20 June 451

At the battle of Châlons, in what is now France, Roman general Aetius inflicts the first defeat on Attila the Hun.


20 June 1631: Algerian pirates sack an Irish village

Corsairs attack Baltimore, on Ireland’s south-west coast, and kidnap 100 people

The corsairs struck at two o’clock in the morning. Armed with muskets and iron bars, they descended on the Irish village of Baltimore like a ravaging horde, tearing through the houses in search of booty.

By the time the residents had realised what was happening, it was already too late. Even as one resident, William Harris, began firing a musket to warn his neighbours, the corsairs had captured at least 100 people from the village. Most of them were English settlers who worked in the fishing industry. Some 20 of the captives were men; the rest were women and children, carried off into slavery.

The Sack of Baltimore, which took place in the early hours of 20 June 1631, has gone down in Irish folklore. For years afterwards, the village was virtually deserted, as residents fled for fear that the corsairs would return. Contrary to legend, though, many of
the corsairs were not north African. Even their leader, the dreaded Murat Reis, who ruled his own tiny state in modern-day Morocco, was actually a Dutch privateer, Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, who had originally been taken to north Africa as a prisoner before becoming a corsair.

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Few of Murat’s prisoners ever saw Baltimore again. Most of the men were destined for lives as galley slaves, working at the oars of pirate ships and toiling miserably in horrendous conditions. The women and children were better treated, but only because they were headed for the slave markets of Algiers. Baltimore’s women and girls were bound for the harem; the boys, however, were destined to become Ottoman slave soldiers. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

20 June 1756: Prisoners perish in Calcutta’s ‘Black Hole’

Survivors of Fort William capture are jammed into cell

Originally founded to protect the East India Company’s interests in Bengal, Fort William in Calcutta surrendered to Bengali ruler Sirãj al-Dawlah on 20 June 1756. After years of rising tension, the aggressive young Sirãj had decided to reassert his authority. Now he found himself with perhaps 70 prisoners of war, as well around 80 hangers-on who had been sheltering in the fort.

The man in charge of the fort had been John Zephaniah Holwell, a Dublin-born surgeon who now worked for the Company as Calcutta’s chief magistrate. When Holwell surrendered, Sirãj promised that no harm would come to his men. But that night, Sirãj’s men decided to put the prisoners in the fort’s small dungeon, which measured roughly 14 by 18 feet.

By Holwell’s account, conditions in the so-called Black Hole of Calcutta were like something from the bowels of hell. There were no windows, only two small grilles high in the wall. Even at night the temperature approached a punishing 38°C, and with fires raging else- where in the fort, the atmosphere was stifling. Within hours, some prisoners had become delirious. Some fainted but remained upright, their bodies propped up in the crush. When one managed to lift his tricorn hat to fan himself, others copied his example, and soon the darkness was full of wearily clashing hats.

Even before midnight, some prisoners were dead. In desperation, Holwell tried to suck the moisture from his sweat-sodden sleeve, only for a giant Dutchman to start sucking like a baby at his other sleeve. As one account puts it, “self-control was soon lost”. With prisoners struggling to get closer to the tiny grilles, “a fearful tumult ensued, in which the weakest were trampled or pressed to death. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” According to Holwell, when Sirãj ordered his men to open the prison early the next morning, only 23 were still alive. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

20 June 1760

Birth in Ireland of Richard Wellesley, the elder brother of the future Duke of Wellington. An influential politician and governor- general of India from 1798 to 1805, he did much to help his younger brother establish his military career.

20 June 1763

Birth in Dublin of Irish nationalist and political writer Theobald Wolfe Tone. Captured during the 1798 Irish rebellion, Tone was sentenced to death for treason but cut his own throat before he could be executed.

20 June 1789

Excluded from their normal meeting place by Louis XVI, representatives of the Third Estate, calling themselves the National Assembly, meet in an indoor tennis court at Versailles, swearing not to disperse until they have established a constitution.

20 June 1912

Birth in London of children’s author Anthony Malcolm Buckeridge. He is best known for his Jennings novels, a wizard series of books set in Linbury Court, a prep school in Sussex.

20 June 1837: Victoria becomes queen

The young princess awakes to the news that she has inherited the throne from her uncle

The first weeks of June 1837 found the 18-year-old Princess Victoria waiting patiently for her uncle to die. King William IV was aged 71 and was in poor health; shaken by the death of his daughter Sophia, he had sunk into a terminal decline.

On the 19th, the young Princess Victoria dashed off a letter to another uncle, the Belgian king Leopold. “I look forward to the event which it seems is likely to occur soon with calmness and quietness,” she wrote. “I am not alarmed at it and yet I do not suppose myself quite equal to all; I trust however that with good will, honesty and courage, I shall not, at all events, fail.”

Even so, when Victoria retired to bed in Kensington Palace, she could hardly have known how swiftly the climax would come.


At six the following morning, she was woken by her German- born mother, who brought the news that, as Victoria recorded in her diary: “The archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquaint- ed me that my poor uncle, the king, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past two this morning, and consequently that I am queen.”
In 1837, Britain was not used to having such a youthful monarch – let alone a woman. That morning, Victoria’s governess was poised with smelling salts in case it all proved too much for the young queen. But throughout all her meetings with her ministers and the Privy Council, she remained utterly composed. “Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station,” she wrote in her diary, “I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty towards my country.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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