Thursday, December 26, 2013


It was a swelteringly hot afternoon. The mercury had risen above 110 Fahrenheit and there was not a whisper of wind. But the heat inside the boxing ring in Reno, Nevada, was nothing when compared to the fiery atmosphere in the country at large.
Jack Johnson: black America.
The fourth of July, 1910, was to witness one of the most infamous boxing bouts in history - one that pitched black against white in a forlorn and foolish bid to demonstrate white racial supremacy.

The two men in the ring were both undisputed champions. Jack Johnson, the black-skinned son of an ex-slave, had been named World Heavyweight Champion in 1908 after successfully knocking out the Canadian fighter, Tommy Burns. His victory had caused such racial animosity among whites that boxing promoters began to search for a ‘Great White Hope’ to crush the black upstart.

James Jeffires: white America
The ‘Great White Hope’ they settled upon was the former undefeated heavyweight champion, James Jeffries. He was persuaded out of retirement to challenge Johnson. He represented the best hope for a white boxer to knock black Johnson down to size. After all, he had retired undefeated and was famous for his extraordinary strength and stamina. A natural left-hander, he possessed one-punch knockout power in his left hook.

But there was one problem. He was seriously out of shape by the time it came to fight Johnson. He hadn’t fought for six years and was hugely overweight. He also had little interest in the overtly racist fight, being quite content with his new life as a farmer.

Publicity for the fight
He was finally tempted back into the ring by the offer of a staggering $120,000. There was intense nationwide interest in the fight and racial tension increased dramatically in the days beforehand. ‘No ring contest ever drew such an attendance,’ noted the Los Angeles Herald, ‘and never before was so 
many thousands of dollars fought for or paid by the sport-loving public to
 see a fight.’
To prevent any violence in the arena, guns were prohibited, along with the sale of alcohol.

White-skinned Jeffries remained out of the limelight until the day of the fight, whereas Johnson did everything he could to court publicity. Confident he would win, he appeared for interviews and photo-shoots. He was a celebrity athlete before his time and his constant womanising (with white women) ensured that he was a regular feature in the gossip columns.

The fight: a great deal at stake.
The fight took place on 4 July in front of 20,000 people. It quickly became clear that Jeffries was incapable of imposing his will on the young black champion. Indeed Johnson dominated the fight and by the 15th round, Jeffries had suffered enough. To the horror of his white supporters, he threw in the towel. Johnson showed no magnanimity in victory. ‘I won because I outclassed him in every department of the fighting game,’ he said. ‘Before I entered the ring, I was certain I would be the victor.’
The outcome triggered immediate race riots across the United States. Johnson's decisive victory left many hard-line white supporters feeling deeply humiliated.

Not looking good for Jeffries.
According to the Los Angeles Herald, ‘race rioting broke out like prickly heat all over the country between whites, angry and sore because Jeffries had lost
 the fight at Reno, and negroes, jubilant that Johnson had won.’

Blacks were jubilant; they hailed Johnson's victory as a victory for racial advancement.
In some cities, the police joined forces with furious white citizens in order to subdue the black revellers. There were murders, knife-fights and even running gun battles. In New York, Chicago and other cities, violence spread throughout the poorer areas. In all, riots occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. There were thirteen certified deaths and hundreds more were injured, some seriously.

It's real hot today.
The film of the fight, ‘Fight of the Century’ caused almost as much controversy as the fight itself. Many states banned it from being screened. Within three days of the clash, there was a huge white campaign to censor Jack Johnson's victory by ensuring the film would never be shown.

The would-be censors found heavyweight support in former President Roosevelt, an avid boxer. He wrote an article supporting the banning of the film.

Not until 2005 did the Library of Congress decree that the film was of such historic importance that it should be listed on the National Film Register. Almost a century after one of the most infamous fights in boxing history, the clash between black and white has finally been granted its official place in history. 


At exactly 2.30pm on 11 July, 1897, a gigantic silk balloon could be seen rising into the Arctic sky above Spitzbergen. Inside the basket were three hardy adventurers, all Swedish, who were taking part in an extraordinary voyage.
The doomed balloon
Salomon Andrée was the instigator of the mission. Charismatic and confident, he managed to persuade Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel to accompany him on his historic balloon flight over the North Pole.
Andrée was confident of success. His balloon, the Eagle, used advanced hydrogen technology and he had developed a complex steering system using drag ropes.

Salomon Andree
A disastrous test flight suggested that Andrée’s confidence was seriously misplaced. The much vaunted rope-steerage system had numerous glitches and hydrogen was found to be seeping out of the balloon’s eight million little stitching holes.

The expedition ought to have been abandoned before it even took off. But Andrée overruled all objections and the launch was scheduled for the second week of July. The problems began within minutes of getting airborne. As the balloon drifted across the sea to the north of Spitzbergen, it was weighed down by the weight of the drag ropes - so much so that the balloon actually dipped into the water.

Almost airborne
Andree jettisoned 530 kilograms of ropes, along with 210 kilograms of ballast. This lightened the balloon so much that it now rose too high: the change in air pressure caused huge quantities of hydrogen to escape through the little stitching holes.
Andrée remained optimistic, releasing a carrier pigeon with the message ‘All well on board.’

This was far from true. The first ten hours of troubled flight were followed by 41 hours in which the balloon - soaked in a rainstorm - flew so low that it kept bumping into the frozen sea.

Knut Fraenkel
The Eagle eventually crash-landed onto the sea-ice some fifty hours after taking off from Spitzbergen. No one was hurt, but it was clear that the balloon would never fly again. The men were stranded, many miles from anywhere and lost amidst an Arctic wilderness. They were well equipped with safety equipment, including guns, sleds, skis, a tent and a small boat. Yet returning to the relatively safety of Spitzbergen involved a gruelling march across shifting, melting ice.

Nils Strindberg
The men spent a week at the crash site before setting out on their long hike. They had a reasonable quantity of food - meat, sausages and pemmican - but found it impossible to transport so much weight across the rucked-up ice. Much of the food had to be abandoned: henceforth, they were to rely on hunting for their survival.

They left their makeshift camp on 22 July and initially headed for Franz Josef Land. But the ice soon became impassable so they headed instead towards the Seven Islands, a seven-week march, where there was known to be a depot of food.
Over the ice
The terrain was so gruelling that they were reduced to advancing on all fours. But they eventually reached a place where the sea-ice had melted sufficiently for them to use their collapsible boat.

‘Paradise!’ wrote Andrée in his diary. ‘Large even ice floes with pools of sweet drinking water and here and there a tender-fleshed young polar bear!’

Their passage soon became impassable once again, forcing them to change direction. Aware that winter would soon be upon them, they built a hut upon an ice floe. But the ice broke up beneath them and they were lucky to struggle ashore onto desolate Kvitoya island.
Supper: polar bear
‘Morale remains good’, reported Andrée. ‘With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever.’

It was the last coherent message he ever wrote. Within a few days, all three men were dead. Their fate was to become one of the great mysteries of Arctic exploration.
What happened to them? They had shelter, food and ammunition and ought to have been able to keep themselves alive. In the absence of any news, the world’s media began to speculate as to what had happened.

Nils with sledge
It was not until 1930 - fully 33 years after the men were lost - that their remains were finally found. Far from answering questions, the discovery of their bodies only deepened the mystery. The most plausible theory is that the men died of trichinosis, contracted after eating undercooked polar bear meat. They certainly had the symptoms of the disease and larvae of the trichinella parasite were found in a polar bear carcass at the site. But recent scientific evidence has thrown doubt on this conjecture.
Other suggestions include vitamin A poisoning from eating polar bear liver, lead poisoning from the food cans or carbon dioxide poisoning from their primus stove.

Their diary entries reveal that by the time they struggled ashore they were living off scanty quantities of canned goods from the balloon stores, along with portions of half-cooked polar bear meat.

They were suffering from foot pains and debilitating diarrhoea and were constantly cold and exhausted. Indeed they were so weary on their arrival at Kvitøya Island that they left much of their valuable equipment down by the water's edge.
Remains: 1930.
Nils Strindberg, the youngest, was the first to die. His corpse was found wedged into a crack in the cliff. Analysis of his clothing suggests he was killed by a polar bear.

The other two men seem to have weakened dramatically in the days that followed Strindberg’s death. As the Arctic winter struck in earnest, they lost the will to live.
It will never be known how many days they survived in their makeshift Arctic shack. By the time they were eventually found, all that remained was their diaries, a few spools of film (now developed) and a heap of bleached bones.