1265: Convening in Westminster of the first English “Commons” Parliament, consisting of representatives from the boroughs who had no formal Royal authorization. The gathering lasted only through mid-February, but it established the legitimacy of a representative assembly as a viable and correct form of government. The expansion of governance in the Westminster Parliament began the process of transforming the British monarchy into the constitutional form we recognize today.
1287: King Alfonso III of Aragon invades the island of Menorca. Vindicating his judgment today, tens of thousands of northern Europeans annually invade the island (and its sister, Majorca) on holiday.
1502: Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos begins a formal survey of the lands around the magnificent harbor of Guanabara Bay. His work will lay the foundation for the establishment of Rio de Janeiro in 1565.
1535: Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, newly named Royal Governor of the newly conquered Inca lands in Peru, selects a well-watered and wooded coastal site for his capital and dedicates it on this date. He initially names it Cuidad des los Reyes, later re-named Lima.
1584: Florentine explorer Gionvanni da Verrazzano sets sail from Madeira to find the so-far elusive ocean route to the Pacific. He explores much of the eastern coast of North America, mis-identifying Pamlico Sound as the Pacific Ocean, but discovering the entrance to New York harbor, and farther up the coast, Block Island. The narrows of NY harbor, and the bridge that spans it, bear his name.
1649: Marking the beginning of the end of the long struggle between British monarchs and their increasingly assertive Parliaments, King Charles I is put on trial for “high crimes.”
1670: In one of the final acts of a swashbuckling career spent plundering the Spanish Main, the British pirate Henry Morgan, captures and sacks the city of Panama, burning it to the ground after taking anything and everything of value. For nearly 10 years, multiple Royal Governors of Jamaica ignored repeated edicts from the Crown to suppress piracy. Instead, they encouraged Morgan to range throughout the Caribbean basin attacking Spanish ships and port cities under Jamaican Letters of Marque, which provided a veneer of legitimacy to his activities. Morgan kept his crews occupied with adventure and plunder, while enriching himself, his Governors, and the Crown itself with tremendous hauls of looted Spanish treasure. Today’s sack of Panama, however, was the last straw for Britain’s diplomatic dance with their Spanish counterparts: the country was formally at peace with Spain in 1670, and the Spanish Crown demanded Morgan’s head. In 1672 he was arrested for the act, and returned to England for an expected trial and hanging. Instead, King Charles II knighted him for Services to the Crown and appointed him Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, where he served until 1683, living in pampered dissolution until his death in 1688. His grave in the pirate haven of Port Royal, Jamaica, disappeared beneath the sea in the great earthquake of 1692. (FYI- Morgan was renowned in his heyday for dressing in a scarlet jacket trimmed in gold during his recruiting drives, reinforcing his image as a highly successful privateer (which he was)), kind of like his image on the bottle of rum that bears his name.
1773: Captain James Cook, on his second voyage of discovery, sails below the Antarctic Circle for the first time, the first European explorer to do so. The Antarctic (and Arctic) Circle is the northernmost (southernmost) latitude where the sun does not rise at the winter solstice, June 21st (December 21st). It lies at 66 degrees 33 minutes South (North) latitude, about 650 nautical miles south of Cape Horn. Part of Cook’s mission was to survey the northern extent of the summer icepack as well as the iceberg zone. It’s important to note here that the Southern Ocean south of 40 degrees latitude is also completely unencumbered by any land masses to break up the prevailing westerly winds, creating a region sailors call the “Roaring 40s,” where it is not unusual for near-hurricane force winds to pipe up for weeks at a time, causing the seas themselves to build into towering breakers approaching fifty feet in height. All to say, one cannot overstate the risks inherent in making this survey from a wooden sailing ship, but they did it anyway.
1778: On his third Voyage of Discovery, Captain James Cook discovers a Central Pacific island chain he names the Sandwich Islands. They have since reverted to their native name, Hawaii. As an aside, the people who consider themselves the indigenous natives of the chain are working to further devolve the name into a near-phonetic transliteration of the Polynesian Hawai’i, which is itself derived from O-havai’i.
1783: Over two years after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the British government signs the Treaty of Paris, formally recognizing its former American colonies as independent states.
1793: On 12/11, France’s King Louis XVI was paraded through the streets of Paris to stand trial for treason. On January 15th the National Assembly voted on the charges: 693 found him guilty, 0 found him innocent, and 23 abstained. Given the overwhelming evidence of Louis’ collaboration with various foreign governments to invade France and put down the Revolution, the verdict was pretty much assured. What was not assured was what to do next. On the 16th a voice roll-call vote was held on the penalty, and the closeness of the vote underscores the drama of the final decision: 361 voted for immediate execution, 288 voted against execution, and 72 voted for death in principle, but with modifications and delays built into their vote. In the end, the King was formally stripped of all titles, and Citizen Louis Capet mounted the scaffold on this day. He gave a brief speech forgiving his executioners and praying that other citizens of France would be spared his fate. Then the drums rolled, Louis knelt into the stocks, and the Guillotine ended his life in a single stroke. Regicide “has loomed as a shadow over French history” (re: the Wikipedia entry). French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard noted “[the regicide] was the starting point of all French thought, the memory of which acts as a reminder that French modernity began under the sign of a crime.”
1861: Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis resigns from the United States Senate.
1862: Death of the 10th President of the United States, John Tyler (b.1790), who became the first to arrive at the office by succession from the Vice-Presidency, on the death of President William Henry Harrison. Tyler was born into the “Virginia aristocracy” but served out a relatively nondescript presidency, highlighted by his entire cabinet resigning in protest of particular veto, and a subsequent near-impeachment. Declining to run for a second term on his own, he retired back to his Virginia estate, Sherwood Forest, where he stayed away from politics until being elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in 1861. He died before being seated in Richmond, but his reputation was permanently stained by his overt association with the war. 2021: John Tyler’s grandson is alive today, and continues to manage the former president’s estate. The grandson is only two generations removed from the lives of the Founding Fathers. John Tyler- born in 1790- with his second wife fathers (at age 63) Lyon Tyler, who was born in 1853. Lyon, in turn, with his second wife, fathers (at age 75) Harrison Ruffin Tyler (b.1928), who was a successful Richmond businessman, now retired.
1871: As the Franco-Prussian War reaches is culmination with his armies having recently captured the French Emperor Napoleon III and with Paris under siege by German guns, King of Prussia Wilhelm I is proclaimed Emperor of the German Empire, beginning an era known as the Second Reich. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck exploits a newly available venue to publicly reinforce Germany’s position of dominance over its western rival: the proclamation ceremony is held in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, with virtually the entire leadership of Bismarck’s government, the General Staff and the Hohenzollern royal family in attendance.
1887: 18.3 inches of rain falls on Brisbane, Australia this day.
1899: The United States takes possession of Wake Island.
1911: Taking his naval aviation demonstrations to their next step (the first occurring with his takeoff from USS Birmingham (CL-2) here in Hampton Roads in November), Eugene Ely lands his Curtis Pusher aeroplane on a platform built aboard USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4), anchored in San Francisco Bay. After a light meal, and with the crew having turned the machine around, Ely fires up the engine and takes off again, demonstrating- at least in theory- a viable capability for launch and recovery of airplanes aboard ship.
1911: The first Monte Carlo Road Rally takes place in the tiny Principality. The grueling route was designed to test improvements and performance features in automobiles, and over the years it became one of the signature events of international motor racing.
1919: British aircraft engine manufacturer Walter Owen “WO” Bentley, founds Bentley Motors Limited. The company immediately begins production on series of cars that were notable for their speed and reliability. A group of “gentleman racers” coalesced around the Bentley marque and began winning races at Brooklands and soon thereafter, the great 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the Speed 6 model won the endurance classic four years in a row, 1927-30. The company went through several ownership periods, most notably by Rolls Royce in mid-century, who used the marque as a lower-cost alternative to its other models. In the late 1990s, both the Rolls Royce and Bentley companies were objects of a bidding war between Volkswagen and BMW. In the end, BMW took control of Rolls, and VW took control of Bentley. Bentley design today blends exceptionally high performance driving characteristics with the kind of luxurious accommodations one would expect at the top of the automotive spectrum.
1921: Establishment of the First Turkish Constitution, the product of the vision and drive of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The constitution is built from 23 short articles, the core of which is that Turkish sovereignty belongs to the nation, not the Sultan. As the victorious Allies of the Great War dismembered the far-flung remains of the Ottoman Empire (ally of the Central Powers, you remember), Ataturk galvanized the core of Anatolian Turkey to stand up for its sovereign rights as an independent state, designed explicitly to be secular in order to negate all the negative influences of the old Moslem Caliphate, of which the Sultan was Caliph. Two years after adoption of the constitution, the Caliphate was formally ended; the Wikipedia entry puts the end very nicely: “Per the law of March 3, 1924, the last Ottoman Sultan, the last Caliph and all members of their imperial families had their citizenships revoked, were exiled forever from the new Republic and their descendants banned from ever setting foot in its territory. The same law also nationalized all the properties of the Imperial Crown without compensation.” You would be correct in that much of Turkey’s authoritarianism, including periodic military coups to restore the constitution, is a direct result of the Islamist elements of Turkish society recoiling at the thought of the former Caliphate functioning as a secular and constitutional republic.
1924: Death of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as V.I. Lenin (b.1870)
1931: Birth of James Earl Jones, who voice then probably had a different level of projection then than it does today.
1942: Birth of Cassius Clay (d.2016).
1943: Start of the First Warsaw Uprising in the Jewish Ghetto. After four years of sullen acceptance at being crammed into a single ghetto, the Jews of Warsaw begin a clandestine revolt against their Nazi overseers. Armed only with a few pistols, rifles and Molotov cocktails, the fighters seek to forcibly oppose the renewed transports of the Jewish population to the death camps. The rising lasted through May, when the Germans make a full-on military operation against the rag-tag irregulars of the Ghetto.
1945(a): The Red Army captures what’s left of Warsaw, Poland. After six years of war, the city is reduced to essentially little more than heaps of rubble, with a population struggling for subsistence.
1945(b): With Soviet forces inexorably bearing down on them, the Nazi overlords of Auschwitz frantically- and futilely- begin to evacuate the death camp.
1945(c): The Soviet sweep into Eastern Europe, keeping its long-term political goals in the forefront of its decision-making, arrests Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg off the streets of Budapest, where he established a “Swedish Cultural Zone” to protect the Jews of Budapest from Nazi deportation.
1945 (d): An almost-defeated Germany begins a forced evacuation of its 1.8 million citizens from its lands in East Prussia. The evacuation was planned earlier by the General Staff with the understanding that East Prussia could not be defended against concentrated assault. The actual event was triggered by reports of Soviet atrocities as the Red Army plunged into its easternmost frontiers. As civilian panic set in, the orderly, planned evacuation turned into a general rout. The maritime portion of the evacuation used around a thousand vessels for nearly 15 weeks, transporting 350,000 soldiers and upwards of 800,000 civilian refugees to mainland Germany. One of the ships, the passenger liner SS Wilhelm Gustloff, was hit by three torpedoes from a Russian submarine and sank in less than 45 minutes, taking an estimated 7,000 lives to the bottom, the worst maritime disaster in history. After the armistice in May, the Soviets began their own forced expulsion of the remaining civilian Germans, resulting in even more misery, including an estimated 300,000 deaths from starvation and exposure.
1950: Former State Department diplomat Alger Hiss is convicted of perjury. The Soviet files that have been released to date confirm evidence of the crime.
1954: USS Nautilus (SSN-571) is launched in Groton, Connecticut by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. The modified “Guppy” class submarine was the first ship powered by nuclear energy. She went on to set a number of endurance records and set the stage for a revolution in submarine strategies worldwide.
1961: President Dwight D. Eisenhower gives his farewell address to the nation, in which he warns of the dangers of a Cold War spawned “military-industrial complex” becoming a self-perpetuating cycle of military requirements and defense contractors driving the public fisc into penury.
1961: Newly elected President John F. Kennedy gives his famous “ask not” inaugural address.
1966: An armed B-52 on a routine deterrent patrol suffers a mid-air collision with its KC-135 tanker over Palomares, Spain. Both planes break up in flight, and three of the four B-28 thermonuclear bombs on board the B-52 fall onto farmland near the tiny coastal Spanish town. Two of them detonate conventionally, spreading nuclear material over a wide area. Cleanup efforts involved removing some 1,400 tons of dirt, and transporting it back to the Savannah River Plant in the United States for burning and disposal. The fourth bomb fell into the sea just offshore, but remained unlocated for over three months. During the massive (34 Navy ships) search effort, which finally succeeded with the deep submersible Alvin, the regular U.S. press briefings degenerated into something like farce. Unable by security rules to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons, at one point the spokesman carefully explained, “I don’t know of any missing bomb, but we have not positively identified what I think you think we are looking for.”
1970: The head of Navy Nuclear Power, the legendary Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, sends a blistering letter up the Navy chain of command, excoriating the concept of applying pseudo-engineering principles to clearly non-engineering processes. He presciently noted, “…it will add another monstrosity to our already vast administrative burden…”, among other sins. He is clearly disgusted with the ability of a bureaucracy to metastasize.
1981: General Motors corporate refugee John DeLorean begins production of his stainless steel DMC-12 sports car in a new factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland.
1991: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, attempting to negate politically the devastating air strikes of the Desert Storm coalition, orders the launch of eight SCUD missiles into Israel in a vain attempt to widen the war into a full-blown Arab-Israeli affair. Coalition members Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan do not take the bait.