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20 May: On this day in history

What events happened on 20 May in history? We round up the events, births and deaths…

Published: May 20, 2011 at 8:40 am

20 May 1498 : Vasco da Gama lands in Calicut

Portuguese explorer finds coveted trade route to India

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The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had been at sea for almost a year when, peering through the haze, he glimpsed the buildings of Calicut. His mission was to find a trade route from Lisbon to the great ports of India, with their teeming spice markets. And now, on 20 May 1498, his goal was in sight.

Da Gama’s crew was in poor shape, with two-thirds having succumbed to scurvy and other diseases. But that did not stop them forming a pretty low opinion of the Indians who greeted them when they disembarked.

“They are of a tawny complexion. Some of them have big beards and long hair, while others clip their hair short or shave the head, merely allowing a tuft to remain,” wrote one Portuguese observer. “They go naked down to the waist, covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this, for the others manage as best they are able.”

As for the women, the author thought them, “ugly and of small stature”. And although the Indians were pleasant enough, they struck him as “covetous and ignorant”.
The Indians did not think much of da Gama and his men, either. The presents from the Portuguese king – some cloaks, a box, some hats and so on – fell on very stony ground. And when da Gama left three months later, relations were so embittered that the Portuguese took hostages with them. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


20 May 1609

William Shakespeare's Sonnets are published by Thomas Thorpe and printed by George Eld. The 'Mr WH', to whom the work is dedicated and who may be the young man addressed by most of the sonnets, continues to cause debate. It may be William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, but it has been argued that 'Mr WH' are the reversed initials of Henry Wriothesley, Shakespeare's patron in the 1590s.


20 May 1722

Birth of inventor Sir William Congreve. He is best known for the military rockets that bear his name and which were used in a number of actions during the early 19th century. They are referred to in the American national anthem.


20 May 1840

York Minster was badly damaged after a candle that had been left burning by a workman caused a fire which destroyed the belfry in the south-west tower and the nave roof and ceiling.


20 May 1867 

Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone of the Royal Albert Hall.


20 May 1932: Pilot Amelia Earhart flies across the Atlantic single-handedly

The first woman pilot to attempt the crossing sets off from Newfoundland, landing in Northern Ireland 15 hours later

Five years after Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, the young American pilot Amelia Earhart climbed aboard her plane at Harbour Grace on the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, carrying that day’s paper to prove the date of her departure.

She had crossed the Atlantic before, as part of a three-person crew. Then, as she put it, she had been “just baggage, like a sack of potatoes”. This was different – a feat that would capture the imagination of a generation. Never before had a woman flown across the Atlantic on her own.

By Earhart’s account, the flight was an ordeal. The fuel tank leaked, the wings became heavy with ice, the plane was battered by strong winds, and flames flickered out of the engine casing.
Earhart had planned to land in Paris, a suitably glamorous destination for a record-breaking flight. But bad weather and a spluttering engine put paid to that idea. Instead, after an exhausting journey of just under 15 hours, she bumped down in a field in Northern Ireland. “Have you come far?” asked a watching farm labourer. “From America,” Earhart replied.

Earhart’s achievement won honours from governments across the world, as well as a ticker-tape parade through New York City. “Without male or other assistance, but relying on her own ability as a pilot,” opined the Manchester Guardian, “she has succeeded in proving that the flight is not beyond the knowl- edge and the capacity for sustained endurance which a woman can acquire.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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20 May 1941

German forces mounted an airborne invasion of Crete. The invasion was successful but the lightly armed German paratroopers suffered such heavy casualties that they were never used in a strategic airborne role again.

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