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16 January: On this day in history

What events happened on 16 January in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: January 16, 2022 at 6:05 am
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16 January 1912: Scott’s Antarctic dreams are dashed

Disaster hits the explorer’s race to the south pole

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Tuesday 16 January 1912 ought to have been the happiest day of Robert Falcon Scott’s life. After years of preparations, his British expedition team were only a few miles from the south pole, and on the brink of one of the greatest achievements in the history of exploration. And then – disaster.

Scott’s journal entry that night captured his dreadful disappointment. “The worst has happened, or nearly the worst,” he wrote. Not long after they had set off in the morning, one of his men had spotted a mysterious ‘black speck’ in the distance. “We marched on, and found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws – many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the pole.”

Not even Scott’s habitual sang-froid could mask his shock that the rival Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, had got there first.

“It is a terrible disappointment,” he wrote, “and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. Tomorrow we must march on to the pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.”

Few of the team slept much that night, and the next day they pressed on to the pole anyway. “Great God! this is an awful place,” Scott wrote. “Well, it is something to have got here… Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

16 January 1362
A North Sea stormtide devastated the North Frisian island of Strand and destroyed the seaport of Rungholt.
16 January 1493 
After arriving in the New World for the first time in the previous October, Christopher Columbus set sail with his remaining two ships, the Nina and the Pinta, from Hispaniola on his return voyage to Spain.
16 January 1809
After a retreat through northern Spain Sir John Moore's expeditionary force fights off its French pursuers at Corunna and is evacuated by the Navy. Moore is mortally wounded and buried in the town's ramparts.
16 January 1908
Birth in New York of singer Ethel Merman, star of a string of Broadway musicals including Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy.
16 January 1981
Northern Ireland civil rights campaigner and former Westminster MP Bernadette McAliskey was shot and wounded by gunmen who broke into her home at Coalisland, County Tyrone. Her husband, Michael, was also shot.

16 January 1979: The last Shah flees Iran

The people of Tehran rejoice as the Shah leaves the imperial palace for the last time

For the people of Tehran, Friday 16 January 1979 was a bitterly cold day, snow whipping through the Iranian capital. Across the city, black smoke drifted from bonfires lit by gangs of youths, who had been on the streets for days. In the gardens of the imperial palace, the trees shivered in the wind.

After ruling with an iron fist for almost four decades, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had run out of options. Following months of strikes and demonstrations, protest had turned to revolution; by the end of 1978, he had lost the politicians, the army and the streets.

Late that morning, after pausing silently beside the marble bust of his late father, the Shah left for Tehran airport.

“I am feeling tired and need a rest,” the Shah told his waiting officials. A few miles away, the city had erupted with a savage joy, crowds burning portraits of the Shah, statues falling, street names being ripped down. But at the airport there was only the snow and the wind.

Beneath his 707, the Shah paused to say goodbye to his generals, all of whom were crying. As one bent to kiss his hand, the Shah looked away, his expression a terrible mask of embarrassment and grief. Nobody said a word, except for the Shah, who told the commander of his guards: “Do whatever you consider necessary. I hope people are not killed.” Then he walked stiffly up the steps.

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Only after the flight had left Iranian airspace did the last Shah of Iran – bound for a life in exile – finally break down in tears. A matter of days later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would return to Tehran from exile in France to head an Islamic Republic. | Read more about the history of Iran

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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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