Today in History: March 29-31

The Sepoy Mutiny begins, the US Navy "opens" Japan, and more

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March 29, 1430: The Siege of Thessaloniki ends with the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine-turned-Venetian city.

March 29, 1857: An Indian sepoy named Mangal Pandey engages in an act of insurrection against East India Company officers at his military base outside of Kolkata. He was arrested and later hanged, as was his immediate superior for refusing to arrest him. Pandey’s case highlighted the growing dissatisfaction many sepoys were feeling toward the EIC, and his example (along with what many felt was a disproportionate punishment) helped spark the Sepoy Mutiny, also known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857. That insurrection failed, but it also prompted the British government to take direct control of India, stripping it from the EIC.

March 29, 1879: In arguably the decisive battle of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, a force of around 2200 British soldiers and auxiliaries defeats a Zulu army nearly ten times its size at Kambula. Coming just a few days after a smaller British force had suffered a devastating defeat in the Battle of Hlobane and two months after a decisive Zulu victory at Isandlwana ended the initial British invasion of Zululand, Kambula showed that a properly entrenched British army using rifles and field cannon could pick apart even a much larger Zulu force, and the effect on Zulu morale appears to have been profound. A second British invasion of Zululand brought the war to a close in early July. British authorities broke the Zulu kingdom apart into 13 chiefdoms.

March 30, 1282: Sicilians rebel against the rule of Charles I of Anjou, sparking the War of the Sicilian Vespers. The conflict took its name from the evening prayers on Saturday, March 30, the day before Easter. Sometime during or after that service, a group of Sicilians had an unfriendly encounter with a group of Frenchmen in Palermo. Resentments over Sicily’s relatively low status within Charles’ Mediterranean empire erupted into a six week massacre of Frenchmen on the island. A 20 year war ensued, at the end of which the Angevins retained control over their mainland Italian kingdom, Naples, but Sicily came under the control of Aragon.

March 30, 1856: Representatives of Austria, France, the Ottoman Empire, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia, and the United Kingdom sign the Treaty of Paris, ending the 1853-1856 Crimean War. The war was a serious Russian defeat, and the terms reflected that. The Black Sea was designated as neutral territory, barring all warships—but especially Russian warships—from its waters. Russia was also forced to give up territory in the Danube region and forfeited to France any claim it has as being the protector of Christian subjects in the Ottoman Empire.

March 30, 1867: US Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl agree on a sale price of $7.2 million for the US to purchase Alaska. The sale would be finalized in a treaty that was ratified by the US Senate that October. The Russians had realized they couldn’t hold on to Alaska in the event of a US migration there (a la the California Gold Rush), and the Russian government needed the cash. Reception in the US wasn’t uniformly positive, but the whole “Seward’s Folly” sentiment has been exaggerated in the contemporary consciousness and for the most part the US public seems to have supported the acquisition.

March 30, 1912: Sultan Abd al-Hafid of Morocco and French diplomat Eugène Regnault sign the Treaty of Fez, making Morocco a French protectorate. Abd al-Hafid signed the treaty with a French army encircling the city, so you might say he was well motivated to agree to a lopsided arrangement that looked more like a colonial capitulation than a protectorate along the lines of Egypt’s relationship to Britain. Of course, in fairness, Egypt’s relationship to Britain looked increasingly like a colonial one by this point too. The treaty was not well received by the Moroccan public. Riots broke out the following month in Fez, and concessions made to Spain in the Rif (or “Spanish Morocco”) helped fuel the Rif War, which ended in 1927, between Spain and the Berber tribes of the region.

March 31, 1146: At the Council of Vézelay, charismatic monk Bernard of Clairvaux issues his call for a new crusade to support the suddenly beleaguered Christian principalities in the Levant. In attendance was King Louis VII of France, who took up the cross on the spot for what we now know as the Second Crusade. Suffice to say it did not end well.

March 31, 1492: The proto-Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile issue the Alhambra Decree, expelling all Jews from their kingdoms by the end of July. The decree’s goal was two-fold. One, the expulsion of practicing Jews was meant to eliminate their influence on the region’s conversos, those who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. Two, the terms of the expulsion, which required those being expelled to finance their own relocation, were made deliberately onerous in order to encourage more Jews to convert to Christianity as an alternative. Isabella seems to have been the driving force behind the decree, likely influenced by her new confessor, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros.

March 31, 1854: The United States, in the person of Commodore Matthew Perry, and Japan, amid the waning years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, sign the Convention of Kanagawa, which permits US ships to use the Japanese ports of Hakodate and Shimoda. Kanagawa, negotiated almost literally at gunpoint with Perry threatening to turn his warships loose on Edo, marks the “opening” of Japan to Westerners after a period of near-isolation that stretched back to the early 17th century. Over the next several years Japanese officials would sign a lopsided commercial treaty with the US along with similar capitulations with France, Russia, and the United Kingdom.