Today in History: December 20-22
The US invades Panama, the Knights of Rhodes are kicked off of their island, and more
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December 20 (or thereabouts), 1192: Duke Leopold I of Austria imprisons King Richard I of England as the latter is returning home from the Third Crusade. Leopold had several grievances with Richard. Richard had personally treated him badly during the Crusade, for example. But his chief complaint was that Richard had (allegedly…OK, probably) arranged the assassination of the proclaimed King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, who was Leopold’s cousin. Pope Celestine III excommunicated Leopold for his transgression, while Leopold turned Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who had his own grievances with England (Celestine also excommunicated Henry). Henry, who needed money more than he needed to punish Richard, ransomed him back to England for the tidy sum of 150,000 marks.
December 20, 1960: The government of North Vietnam formally establishes the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, better known to history as the Viet Cong. The group was organized around southern Vietnamese supporters of the Viet Minh who had moved north after the Geneva Conference in 1954 and were sent back south with North Vietnamese support. Informally the term “Viet Cong” had been used in South Vietnamese media since the mid-1950s but this is the NLF’s official founding date. The NLF was subsumed into the “Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam,” though it didn’t officially cease to exist until 1977, after Vietnamese unification.
December 20, 1989: In “Operation Just Cause,” the US military invades Panama with the goal of removing dictator Manuel Noriega from power. Publicly Noriega, an erstwhile US ally, had run afoul of the Reagan and then Bush administrations by playing both sides of the drug trade—something he’d started doing alongside the US as part of the Iran-Contra operation. Theories abound as to the real justification for the invasion, from the Pentagon’s desire to test out new military hardware, Noriega’s involvement with and therefore knowledge of Iran-Contra, George Bush’s political need to look tough, and Noriega’s diplomatic outreach to countries like Castro-led Cuba and Sandinista-run Nicaragua. According to the US military its invasion killed just over 200 civilians, but more credible assessments put that figure somewhere between 500 and 3000.
December 21, 69: The Roman Senate acknowledges a general named Titus Flavius Vespasianus, aka Vespasian, as emperor, one day after rival emperor Vitellius’s assassination. Vespasian had already been declared emperor by armies in Egypt, the Levant, and along the Danube (who were marching on Rome to express their political views in the strongest possible way). Vespasian’s elevation ended the “Year of the Four Emperors,” so named because…well, OK, that’s kind of obvious I guess. He finally restored stability after that period of inter-dynastic upheaval (following the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and ruled until his death in 79. He and his sons, Titus and Domitian, comprise the Flavian dynasty.
December 21, 1620: The first landing party from the Mayflower comes ashore at Plymouth. Two days later work crews from the ship began to build the colonists’ first shelters on the site, and it was a couple of weeks before the Pilgrims were able to begin disembarking and occupying their new home. The Mayflower finally departed back for England in April 1621, after a harsh winter that saw 45 of the 102 colonists perish and after the survivors had made their first peaceful contact with Indigenous peoples of the area.
December 21, 1832: An Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha defeats the Ottomans at the Battle of Konya. Egypt, nominally an Ottoman province, had by this point established near total autonomy following the effective restoration of the Mamluks, Napoleon’s invasion, and finally the rise of the Albanian governor Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century. After coming to the Ottomans’ aid in the Greek War of Independence only to see his entire fleet wiped out by a combined European armada in 1827, Muhammad Ali demanded the governorship of Syria as restitution. When the Ottomans refused, a sort of quasi-civil war was the result—“quasi” in that Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire in only a bare technical sense by this time. A European-mediated settlement ended the war with Muhammad Ali in control of Syria, though he lost that control in a second war against the Ottomans in 1839-1841.
December 21, 1907: The Chilean army massacres a group of striking miners and their families in the city of Iquique. The killings are known as the Santa María School massacre, named after the Domingo Santa María school where the striking miners had made camp. The death toll is thought to have been between 2000 and around 3600—a definitive count is all but impossible since the authorities dumped the bodies into a mass grave that wasn’t exhumed until 1940. The massacre broke the strike and set back the Chilean labor movement.
December 22, 1522: The Siege of Rhodes ends with an Ottoman victory and the displacement of the Knights of Rhodes. That military order, which had began during the Crusades as the Knights Hospitaller, established itself on the eastern Mediterranean island of Rhodes after the fall of the last Crusader kingdom, Acre, in 1291, taking it from a Byzantine Empire that wasn’t really in much position to contest the seizure. From that perch, the order spent much of its time interfering with Ottoman shipping. It survived an Ottoman assault on the island in 1480 but this time, with a much larger army and the empire near the height of its power, the Knights were able to put up a surprisingly robust six month resistance but eventually had to agree to terms. They evacuated to Malta, where the Ottomans would unsuccessfully attempt to eliminate them in 1565.
December 22, 1769: The Sino-Burmese War ends with a Burmese victory. The border between Qing China and Burma was weakly demarcated if at all, which prompted several efforts on both sides to encroach on the frontier. This “war” actually consisted of four separate Chinese invasions starting in 1765, each of which was defeated by the Burmese. The outcome went a long way toward defining the Chinese-Burmese/Myanmar border as it exists today. It also, as a side effect, forced the Burmese to give up their designs on Siam (modern Thailand), since they couldn’t invade Siam and guard against Chinese invasion at the same time.
December 22, 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason for supposedly passing classified information to German intelligence. The ensuing “Dreyfus Affair,” which ended with his pardon in 1906, was a public scandal that focused on the absurd weakness of the evidence against Dreyfus and a bizarre criminal proceeding that managed to convict him twice while acquitting the actual spy, French counter-intelligence officer Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. At the core of the Dreyfus case was deeply-rooted antisemitism, whose very public emergence motivated journalist Theodor Herzl to organize the First Zionist Congress in 1897. That congress is generally regarded as the beginning of the Zionist movement.
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