Today in History: March 9-11

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March 9, 1500: Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral sets sail with a fleet bound for India by a circuitous route through the western Atlantic Ocean. In April, Cabral’s fleet made landfall in what is now eastern Brazil. It’s unclear whether he knew the land was there or just stumbled on it while making a navigational move toward the southern tip of Africa. Either way, this was the one part of the Americas that was far enough east to fall within Portugal’s allotted colonial domain under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. Cabral’s fleet eventually continued on around Africa to Calicut, where he and his crew massacred around 600 people on ten merchant ships in retaliation for an attack on a Portuguese factory, and then back to Portugal.

Cabral sighting the coast of what would soon be known as Brazil, dramatically rendered by 19th-20th century Portuguese artist Aurélio de Figueiredo (Wikimedia Commons)

March 9, 1776: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is published in Britain. It sold out in six months, which I think we can all agree is unusual for an economics text. I am not an economist, but needless to say that Smith’s thoughts on issues like resource allocation and the societal utility of self-interest have been extraordinarily influential, for better or worse.

March 9, 1862: The second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads features an extremely inconclusive engagement between the Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia and the Union ironclad USS Monitor. Neither vessel was able to defeat or even damage the other to any significant extent, which seems lame but in fact is why this engagement changed the course of naval warfare. Although ironclad warships had been on the horizon for some time (Britain and France were already working on theirs), seeing such ships in combat showed conclusively that wooden hulled ships were on the brink of obsolescence, and the rest of the world responded accordingly.

March 10, 241 BC: A Roman fleet under Gaius Lutatius Catulus and Quintus Valerius Falto defeats a Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates, just off the west coast of Sicily. The Carthaginians outnumbered the Roman fleet, but their ships were encumbered with supplies bound for the Carthaginian army on Sicily, and their sailors were inexperienced at combat. The Roman victory upheld their blockade on Sicily, and rather than build a new fleet the Carthaginian Senate instead ordered its commander on the island, Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal) to negotiate a treaty with the Romans. The ensuing Treaty of Lutatius ended the First Punic War, forcing Carthage to abandon Sicily and pay a war indemnity to Rome.

March 10, 1861: The Toucouleur Empire of El Hadj Umar Tall conquers the city of Ségou, bringing an end to the already reeling Bamana Empire and consolidating much of West Africa (modern Guinea, Mali, and Senegal) under its control. Although it was riding high at this point, the Toucouleur Empire’s further expansion was stymied by the Fula Massina Empire to the north, and by the 1890s it was swept aside by French colonization.

March 10, 1916: The British high commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, pens the tenth and final letter in his exchange with Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Over the course of those ten letters the two men established the conditions under which Hussein would lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Britain reneged on its promises to support the creation of a single “Arab Caliphate,” ceding Syria to France (though McMahon did caution that France had interests in Syria and that Britain couldn’t entirely dispose of them) and most of Palestine to Zionism (though it’s hard to determine exactly what Britain promised Hussein with respect to Palestine).

March 11, 1784: The British East India Company and Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India, negotiate the Treaty of Mangalore, bringing the Second Anglo-Mysore War to a close. The 1780-1784 conflict saw Tipu Sultan and his father/predecessor, Hyder Ali (who died in 1782) win several early victories against the East India Company before the EIC counterattacked and fought back to a stalemate. When the American Revolutionary War ended and Britain made peace with Tipu Sultan’s ally, France, in 1783, London sent word demanding that the EIC wrap things up and so it negotiated this treaty, which returned things to the status quo ante bellum. A third Anglo-Mysore War in 1790-1792 ended in a decisive EIC victory that crippled Mysore, and the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1798-1799 finished the kingdom off for good.

March 11, 1917: British forces capture Baghdad from the Ottoman Empire.