April 16th 1889: Charlie Chaplin born
On this day in 1889 the famous silent film star Charlie Chaplin was born in London. Chaplin came from a musical family, but his family fell on hard times and he spent his childhood on the streets of London. This hardship did nothing to abate the young Chaplin’s aspiration to be an actor. He began to secure roles on stage, securing a reputation as a fine comic actor. Chaplin moved to the United States in 1913 to embark on a promising film career. Soon after arriving he established the character that would make him famous: ‘the Tramp’. The character, a bumbling vagrant, featured in over 10 of Chaplin’s films. This role threw Charlie Chaplin to international prominence, and he soon earned a huge salary of $670,000 a year - a vast amount even now; he had come a long way from his poverty-stricken youth in London. He continued to star in films, notably ‘The Great Dictator’ in 1940 which parodied Adolf Hitler. Chaplin’s popularity waned as he faced controversy in the United States when he was accused of being a communist. However he enjoyed a renewed appreciation by the 1970s, winning an honorary Oscar in 1972. Chaplin died in 1977 aged 88 in Switzerland, where he had moved in the early 1950s after being banned from the States.
April 14th 1759: Handel dies
On this day in 1759, the German composer George Frederic Handel died aged 74. Famous for his Baroque pieces, Handel was born in Germany in 1685 but moved to Britain later in life. He gained a reputation there for his Italian operas, and some of his works were performed for Queen Anne and her successors on the British throne. Handel enjoyed royal patronage, and his music is regularly played at royal coronations even to this day. However he is perhaps best known for his biblical choral masterpiece: Messiah. Handel died in 1759, and was honoured with a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. Alongside his grave is a monument, sculpted by Louis Francois Roubiliac, which was unveiled in 1762 and features a statue of Handel which supposedly has the exact likeness of his death mask.
April 12th 1861: Firing on Fort Sumter
On this day in 1861, the American Civil War began when the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter. Several Southern states had already seceded from the United States when this conflict occurred. The Southern slaveholding states had long been at odds with the anti-slavery agenda of the North, but secession was immediately preciptated by the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860. Fort Sumter was a Union base in South Carolina, which was the first state to secede and thus its government demanded Union forces leave their state. The moment the siege became a battle and the fort was fired upon by Confederate forces, it seemed clear to all that civil war had begun. No one was killed in the conflict, perhaps a false omen that the civil war which became the bloodiest in American history would not be a costly one. The Union forces at the fort eventually surrendered, thus making it a victory for the Confederates. In the aftermath of the struggle each side called for troops and war soon broke out in full force. The American Civil War saw the defeat of the Southern secessionists and the end of slavery - the ‘peculiar institution’ - in the United States.
April 10th 1998: Good Friday Agreement signed
On this day in 1998 in a major development of the Northern Ireland peace process, British and Irish representatives signed the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast. It was signed by Irish leader Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the talks were led by former US Senator George Mitchell (D-ME). The agreement followed years of historic conflict and negotiation. The agreement included plans for a Northern Ireland Assembly and a pledge by both sides to use peaceful means of conflict resolution. It set out the present constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom but with a devolved government. The agreement was approved by Irish voters in a referendum and came into force in December 1999.
"Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders"
- Tony Blair
April 8th 1924: Shariah courts abolished in Turkey
On this day in 1924 the newly created Republic of Turkey, which grew out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire, abolished shariah law in courts. This measure came as part of a package of reforms named for Turkey’s first President that were implemented in the 1920s and 1930s - Atatürk’s reforms. The reforms tried to create a secular, Westernised state, in order to modernise Turkey and ensure it remained a player on the world stage. Atatürk’s reforms comprised of: political reforms which included a new Constitution, abolished the sultanate and established a multi-party system; social reforms which eliminated religious clothing or insignia and provided for legal gender equality and female suffrage and made polygamy illegal; legal reforms which ended the shariah system; educational reforms which established a new, mixed-gender education system, secularised curriculum and aimed to improve literacy with the establishment of a new alphabet; and economic reforms which aimed for state control, nationalisation and the establishment of a banking system. Atatürk’s reforms were eventually completed, and undeniably played a major role in shaping the new Turkish state. Atatürk died in 1938 but is still celebrated as the ‘father of the country’.
April 6th 1896: First modern Olympics opens
On this day in 1896 1,500 years after the original games were banned by Roman Emperor Theodosius I, the first modern Olympics celebrated its opening ceremony in Athens, the birthplace of the Games. The Games lasted until 15th April and had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date. After the Greek games many wanted the event to stay in Athens but the 1900 Games were scheduled for Paris and the Olympics continued to go to different cities around the world, not returning to its home until 2004. The Opening Ceremony on April 6th was held at the Panathinaiko Stadium, with thousands of spectators including foreign dignitaries.
"I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people."
- Crown Prince Constantine opening the Games
April 4th 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. killed
On this day in 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee aged just 39. The Baptist minister from Georgia first came to national attention for his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. This event is considered by many the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which saw a national fight against discrimination suffered by African-Americans. King was one of many leaders, but became the face of the movement for his nonviolent tactics and powerful oratory. In 1963, during the March on Washington, King delivered the crowning speech of the struggle - the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Beyond his role in combating racial inequality, King also focused on tackling poverty and advocating peace, especially during the Vietnam War. On April 4th 1968, King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. He lived to see the legislative achievements of the movement - the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act - but tragically was unable to continue the push for full equality. The movement King set in motion continues to be fought today; the United States is still not a completely equal society and systemic discrimination persists. However thanks to Martin Luther King, America is closer to fulfilling King’s dream of a truly free and equal society.
April 2nd 1982: Argentina invades the Falkland Islands
On this day in 1982, Argentine forces landed on the Falkland Islands and occupied the area, which marked the beginning of the Falklands War. The war was the product of long tensions over who possessed the islands, with Argentina claiming ownership and Britain seeing the islands as British territory. Argentine forces landed on the islands and fought the British Royal Marines at Government House, leading to British surrender and thus Argentina seizing control of the Falklands. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded by sending a naval task force to attack the Argentinians. The conflict killed 649 Argentinians, 255 Britons and three Falkland Islanders, even though it only lasted 74 days. The war ended with Argentine surrender on 14th June, thus returning the islands to Britain.
April 15th 1989: Hillsborough Disaster
On this day in 1989, 25 years ago today, the Hillsborough disaster occurred in Sheffield, United Kingdom. A human crush during an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium led to the deaths of 96 people. The victims were mostly Liverpool fans, as the two sides were allocated separate sections of the stadium. The Liverpool area was overcrowded, with the police letting in more spectators than the stadium could contain and making exits into additional entries. The game only lasted six minutes, as the mass of people broke the crush barrier. The incident proved very controversial at the time and still today. The authorities initially tried to cover up the police negligence and blamed the fans for the disaster, claiming they were mostly violent drunkards who rushed the field. Stories swirled accusing the spectators of attacking police officers and each other. However, subsequent investigations revealed the level of police culpability. These concluded that: the fans were not responsible for the disaster; the authorities did try to cover-up what happened; many of the deaths could have been avoided if they had received prompt medical treatment (only 14 of the victims went to hospital); and the findings have led to the abolition of standing spaces in British football stadiums. On the 25 year anniversary, we mourn one of the worst stadium disasters in history and the tragically avoidable deaths of the 96.
April 13th 1919: Jallianwala Bagh massacre
On this day in 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occurred in the Jallianwala Bagh public garden in the Indian city of Amritsar in the Punjab region. The crowd gathered were non-violent Indian nationalists, protesting British conscription of Indians and heavy war tax, and pilgrims celebrating the holiday of Baisakhi. Fifty British soldiers, under the leadership of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, opened fire on the gathering; Dyer told his men to shoot to kill. The Jallianwala Bagh garden had only a few narrow entrances, and the stampedes to flee at these narrow pathways caused a number of deaths as well. A curfew was in place, and thus no-one could attend to the wounded, who were left to die overnight. The British Raj claimed 379 fatalities but the Indian National Congress put the figure much higher at around 1,000. The brutality of the unwarranted attack and initial praise for Dyer from the British government caused outrage in India. It seemed emblematic of the issues of rule by a foreign power, and the massacre is seen as an important step on the path to Indian independence.
April 11th 1979: Idi Amin deposed
On this day in 1979 the Ugandan dictator since 1971, Idi Amin, was deposed after shrinking popularity. A Major General in the post-colonial Ugandan army, Amin had seized power in a military coup in 1971, overthrowing socialist Milton Obote. His regime was characterised by use of military force, human rights abuses and political repression against dissidents, especially violence against ethnic groups (predominantly Acholi and Lango peoples). Between 100,000 and 500,000 were killed by his eight year regime. Amin’s behaviour became more erratic, and he gave himself numerous titles until his full title was "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular" and claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland. By 1978 Amin’s support had dwindled and dissent was on the rise as the economy failed. He invaded Tanzanian territory which caused a war in which his army was defeated and the capital of Kampala captured. Amin was forced to flee into exile by helicopter on April 11th 1979. Idi Amin fled first to Libya then to Saudi Arabia where he died in 2003; he never expressed remorse for the crimes of his regime.
April 9th 1492: Medici dies
On this day in 1492 the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, died aged 43. The Medici family had run the largest Florentine bank, the Medici Bank, for some time, but eventually came to rule the republic itself. Lorenzo de’ Medici was one of the central figures of the Italian Renaissance as a leading statesman from Florence, a city which was the hub of the cultural movement. A primary legacy of the Renaissance is its astounding art, and Medici was well-known in Florence for making considerable contributions to the art world. The famed artist Leonardo da Vinci even held a place in the Medici court, and Michelangelo was a family friend. However Lorenzo did not rule unopposed: he faced challenges in Florence, from the Pazzi familly; from the Vatican, who excommunicated Lorenzo; and from the King of Naples who went to war with Florence. When Medici died, Florence mourned their leader, and eventually the fragile peace he had established with fellow city states fell apart.
April 7th 1922: Teapot Dome lease signed
On this day in 1922, the US Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome to private oil companies at low rates in return for bribes. Other similar deals were made, but the subsequent scandal is generally called the ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal. When the story broke, the Senate launched an investigation and in 1927 the Supreme Court invalidated the leases. The parties involved were prosecuted, with Fall being found guilty of bribery and sentenced to prison, making him the first former cabinet official sentenced to prison. The scandal weakened Harding’s public standing and the stress contributed to his premature death in 1923. The Teapot Dome scandal was regarded as America’s worst political scandal until Watergate in the 1970s.
April 5th 1951: Rosenbergs sentenced
On this day in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for alleged spying. The couple were American citizens, but were convicted for espionage after they were accused of giving information to the Soviets about the atomic bomb. They were both arrested in 1950, and became the face of the supposed Communist conspiracy, the fear of which gripped Cold War United States throughout the 1950s and beyond. The couple insisted upon their innocence, but they were still convicted and sentenced to die. In the years between their conviction and execution, public opinion was divided on the guilt of the Rosenbergs. Despite the reservations of some, they were executed on June 19th 1953 by electric chair. It remained unclear whether the pair were indeed Soviet spies, but due to evidence which has since come to light Julius Rosenberg does appear to have been guilty.
April 3rd 1882: Jesse James killed
On this day in 1882 the famous outlaw of the Wild West, Jesse James, was killed by Robert Ford. James was a member of the James-Younger Gang from Missouri; his gang gained notoriety in the period 1866 to 1876 as they robbed banks, stagecoaches and trains. He first gained national attention after shooting a cashier during a robbery of a Missouri bank. The gang’s decline began with an attempted robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota when the majority of the gang was captured or killed. James and his gang were pursued by law enforcement until the outlaw Robert Ford, who had posed as James’ friend, shot him in the back of the head in order to collect the bounty on him. The governor of Missouri quickly pardoned Ford, which shocked the public as it suggested their governor had conspired to kill a private citizen.
"In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here"
- epitaph for Jesse James, written by his mother