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Today in History: April 4-6
NATO is born, the War of the Pacific begins, and more
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April 4, 1841: US President William Henry Harrison dies just one month after his inauguration and after a nine day bout with what modern research has suggested might have been typhoid or paratyphoid fever caused by the presence of raw sewage in the White House’s water supply. Obviously Harrison had no time to build a presidential legacy of his own, but his death and the accession of Vice President John Tyler on April 6 forced a reckoning with a bit of legal ambiguity: whether a vice president would actually become president upon succession or simply assume the “Powers and Duties of the said Office,” which is all that’s stipulated in the US Constitution. Harrison’s cabinet and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded that, if Tyler took the oath of office, he would become president. This established a precedent that governed all subsequent cases of US presidents dying in office and was eventually codified in the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967.
April 4, 1949: Founding members Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating NATO (pending ratification by a majority of the signatories). Those original 12 states have grown to 31, so far, with the admission of Finland just a couple of days ago. This expansion has, I’m told, had no negative consequences whatsoever.
April 4, 1959: The French government creates the autonomous Mali Federation, consisting of Senegal and French Sudan. Exactly one year later, French authorities agreed to grant the federation its independence, effective June 20, 1960. The aggregated state collapsed within two months, in August 1960, leaving in its wake the independent nations of Senegal and Mali. Through all that, Senegal recognizes April 4 as its Independence Day—referring to April 4, 1960, not 1959, but April 4 nevertheless.
April 5, 1722: Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, in search of a very large and very hypothetical southern continent dubbed “Terra Australis” or at least of the equally hypothetical “Davis Land,” finds instead a place he dubbed “Easter Island” after the day upon which he found it. Roggeveen’s expedition never did find either of those other places, probably because they don’t exist. But it did stumble upon a few other islands of note, including Bora Bora and Samoa, before reaching port at Batavia (modern Jakarta) later in 1722.
April 5, 1818: A rebel army commanded by José de San Martín and Bernardo O’Higgins defeats a royalist force led by Chilean Governor Mariano Osorio at the Battle of Maipú. The royalists lost around 2000 men, roughly double the casualties incurred by the rebels. Among the more decisive battles of the Spanish-American Wars of Independence, Maipú effectively secured the liberation of Chile, which meant that the Argentine-Chilean army was free to begin moving north to liberate parts of southern Peru.
April 5, 1879: The Chilean government declares war on Bolivia and Peru, kicking off the War of the Pacific. The war’s causes are still debated to some extent but certainly included disputes over control of rich nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert and a growing competition for economic and political dominance in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Chile emerged victorious over the Bolivian-Peruvian alliance in 1884, seizing parts of southern Peru as well as the entire Atacama and leaving Bolivia landlocked.
April 6, 46 BCE: At Thapsus, which today is in Tunisia, Julius Caesar’s army decisively defeats a somewhat larger Republican force commanded by Metellus Scipio along with a unit of allied Numidian cavalry under the command of King Juba I. Around 10,000 of the Republican soldiers are believed to have been killed, many after they’d surrendered despite orders from Caesar to treat captives well. Thapsus is known for a few things. It marked the beginning of the end of Republican resistance to Caesar in North Africa, for one thing. It’s also the last time war elephants were put to heavy use in combat in the Roman world, mostly because the Republicans deployed them in large numbers and if anything they proved to be more trouble than they were worth. Most significantly from Caesar’s perspective, the battle led ultimately to the suicides of both Cato the Younger (who was at Utica and opted to kill himself as Caesar’s army was approaching) and Metellus Scipio (who killed himself when Caesar’s naval forces stopped him from fleeing to Hispania. These were two of Caesar’s most prominent political opponents and their deaths were significant in his efforts to consolidate power in Rome.
April 6, 1250: The Battle of Fariskur ends the ill-fated Seventh Crusade.
April 6, 1896: The Games of the First Olympiad, AKA the first modern Olympics, open in Athens. The ancient Olympic Games, believed to have begun in the early 8th century BCE, were discontinued either by Roman Emperor Theodosius I, in the 390s, or by Theodosius II, in the 420s. French educator Pierre de Coubertin (d. 1937) was the driving force behind their revival, which led to the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 and the first modern Games two years later. The IOC recognizes 14 nations as having participated but there’s no conclusive record as to which 14 they were. The most commonly cited list is problematic because it includes Australia, which was still five years away from federalization and thus nationhood.
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