7 Historical Events that took place in the 19th Century

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After centuries of almost constant warfare, the nineteenth century was a comparatively more peaceful one than its predecessors following the fall of Napoleon. As European states began favoring trade over war, the world population was able to pass one billion for the first time. Britain and Russia emerged as the global superpowers, with the former in particular helping contribute to an increasingly interconnected world. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe and America were taking shape, and as the world grew more closely linked, ancient customs were scrapped for modern ideals. In this article, we will be looking at 7 major historical events that took place during the 19th Century (1800s).

1. The Napoleonic Wars (1802-1815)

Napoleon
Napoleon Crossing the Alps.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Following the Revolutionary Wars in France, with Napoleon positioning himself as Emperor of the French Empire, over a decade of war in Europe followed, as nervous neighbors hoped to dethrone the General. Not afraid to get on the battlefield to force his politics, Napoleon conquered Italy, much of Spain, and by 1812 ruled most of Continental Europe. Britain and Russia remained thorns in his side, however, and following an ill-fated march on Moscow, Coalition forces rallied against Napoleon and ousted him, forcing him to exile on the island of Elba. After an escape and a brief resurgence, he was defeated for good at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), exiled permanently to Saint Helena where he would die, and the French monarchy was restored.

2. The US expands with the Louisiana Purchase (1803)

Louisiana Purchase Map
1804 Map of “Louisiana” (New France).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Emboldened by independence, the growing and prosperous nation of the United States expanded their land considerably with what is known today as the Louisiana Purchase. Not just the modern-day state from which it gets its name, the land acquired doubled the US in size, in a deal worth fifteen million dollars, extending their reach across the Mississippi. It was the most famous and largest expansion in US history, but they were not finished, purchasing Alaska from Russia and pushing borders to the Pacific coast before the century was out. Looking at a map at the end of the eighteenth century, and the US would look very much as we know it today.

3. Slavery abolished in the West (1807-1888)

Scars on the back of a Mississippi slave distributed by abolitionists in order to gain support.
The scars on the back of Gordon, a person ensalved in Mississippi, April 2nd 1863. This image was distributed by abolitionists to show the brutal treatment of slaves by their masters.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Efforts were made long before 1807, but this date sparked significant change, with the United Kingdom and the United States both banning the international slave trade and even blocking slave ships. Britain went on to sign the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, and the French re-abolished slavery in 1848 (after Napoleon reintroduced it in 1802). Meanwhile, the slavery issue in the United States was a key factor in triggering their Civil War, ending in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to its Constitution. Further Acts were signed and agreed internationally over the remainder of the century, and although slavery would continue in some parts of the world well into the twentieth century, with Brazil’s abolition in 1888, most of the Western world was in agreement to leave it behind.

4. The Opium Wars and fall of the Qing Dynasty (1839-1860)

The Second Battle of Chuenpi
The Second Battle of Chuenpi on 7th January 1841.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Asia was becoming firmly connected to Western trade, whether they liked it or not, China began having serious opium troubles. With money flowing in to China from trade ports but not much coming out, British traders attempted to remedy this problem by selling illegal opium in the Middle Kingdom. When the Chinese Emperor moved to ban the sale of the drug, Britain objected on grounds of free trade, and a swift squashing called the First Opium War ended with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which allowed the drug trade to continue and signed Hong Kong over to the British. With the backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest wars ever fought, the Second Opium War kicked off in 1856, this time with the French joining the British, ended by the Convention of Peking in 1860, essentially dropped all trade tariffs to European countries, legalizing the opium trade, and signing over further territory. The wars, combined with inner turmoil, weakened the Qing dynasty, leading to its collapse in the early nineteenth century.

5. Widespread European Revolution (1848)

Berlin Revolution showing the origins of the German flag
The 1848 Berlin Revolution.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The most extensive series of revolutions Europe has ever seen, the Spring of Nations as it is also called sent shockwaves across the continent. Perhaps most famously was the second great French Revolution, which once again led to the fall of the King, the creation of the French Second Republic, and put another Bonaparte on the throne. Elsewhere, the 39 German Confederation states revolted, rebellion in Sicily began, Denmark forced a new constitution, Hungary and others within the Habsburg Monarchy threatened, and mass rebellion broke out in Ireland, amongst many others. While some succeeded, many of the revolutions across the continent failed, but for most the seeds had been sown, and by the end of the century (or early in the next, in some cases), considerable change was to come.

6. Japan opens its borders (1854) 

Samurai in Japan
Felice Beato photograph of Samurai of the Satsuma Clan, during the Boshin War period, circa 1869. Beato was one of the first people to take photographs in the recently opened up Japan.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Known as Sakoku, Japan’s isolation policy had been in place since 1639, and banned anyone from entering and leaving the country, under penalty of death, as well as severely restricting trade and foreign relations. Over two centuries of isolation had preserved their culture and customs, but as foreign empires looked for more trade, it could not last. American ships arrived in 1854 and demanded Japan sign a treaty agreeing to trade and peace, and with that the policy was finally lifted. The first Japanese Embassy to the United States was sent in 1860, and after the change of power known as the Meiji Restoration in 1868, all remaining elements of Sakoku were dropped, and Japan emerged as a modern Empire with a major role to play in the century to come.

7. Asiatic Flu wipes out one million people globally (1889-1890)

Influenza Flu satirical cartoon
Cartoon in the Paris satirical magazine Le Grelot depicting a man with the flu, 12th January 1890.
Credit: Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

As the world’s industry developed, the population sky rocketed, and transport links between continents were created, the stage was set for one of the worst pandemics in human history. Also known as Russian Flu, the pandemic proved devastating, killing one million people out of a global population of 1.5 billion. Beginning in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and spreading largely thanks to the new train routes, from there the virus spread west, reaching America within months of it first being reported, and reaching the other side of Asia, thus completing its expanse worldwide, by early 1890. Although it lingered through to 1892, the worst of it was over by the end of 1890, leaving the world decimated and suddenly aware of the consequences of global trade and travel. 

If you enjoyed this article why not learn about more Historical Events? Be sure to check out 7 Historical Events that took place in the 18th Century and 7 Historical Events that happened in the 17th Century!

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