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Welcome to Dance News History. It we've got some 20th century history on the podcast today. We've got the award winning investigative journalist Ravi Samiah on the podcast, and he has just done a great job of looking into the death in 1961, the mysterious death of the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. He was this enormously impressive statesman. He was killed when he was trying to go and intervene, bring some peace and stability to the benighted people of the Congo, a place abundant its natural advantages, massive, beautiful, huge pool of energetic people, but just blighted by its history, by the genocide it suffered at the hands of the Belgians, by the meddling of superpowers after its independence in the 1960s.
The sight of astonishing violence, the bloodiest war fought since the Second World War for planet Earth, has been raging in the Congo on and off for the last thirty years. Ravi is identified one episode in that sad history, which tells you a lot, I think, about the state of Congo in the state of the world.
In the 1960s, in the Cold War, we actually got a new documentary on African history, on our history hit TV. It's like Netflix for history. We've got Luke Porpora and he has written and presented Africa. The unknown history of humankind is doing really well on the surface at the moment. So please go and check that out. You can use the code pod one. Do you? You get a month for free in your second month, just one pound euro or dollar.
So please head over there. Once you listen to this podcast, check out our Africa History on your Africa History documentary and check out some of the other history documentaries we've got on that world's best history channel. Everyone enjoy. In the meantime, here's Ravi Sumire. Enjoy.
Ravi, great to have you on the podcast. Lovely to meet you, too, Dad. This is exciting stuff, isn't it? Historical sleuthing. Why do you set out on this adventure?
I just happened across the story. I was working at The New York Times. I was working nights. And it sounds very exciting because you're in the middle of a big, busy metropolis, but it's incredibly boring. So you end up reading lots of stuff. And I stumbled across this story and I couldn't get out of my head. So I just started making calls and sending emails. And before I knew it, I was waking up in the middle of the night thinking about flight paths and white supremacists and Cold War spies and thwarted idealists and all sorts of things, thwarted idealists.
There's always plenty of those around. Now, tell me, who was this man JFK described as the greatest statesman of our century. Tell me about it.
Well, I think he's one of the unique characters of the last century. And one of the reasons I was really drawn to this story is if you look around the world now, you don't find many leaders who speak five languages, compose poetry, are accomplished photographers, you know, deft diplomats, economists. He's kind of a man of letters. He was friends with John Steinbeck and Barbara Hepworth and lots of the literary and artistic characters of the last century.
And so, in a sense, he's the quintessential idealist, but he also could operate in this very, very cutthroat world. He was fine going toe to toe with Khrushchev and Kennedy himself and Harold Macmillan and operators like that. And what drew me to this particular story is. He stood up for a principle in the middle of a moment when essentially everyone was just expedient. So the Congo in nineteen fifty nine began to kind of throw off the shackles of its colonial past.
Its black citizens rose up and said, we want to rule ourselves. We'd like democracy. At which point Britain and America thought, well, it's going to go to Russia. And Russia thought it's going to go to Britain and America. And it became kind of a proxy war for the whole world. And Hammarskjöld kind of had the courage and the deftness to say, no, I think these people need to rule themselves. And that's kind of where the story begins.
It's also a time when the UN seem to matter so much. You know, it was like it was briefly we had a kind of global parliament didn't win and Khrushchev and Kennedy in particular at us. And so they paid a lot of attention. What was happening on the floor of that General Assembly in New York?
Yeah, I mean, I think that's because we're still not too far from the end of World War Two. And when I looked into the founding of the UN, now I think we look at it and we sort of see it as kind of a, you know, kind of a footnote sort of a thing that happens along the side of world affairs. But after World War Two, when those countries got together and founded it, they didn't want another war.
They didn't want another global conflict. They wanted to have, as you say, a global parliament, a place to figure out these difficulties. And so Hammarskjöld in the UN found itself right at the center of many of these issues. I'm not sure if you asked Kennedy or Khrushchev at the time whether they would have been full of respect and joy about having to dance around the UN, but they certainly had much more impact than it does now. But I think that's in part a credit to Helmut Kohl himself.
So you think it's actually his leadership that that it wasn't just international, that he was such a profoundly important global statesperson?
Well, I think it was both. I think that there was much more respect in the air for the UN. There was much less of a will to have another war. And he was a really idealistic leader who was very capable of of kind of deftly weaving between all these interests and and making himself matter, I guess. Yes.
And so tell me how he met his end. So on September 17th, nineteen sixty one, he was flying from the capital of the Congo, which was then called Leopold Ville and is now called Kinshasa. He was flying to a summit which he hoped would end the civil war in the Congo after the Congolese rose up and said, we'd like democracy, the army mutiny quite violently. And many of the white European residents of the Congo traveled south to the most wealthy province called Katanga.
It's where the mining companies had set up shop. It was where a lot of the world's copper came from diamonds, uranium, and that province promptly seceded and formed its own government to the country was at civil war and Rumsfeld was flying to try and reunite the Congo. He wanted it to be one nation under a democratically elected leader. And just before he was due to land just before midnight on September 18th, his plane crashed. It disappeared and it wasn't found for 15 hours after that.
And shortly afterwards, the Federation of Rhodesia and New Zealand, which was the sort of British associated government tasked with investigating the crash, ruled an accident. And everyone wanted to kind of tie a bow on it and say how sad this great man has died. But a bunch of other people thought there had been some foul play. And I certainly found some evidence of that.
Now, I know you do want to give away all the goodies in this interview, but so that's fine. But what can you tell us? I mean, what evidence of foul play and then, as ever, knowledge of the crime? It's the cover up precisely to me. It was a kind of a blend of Agatha Christie and Game of Thrones, this story that there are four or five distinct suspects. When the Katunga seceded, they protected themselves with tens of thousands of white supremacist mercenaries.
There were a lot of white supremacists floating around after World War Two, and many of them became mercenaries and many of them went to Katanga to fight that war. And so that's one set of suspects. Britain and America, as you might know, were implicated in the murder of the democratically elected Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba, in a particularly nasty way. Yeah, he was sort of beaten to death and, you know, bits of his body were kept as mementos and the Belgian government was deeply involved and the CIA was deeply involved in MI6.
One of the characters in my book and MI6 by name, Daphne Park, at one point in their life sort of admitted that they had helped kill the number. So that's another set of suspects. And Russia had a kind of a phalanx of spies and others pouring into the Congo, and they were funding many of these leaders. So that's another set of suspects. And then you have this nation nine. The Federation of Rhodesia and the US, which is very hostile to the UN and to Hamako and to reunite with Congo.
So you have another set of suspects. And while all that was going on, you have this kind of great game. You have this rich nation which the world is seeking to divide among itself. So at the point that he took off, he was in a lot more danger than he thought. And witnesses to the crash, which, of course, was supposed to be an accident, they saw another plane in the sky. They saw an explosion.
They saw what they thought were bullets or bangs or flashes. And there were 16 people aboard the plane, 15 of them died on impact, including Hamako. One survived into the next day. He was severely injured, but he reported an explosion aboard the plane. And he had you know, he described a scene that was not consistent with an accident. So you have a lot of evidence that points that perhaps foul play and various people wanted him dead.
What evidence of you now? What can you tell us before everyone goes to read your book? What evidence can you tell us about the cover up?
I think it's a maybe a peculiarly British way of approaching these things, but there's sort of a tradition of a public inquiry with a preordained conclusion, I think. And that's sort of what happened here. There was sort of a notion that it would be best for everyone and the least possible fuss if if it was ruled an accident. So, you know, there was an investigation impaneled. There was a pretty thorough forensic examination. But any evidence that ran against the notion that it was an accident was sort of dismissed.
And so it kind of was tied up at a court hearing. There were for very fancy cases asking questions. There were many African witnesses who were dismissed. It was it was said they couldn't possibly have seen another plane in the sky. They didn't know what they were talking about. They'd got confused. There was sort of a colonialist attitude toward it. And then a number of friends and people who were involved in the investigation decided there was something afoot.
And they gathered all the evidence. They sort of gathered their own pile of evidence and they looked into it and found there was much more to it than initially met the eye. And they were met with a lot of hostility over the years. A lot of governments who sort of ostensibly were saying, we want to help you figure out what happened here. We're at the same time classifying materials. I mean, one of the things I heard was that the Swedish government had some soldiers there for the United Nations.
They had been cannibalized during the course of the conflict. That was obviously very awkward and unpleasant. They didn't tell anyone at the time and they don't want to open their files now or in. Previous years, because it's simply too embarrassing, you have the British government trying to cover up key witnesses, trying to prevent them talking to investigators from other nations. At one point in the 90s, an operative of the American National Security Agency, which is a bit like Britain's HQ, it gathers signals intelligence intercepts.
Communications essentially said he had overheard some chatter on the evening of September 17th, nineteen sixty one that suggested to him the plane had been shot down. But when he approached the American government, the FBI immediately destroyed all records it had connected with Hammarskjöld. Of course, you can't say for sure why any of these things happened, but they do start to form a pattern.
When you look into it really does say something about the importance of this. I mean, most people today sadly couldn't mention probably don't know the name of the US UN secretary general. It does say something quite remarkable, this man, that he was regarded as somebody worth getting rid of, possibly at the highest levels of of a British American society government. Absolutely.
And it's hard to overstate how incendiary a move it was to do the principled thing in the Congo. You know, everyone felt like it would be the end of the world. The Brits and the Americans felt that if if Russia got hold of the Congo, they'd have a strategic asset. And frankly, access to uranium, which was the end of the world. And the Russians felt the same way about the Brits and the white supremacists and the mining companies that that ran Katanga felt like it was the end of their way of life so that the emotions were very, very high indeed.
And the price that he paid in terms of putting a target on his back for doing the principal thing and saying, well, these people, they want democracy. They've they run an election, they've elected a leader, and that leader has to lead. And the only chance for peace and prosperity in this nation is, is that way. That was a really difficult, incendiary thing to do. And I mean, sadly, if you look at the history of the Congo, he probably was right.
How high do you think this conspiracy went in government circles? There are memos from both the CIA and MI6 in that moment which spoke of committing murder in the cause. They didn't specifically say how McWorld, but they were absolutely willing to kill people to in order for their plan to proceed as they had in mind. And during the course of investigating, I found that the Rhodesian government, which was it was an independent government, but it was very closely linked with the British government and very closely linked particularly with the Foreign Office.
It had a very hostile policy toward Hamako. And in fact, its soldiers were given instructions to shoot planes landing at that particular moment. And we know they had spies, some linked with MI5 who were deeply involved in the investigation into the death of Hamako with the aim of protecting whatever had happened.
We should finish the story, what happened to Tonga's independence. So it kind of drifts to an end eventually, but in a extremely chaotic fashion. After Hamako died, it sort of felt to me like everyone slightly shrugged and wanted to draw a line under the thing and they kind of made an imperfect peace. And the history of the Congo is as open to anyone who has access to Wikipedia. And it doesn't make for pleasant reading. And my personal view is that that this conflict lies at the root of many of the problems we see today.
So what was the main impact of his death, do you think? I mean, for me, it's in a sense, the last moment, as you suggested before, that the UN was really relevant, that it was doing this wonderful thing. I mean, when I looked into the history of the UN, I came in as a bit of a cynic to I came in saying as a footnote, and you realise what a wonderful notion it was, what a wonderful notion it was for all these countries to get together and say, we don't want a war, we want a better way of doing this.
We want to rise up to the higher parts of ourselves and be kinder to each other. And I think to some extent we lost that when we lost Hamako. And there's a certain kind of world leader that that we haven't seen much since. I mean, Kennedy was dead a couple of years after Hamako. It was I mean, you have little little moments of wonderful leadership since then. But on the international stage, right in the centre of geopolitics, think we've had a character like him since.
I mean, was it like working as an investigative journalist? It sounds so glamorous and exciting. I mean, basically, you're describing why history matters. These things, even though it happened a long time ago, there is resistance to your investigation still, isn't that?
Yeah. I mean, I actually didn't realise how much passions run high on this matter. And so I would pick up the phone, I would call someone and they would be really angry with me for calling. I called this former Rhodesian. I think it was an air chief marshal. I forget his rank and he was furious that I would be taking this. You certainly don't get much help from from government. I mean, I see being an investigative journalist is figuring out I mean, you know, what happened.
I see it is figuring out why it happened and what those people thought they were doing. And I think that's really instructive. I think particularly at a very fraught moment like the one that we're in now, looking back at a moment, like the one in the early 1960s is very instructive. You see the same tendencies you see you see in this particular moment. You see people who feel that they have to get their way, they have to have their voice heard, or the world is going to end.
Do you see people feeling like they have to do pretty brutal and unpleasant things for the sake of survival? So, I mean, I won't pretend it's all sitting around in cafes with holes cut in newspapers, waiting for sources, a lot of digging through documents, a lot of making frustrating phone calls. It's much less cloak and dagger than than I would have hoped when I was a child thinking I might do this. But it is incredibly fun because you get those moments where you've been sat in a library for three hours, your mouth is dry.
You kind of want to leave. You'll think you think I'll flip over to more pages and you do. And you find some fabulous piece of information. You find something that the cast a new light on a mystery. And, you know, for a minute the world makes sense. Is anything more to discover on this story? There's definitely more to discover. I feel I think I'm sure you've had this with some stories, too. You just feel like some stories never quite done.
You can never quite know enough. I could always learn new things. I could always find new understanding. I'm sure I'll be boring people at parties about it when I'm 80.
Well, you won't be boring anyone. I'm sure of that. Thank you very much indeed for joining us. And I think you'll have encouraged everyone to go out and read about this for themselves. I mean, just apart from anything else, the story of the history of the Congo in this period is so fascinating. And given that it leads on to what is today has been the bloodiest, we think it's now that is the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War.
Is it the rolling civil war in the Congo?
Yeah. I mean, that poor nation hasn't had a chance. One of the things I looked into is the history of Belgian colonialism, which I'm sure you've heard about, is particularly brutal. Between eight and 10 million Congolese died of exhaustion, murder, sickness during what was probably a twenty year peak of its of the Belgian rule. And I just think the Congo ever recovered from that to some extent. And I think Carmichael was smart enough to realize this country had to write itself pretty quickly in order to get over the kind of the wounds of its history.
And I just don't think it ever has. If you start looking into its history, its conflict after conflict, coup after coup, dictator after dictator. And I think that we can sometimes take a somewhat superior attitude from here. We can say, oh, well, they just never figured out how to rule themselves. But I think with that much hurt and that much pain, and that was trauma and its history, it's very difficult. I mean, what was instructive to me, especially in this moment, was to look at how.
We can call them grievances, but how kind of historical pain echoes into the present and I think many of us wish it wouldn't and wish it would go away, but we have to address it. And that, to me, is the lesson of the Congress.
Well, thank you so much. The book is called it's called Operation Mothell, and it's available at all good booksellers and I'm sure some bad ones. Well, thank you so much. Come on the podcast.
Thank you for having me. Big in the history of our country. I honestly don't know. Just a quick request. It's so annoying and I hate it when our podcast do this, but I'm doing it. I hate myself. Please, please go into iTunes, where you get your podcasts and give us a five star rating interview. It really helps basically boost up the job, which is good, and then more people listen, which is nice. So if you could do that, I'd be very grateful.
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