppings (guana) with marine sediments exposed at the surface. Essentially depopulated during Japanese occupation in World War II, about 8,000 Nauruans now live on 1,100 of the 5,236 acres that are not mined to produce fertilizer for markets in Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.”

“When the resource is gone and mining ceases, currently estimated to occur in the year 2000, there will be no exportable product for Nauru except stamps and weight lifters. Even with reclamation, Nauru is unlikely to become a major tourist stop since there will be little of the island left that has not been stripped of every pound of exportable phosphate rock.”

Nauru from above

Aware of their finite resources, Nauru’s leaders used profits to diversify their assets, including the 52-story Nauru House, Melbourne, Australia’s tallest building when it was built.

The history of Naura goes back 3,000 years, when the peoples of Polynesia and Micronesia settled the island. The 12 “tribes” of Naura remained cut off from outside society other until the end of the 18th century. In the 1830s contact with the Western shipping and traders increased, allowing islanders to trade resources for popular imports: alcohol and firearms. Both, unfortunately, exacerbated the bloodshed of the 10-year Nauru Civil War during the 1880s. The population fell from 1,400 to 900.

After Germany annexed the Island at the end of the 19th century, they discovered and began mining phosphate.

Australia captured the island in World War I and it was governed  by the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.

During World War II the Japanese captured the island, turning it into one big airstrip, while deporting 1,200 inhabitants for hard labor for the war effort. Australia retook the island in 1945.

On January 31, 1968 Nauru was granted independence.

True to predictions, the export that had sustained the island since 1907 was depleted. The nation with one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs at the time of its independence became one of the world’s poorest. Its fertile land, now destroyed by a century of mining, is uninhabitable and unable to be restored.
Naura House in Melbourne was sold for $140 million to clear the nation’s growing debts. The island encouraged offshore banking as a tax shelter, and soon became a beacon of hope for money launderers everywhere.

Nauru cracked down on money laundering due to international pressure. Today Naura exports less than $600,000 in phosphate–its only export–and imports $19 million.

And the island, once cut off from the world and self-sufficient for thousands of years, is now completely dependent on Australian aid.

Australia Day

January 26

On January 26, 1808 Major George Johnston led his men to the residence of Governor William Bligh and forcibly relieved him of his post. This remains the only successful coup by force in Australia’s history.

(You may remember Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the lovable, kooky Captain Bligh in 1935’s Best Picture “Mutiny on the Bounty” which portrayed the crew’s slapstick romp through the South Pacific.)

But that’s not why they celebrate. In fact the first recorded celebration of Australia day was 200 years ago, on January 25, 1808, the night before the coup. They called it First Landing or Foundation Day. It marked the 20th anniversary of the landing of British ships in what is now Sydney, with the purpose of setting up a permanent penal colony for the Bad Boys of Britain.

Sydney Bridge
Sydney, Australia

24 year-old George Johnston was the first officer to set foot on Sydney Cove sand that day. According to legend (ie. Wikipedia) he was so ill from the boat trip, he had to be carried on the back of convict James Ruse. Ruse had been sentenced to death back in England for stealing two watches. This was later commuted to 7 years in Australia. Ruse became Australia’s first successful European farmer.

from The Birth of Sydney…<

“The grant of land made to him by Governor Phillip in 1792 was the first act in a tragedy of dispossession for Aboriginal Australia. It would take 200 years exactly for the country to acknowledge that Phillip’s declaration was a sham.”

The 1789 London Morning Herald had a different take on the budding colony:

“The settlement we are making at Botany or rather Jackson’s Bay reminds us of the origin of the Roman Empire, which sprang out of a nest of robbers…The thief colony may hereafter become a great empire, whose nobles will probably, like those of the nobles of Rome and other empires, boast of their blood.”

The report prophesied correctly: Australians are a patriotic bunch, more so in recent years. But even today 1 in 4 Australians was born in another country. And 2 in 5 have at least 1 parent born abroad.

Heavy immigration has not been without conflict. In 2005, riots in the beachside suburbs of Cronulla targeted Middle-Eastern immigrants. It was the first riot to be fueled by text messaging.

This year Australia pays tribute to a couple whose heroism will be remembered for days to come. Lorraine and Robert Steel were honored (I mean honoured) with Order of Australia medals in part for their creation of the Parkes Elvis Festival in western New South Wales.

“January’s been very quiet in Parkes and we thought that we would do something to liven up living in Parkes in January to give us some business and hopefully to give business to our local motels and eatery.”

It’s now the world’s biggest Elvis festival, holding the Guinness World Record for most Elvis impersonators in a single place.
Australia Day History
Survival Day

Birthday of the King: Elvis

January 8

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar,
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war,

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee…
…I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

Paul Simon, Graceland

Today is the birthday of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley. Though not an official holiday in any nation, it is observed throughout the world.

Elvis statue Elvis worshipper

(Above: the author praises the King in Memphis, Tennessee)

The focal point of the celebration is Graceland, Elvis’s former home in Memphis, Tennessee. Festivities begin each year with a gospel tribute at the Gates of Graceland at midnight.

Graceland was not named by Elvis, but by the original owner S.E. Toof after his daughter Grace.

Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. At age 13 the Presley family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis lived for most of his life.

In 1957 the 22 year-old superstar purchased the Graceland mansion in Memphis. He was proud to move his parents into it, a long way from the two-room house where Elvis was raised. His mother Gladys died the following year.

Graceland living room

Early viewers of Elvis’s concerts, such as rock legend Roy Orbison, cite his instinct and incredible energy as a performer as separating him from the artists before him. It is difficult to convey the novelty of Elvis after the half-century of imitations and changes that followed. Various morality groups assailed him for his “vulgar” and “obscene” music and movements on stage.

His discoverer, Sam Phillipsof Sun Studios, said Elvis “put every ounce of emotion…into every song, almost as if he was incapable of holding back.”

When Elvis first entered the Sun Studios, receptionist Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like. He is reported to have said “I don’t sound like nobody.”

While this was true in mainstream radio, Elvis was heavily influenced by the black gospel singers he had seen at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium and black blues performers in the clubs along Beale Street.

Stories make it sound like Elvis walked into Sun Studios and the rest is history, but in fact, after his first recording in 1953, Elvis politely hassled Sam Phillips for a year—while working as a truck driver—before Sam teamed him up with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. The three recorded a high-energy version of black R&B artist Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” in July and the single was released that month. Some white disc jockeys refused to play Elvis’ music at first, believing Elvis was black.

In January 1956 RCA released Heartbreak Hotel, co-written by a part-time Florida schoolteacher Mae Boren Axton, who was inspired by the newspaper epitaph of a suicide victim: “I walk a lonely street.”

Heartbreak Hotel slowly and steadily climbed the charts, entering at #1 68 in March, and making its way to #1 in May.

Elvis the #1 Hits: The Secret History of the Classics

Though Graceland is considered the musical Mecca for Elvis fans, do not miss Sun Studios just to the east on Union Avenue, for a more in-depth historically revealing tour about Elvis and Memphis music history.

Boxing Day

December 26

St. Stephen

“In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected…

The Book of Days

As a child I thought it odd that the British, so seemingly refined (compared to us their American cousins), would dedicate the day after Christmas to such a brutal and pugilistic sport. Yet there it was on the calendar: “Boxing Day – UK”.

Apparently the holiday has very little to do with the sport, but everything to do with gift-giving. And no, it’s not about boxing up all the gifts you don’t want so you can return them to the store either.

According to The Book of Days (1882)…

“The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practised universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes…

“…Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefor from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employes, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

“St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day.”

Boxing-night was a night of much joy and revelry. The Book of Days goes on to tell us that “the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night” as the pockets of the working class are stuffed with recently received year-end bonuses.

You can also find some packed pubs and bars on Boxing Day, as celebrants, having spent 24-48 hours with family, join their friends to bid a fond farewell to the Christmas season, if not the Christmas spirit.

[Of course , Boxing Day is actually only the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, so the season doesn’t technically end until Epiphany on January 6.]

Angam Day – Nauru

October 26

Today the small island nation of Nauru celebrates Angam Day.

Angam means “jubilation” or “homecoming”. The jubilation doesn’t refer to any election, battle, revolution, legislation, or victory. It celebrates a birthday. It’s the birthday of a woman named Eidaruwo, who was born on October 26, 1932. But Angam Day doesn’t celebrate anything she did. In fact, it was first celebrated on the very day she was born.

For nearly all of its 3000 year history, Nauru’s remote location ensured its isolation, ever since Polynesian and Micronesian travelers first settled there. Contact with the West in the 19th century could not have come at a worse time. Not only was the country ripe for exploitation, the importation of guns and ammo exacerbated deadly tribal wars that devastated the island’s population.

The population of the island fell from 1,400 to 900 and didn’t recover. After World War I, an Australian study determined that the island’s population was so low that the race was in danger of dying out. Nauru would have to reach 1,500 in order to ensure healthy survival.

The mission to achieve 1,500 people united the island. It took many years, but on October 26, 1932 a baby girl named Eidaruwo was born. The whole island celebrated her birth, and they have celebrated the date as Angam Day ever since, except during World War II.

Today Nauru’s population is over 13,000, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. But during the 20th century, phosphate mining depleted the island’s natural resources.

Now the nation has a new mission: sustainability.