This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.
16th May 1918 – The Sedition Act of 1918 is passed in the United States
The 1918 Sedition Act was a wartime law passed by the Woodrow Wilson administration during the First World War. It forbade the use of ‘disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language’ to describe the United States government, its flag or its armed forces during wartime.
If found in breach of the law, the perpetrator could spend anywhere between 5 and 20 years in prison.
The law represents one of the darkest periods of American history when, under Wilson’s presidency, people were routinely imprisoned for anti-war activities, and citizens of German descent faced prejudice. The Sedition Act was popular with many Americans at the time and was seen by the government as a way to curb public violence, common at the time, against those seen as un-American.
This period saw some of the most extensive crackdowns on civil liberties in American history. While attempts were made to extend the law after the end of hostilities, these were ultimately defeated, and the law was repealed in 1920 in the period usually referred to as the ‘return to normalcy’.
17th May 1900 – Siege of Mafikeng is relieved
Placed under siege by the Boers on 13 October 1899, the day after the start of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (South African War), the small British garrison of the town of Mafikeng (then called Mafeking) would resist a much larger Boer force for 217 days, defying the predictions of many contemporaries.
The siege attracted worldwide attention, as many notable figures were trapped within the town, including the son of the British prime minister, Lord Edward Cecil as well as Winston Churchill’s aunt, Lady Sarah Wilson.
Using extensive fortifications and deception to make the British garrison of around 1 500 troops appear much stronger, the British tied down 8 000 Boer troops for much of the early part of the war.
The siege was relieved by a British force on 17 May 1900 in what was considered a bright spot for the British in a war that had proved humiliating so far for the mighty British Empire. (Joy at the relief of the town gave rise to the verb, maffick, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘to celebrate uproariously, rejoice extravagantly, especially on an occasion of national celebration … in later use, usually with pejorative connotations’. The word was first used by The Pall Mall Gazette.)
18th May 1291 – The fall of Acre
As a result of the first crusade, western European Christians established a number of kingdoms in the Levant, the foremost of which was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, established in 1099 by Godfrey of Bouillon. This marked the start of a major western European presence in the Middle East, which would continue for almost 200 years.
Multiple crusades would be launched over the next few centuries with the goal of assisting the kingdom against its numerous and powerful Muslim neighbours who sought to drive the crusaders out.
Acre, a city on the northern coast of modern Israel, was one of the main fortresses of crusader power, especially after the loss of Jerusalem to Kurdish warlord and Islamic hero Saladin in the late 12th century.
In 1291, Acre – the last crusader fortress in the Levant – would fall after a brutal 44-day siege to the Muslim Mamaluke sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil, forcing the remaining crusaders to retreat to their fortresses on the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes.
20th May 1983 – First publication of the discovery of the HIV virus that causes AIDS, in the journal Science by Luc Montagnier.
First identified as a new form of disease in 1981, HIV and the syndrome it causes, AIDS, have spread worldwide, significantly impacting the lives of millions.
Initially, AIDS would confound scientists, who were unsure of the connection between the many rare illnesses appearing in the gay, heroin-using, haemophiliac and Haitian populations as a result of immune deficiency.
On 20 May 1983, an article was published in a medical journal which identified a novel retrovirus, HIV, as the cause of AIDS.
Since the discovery of HIV, the virus has proved difficult to combat, with no effective cure or vaccine having been found to date. However advances in treatment have changed the virus from a death sentence to a chronic condition, with many people now living fairly healthy normal lives with treatment.
In South Africa, the outbreak of the disease was worsened by the view of President Thabo Mbeki that the threat of AIDS was exaggerated by the West as part of an effort to paint black Africans as ‘promiscuous carriers of germs’. As a result of the president’s views, South Africa was relatively slow to roll out many AIDS treatments.
While infection numbers and death tolls are difficult to estimate for diseases, especially a subtle and slow condition like AIDS, it is estimated around 37.9 million people worldwide are living with AIDS today and 32 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the pandemic began.
21st May 1674 – The nobility elect John Sobieski King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
Born in 1629 to Polish nobility, John (Jan) Sobieski, would become a famous military commander and warrior in the blood-soaked 17th century.
The kingdom he was born into, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was one of Europe’s largest states, ruling much of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. While the kingdom’s peasants were some of the least free in Europe, it was unique, for that time, for the great degree of religious freedom it allowed and the democratic elements of its government. The Polish parliament, called the Sjem, allowed the 100 000 nobles of the commonwealth extensive input in government and the ability to elect new kings, making it arguably one of the most democratic countries in the world at the time.
However, in the 17th century, the kingdom faced invasions from all of its neighbors, the worst of which is today known in Poland as the ‘deluge’, during which 188 cities and towns, 81 castles, and 136 churches in Poland – including in the capital Warsaw – were destroyed, and between 25% and 50% of the entire population died.
Sobieski would fight in the deluge and ultimately be elected King of the Commonwealth in 1676.
Famously, Sobieski would lead a relieving force consisting of allied Christian powers to save the city of Vienna from an Ottoman siege in 1683, an act which earned him the names ‘The saviour of Europe’, and, among the Ottomans, the ‘Lion of Lechistan’.
With a reputation as a hero king, but suffering from poor health and obesity, he died in 1696.
22nd May 1906 – The Wright brothers are granted U.S. patent number 821,393 for their ‘Flying-Machine’.
Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright are generally credited with creating the first motor-operated aeroplane. With a background of working with printing presses, bicycles, motors and other machinery, the brothers developed the skills needed to design and build their aircraft.
They made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on 17 December 1903.
Ultimately, the patent they received for the ‘flying machine’ was for the revolutionary control system they had developed for their aircraft, rather than the aeroplane itself. This would lead to extensive legal battles as various other inventors copied their machine and rival claimants to the first invention of an aircraft used it to dispute the novelty of their invention.
While the patent battle would damage the brothers’ public image, they are more fondly remembered today as the pioneers who launched humans into the sky and beyond. Within 66 years of their first test flight, humans would stand on the moon looking down at Earth and a world completely changed in many ways by air travel.