Britain agrees to return Hong Kong to China


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Year
1984
Month Day
December 19

In the Hall of the People in Beijing, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sign an agreement committing Britain to return Hong Kong to China in 1997 in return for terms guaranteeing a 50-year extension of its capitalist system. Hong Kong–a small peninsula and group of islands jutting out from China’s Kwangtung province–was leased by China to Great Britain in 1898 for 99 years.

In 1839, in the First Opium War, Britain invaded China to crush opposition to its interference in the country’s economic, social, and political affairs. One of Britain’s first acts of war was to occupy Hong Kong, a sparsely inhabited island off the coast of southeast China. In 1841, China ceded the island to the British with the signing of the Convention of Chuenpi, and in 1842 the Treaty of Nanking was signed, formally ending the First Opium War. At the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), China was forced to cede the Kowloon Peninsula, adjacent to Hong Kong Island, along with other area islands.

Britain’s new colony flourished as an East-West trading center and as the commercial gateway and distribution center for southern China. On July 1, 1898, Britain was granted an additional 99 years of rule over the Hong Kong colony under the Second Convention of Peking. Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese from 1941 to 1944 during World War II but remained in British hands throughout the various Chinese political upheavals of the 20th century.

On December 19, 1984, after years of negotiations, British and Chinese leaders signed a formal pact approving the 1997 turnover of the colony in exchange for the formulation of a “one country, two systems” policy by China’s communist government. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the agreement “a landmark in the life of the territory, in the course of Anglo-Chinese relations, and in the history of international diplomacy.” Hu Yaobang, the Chinese Communist Party’s secretary-general, called the signing “a red-letter day, an occasion of great joy” for China’s one billion people.

At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was peaceably handed over to China in a ceremony attended by numerous international dignitaries, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A few thousand citizens of Hong Kong protested the turnover, which was otherwise celebratory and peaceful. The chief executive of the new Hong Kong government, Tung Chee Hwa, did enact a policy based upon the concept of one country, two systems, thus preserving Hong Kong’s role as a principal capitalist center in Asia. 

Massive anti-government protests in Hong Kong began in June 2019, when more than 1 million people marched to protest a bill that would allow the extradition of people to mainland China to stand trial. The bill was later dropped, but anti-government unrest remains. 

READ MORE: How Hong Kong Came Under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Rule

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Edward VIII abdicates


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Year
1936
Month Day
December 11

After ruling for less than one year, Edward VIII becomes the first English monarch to voluntarily abdicate the throne. He chose to abdicate after the British government, public, and the Church of England condemned his decision to marry the American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson. On the evening of December 11, he gave a radio address in which he explained, “I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.” On December 12, his younger brother, the duke of York, was proclaimed King George VI.

Edward, born in 1894, was the eldest son of King George V, who became the British sovereign in 1910. Still unmarried as he approached his 40th birthday, he socialized with the fashionable London society of the day. By 1934, he had fallen deeply in love with American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, who was married to Ernest Simpson, an English-American businessman who lived with Mrs. Simpson near London. Wallis, who was born in Pennsylvania, had previously married and divorced a U.S. Navy pilot. The royal family disapproved of Edward’s married mistress, but by 1936 the prince was intent on marrying Mrs. Simpson. Before he could discuss this intention with his father, George V died, in January 1936, and Edward was proclaimed king.

The new king proved popular with his subjects, and his coronation was scheduled for May 1937. His affair with Mrs. Simpson was reported in American and continental European newspapers, but due to a gentlemen’s agreement between the British press and the government, the affair was kept out of British newspapers. On October 27, 1936, Mrs. Simpson obtained a preliminary decree of divorce, presumably with the intent of marrying the king, which precipitated a major scandal. To the Church of England and most British politicians, an American woman twice divorced was unacceptable as a prospective British queen. Winston Churchill, then a Conservative backbencher, was the only notable politician to support Edward.

Despite the seemingly united front against him, Edward could not be dissuaded. He proposed a morganatic marriage, in which Wallis would be granted no rights of rank or property, but on December 2, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin rejected the suggestion as impractical. The next day, the scandal broke on the front pages of British newspapers and was discussed openly in Parliament. With no resolution possible, the king renounced the throne on December 10. The next day, Parliament approved the abdication instrument, and Edward VIII’s reign came to an end. The new king, George VI, made his older brother the duke of Windsor. On June 3, 1937, the duke of Windsor and Wallis Warfield married at the Château de Cande in France’s Loire Valley.

For the next two years, the duke and duchess lived primarily in France but visited other European countries, including Germany, where the duke was honored by Nazi officials in October 1937 and met with Adolf Hitler. After the outbreak of World War II, the duke accepted a position as liaison officer with the French. In June 1940, France fell to the Nazis, and Edward and Wallis went to Spain. During this period, the Nazis concocted a scheme to kidnap Edward with the intention of returning him to the British throne as a puppet king. George VI, like his prime minister, Winston Churchill, was adamantly opposed to any peace with Nazi Germany. Unaware of the Nazi kidnapping plot but conscious of Edward’s pre-war Nazi sympathies, Churchill hastily offered Edward the governorship of the Bahamas in the West Indies. The duke and duchess set sail from Lisbon on August 1, 1940, narrowly escaping a Nazi SS team sent to seize them.

In 1945, the duke resigned his post, and the couple moved back to France. They lived mainly in Paris, and Edward made a few visits to England, such as to attend the funerals of King George VI in 1952 and his mother, Queen Mary, in 1953. It was not until 1967 that the duke and duchess were invited by the royal family to attend an official public ceremony, the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Queen Mary. Edward died in Paris in 1972 but was buried at Frogmore, on the grounds of Windsor Castle. In 1986, Wallis died and was buried at his side.

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Separation of Charles and Diana announced


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Year
1992
Month Day
December 09

British Prime Minister John Major announces the formal separation of Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, and his wife, Princess Diana. Major explained that the royal couple were separating “amicably.” The report came after several years of speculation by the tabloid press that the marriage was in peril, citing evidence that Diana and Charles spent vacations apart and official visits in separate rooms.

On July 29, 1981, nearly one billion television viewers in 74 countries tuned in to witness the marriage of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, to Lady Diana Spencer, a young English schoolteacher. Married in a grand ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the presence of 2,650 guests, the couple’s romance was, for the moment, the envy of the world. Their first child, Prince William, was born in 1982, and their second, Prince Harry, in 1984.

READ MORE: The Hidden Dark Side of Charles and Diana’s Relationship

Before long, however, the fairy tale couple grew apart, an experience that was particularly painful under the watchful eyes of the world’s tabloid media. Diana and Charles separated in 1992, though they continued to carry out their royal duties. In August 1996, two months after Queen Elizabeth II urged the couple to divorce, the prince and princess reached a final agreement. In exchange for a generous settlement, and the right to retain her apartments at Kensington Palace and her title of “Princess of Wales,” Diana agreed to relinquish the title of “Her Royal Highness” and any future claims to the British throne.

In the year following the divorce, the popular princess seemed well on her way to achieving her dream of becoming “a queen in people’s hearts,” but on August 31, 1997, she was killed with her companion Dodi Fayed in a car accident in Paris. An investigation conducted by the French police concluded that the driver, who also died in the crash, was heavily intoxicated and caused the accident while trying to escape the paparazzi photographers who consistently tailed Diana during any public outing.

Prince Charles married the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles, on April 9, 2005.

READ MORE: The Final Years of Princess Diana

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The death of Guy Fawkes


Year
1606
Month Day
January 31

At Westminster in London, Guy Fawkes, a chief conspirator in the plot to blow up the British Parliament building, jumps to his death moments before his execution for treason.

On the eve of a general parliamentary session scheduled for November 5, 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar of the Parliament building. Fawkes was detained and the premises thoroughly searched. Nearly two tons of gunpowder were found hidden within the cellar. In his interrogation, Fawkes revealed that he was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy organized by Robert Catesby to annihilate England’s entire Protestant government, including King James I. The king was to have attended Parliament on November 5.

Over the next few months, English authorities killed or captured all of the conspirators in the “Gunpowder Plot” but also arrested, tortured, or killed dozens of innocent English Catholics. After a brief trial, Guy Fawkes was sentenced, along with the other surviving chief conspirators, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered in London. On January 30, 1606, the gruesome public executions began in London, and on January 31 Fawkes was called to meet his fate. While climbing to the hanging platform, however, he jumped from the ladder and broke his neck, dying instantly.

In remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated across Great Britain every year on the fifth of November. As dusk falls in the evening, villagers and city dwellers across Britain light bonfires, set off fireworks, and burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, celebrating his failure to blow up Parliament and James I.

READ MORE: Guy Fawkes Day: A Brief History

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King Charles I executed for treason


Year
1649
Month Day
January 30

In London, King Charles I is beheaded for treason on January 30, 1649.

Charles ascended to the English throne in 1625 following the death of his father, King James I. In the first year of his reign, Charles offended his Protestant subjects by marrying Henrietta Maria, a Catholic French princess. He later responded to political opposition to his rule by dissolving Parliament on several occasions and in 1629 decided to rule entirely without Parliament. In 1642, the bitter struggle between king and Parliament for supremacy led to the outbreak of the first English civil war.

The Parliamentarians were led by Oliver Cromwell, whose formidable Ironsides force won an important victory against the king’s Royalist forces at Marston Moor in 1644 and at Naseby in 1645. As a leader of the New Model Army in the second English civil war, Cromwell helped repel the Royalist invasion of Scotland, and in 1646 Charles surrendered to a Scottish army. In 1648, Charles was forced to appear before a high court controlled by his enemies, where he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Early in the next year, he was beheaded.

The monarchy was abolished, and Cromwell assumed control of the new English Commonwealth. In 1658, Cromwell died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Richard, who was forced to flee to France in the next year with the restoration of the monarchy and the crowning of Charles II, the son of Charles I. Oliver Cromwell was posthumously convicted of treason, and his body was disinterred from its tomb in Westminster Abbey and hanged from the gallows at Tyburn.

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U.S. Navy stages daring mission during First Barbary War


Year
1804
Month Day
February 16

During the First Barbary War, U.S. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur leads a military mission that famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson calls the “most daring act of the age.”

In June 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of continuing raids against U.S. ships by pirates from the Barbary states–Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripolitania. American sailors were often abducted along with the captured booty and ransomed back to the United States at an exorbitant price. After two years of minor confrontations, sustained action began in June 1803 when a small U.S. expeditionary force attacked Tripoli harbor in present-day Libya.

In October 1803, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be both a formidable addition to the Tripolitan navy and an innovative model for building future Tripolitan frigates. Hoping to prevent the Barbary pirates from gaining this military advantage, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American vessel on February 16, 1804.

After disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force of 74 men, which included nine U.S. Marines, sailed into Tripoli harbor on a small two-mast ship. The Americans approached the USS Philadelphia without drawing fire from the Tripoli shore guns, boarded the ship, and attacked its Tripolitan crew, capturing or killing all but two. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.

Six months later, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the so-called “Battle of the Gunboats,” a naval battle that saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.

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Archbishop Thomas Becket is murdered


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Year
1170
Month Day
December 29

Archbishop Thomas Becket is brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights of King Henry II of England, apparently on orders of the king.

In 1155, Henry II appointed Becket as chancellor, a high post in the English government. Becket proved a skilled diplomat and won the trust of Henry, who nominated him as archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The king hoped his friend would help in his efforts to curb the growing power of the church. However, soon after his consecration, the new archbishop emerged a zealous defender of the jurisdiction of the church over its own affairs. In 1164, Becket was forced to flee to France under fear of retaliation by the king.

He was later reconciled with Henry and in 1170 returned to Canterbury amid great public rejoicing. Soon afterward, against the objections of the pope, Henry had his son crowned co-king by the archbishop of York, and tensions again came to a head between Becket and Henry. At this time, perhaps merely in a moment of frustration, the king issued to his court the following public plea: “What a parcel of fools and dastards have I nourished in my house, and not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk.” A group of Henry’s knights took the statement very seriously, and on December 29, Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Christian world was shocked by Becket’s death, and in 1173 he was canonized a Catholic saint. In 1174, Henry was forced to do penance at his tomb, and his efforts to end the separation between church and state ceased. In 1220, Becket’s bones were transferred to Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, which later became a popular site of English religious pilgrimage.

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William and Mary proclaimed joint sovereigns of Britain


Year
1689
Month Day
February 13

Following Britain’s bloodless Glorious Revolution, Mary, the daughter of the deposed king, and William of Orange, her husband, are proclaimed joint sovereigns of Great Britain under Britain’s new Bill of Rights.

William, a Dutch prince, married Mary, the daughter of the future King James II, in 1677. After James’ succession to the English throne in 1685, the Protestant William kept in close contact with the opposition to the Catholic king. After the birth of an heir to James in 1688, seven high-ranking members of Parliament invited William and Mary to England. William landed at Torbay in Devonshire with an army of 15,000 men and advanced to London, meeting no opposition from James’ army, which had deserted the king. James himself was allowed to escape to France, and in February 1689 Parliament offered the crown jointly to William and Mary, provided they accept the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights, which greatly limited royal power and broadened constitutional law, granted Parliament control of finances and the army and prescribed the future line of royal succession, declaring that no Roman Catholic would ever be sovereign of England. The document also stated that Englishmen possessed certain inviolable civil and political rights, a political concept that was a major influence in the composition of the U.S. Bill of Rights, composed almost exactly a century later.

The Glorious Revolution, the ascension of William and Mary, and the acceptance of the Bill of Rights were decisive victories for Parliament in its long struggle against the crown.

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Queen Victoria dies


Year
1901
Month Day
January 22

The death of Queen Victoria on January 22, 1901, ends an era in which most of her British subjects know no other monarch. Her 63-year reign saw the growth of an empire on which the sun never set. Victoria restored dignity to the English monarchy and ensured its survival as a ceremonial political institution.

Born in 1819, she came to the throne after the death of her uncle, King William IV, in 1837. As a young woman ascending to the throne, her future husband described her “as one whose extreme obstinacy was constantly at war with her good nature.” Her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, became her close friend and adviser, and she succeeded in blocking his replacement by Tory leader Sir Robert Peel in 1839. Two years later, however, an election resulted in a Tory majority in the House of Commons, and Victoria was compelled to accept Peel as prime minister. Never again would she interfere so directly in the politics of democratic Britain.

In 1839, her first cousin Albert, a German prince, came to visit the English court at Windsor, and Victoria proposed to him five days after his arrival. Prince Albert accepted, and in February 1840 they were married. He soon became the dominant influence in her life and served as her private secretary. Among his greatest achievements as royal consort was his organization of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first world’s fair, in the Crystal Palace in London. He also steered her support away from the Whigs to the conservative Tories; she later was a vocal supporter of Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative Party.

Victoria and Albert built royal residences at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and at Balmoral Castle in Scotland and became increasingly detached from London. They had nine children, including Victoria, later the empress of Germany, and the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. In 1861, Albert died, and Victoria’s grief was such that she did not appear in public for three years. She never entirely got over the loss, and until the end of her life she had her maids nightly lay out Albert’s clothes for the next day and in the morning replace the water in the basin in his room.

Disraeli coaxed her out of seclusion, and she was impressed by his efforts to strengthen and expand the British Empire. In 1876, he had her made “empress of India,” a title which pleased her and made her a symbol of imperial unity. During the last few decades of her life, her popularity, which had suffered during her long public absence, increased greatly. She never embraced the social and technological advances of the 19th century but accepted the changes and worked hard to fulfill her ceremonial duties as head of state. When she died, she had 37 surviving great-grandchildren, and their marriages with other monarchies gave her the name the “grandmother of Europe.”

READ MORE: 5 Things You May Not Know About Queen Victoria

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Fraudulent “Piltdown Man” fossil discovered


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Year
1912
Month Day
December 18

After three years of digging in the Piltdown gravel pit in Sussex, England, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson announces the discovery of two skulls that appear to belong to a primitive hominid and ancestor of man, along with a canine tooth, a tool carved from an elephant’s tusk, and fossil teeth from a number of prehistoric animals.

Despite muted criticism from a minority of paleontologists, the majority of the scientific community hailed the so-called Piltdown Man as the missing evolutionary link between ape and man. The remains were estimated to be up to a million years old. For the next decade, scientists heralded the finding of Eoanthropus dawsoni, or “Dawson’s Dawn-man” in Latin, as confirmation of Darwin’s still-controversial theory of human evolution.

In the 1920s and ’30s, however, the Piltdown gravels were found to be much less ancient than believed, and other finds of human ancestors around the world seemed to call the authenticity of the Piltdown Man into question. In 1953, at an international congress of paleontologists, the Piltdown Man was first openly called a fraud. An intensive study of the remains showed that they were made up of a modern human cranium–no more than 600 years old; the jaw and teeth of an orangutan; and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Microscopic tests indicated that the teeth had been doctored with a file-like tool to make them seem more human. Scientists also found that the bones had been treated with chemicals to make them appear older. Other fossils found in the Piltdown quarry proved to be authentic but of types not found in Britain.

The person who orchestrated the hoax never came forward, but in 1996 a trunk in storage at the British Museum was found to contain fossils treated in the exact same manner as the Piltdown remains. The trunk bore the initials M.A.C.H., which seemed to suggest that Martin A.C. Hinton, a volunteer at the British Museum in 1912 and later a curator of zoology at the institution, was likely the culprit. Some theorized that he was attempting to embarrass Arthur Smith Woodward, curator of the British Museum’s paleontology department, because Woodward had refused Hinton’s request for a weekly pay raise.

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