September 16th 1620: Mayflower sets sail
On this day in 1620, the Mayflower started her voyage from Great Britain to North America. She carried 102 passengers, many of whom were pilgrims who later settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. By November they sighted land and landed at Cape Cod and proceeded the settle there, though around half died during the first harsh winter in the New World. The site where the Mayflower pilgrims landed at Plymouth is marked today by ‘Plymouth Rock’. The Mayflower left for England the next April. The journey of the Mayflower is considered a major and symbolic event in American history as the ship carried the some of the first European settlers to America’s shores.
September 14th 1913: Jacobo Arbenz born
On this day in 1913, the future President of Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz was born in the city of Quetzaltenango. Arbenz first became involved in left-wing politics while in the army, where he witnessed first-hand the brutality of the US-backed Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico. In 1944 Ubico was forced out of office and his equally undemocratic successor was soon also removed from power; Arbenz was one of the military figures who supported this revolt. Arbenz was appointed Minister of Defense in the newly elected regime of Juan José Arévalo and was elected President himself by a solid margin in 1950. Upon assuming office in 1951, Arbenz continued his predecessor’s popular democratic and social reform policies, with labour and land reform becoming the focus of his administration. This caused a division between the Arbenz government and the US-based United Fruit Company which was the largest landowner in Guatemala at the time. These policies which threatened US investments and also the Cold War-era fears that Arbenz’s government was too close to communist forces, led to a CIA-backed coup that ousted Arbenz in 1954. He was succeeded by the military junta of Carlos Castillo Armas who immediately undid the reforms of the Arbenz government. Jacobo Arbenz lived in various different countries after his exile, eventually settling in Mexico where he died in 1971 aged 57.
September 12th 1977: Steve Biko dies
On this day in 1977, South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Bantu Biko died aged 30 while in police custody in Pretoria. Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement and coined the famous phrase “black is beautiful”. He had been a target long before his arrest on August 18th 1977, having been censored and ‘banned’ by the apartheid government in 1973 and had his movement in his country restricted. Upon his arrest, Biko was brutally tortured and beaten during police interrogations which lasted almost 24 hours, eventually dying from head injuries on September 12th. The police claimed he died due to a hunger strike, but it was clear his death was caused by police violence after his arrest. The authorities’ flimsy protestations of innocence fooled very few, and the truth about Biko’s death caused widespread outrage. His killers were never bought to justice, but due to his high-profile Biko’s family were able to secure financial compensation from the South African government. He was a hero of black South Africans for his activism, but since his tragic death Steve Biko has also become a martyr for his cause and a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.
"They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid"
- Nelson Mandela on Steve Biko
September 10th 1167: Empress Matilda dies
On this day in 1167 the Empress Matilda of England (also known as Empress Maude) died aged 65 in Rouen, France. Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England and his sole heir, as her younger brother William died in 1120 when the ship he was on sank. Upon her father’s death however, the throne was seized by her cousin Stephen. The two parties battled for the throne, leading to years of unrest and civil war in England known as ‘The Anarchy’. Whilst she did briefly manage to claim the throne in 1141 she was never crowned and did not consolidate her rule and thus many do not consider her a true British monarch. Matilda retired to France towards the end of her life, after her son Henry succeeded King Stephen in 1154. The story of her struggle with Stephen is the basis of the 1989 novel The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.
September 8th 1974: Ford pardons Nixon
On this day in 1974, US President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed during his presidency. This came after Nixon’s resignation over his administration’s involvement in illegal activities, including wiretapping, the cumulative revelations of which became known as the Watergate scandal. Ford, Nixon’s Vice-President, became President on August 9th upon Nixon’s resignation, which was a first of its kind for a President of the United States. Now President Ford pardoned Nixon in order to help the nation move on from the shameful events of Watergate, but the decision was controversial as many wanted Nixon to be made accountable. Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, and has the distinction of never being elected as either Vice-President or President.
40 years ago today
September 6th 1901: President McKinley shot
On this day in 1901, US President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The President died from gangrene which developed from the bullet wounds on September 14th and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was only 42 when he became President, making him the youngest man to assume the office. McKinley was reluctant to accept security protection, and after his assassination Congress officially charged the Secret Service with the duty of protecting the President.
"We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours."
- McKinley’s last words
September 4th 1870: Napoleon III deposed
On this day in 1870 French Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was deposed. Before assuming the imperial title in 1852 he was the first President of France, having been elected by popular vote. However when prevented from running for a second term he staged a coup d’état and seized the throne. Napoleon’s initial reign was characterised by repression of political enemies and wide-ranging reform of French life, including some positive changes like extensive rebuilding of Paris, financial reorganisation and some labour rights. He was eventually overthrown due to his poor leadership in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in decisive Prussian victory under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck. The Emperor was even captured by the Prussians himself at the Battle of Sedan and after this surrendered to the Prussians in what many French saw as a humiliating debasement. Soon after that debacle he was removed from power and was held in captivity before going into exile in Britain. The Third Republic was declared and the monarchy abolished, thus making Napoleon III the last French monarch.
September 2nd 1945: Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence
On this day in 1945 the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence was issued. The Proclamation, written by communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, was first announced in public at the Ba Đình flower garden in Hanoi. Vietnam had been a colony of France since the 19th century, but revolutionary forces were able to take hold following the occupation of the country by the Japanese during World War Two. The Proclamation itself began with a direct quote from the US Declaration of Independence and liberally quoted from French revolutionary texts to highlight the hypocrisy of brutal and repressive French imperialism. The Communists’ Proclamation made no reference to Marx or Lenin but despite its praise of the American Founding Fathers and attempts to appeal to them, the Cold War driven United States was determined to destroy this new communist state. The US therefore supported France in their attempt to reassert control in the ensuing Indochina War. However the French were no match for Ho Chi Minh’s well-organised guerilla forces, and suffered humiliating defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The war ended with the Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam along the 17th parallel into a communist North and Western-friendly South. After years of struggle and unrest between the two, and the steadily increasing presence of US advisers, full scale war broke out and by 1965 the US had decidedly entered the conflict on the side of the South. The Americans underestimated the determination of the North Vietnamese and eventually withdrew from the war that had killed millions of people. Shortly after in April 1975, thirty years after the initial proclamation of independence, Saigon fell to the communists and Vietnam was reunited as an independent communist state.
"Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact it is so already. And thus the entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty"
- excerpt from Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence
September 15th 1254: Marco Polo born
On this day in 1254, Marco Polo was born in Venice, Italy to a wealthy merchant family. Polo’s father and uncle spent much of his childhood traveling around Asia, especially China where they found favour at the court of Mongol leader Kublai Khan. In 1271, when he was seventeen, Marco left with his father and uncle on their return trip to China. On this journey they visited the Middle East and crossed the Gobi Desert, eventually arriving at Khan’s court where they stayed for 17 years. In this time Marco became Khan’s special envoy, and was sent to areas never before explored by Europeans, including India, Burma and Tibet. Their eventual journey home was arduous, with many of their party perishing on the way. The family also faced hardship when they returned to Venice in 1295, for they struggled to re-enter Venetian society and culture. Marco Polo became involved in Venice’s war with Genoa, and was captured and imprisoned by the Genoese. While imprisoned he told the stories of his travels to his fellow prisoner Rustichello, who wrote them down and eventually published them in The Travels of Marco Polo. Polo’s stories became widely famous and popular, with the fantastic descriptions of foreign places like China and India astonishing contemporary Europeans, many of whom took Polo’s words to be fiction; Polo asserted until his death that it was all true. Marco Polo died in Venice in 1324 aged 69 but his legacy lived on as his unprecedentedly rich and detailed descriptions of foreign lands inspired later generations to explore the world, including Christopher Columbus who brought a copy of Polo’s book on his journey to America in 1492.
September 13th 1814: Defense of Fort McHenry
On this day in 1814, the United States army forces at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland successfully defended the city from the British during the War of 1812. British warships bombarded the fort for over 24 hours, but the American defense held fast and by the morning of September 14th the British were forced to retreat due to lack of ammunition. The event, particularly the sight of an American flag being raised over the fort at dawn in celebration of victory, inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem called ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Key was a witness to the battle because he was aboard a British ship having been trying to negotiate the release of an American prisoner. The poem was eventually set to the tune of a well-known 18th century British song and the anthem soon became a popular patriotic American song, and was commonly used by the armed forces. On March 3rd 1931, at the urging of many patriotic organisations, a congressional resolution was signed by President Hoover which affirmed 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as America’s official national anthem.
200 years ago today
September 11th 2001: 9/11 Terror Attacks
On this day in 2001, thirteen years ago today, two hijacked planes were crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and another into the Pentagon building in Virginia. The Twin Towers collapsed and part of the Pentagon was badly damaged. A fourth plane was intended to strike the US Capitol Building in Washington DC but its passengers seized control from the hijackers and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died on this terrible day and thousands more injured in the attacks which sent shockwaves around the world. The attacks were planned and carried out by members of the terrorist group al-Qaeda, and masterminded by Osama bin Laden, who was since been found and killed by US forces. The aftermath of the tragedy prompted greater focus on national security both in the US and abroad and contributed to the invasions of, and subsequent wars in, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, thirteen years on, we remember the thousands of people who lost their lives on 9/11.
"America is under attack"
- White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card telling President Bush about the attacks
September 9th 1976: Chairman Mao dies
On this day in 1976, the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong died just after midnight at the age of 82. Born in 1893 into a Chinese farming family, the young Mao quickly developed an interest in Marxist and Communist ideology. After World War Two, a civil war broke out in China between the ruling nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and the communists he had tried to purge. Despite having the support of many Western nations like the United States, Chiang Kai-shek was defeated and Mao, who had led the communists, was victorious. On October 1st 1949 Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Mao then ruled the country as Chairman of the Communist Party, and under his rule any opposition to the communist regime was ruthlessly suppressed. Millions died under his rule, some from his disastrous policies like the ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1958 which tried to rapidly transform China from an agrarian to industrial economy and triggered a deadly famine. Millions more died under his ruthless persecution, especially after the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1966 which aimed to purge counter-revolutionary forces in Chinese society. Overall Mao’s rule is believed to have caused the deaths of 40 to 70 million people. In his last years Mao worked to ease tensions with Western powers and met with US President Nixon in China in 1972. Mao Zedong died in 1976 following a period of deteriorating health; his body lay in state at the Great Hall of the People for ten days and his embalmed body remains on display in his mausoleum in Beijing.
September 7th 1978: Keith Moon dies
On this day in 1978, Keith Moon, the drummer for the English rock band The Who died aged 32. He joined The Who in 1964 when they were just starting up and was integral to their rise to fame. Their most famous songs include ‘My Generation’, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’. Moon remained in the band until his death. He was well known for his self-destructive behaviour and after a number of personal tragedies became an alcoholic. He died in London from an overdose of a drug designed to curb alcohol abuse. In 2011 Rolling Stone readers voted him the second greatest drummer of all time.
September 5th 1972: Munich Massacre
On this day in 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September broke into the Olympic Village of the Munich Games and took five Israeli athletes and six coaches hostage. The 1972 Games were already a tense one, as it was the first Olympics held in Germany since 1936 (which took place under Nazi rule). The Israeli athletes were particular nervous but everything went smoothly until early in the morning of September 5th when eight members of Black September broke into the Olympic Village. Two Israelis were killed that night and the remaining nine were taken hostage. The group demanded the release of 234 prisoners in Israeli prisons. A standoff ensued, and by the evening the terrorists realised they would be overwhelmed when they arrived at the airport where they were supposed to leave the country. All nine hostages were then tragically killed and the authorities struck down five of the eight terrorists; the surviving three were arrested. They were later released after other Black September members hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up unless the Munich terrorists were released. In retaliation to the attack and the release of those responsible, the Israeli government’s intelligence agency Mossad targetted Palestinians with supposed ties to the event; in reality many innocent people were killed for a crime with which they were not involved
September 3rd 1875: Ferdinand Porsche born
On this day in 1875 the famed automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche was born in Mattersdorf, Austria-Hungary. From an early age Porsche demonstrated a keen interest and great skill in technology, and soon landed a job in an electrical company. In 1897 he built an electric wheel-hub motor which garnered significant attention after being featured at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Some of his career highlights before 1931 included building the first gas-electric hybrid car and working for Mercedes-Benz. In this time he also briefly served in the army and acted as chauffeur to Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 sparked the First World War. In 1931 Porsche founded his own company - the company that carries his name which is still famous today for its cars. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Porsche, by then a German citizen, sympathised with the Nazi Party and eventually became a member of both the party and its paramilitary wing the SS. It was Porsche who was charged by Adolf Hitler with designing and building the ‘people’s car’ (Volkswagen), and from these efforts came the Volkswagen Beetle. Porsche’s company was also involved in the Nazi war effort by designing and building state of the art tanks for the German army. After the end of the war Porsche was arrested and jailed by the French as a war criminal but his son kept the company going and they soon unveiled the new Porsche sports car. Ferdinand Porsche died in Stuttgart, Germany on January 30th 1951 at the age of 75, but his company lives on and remains one of the most sought-after car brands.