One century ago, a sound occurred that continues to ring today. The singular blast was neither broadcast nor recorded. Nevertheless, it echoes through all of our lives today — not as sound waves, but as long, slow swells through our social fabric.
When Bosnian-Serb student Gavrilo Princip fired his pistol in the crowded streets of Sarajevo and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on June 28, 1914, his gunshots cracked the world apart.
Most people heard the resulting fault lines creak and quake only weeks later. By then, the first of millions were dying across Europe, empires marched toward collapse and the world was changing forever.
Few people were aware of the intricate treaties, ties and obligations that bound one European power to another then. Some of the informed few suspected this simple revolutionary act on the part of an unknown student in a small, volatile corner of Europe would lead to war.
However, none could have predicted the gunshots signalled a political, economic and social upheaval more widespread and more thorough than any French, American, Glorious or Quiet revolution.
Here in Victoria, we were pretty much oblivious.
In the days leading up to this momentous moment, our local newspapers celebrated a garden party hosted by one of the Dunsmuir daughters. Other front-page news included an official inquiry into the Komagata Maru incident, when the ship’s Indian passengers were denied entry to Canada, the investigation into the recent sinking of the Empress of Ireland ocean liner in the St. Lawrence River, the ongoing trials of suffragettes in London, fighting in Mexico, progress of the Panama Canal, and then-prime minister Robert Borden’s birthday. Oh, and Johnson Street Bridge construction figured on the front pages, too.
Victorians learned of the far-off assassination on Monday, June 29, if they read the Victoria Daily Times, and on Tuesday, June 30, if they read the Daily Colonist, which, like the Times Colonist today, didn’t publish on Mondays.
The report was filed in Sarajevo some time on June 28. It would have been transmitted overland to, say, Paris, then via undersea cable to London, then on to New York. From there, it would have dotted-and-dashed its way by telegraph across North America, to arrive in this British outpost on the far edge of a continent half a world away.
Compare that with, say, the Kennedy assassination in 1963 — which also occurred while the political leader in question travelled by open motorcar on an official visit. Or the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1983. Or the attacks of 9/11. Or Barack Obama’s 2008 U.S. presidential victory.
Now, of course, news happens at the speed of Now. Within minutes of an accident or an incident, Twitter carries moment-by-moment, 140-character, eyewitness reports, YouTube makes videos available and Instagram gets the photos. News organizations publish 24/7, and the delay between event and report is almost nonexistent.
Yet the gunshots that took such a laborious route to Victoria 100 years ago eventually led to these modern technologies. The need for fast, reliable battlefield communications in the four years of war that followed spurred research into technologies that did not involve dropping messages from biplanes, or using telephones with lines that could be blown up or listened in on, or sending out runners who could be — and often were — shot en route.
That was just the start.
We live the results of that start. Because of those long-ago, distant gunshots and the tangled web of consequences they initiated, we now learn our news almost immediately. Because of the social, economic and political changes initiated that day, we also no longer tolerate the racism that caused the Komagata Maru incident. Because of those gunshots, women in Canada can vote.
And the decades-long series of advances in technology that followed June 28, 1914, also mean we can — usually — determine the causes of vessel and aircraft accidents quickly.
However, one thing that hasn’t changed in 100 years is that the Johnson Street Bridge still makes the news.