Today in History: November 21-24
Edison unveils the phonograph, Seville surrenders to Castile, and more
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November 21, 1386: The Turco-Mongolian warlord Timur, or “Tamerlane,” sacks Tbilisi and carries off Georgian King Bagrat V, who manages to save his own life by agreeing to convert to Islam. Bagrat’s son, the future King George VII, was able to free his father from captivity and forestall his conversion. This was the first of a whopping eight times Timur invaded Georgia between 1386 and 1403. Each of his invasions was successful from a military and plunder standpoint but indecisive from a political standpoint and very destructive from the Georgians’ standpoint.
November 21, 1877: A hitherto relatively obscure inventor named Thomas Edison announces his latest product: the phonograph. Edison had been working on a device to record telephone communications, and his initial rudimentary invention involved a grooved cylinder wrapped in tin foil. As you might expect, the sound quality wasn’t good and the recordings could only be replayed a few times before degrading. Edison seems to have regarded the phonograph as no big deal but (spoiler alert) it made huge waves with the public. It was the first of Edison’s inventions to gain him widespread attention and the modern ubiquity of streaming services I think speaks to the enduring demand for recorded music.
November 21, 1894: The First Sino-Japanese War’s Battle of Lüshunkou, also known as the Battle of Port Arthur, ends with a decisive Imperial Japanese victory. The capture of Lüshunkou was a major achievement for the Japanese, but the battle may be better remembered for what followed, the alleged “Port Arthur Massacre.” Over the following 2-3 days, possibly in retaliation for earlier atrocities committed by Chinese soldiers, Japanese forces are said to have killed between 2600 and 20,000 people in the city (some estimates go as high as 60,000, but 20,000 seems a more plausible upper bound).
November 21, 1920: On one of several days that would earn the moniker “Bloody Sunday,” British security forces conducting a search operation in Dublin open fire on a crowd at a Gaelic football match and kill 14 people while wounding more than 60. The operation came in response to violence earlier in the day, in which Irish Republican Army operatives killed or fatally wounded 15 people, most of them members of the “Cairo Gang,” a group of British intelligence operatives covertly stationed in the city. The killing severely damaged Britain’s reputation in Ireland and raised support for the IRA.
November 22, 498: Rival groups of Roman clergy separately elect two different popes, Symmachus and Laurentius, to replace the departed Anastasius II, who had died on November 19. This papal election took place at the height of the Acacian Schism, a period during which the western and eastern Christian churches were at odds over the growth of Miaphysitism (the belief that Jesus was of one unified human-divine nature as opposed to the orthodox view that Jesus was of two separate natures, one human and one divine) in the east. Roman clergy were divided between a majority who supported a hard line against eastern church leaders (who elected Symmachus) and those who supported reconciliation (who elected Laurentius). After several tense years, Laurentius left Rome and tacitly abandoned his claim to the papacy in 506 under the threat of an intervention by Ostrogothic ruler Theodoric the Great. The schism ended under Symmachus’s successor, Pope Hormisdas, in 519.
November 22, 1963: US President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, either by Lee Harvey Oswald or [REDACTED]. Oswald was later arrested and then was himself killed while in police custody on November 24, either by Jack Ruby or [REDACTED]. Successive US presidents have promised to declassify documents related to the assassination, but those promises have so far been [REDACTED].
November 23, 1248: The Muslim military commander in the city of Seville, Axataf, surrenders the city to King Ferdinand III of Castile (later Saint Ferdinand) in the capstone of the so-called “Early Reconquista.” Fueled primarily by the retreat of the Almohad Caliphate back to North Africa, the 20 years from 1228 to 1248 saw Christian kings conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula save for the Emirate of Granada, which was reduced to the status of Castilian vassal. Things remained more or less frozen that way until 1482, when Ferdinand and Isabella began the campaign that eventually eliminated Granada and left all of soon-to-be Spain in Christian hands.
November 23, 1733: Slaves on the island of Saint John, in the Danish West Indies, revolt against their overseers and plantation owners in one of the earliest slave insurrections in the Americas. The uprising began at a Coral Bay plantation and the insurrectionists were in short order able to seize control of the fort in that town. The revolt spread to other plantations in Coral Bay and from there across the island. Danish officials requested assistance from the French colony of Martinique, and in April 1734 an armed French-Swiss detachment arrived from that island to put down the uprising. This force was successful, finally capturing the last of the rebelling slaves in late August. The Danish government finally abolished slavery in its island colonies in 1848.
November 23, 1934: British and Ethiopian (Abyssinian) officials discover an Italian-Somali fortress in the town of Walwal, which is well beyond the designated borders of Italian Somaliland and thus is regarded as a provocation by those same British and Ethiopian officials. The ensuing “Abyssinia Crisis” led into the 1935-1937 Second Italo-Ethiopian War and the Italian annexation of Ethiopia.
November 24, 1642: Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew sight an island off the southeastern coast of Australia. They were the first Europeans to locate what they named Van Diemen’s Land, after Dutch East Indies governor Anthony van Diemen. Tasman’s mission was to locate the famed “Province of Beach,” a land with allegedly vast gold deposits that Europeans—based on a misreading of Marco Polo’s travelogue (possibly fueled by some creative license on the part of Polo himself) and a vast overestimation of the size of Australia—believed would be found south of the Solomon Islands. Van Diemen’s Land eventually became a British colony, which in 1856 changed its name to Tasmania. Today it is part of Australia.
November 24, 1859: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is published. Its theory of evolution by natural selection became a fundamental tenet of modern biology.
November 24, 1965: Congolese army chief of staff Mobutu Sese Seko leads a bloodless coup that installs him as the unquestioned ruler of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mobutu ruled his repressive totalitarian state, which he renamed “Zaire” in 1971, until he was overthrown in the First Congo War in 1997.
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