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Today in History: July 28-31
The US occupies Haiti, the Abbasids found Baghdad, and more
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PROGRAMMING UPDATE: As you may know, I took a few days over the weekend to regain my bearings following my dad’s passing. My plan is to try to get back to something resembling normalcy starting tomorrow, though it may be touch and go for a bit. Thanks for reading and for your patience.
July 28, 1821: Having entered Lima a few weeks prior and having been named “Protector of Peru” by local officials, South American revolutionary leader José de San Martín proclaims Peru’s independence from Spain. Annually commemorated as Peruvian Independence Day.
July 28, 1915: The US military occupies Haiti following a revolt that culminated in the assassination of pro-US Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Woodrow Wilson ordered the occupation out of concern that Germany could use the uprising to establish a foothold in the Western Hemisphere (and to make sure Haiti repaid the sizable loans it had received from several US financial institutions, but we don’t like to talk about that part). The US didn’t return control of Haiti to Haitians until 1934.
July 29, 1014: A Byzantine army under Emperor Basil II defeats a Bulgarian force under Tsar Samuel at the Battle of Kleidion. Basil had spent nearly his entire reign (which began in 976) aiming to subjugate the Bulgarian Empire, and when he wasn’t defending the Byzantines’ eastern frontier he would campaign annually in the Balkans. Samuel resolved that the 1014 campaign season would be the last one, and rolled the bulk of his army out to meet the Byzantines at a mountain pass in what is today southwestern Bulgaria. Things didn’t work out as he’d intended, as Basil was able to get a portion of his army around to the other side of the pass. The surrounded Bulgarians were almost completely wiped out. Byzantine sources exaggerate the casualties and in particular the number of Bulgarians taken prisoner, but there’s no reason to doubt that the casualties were high. Compounding the Bulgarian defeat, Samuel died in early October and a succession dispute ensued. Still, it took the Byzantines another four years to finally force the Bulgarian Empire (the first of two) to surrender. Bulgaria became a Byzantine domain until the second Bulgarian Empire emerged in the 12th century.
July 29, 1148: The ill-fated Second Crusade reaches its ignominious end with the failure of the Crusaders’ Siege of Damascus. Initially organized as a response to the loss of Edessa to the rising power in the Levant, the Zengid dynasty, the expedition saw open warfare between Crusaders and the Byzantine army, the destruction of two German armies by the Seljuk Turks, and the aforementioned siege of Damascus even though Damascus was a Crusader ally. After badly mismanaging the siege, the Crusaders were forced to flee back to Jerusalem before they could be trapped by an oncoming Zengid relief army.
July 29, 1588: The English fleet puts the final nail in the Spanish Armada’s coffin at the Battle of Gravelines. After harassing the armada for the previous nine days, forcing it to regroup in the Spanish Netherlands, the English fleet used its superior mobility to inflict a serious defeat on its Spanish counterpart, sinking five ships and killing some 600 people. The Spanish fleet was forced to beat a hasty and badly managed retreat north, and by the time it had circled back around Ireland and returned home it had lost about a third of its ships and thousands of men.
July 30, 762: Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur founds the city of Baghdad as his new capital. Located near the site of the former Sasanian (Persian) capital Ctesiphon, Baghdad replaced the Umayyad capital Damascus as the center of the caliphal court. Officially the new city was called Medinat al-Salam, or “the City of Peace.” It’s not entirely clear why it took the name Baghdad, but the prevailing theory as far as I know is that a village called “Baghdad” stood near the spot where the city was built, and common usage applied that name to the city. Eventually common usage won out. For several centuries Baghdad was arguably the most important city in the world. At its height it may have been home to more than a million people and was world-renowned as a center of learning and culture. Its decline mirrored the decline of the Abbasid dynasty, and the Mongol sack of the city in 1258 proved especially devastating.
July 31 (or thereabouts), 751: An Abbasid army defeats an imperial Tang Chinese force at the Battle of Talas in Central Asia. Arab and Chinese armies had by this point bumped into one another several times in that region, but Talas proved to be fairly decisive in terms of establishing Islamic over Chinese primacy. The main reason for this isn’t so much the battle as the subsequent An Lushan Rebellion in China, which the Tang survived but in a substantially weaker state with much less control over their imperial periphery. Talas was also once believed to have been instrumental in the transmission of paper-making technology from China to the Arabs and thus on to the West, but this seems to be somewhat overblown. The Arabs did encounter paper-making in Central Asia and brought it back to Baghdad, but paper-making had already been a going concern in Central Asia centuries before Talas and the battle doesn’t appear to have impacted its spread.
July 31, 1941: The invading Wehrmacht defeats the Soviet Red Army at the Battle of Smolensk, part of World War II’s Operation Barbarossa. Though a fairly stunning German tactical victory, leaving over 400,000 Soviet soldiers killed or wounded and over 300,000 captured, strategically Smolensk contributed to the overall collapse of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. The stiff Soviet resistance caused German leaders to slow down their advance on Moscow, which gave the Soviets time to strengthen their defenses around the city and contributed to the attrition of the German army. The subsequent Battle of Moscow ended in a significant Soviet victory.
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