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Today in History: November 17-20
The Battle of the Somme ends, the Assassins surrender, and more
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November 17, 1869: The Suez Canal officially opens in a joint French-Egyptian ceremony. Although it quickly came under financial pressure due to the costs of construction and some technical flaws that required improvements, the canal made an immediate impact on international commerce, both for better and worse (it helped cause the Panic of 1873 because of its detrimental effect on British maritime trade). The Egyptian monarchy’s heavy debt obliged it to sell its shares in the canal to the British government, which provided an opening for Britain to establish control not only over the canal, but ultimately over all of Egypt.
November 17, 1885: The decisive engagement of the brief (two week) Serbo-Bulgarian War, the Battle of Slivnitsa, begins in western Bulgaria. It would end two days later with a decisive Bulgarian victory that allowed the Bulgarian army to enter Serbian territory. The war was in part an outgrowth of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which modified the outcome of the Russo-Turkish War in ways that were less favorable toward Russia and thus more acceptable to the rest of Europe’s Great Powers. The war had resulted in the creation of a large autonomous Bulgaria, but the Congress drastically shrunk the new state’s territory and made part of it into the special Ottoman territory of “Eastern Rumelia.” This never sat well in either Bulgaria or Eastern Rumelia, which merged in September 1885. The merger alarmed the governments of Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and the former agreed to support the latter in an invasion of Bulgaria.
The Serbian government used a border dispute as a pretext to declare war and invade, but their defeat at Slivnitsa turned the war on its head. Austria-Hungary finally threatened to intervene and thereby halted the Bulgarian invasion a few days after it began. The war, short as it was, affirmed the Bulgarian-Rumelian merger and sparked a military reform effort in Serbia.
November 18, 1803: The Battle of Vertières, the final major battle of the Haitian Revolution, results in a decisive Haitian victory over a heavily outnumbered French expeditionary army. The French, under the Vicomte de Rochambeau, negotiated their withdrawal from the island and Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence on January 1, 1804.
November 18, 1910: A group of some 300 suffragettes marches on the Houses of Parliament in London to protest UK Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s decision to dissolve parliament. Activists saw this as a betrayal of Asquith’s pledge to take up the issue of women’s suffrage prior to the January 1910 general election. The protesters were met with violent resistance Metropolitan Police and some male bystanders, with many participants saying that they were sexually assaulted as the men grabbed their breasts, and suffragettes later dubbed the protest “Black Friday.” At least two participants died within the next two months, with activists tying their deaths to the treatment meted out by police officers. One consequence of this event was a return to direct action instead of organized protests by suffragettes, as it was felt the former gave participants a better chance of evading the police.
November 18, 1916: The Battle of the Somme, which had begun on July 1, ends with over one million dead and wounded in total and only very minor Allied tactical gains to show for it. Strategically the battle did help the green British army gain experience while forcing Germany into a war of attrition that it couldn’t possibly sustain. But mostly Somme stands as the best example of the meat grinder approach to war and the callous indifference to lower rank casualties among the officer class that characterized World War I.
November 19, 636: The Battle of al-Qadisiyah ends with the army of the Rashidun caliphate victorious over the forces of the Sassanid Persian Empire. Combined with its victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmouk in August, Qadisiyah established the caliphate’s control over most of what is today considered the Middle East. For the Persians, the battle was essentially the end of their empire. The Arab armies seized most of Iraq, including the Persian capital Ctesiphon. Emperor Yazdegerd III attempted to reconquer the region but the Arabs defeated him again in 642, at which point he went on the run until he was murdered in Central Asia in 651.
November 19, 1256: The last Assassin imam, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, surrenders to the Mongols, who had besieged him at his fortress at Maymun-Diz. The Great Khan, Möngke, had survived at least one and possibly multiple Assassin attempts on his life, so when he sent a massive army led by his brother Hulagu west in 1253 it was with two objectives: subjugating the Abbasid Caliphate and eradicating the Assassins. Realizing they could not hold out against a Mongol siege, Rukn al-Din surrendered at Maymun-Diz and ordered the surrender of the Assassins’ main fortress at Alamut in hopes of avoiding unnecessary deaths, including his own. The Mongols wound up executing him anyway. A branch of the Assassin order survived in Syria, which except for a brief interlude around 1260 remained outside Mongol control, but it was subjugated by the Mamluk sultanate and ceased to be an independent entity.
November 20, 1845: A joint British-French fleet defeats the Argentine Confederation’s navy on the Paraná River at the Battle of Vuelta de Obligado. Despite winning the battle, the Europeans found themselves unable to navigate upriver to impose an economic settlement on the protectionist Argentine government of Juan Manuel de Rosas, and after a lengthy blockade (that helped secure the Colorados’ victory in the Uruguayan Civil War, so it wasn’t a total bust) both the UK and France signed treaties upholding Argentine sovereignty over its own rivers.
November 20, 1910: This is the date that Mexican politician Francisco I. Madero set in his “Plan of San Luis Potosí” manifesto for the start of a revolution against the government of President Porfirio Díaz. While Madero may have been hoping for a mass uprising, the day saw a few local rebellions break out primarily in northern Mexico. However, when Mexican authorities were unable to stem those initial rebellions the movement began to expand, eventually forcing Díaz to resign and flee to Europe in May 1911. This date is now considered the start of the Mexican Revolution and is commemorated annually in Mexico as “Revolution Day.”
November 20, 1979: A group of Salafi extremists seizes the Grand Mosque in Mecca, taking a number of hostages in the process. The Gang, which traced its ideological and in some cases genealogical roots back to the 1928-1930 Ikhwan Revolt, managed hold on to the holiest site in Islam for about two weeks and repulsed several Saudi attempts to dislodge them. A final and indiscriminately violent final operation finally forced the remaining militants to surrender, after which they were beheaded. Officially the Saudi government puts the death toll from this incident around 250; unofficially it may have been considerably higher. The seizure terrified the Saud family, which decided to give freer rein to the more extreme elements of the kingdom’s Wahhabist religious community in order to forestall any more unrest.
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