May 4 – On this Day in History

In this article, we explore a series of significant historical events that occurred on May 4th, each leaving a distinct imprint on global history.

From political upheavals and groundbreaking agreements to shifts in cultural norms and the establishment of new governmental bodies, May 4th has witnessed a wide array of transformative moments.

Through a chronological journey, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of how these events have shaped societies around the world and continue to influence us today.

May 4th Events in History

1471 – The Battle of Tewkesbury: Edward IV defeats a Lancastrian Army and kills Edward, Prince of Wales

The Battle of Tewkesbury was a decisive confrontation in the Wars of the Roses, a dynastic conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York for control of the English throne. On May 4, 1471, the Yorkist forces led by King Edward IV defeated the Lancastrian army.

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The battle resulted in the death of Edward, Prince of Wales, who was the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. This victory solidified Edward IV’s reign and marked the decline of Lancastrian prospects in the wars.

Battle of Tewkesbury

1626 – Dutch explorer Peter Minuit arrives in New Netherland (present day Manhattan Island) aboard the See Meeuw

Peter Minuit was a Walloon explorer from the Dutch Republic who is credited with orchestrating the purchase of Manhattan Island for the Dutch from the Lenape Native Americans, facilitating the establishment of the colony of New Netherland.

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His arrival on May 4, 1626, aboard the See Meeuw marks a critical moment in the colonial history of what would eventually become New York City. Minuit’s subsequent transaction for the island is famously reputed to have been for trade goods worth about 60 guilders.

1776 – Rhode Island becomes the first American colony to renounce allegiance to King George III

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first of the thirteen American colonies to renounce its allegiance to King George III of Britain, over two months before the United States Declaration of Independence.

This act of defiance stemmed from the growing tensions between the colonies and British authority, emphasizing Rhode Island’s role as a leader in seeking independence during the formative years of the United States.

1814 – Napoleon Bonaparte arrives at Portoferraio on the island of Elba to begin his exile

Following his forced abdication, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Elba, an island off the coast of Italy, where he arrived on May 4, 1814. Napoleon’s exile to Elba was part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau’s terms, which ended his rule as emperor of France.

Although he was sovereign of Elba and attempted to reform the small island, his stay there lasted less than a year before he escaped to France, leading to the period known as the Hundred Days.

Napoleon Bonaparte

1859 – The Cornwall Railway opens across the Royal Albert Bridge linking the counties of Devon and Cornwall in England

The Cornwall Railway opened on May 4, 1859, notably featuring the Royal Albert Bridge, an engineering marvel designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The bridge spans the River Tamar and links the counties of Devon and Cornwall in England.

This railway and bridge significantly improved transport and communication between the southwestern counties, playing a crucial role in the economic development of the region.

1886 – Haymarket affair: A bomb is thrown at police responding to a peaceful labor rally in Chicago, leading to violence

The Haymarket affair was a pivotal moment in the history of labor rights in the United States. On May 4, 1886, during a peaceful rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown at police as they were dispersing the gathering. The rally was organized to support workers striking for an eight-hour workday.

The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of several police officers and numerous civilians. The incident led to a highly controversial trial followed by the execution of four anarchists, which subsequently became an international symbol for the fight for workers’ rights and catalyzed the celebration of International Workers’ Day on May 1st.

1904 – The United States begins construction of the Panama Canal

The construction of the Panama Canal, which started on May 4, 1904, was one of the largest and most challenging engineering projects ever undertaken.

Facilitated by the United States after assisting Panama in its independence from Colombia, the canal’s construction was a colossal effort involving tens of thousands of workers and advanced engineering techniques.

It was completed in 1914, drastically reducing the maritime journey between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by providing a shortcut through the Isthmus of Panama.

Panama Canal Construction

1919 – May Fourth Movement: Student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, protest the Chinese government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles

The May Fourth Movement began as a student protest on May 4, 1919, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations were sparked by the Chinese government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles’ terms, particularly the transfer of German territorial rights in China to Japan instead of returning them to Chinese sovereignty.

This movement quickly spread to other cities and evolved into a broader national campaign aimed at modernizing China and reforming society through rejecting Confucian traditions and promoting new ideologies like democracy and science.

1942 – World War II: The Battle of the Coral Sea begins with Japanese air strikes on American naval forces

Commencing on May 4, 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea was a major naval conflict between Japanese and Allied forces (primarily American and Australian) during World War II. It was notable for being the first air-sea battle in history, with aircraft carriers and their planes playing the central roles.

The battle prevented a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby in New Guinea, which would have posed a significant threat to Australia, and marked the first major check on Japanese expansion in the Pacific, setting the stage for the Battle of Midway.

1945 – World War II: Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg is liberated by the British Army

The Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, Germany, was liberated by the British Army on May 4, 1945. Established in 1938, Neuengamme served as a labor camp where inmates were subjected to extremely harsh conditions and forced labor.

By the time of its liberation, it is estimated that about half of the approximately 100,000 prisoners who passed through Neuengamme and its subcamps perished due to the brutal treatment, malnutrition, and disease.

1959 – The first Grammy Awards are held in Los Angeles, California

The first Grammy Awards ceremony was held on May 4, 1959, in Los Angeles, California. It was set up by the Recording Academy (then called the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) to honor musical accomplishments by performers for the year 1958.

This inaugural event featured 28 categories and was simultaneously held in two locations, Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills and Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City. Some of the winners included Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Kingston Trio. The Grammys have since evolved into one of the music industry’s most prestigious awards.

1961 – American civil rights movement: Freedom Riders begin interstate bus rides to challenge racial segregation

On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Rides began with thirteen activists—seven African Americans and six whites—boarding two buses in Washington, D.C., bound for the Deep South. Their goal was to challenge racial segregation in interstate bus terminals across the Southern United States.

The riders faced severe violence from white supremacist groups and indifference from police forces, which brought national and international attention to the civil rights movement and eventually led to the enforcement of Supreme Court decisions mandating desegregation in interstate travel.

1970 – Kent State shootings: The Ohio National Guard, on the campus of Kent State University, shoots and kills four students

The Kent State shootings occurred on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Four students were killed and nine others were injured.

The incident provoked massive public outcry and widespread protests across the United States, significantly influencing public opinion on the U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and contributing to the shift in policy towards withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam.

1979 – Margaret Thatcher becomes the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on May 4, 1979.

Her election marked a significant shift in British politics, ushering in a period of conservative leadership that emphasized deregulation, privatization of state-owned companies, and a reduction in the influence of trade unions.

Thatcher’s policies radically altered the economic landscape of the UK and she remained in power until 1990, making her the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.

1989 – Iran-Contra affair: Former White House aide Oliver North is convicted of three crimes and acquitted of nine other charges; the convictions are later overturned on appeal

On May 4, 1989, former U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was convicted in connection with the Iran-Contra affair.

This scandal involved senior U.S. government officials secretly facilitating the sale of arms to Iran, which was then under an arms embargo, and using the proceeds to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua, in violation of U.S. law.

North was initially convicted on charges including obstructing Congress and unlawfully destroying government documents. However, his convictions were later overturned on appeal, primarily based on the argument that his public testimony, which had been given under immunity, had unduly influenced his trial.

1994 – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat sign the Gaza-Jericho Agreement

On May 4, 1994, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement was signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. This agreement was part of the broader Oslo Accords process, which aimed to resolve the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Under the terms of this specific agreement, Palestinian self-rule was established in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area of the West Bank. This marked a significant step toward Palestinian autonomy, facilitating the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a governing body in these regions.

1998 – A federal judge in Sacramento, California, gives “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski four life sentences plus 30 years after Kaczynski accepts a plea agreement sparing him from the death penalty

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber,” was sentenced on May 4, 1998, to four life sentences plus 30 years without the possibility of parole.

Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor, engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995, targeting individuals involved with modern technology and industrialization.

His attacks killed three people and injured 23 others. Kaczynski was captured in 1996, and he accepted a plea deal in 1998, which spared him the death penalty.

2000 – Ken Livingstone becomes the first Mayor of London

Ken Livingstone was elected as the first Mayor of London on May 4, 2000. This marked the establishment of the Greater London Authority, an administrative body created to manage the wider London area.

Livingstone, previously known for his role as the leader of the Greater London Council, focused his mayoral efforts on improving public transport, reducing air pollution, and supporting multiculturalism. His tenure also included the introduction of the Congestion Charge to reduce traffic in central London.

2007 – The Scottish National Party wins the Scottish general election and becomes the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the first time

The Scottish National Party (SNP) won the Scottish general election on May 4, 2007, becoming the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the first time. This victory was significant because it marked a shift toward greater support for Scottish independence.

Under the leadership of Alex Salmond, the SNP’s win led to the first minority government in the devolved Scottish Parliament, influencing UK politics and increasing calls for a referendum on Scottish independence, which eventually took place in 2014.

2019 – A new emperor, Naruhito, ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan following the abdication of his father, Akihito, marking the beginning of the Reiwa era

On May 4, 2019, Naruhito became the Emperor of Japan, succeeding his father, Emperor Akihito, who abdicated the throne. This event marked the beginning of the Reiwa era, signifying “beautiful harmony” in Japanese.

Naruhito’s ascension was significant as it was the first abdication in the Japanese monarchy in over two centuries, and it represented a generational shift in the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. The Reiwa era is seen as a time of potential modernization and global integration for Japan.