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15 February: On this day in history

What events happened on 15 February in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: February 15, 2022 at 10:42 am
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15 February 1493: Christopher Columbus writes of the New World

The explorer reveals the dizzying riches of the Americas

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The date was 15 February 1493. Sailing back from the Americas, Christopher Columbus decided to write to the finance minister of Aragon, Luis de Santángel, to report his discoveries. He was writing, he said, from “the islands of India beyond the Ganges recently discovered”, which did not say much for his command of geography. Even so, he had good news – for the voyage had been a triumph.

After more than 30 days at sea, Columbus had “discovered a great many islands inhabited by numberless people”, which he had promptly claimed for the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. He described the island of Hispaniola as “a marvel. Its hills and mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages.” And inland, he wrote, “there are numerous mines of metals and innumerable people”.

One word, above all, came up again and again. “There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island,” wrote Columbus. There were magnificent rivers, too, “most of which bear gold... To speak, in conclusion, only of what has been done during this hurried voyage, their Highnesses will see that I can give them as much gold as they desire.”

Gold! That was what the Spanish authorities most wanted to hear. And with that, history was made.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

15 February 1113 
Pope Paschal II promulgated the Papal Bull ‘Pie postulatio voluntatis’, which confirmed as a religious order the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights Hospitaller.
15 February 1710
The future Louis XV of France was born at Versailles. The son of Louis, Duke of Burgundy and Marie of Savoy, he became king at the age of five following the death of Louis XIV, his great-grandfather.
15 February 1807 
HMS Ajax blows up after an unattended lantern starts a fire in its bread store.
15 February 1851
A group of black abolitionists invaded a Boston courtroom to rescue escaped slave Shadrach Minkins. Earlier that day, Minkins had become the first man to be arrested under the terms of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required northern authorities to assist with the recapture and rendition of escaped slaves. Minkins was spirited away to Canada, where he lived until his death in 1875.
15 February 1942
In one of the British empire's worst ever military disasters, Singapore was surrendered to the Japanese. Around 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops were taken prisoner, joining the 50,000 captured during the Malayan campaign.
15 February 1968
Submerged 30 miles off Cape Kennedy in Florida, the submarine HMS Resolution carries out the first British test firing of a Polaris nuclear ballistic missile.
15 February 1989
After invading the country a decade earlier in a bid to prop up its ailing communist government, the Soviet Union announces that the last of its troops had pulled out of Afghanistan.

15 February 1971: Britain switches to decimal currency

It’s out with the old and in with the new as Britain dumps ‘pounds, shillings and pence’ to go decimal

For Edward Heath, 15 February 1971 was a glorious day. This was the day when, after years of preparation, Britain’s old pounds, shillings and pence would be consigned to history, definitively replaced with a new decimal currency. Although the foundations had been laid well before Heath became prime minister, there was no better symbol of his ambitions to lead Britain into a shiny new European future.

In the run-up to Decimal Day, Edward Heath’s ministers spared no effort to preach the virtues of the new currency, even commissioning a song by Max Bygraves. The BBC organised a series of information shows called Decimal Five, while ITV put on a little drama, Granny Gets the Point, showing a baffled old lady learning how to use the new coins.

In London’s West End, self-proclaimed ‘anti-decimal terrorists’ handed out leaflets denouncing the change, but nobody else seemed especially bothered. Harrods had an army of ‘decimal penny’ girls in rakish boaters to help confused shoppers, while Selfridges boasted a troop of girls dressed in “shorts and midi split skirts and other suitably mathematical costumes”. All in all, though, Decimal Day went off without a hitch.

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Yet many people remained suspicious of the new currency, and many people carried ‘Decimal Adders’ to work out the difference between old and new. Of course the new notes and coins caught on eventually. But people never seemed quite as fond of them as of the old money – the ‘real’ money, some said.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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