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December 20 (or thereabouts), 1192: Duke Leopold I of Austria imprisons King Richard I of England as the latter is returning home from the Third Crusade. Leopold had several grievances with Richard. Richard had personally treated him badly during the Crusade, for example. But his chief complaint was that Richard had (allegedly…OK, probably) arranged the assassination of the proclaimed King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, who was Leopold’s cousin. Pope Celestine III excommunicated Leopold for his transgression, while Leopold turned Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who had his own grievances with England (Celestine also excommunicated Henry). Henry, who nevertheless needed money more than he needed to punish Richard, ransomed him back to England for the tidy sum of 150,000 marks.
December 20, 1803: French authorities lower their flag in New Orleans’ Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square) and the US flag is raised in its place, signifying the transfer of French Louisiana to the United States under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase.
The flag-raising ceremony, by US illustrator Thure de Thulstrup (Wikimedia Commons)
December 20, 1989: The US military invades Panama with the goal of removing Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega from power. Publicly Noriega, an erstwhile US ally, had run afoul of the Reagan and then Bush administrations by playing both sides of the drug trade—something he’d started doing alongside the US as part of the Iran-Contra operation. Other theories about why the US invaded include the Pentagon’s desire to test out new military hardware, something to do with Noriega’s involvement with and knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal, George Bush’s political need to look tough, and Noriega’s diplomatic outreach to countries like Castro-led Cuba and Sandinista-run Nicaragua. According to the US military its invasion killed just over 200 Panamanian civilians—more credible assessments put that figure somewhere between 500 and 3000.
December 21, 1237: A Mongol army under Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan, sacks the Rus’ city of Ryazan after a five day siege. To punish the city for its resistance and send a message to other cities in the Rus’ domains, the Mongols killed nearly every resident of Ryazan, including Grand Prince Yuri, then burned the city to the ground after thoroughly plundering it. Ryazan was the first Rus’ city sacked by the Mongols in a campaign that culminated with the sack of Kyiv in 1240.
December 21, 1822: An Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha defeats the Ottomans at the Battle of Konya.
December 21, 1907: The Chilean army massacres a group of striking miners and their families in the city of Iquique. The killings are known as the Santa María School massacre, named after the Domingo Santa María school where the striking miners had made camp. The death toll is thought to have been between 2000 and around 3600—a definitive count is all but impossible since the authorities dumped the bodies into a mass grave that wasn’t exhumed until 1940. The massacre broke the strike and set back the Chilean labor movement.
December 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. Questions as to who carried out the bombing have never been entirely settled. Among the prime suspects are/were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, and the Iranian government, possibly as retribution for the US shooting down Iran Air Flight 655 earlier in the year. There was also suspicion that a clandestine CIA smuggling operation was used by terrorists, perhaps in collaboration with the Syrian government, to get the bomb on board the flight. Most suspicion, however, fell on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The only person ever convicted in court in connection with the bombing was Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty by a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands. Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the bombing in 2003, but he did so under duress as it was a requirement for sanctions relief. He denied any knowledge of the plot and there remains (at least in fringe circles) suspicion that the evidence against Libya was manufactured by the US and UK governments.
December 22, 1522: The Siege of Rhodes ends with an Ottoman victory and the displacement of the Knights of Rhodes.
December 22, 1769: The Sino-Burmese War ends with a Burmese victory. The border between Qing China and Burma was weakly demarcated if at all, which prompted several efforts on both sides to encroach on the frontier. This “war” actually consisted of four separate Chinese invasions starting in 1765, each of which was defeated by the Burmese. The outcome went a long way toward defining the Chinese-Burmese/Myanmar border as it exists today. It also, as a side effect, forced the Burmese to give up their designs on Siam (modern Thailand), since they couldn’t invade Siam and guard against Chinese invasion at the same time.
December 22, 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason for supposedly passing classified information to German intelligence. The ensuing “Dreyfus Affair,” which ended with his pardon in 1906, was a public scandal that focused on the absurd weakness of the evidence against Dreyfus and a bizarre criminal proceeding that managed to convict him twice while acquitting the actual spy, French counter-intelligence officer Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. At the core of the Dreyfus case was deeply-rooted antisemitism, whose very public emergence motivated journalist Theodor Herzl to organize the First Zionist Congress in 1897. That congress is generally regarded as the beginning of the Zionist movement.