Today in History: May 26-30

The Qing dynasty begins to emerge, Constantinople falls to the Ottomans, and more

May 26, 1908: A British drilling operation discovers a commercially-viable oil deposit at Masjed Soleyman, in Iran’s Khuzestan province. Lucky them! This was the first oil find in the Middle East and obviously began the region’s transformation into the stable, economically advantaged paradise it is today. The strike was made under the terms of the “D’Arcy Concession,” a 1901 agreement between British oil baron William Knox D’Arcy and Iranian ruler Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar that gave D’Arcy exclusive rights to explore for oil in Iran in exchange for a payment of 20,000 pounds and a mere 16 percent of any future profits. The Burmah Oil Company, which backed D’Arcy’s operation, formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which goes by BP nowadays) and began extracting Iranian oil under the concession’s extremely lopsided terms. Let’s just say this led to some problems down the road and leave it at that.

May 26, 1918: The short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia declares independence from the considerably shorter-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, which in turn formed out of the collapse of the Russian Empire. Although Georgia fell to a Red Army invasion in early 1921 and became a Soviet republic, this not-quite-three year period of independence was formative in terms of the development of Georgian nationalism, and after the country regained its independence from the USSR the Georgian government established May 26 as Independence Day.

May 26: 1966: British Guiana, which you likely know better as Guyana, gains its independence. May 26 is Independence Day in Guyana.

May 27, 1644: A Qing army under the Shunzhi Emperor’s regent, Dorgon, along with a Ming Dynasty army under general Wu Sangui, defeats the forces of the Shun Dynasty under Emperor Li Zicheng at the Battle of Shanhai Pass. During the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, the Manchurian Qing began to threaten China’s northern borders, while rebels under Li attacked the Ming from within the empire. Wu commanded one of the gates through the Great Wall, and faced with threats from either side he opted to allow the Qing through the gate to deal with Li. Wu initially seems to have meant for the Qing to help him restore the Ming Dynasty once the rebels were dispatched, but instead Dorgon continued on to Beijing, toppled the Ming, and claimed the Mandate of Heaven for the Shunzhi Emperor.

May 27, 1942: In “Operation Anthropoid,” two Czechoslovakian soldiers successfully assassinate the head of the Reich Main Security Office and the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague. The soldiers and their fellow conspirators had been trained and advised by operatives from Britain’s Special Operations Executive. They initially believed the attack had failed, but Heydrich later succumbed either to his wounds or to an infection. By some estimates the Nazis killed roughly 5000 people during the investigation/collective punishment campaign that ensued.

May 28, 621: With only around 10,000 soldiers at his disposal, prince Li Shimin of the nascent Tang Dynasty defeats an army of the rival Xia regime that was at least ten times that size at the Battle of Hulao. Considered by some historians to be one of the most important battles ever fought, Hulao was the decisive engagement of the civil wars that followed the collapse of the Sui Dynasty and Li’s victory ensured that the Tang would emerge as the new ruling dynasty of China.

May 28, 1905: A Japanese fleet decisively defeats a Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, sinking 21 Russian vessels and capturing seven more while losing only three of its own. Tsushima is noteworthy in that it was the first naval battle fought between two fleets built around modern battleships using the telegraph for communications. It’s also noteworthy for the overwhelming nature of the Japanese victory, which brought the Russo-Japanese War to an end on Japanese terms, marked the beginnings of Japan’s imperial expansion, and caused a wave of “Yellow Peril” discourse to sweep through the West.

May 29, 1453: The city of Constantinople falls to the besieging Ottomans, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire and, if you prefer the longer view, the Roman Empire.

May 29, 1658: At the Battle of Samugarh, not far from the Indian city of Agra, an army commanded by the Mughal heir apparent, Dara Shikoh, is soundly defeated by forces allied with two of his brothers, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh. The reigning emperor, Shah Jahan, was critically ill, which sparked a civil war over the succession. Dara Shikoh’s defeat was so comprehensive that he was not only removed as his father’s regent, but Aurangzeb was actually crowned the new emperor. Shah Jahan subsequently recovered, but Aurangzeb determined that he was incapable of ruling the empire and had him more or less placed under medical arrest. This turn of events proved fateful for the Mughal Empire. Aurangzeb took the empire to its greatest territorial extent, but he broke with his predecessors’ religious tolerance and began persecuting India’s substantial Hindu majority. This policy shift began to lay the groundwork for the Mughal Empire’s eventual destruction.

May 29, 1807: Ottoman Sultan Selim III is overthrown in a coup instigated by his own Janissary forces, fearful of his plans to create a new elite military unit meant in part to supplant them.

May 30, 1431: The 19 year old (give or take) Joan of Arc is burned at the stake for heresy. After helping shepherd Charles VII to the throne in 1429, Joan was captured while accompanying an army sent to relieve the English-Burgundian siege of Compiègne in May 1430. The Burgundians transferred her to English custody at Rouens, and despite several French attempts to rescue her she was subject to a very politically motivated religious trial that began in January 1431. Despite a lack of evidence and heavy English interference in what was supposed to be a Church process, Joan was found guilty on the basis of having worn men’s clothing, after having been more or less entrapped into doing so by her captors.

May 30, 1913: The Treaty of London brings the First Balkan War to an end. The victorious Balkan League and the “Great Powers” (Austria-Hungary, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Russia) dictated the terms, which gave Crete to Greece and ceded every remaining Ottoman European territory to the Balkan League, except for the European environs of Istanbul and the territory of an independent Albania whose exact borders were to be determined by the “Powers.” The treaty has the distinction of satisfying almost nobody. The Ottomans were obviously unhappy, the boundaries of the new Albania angered Greeks in the southern part of the new nation and angered Albanians because they left out roughly half of the predominantly Albanian territories in the Ottoman Empire (the running dispute over Kosovo is a legacy of those borders), and the Balkan League quickly fell to discord over how to split up formerly Ottoman Macedonia. That discord led to the Second Balkan War, which began in June and pitted Bulgaria against the other Balkan League members (plus the Ottomans).