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Today in History: December 26-29
The Soviet Union dissolves, Thomas Becket is murdered, and more
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December 26, 1492: Christopher Columbus orders the construction of a fortress, Puerto de la Navidad (“the Port of Christmas”), on the northern coast of modern Haiti. The fort was the first Spanish settlement in the Americas and was built with lumber from the wreckage of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa María, which had run aground two days earlier. Although he professed no concerns about the settlement’s safety, on his second voyage Columbus returned to find the whole thing razed to the ground, along with a nearby village, and all the Spanish personnel dead. The fort’s location was eventually forgotten and, while archeologists seem to have a general sense of where it was located, the precise site itself remains unknown.
December 26, 1990: The Slovenian government announces the results of the country’s December 23 independence referendum, in which voters overwhelmingly opted to leave Yugoslavia. Commemorated as “Independence and Unity Day” in Slovenia.
December 26, 1991: The Soviet Union officially dissolves in a vote by the Supreme Soviet. The vote took place in compliance with the Belovezha Accords, signed earlier that month by the leaders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, which declared the USSR kaput and created the “Commonwealth of Independent States” in its place. That agreement was then followed by the Alma-Ata Protocol, signed on December 21, in which the leaders of 11 of the USSR’s 15 republics (the Baltic states and Georgia were the holdouts) declared their membership in the new CIS. The breakup hastened and exacerbated the economic meltdown that attended the former Soviet states’ transition to “Shock Doctrine” capitalism.
December 27, 537: Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and Patriarch Menas of Constantinople inaugurate the newly-built Hagia Sophia as the imperial capital’s patriarchal cathedral. Believed to have been the largest building in the world when it was built, the Hagia Sophia is regarded as the pinnacle of Roman architecture. It was repurposed as a mosque by the Ottomans, then as a museum by the Republican Turkish government, and has now reverted to its previous status as a mosque—though the Turkish government insists it’s put safeguards in place to protect its Byzantine cultural heritage.
December 27, 1918: The Greater Poland Uprising begins in the city of Poznań. Polish nationalists took advantage of the abdication of German Kaiser Wilhelm II in November to stake a claim on formerly Polish territory that the Allies had planned to leave in German hands following World War I. Their uprising forced the parties to reconsider their postwar plans and greatly influenced the construction of the new Polish state that emerged under the Treaty of Versailles.
December 27, 1945: The International Monetary Fund is established in Washington, DC, as one of the two institutions (along with the World Bank) emerging from the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference to underpin a new postwar international financial system. Envisioned by economist John Maynard Keynes as a fund from which member states could draw money to help weather economic crises, thanks to the influence of US Treasury official Harry Dexter White the IMF was instead created as a global lending institution with the power to impose rigid austerity measures on client states, supposedly to ensure that they repaid their IMF loans on time. Views on its impact vary slightly between “has made a useful contribution to the world economy” and “has underpinned a destructive system of colonialism by other means.”
December 27, 1979: The Soviet-Afghan War begins when Soviet soldiers seize control of government buildings in Kabul and execute Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin.
December 28, 1659: An army of the nascent Maratha Empire, under its founder Shivaji, defeats a substantially larger Adilshahi army at the Battle of Kolhapur. Shivaji had begun carving territory out of the Adilshahi Sultanate of Bijapur several years earlier, and his victory at Kolhapur continued the early growth of what would become India’s dominant political entity prior to the arrival of the British.
December 28, 1836: Mexican ambassador Miguel Santa María and Spanish representative José María Calatrava sign the “definitive treaty of peace and friendship between Mexico and Spain,” more simply known as the “Santa María–Calatrava Treaty,” in Madrid. Under the treaty’s terms, the Spanish government agreed to recognize the independence Mexico had won during its 1810-1821 revolution and to stop making attempts to reconquer its former colony.
December 29, 1170: Four knights who believe they are acting on orders from English King Henry II assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket and Henry had struggled through a series of major disagreements over the extent of the king’s authority over the Catholic Church in England. A final dispute over the coronation of Henry the Young King in June allegedly prompted King Henry to exclaim “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” and that statement supposedly convinced at least these four knights that their king wanted Becket dead. Whether Henry actually said this, or something like it, is a matter of some debate, but whatever he said it’s thought to be unlikely that he intended it to result in Becket’s murder. It may be noteworthy that Henry didn’t arrest the four knights, nor did he punish them in other ways—by, say, confiscating their estates. On the other hand, he didn’t put in a good word on their behalf with Pope Alexander III, who excommunicated the lot of them and later sent them on Crusade as penance. It seems reasonable to conclude that Henry didn’t necessarily want Becket killed but that he wasn’t exactly bereft when it happened—though he distanced himself from the murder after the fact.
December 29, 1911: The Qing dynasty, which had ruled China since 1636, gives way to the Republic of China as Sun Yat-sen is named China’s first provisional president (he formally took office on January 1, 1912). Outer Mongolia also declares its independence from China and names Bogd Khan (d. 1924) as its new ruler. Commemorated annually as Mongolian Independence Day.