On This Day: Why May 9 is a day to remember

On This Day: Why May 9 is a day to remember - from the world's oldest treaty to a healthcare revolution

Pictured is a calendar
What happened on this day on May 9? We find out here. Photo: tigerlily713 / Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/photos/calendar-date-time-month-week-660670/)

It’s not a day that would stand out on most people’s calendars – apart from in Russia, where Victory Day is marked – but May 9 does have its fair share of significant political and cultural events.

Scouring the annals of history reveals some fascinating gems and, with many, it’s not just the facts themselves – but the myths and controversies surrounding them that pique one’s interest.

Aside from this author’s own anniversary of performing a recorder duet at Derby Assembly Rooms in 1984, May 9 saw the inception of the world’s oldest diplomatic treaty, the formation of the first Australian parliament, and gave the Allies the key to victory in the Second World War.

What was that key?  Why do the Russians celebrate Victory Day one day behind the rest of the Second World War allies?  Read on, as we explore these answers, and more.

Old friends

In 1386, the Treaty of Windsor was ratified between Portugal and England through the marriage of King John I of Portugal to Philippa of Lancaster, cementing an alliance founded upon the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty signed on June 16, 1373.

Tracing its origins back to when the English helped the Portuguese Crown take Lisbon during the Second Crusades of the Middle Ages, there has long been a spirit of co-operation and friendship between the two nations.

It’s not always been amicable though. During a 60-year period from 1580, when the Spanish Habsburgs ruled Portugal, the treaty was suspended as the Portuguese were forced to follow Spain’s aggressive foreign policy towards England, until Portugal declared independence from Spain, known as the Portuguese Restoration War, in 1640.

Another threat to the treaty occurred in 1890, when the British Empire issued an ultimatum to the Portuguese to withdraw its military from colonial lands that Britain had already claimed – embarrassing Portugal internationally and, according to the Portuguese, breaching the long-held agreement.

Despite these potentially disastrous episodes, Britain and Portugal have remained fast friends and firm allies through the trials of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the Treaty of Windsor still stands to this day, making it the world’s longest lasting diplomatic agreement.

Australia unites

121 years ago, the first Australian parliament was opened in Melbourne by the Duke of Cornwall and York, who would be crowned King George V in 1910.

The British colonies that were founded in Australia from the 1700s onwards had, by the 1880s, almost grown into six separate countries with their own governments, laws, and defence forces which were rapidly beginning to see the need for a centralised Federal Government.

Delegates from the six colonies, as well as the New Zealand Parliament, attended the first National Australasian Convention through March and April 1891.  Its goal was to draft a constitution intended to unite Australian policy as a commonwealth nation under the Crown on issues such as free trade, defence, and immigration.

After several redrafts and referendums, the constitution was agreed upon by the end of 1899, and in July 1900 the Commonwealth of Australia Act 1900 was passed by the British Parliament and signed by Queen Victoria.

Elections were held throughout the Australian States on March 29 and 30, 1901 to elect representatives, and on May 9, at Victoria’s Parliament House in Melbourne the Australian Government was formed.

Code for Victory

On May 9, 1941, the British Royal Navy launched a daring raid to capture German U-Boat 110 in the hopes of securing material that would help decipher encrypted German communications.

It’s a common misconception that the main prize obtained during the raid was the Enigma machine, used for encrypting the messages that were used throughout the Nazi’s naval campaigns.

Commercial Enigma machines had been available since the mid-1920s, and the British Government had obtained one of these as early as 1928.

Even the more complicated military versions, which used five rotors instead of three, had been thoroughly examined by the Polish by 1939, and this information was shared with their British and French allies ahead of the German invasion.

The real key was to obtain specific logs of the set-up instructions, as the machines were reconfigured every day for increased security.

This prize was held in the captain’s cabin, and the code books and instructions found contained several months’ worth of settings, enabling the British codebreakers based at Bletchley Park to accurately interpret German orders on a daily basis and plan further campaigns accordingly.

Though not directly responsible for granting victory, this first capture acted as a catalyst for further information raids which provided even more coding schedules and, according to some sources, shortened the war by at least two years.

A Day Behind

Continuing with the Second World War theme, May 9 also saw the day that the Soviet Union formally declared victory over Nazi Germany, in contrast to the rest of Europe and the United States, which commemorates VE day on May 8.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly formed Russian Federation continued to recognise the day and class it as a non-working holiday.

The reason for the disparity in dates between Russia and the rest of the anti-Hitler coalition is simply that no Russian of official capacity was able to witness or sign the first surrender agreement, made on May 7, and Stalin declared it to be a preliminary document.

By the time the second document was formalised in Reims late in the evening of May 8 – witnessed and signed by Marshall Georgy Zhukov – it was past midnight in Russia due to international time zones, hence the difference.

The day is celebrated with military parades, memorials to the fallen, and wreath-laying ceremonies at specific monuments by government officials and has generated huge cultural significance in Russian cinema, literature, and the arts.

Viable Alternative

Perhaps surprisingly, given the current debate in the United States over bodily autonomy, the US was the first country to sanction use of the contraceptive pill on May 9, 1960.

Developed by biochemist Gregory Pincus and gynaecologist John Rock, clinical tests on a birth-control pill began in 1954 that used synthetic progesterone and oestrogen to supress ovulation in women.

Championed by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who was jailed for 30 days for opening the first US birth control clinic in 1916, the pill had a revolutionary impact on women’s health, and childbearing choice throughout society.