On this date in 1995, Nigeria’s military dictatorship struck a bloody blow against the country’s surging crime waves with a mass execution of 43 prisoners at Kirikiri prison in Lagos.
Soldiers dressed in camouflage and with black shoe polish on their faces fired semi-automatic weapons to execute the convicts who were tied to stakes in three groups of 12 and one of seven.
The executions, which lasted 90 minutes, were witnessed by three doctors, who certified the deaths, an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Muslim imam. (Reuters report, in the July 23, 1995 Los Angeles Times)
Armed robbery had since the 1970s been the most feared and high-profile genre of a crime surge that seemed all but impervious to remedies. Organized into aggressive syndicates stealing on an industrial scale, robbers grew so numerous and brazen that they plundered the personal home of the Vice President in 1983; another band raided currency exchange offices at the Lagos airport in 1993. For everyday citizens, the terror of home invasion, often accompanied by rape or gratuitous murder, horribly taxed material and psychological resources. A 1985 Nigerian Herald article (via) reported that
Lagosians now live behind bars, in houses caged with tough iron rods. In such homes, it takes occupants 20 to 30 minutes to get through the barricades each time they want to go out or get in. Driving in Lagos as well is done in a style intended to avoid interception by armed robbers. The basic rule is that no driver allows the vehicle behind him to catch up with his and overtaking at the wrong side of the lane by another motorist is avoided at the risk of death. In Lagos, people live in such terrible fear of armed robbers that those who are not attacked as each day passes regard themselves as fortunate.
The death penalty was decreed for armed robbery in 1970, revoked in 1980, re-introduced in 1983. In the late 1980s, Nigeria tried check points, road blocks, increased police patrols — nothing stemmed the tide.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular -- sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
Antequera, a judge, began his revolution legally in 1721 by affirming an impeachment the city council of Asuncion (Paraguay’s present-day capital) against the unpopular Spanish governor. Antequera, conveniently, also happened to be the guy who would succeed the unpopular territorial governor.
The conflict between the two would-be governors spiraled into a wider revolt for local autonomy pitting criollo settlers against the crown, though it would likely be overstating matters to call this a true bid for independence. One notable sore spot between the two parties was the prerogatives of Jesuit Reductions: these mission settlements for Christianizing natives (particularly prominent in Paraguay for the Guarani people) had originally been placed at the far fringes of Spain’s New World reach, and they enjoyed a wide autonomy, sustaining themselves economically with the yerba mate trade. For the Guarani, these were also welcome refuges from the brutal encomiendas; Guarani militias stoutly repelled slave raiders.
For these prerogatives, the Jesuits and the Guarani were loyal to the Spanish crown as against the local settlers better inclined to view the Reductions (and the potential slaves who inhabited them) as assets they’d like to get their own hands around. Antequera accordingly expelled the Jesuits near Asuncio and for a few years his word was law in Paraguay. Guarani troops mustered by the crown helped put the rebellion down, taking Antequera into custody and forwarding him to the notoriously severe Marquis of Castelfuerte, the Peruvian viceroy.
Society at Lima was in [Antequera's] favor. Great efforts were made to delay his trial. But the viceroy was resolved to punish him, and sentence of death was passed. The judges, the university, the municipality, petitioned for pardon, as well as the people of all classes. The stern old marquis refused to listen, and Antequera was brought out for execution in the great square of Lima on July 5, 1731. There were cries for pardon, and the mob began to throw stones. Hearing the tumult, the viceroy came out on horseback and ordered his guards to fire. Antequera fell dead, as well as the two priests by his side, and several others. The viceroy then ordered the body to be taken to the scaffold and beheaded. His conduct received the approval of the king by decree of September, 1733. (Source)
The Spanish had not heard the end of Antequera.
During his imprisonment, Antequera befriended and inspired a fellow-prisoner named Fernando Mompo. After Antequera’s execution, Mompo returned to Paraguay brandishing the late rebel governor’s banner: “The authority of the commune is superior to that of the King himself!” Mompo launched a recrudescence of the comunero rebellion in the early 1730s. Mompo too shared Antequera’s fate.
A change in the political winds decades later led to the Spanish king Charles III himself expelling the Jesuits — and posthumously exonerating Jose de Antequera.
And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.
Warning: This is the execution footage.
Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.
“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”
Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.
On this date in 1950, Taiwan’s former nationalist governor Chen Yi was shot for a dalliance with the Reds.
A Kuomintang officer since China’s 1920s Warlord Era, Chen Yi was from 1934 Chiang Kai-shek’s governor of Fujian province — the mainland territory directly across from the island of Taiwan. Chen had the honor at the end of World War II of accepting Japan’s surrender of Taiwan — the occasion commemorated by Taiwan’s unofficial October 25 holiday, Retrocession Day. Postwar, he became governor of that island, back before it was synonymous with nationalist China itself.
His life ended in 1950, when Chiang suspected him of negotiating with the Red Chinese who had overrun the mainland. By that point, however, Chen’s political career was already history, courtesy of the most lasting of his legacies, the 228 Massacre (or more diplomatically … “Incident”).
Taiwan’s new managers — the place had been in Japanese hands since 1895 — made an immediate mess after 1945. Taiwan’s productive economy was essentially siphoned for the civil war the KMT had underway against the Communists, as well as for the venal enrichment of various well-connected mainlanders who hopped over to Formosa for plum assignments that displaced Taiwan’s own local elites.
Billowing inflation fed ethnic resentments, and the whole situation boiled over, as the name implies, on 2/28 of 1947.
On that date, frustrations boiled over* in island-wide protests that turned to riots and even took over administration of Taipei and many other cities. Chen, on whose watch the many grievances had accumulated, suppressed those with enormous violence. Chen regained control of the situation only with considerable violence: well over 10,000 are thought to have been killed in suppression during early March, many of them executed in cold blood by mainland military reinforcements.
An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku said that troops from the mainland arrived there March 7 and indulged in three days of indiscriminate killing and looting. For a time everyone seen on the streets was shot at, homes were broken into and occupants killed. In the poorer sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead.
There were instances of beheadings and mutilation of bodies, and women were raped, the American said.
Two foreign women, who were near at Pingtung near Takao, called the actions of the Chinese soldiers there a “massacre.” … people were machine gunned. Groups were rounded up and executed.
The man who had served as the town [of Pingtung]‘s spokesman was killed. His body was left for a day in a park and no one was permitted to remove it.
While effective in reasserting political power, this didn’t exactly bury the animosities between Taiwanese and mainlanders. It did put an end to Chen Yi’s governorship, however, since it was on his watch that things came to this pass in the first place. Given he then doubled as the author of the bloodbath, he assured himself a place of opprobrium in Taiwanese history.
In 1949, the Kuomintang nationalist government fled rout on the mainland and holed up on Taiwan, implementing an authoritarian state under martial law with a running “White Terror” against dissidence, often broadly conflated with communism. Until political liberalization in the late 1980s, public discussion of 228 was strictly taboo.
Today, there’s enough distance that the event is openly commemorated; indeed, Lee Teng-hui, the politician who embraced Taiwan’s democratic transition around the end of the Cold War, was himself a participant in the 228 protests. There are a variety of memorials and parks remembering 228 in present-day Taiwan … but you’d have to look very hard to find one for Chen Yi.
* The specific boiling point for the protests was a violent confrontation on February 27 when state agents had seized the unlicensed cigarettes of a local peddler. The way things were going, however, there was always going to be something like this to catalyze Taiwanese anger.
Our setting in 1972 finds Thailand under martial law, an especially nasty interlude during the “three tyrants” era when the dictatorial government had been overthrown from within and was ruling by decree.
One of those decrees came down for Sanong Phobang, Thanoochai Montriwat, and Jumnian Jantra just days after they were arrested for a shocking crime: in the course of trying to pick a woman’s pocket at a bus stop, they’d turned on a bystander who noticed the crime and shouted at the woman to look sharp. The infuriated trio boarded the departing bus, trapped the good Samaritan, and stabbed him to death.
Upon determining that the guys were violent career criminals, the authorities just sent an order to have them summarily shot. Snap executions on executive authority were common in this year.
The criminals heard the execution order read only immediately before the sentence was carried out, although by that time they had inferred their fate from the fact that they had been driven to the death house. (And been given a few moments to write their families. We’re not dealing with monsters here!)
We join our executioner’s narrative, noting that at this early stage in his career he was not yet the man who shot the prisoners, but an “escort” on the execution team who readied the prisoners for the executioner.
Suddenly it hit the three of them that this was it. Thanoochai fell out of his chair and screamed for mercy.
“Please don’t kill me sir. Let me see my mother first, she knows people, let her help me, please let me see her!”
The prisoners hugged each other and cried like children.
… at 5.25pm the other escort and myself led Jumnian out of the tower and over to the execution room. Nobody spoke. I think I half expected him to faint but he didn’t. He had resigned himself to his fate and was like ‘a dead man walking’. We had blindfolded him at the gazebo and when we reached the room we firmly secured him to the cross … Mui [the executioner] readied himself over the Bergmann [MP 34/1] and waited for the flag to drop. He fired one shot, which sent eight bullets into Jumnian’s back. He died instantly.
I headed back with the other escort to collect Thanoochai. He blanched when he saw us but didn’t try to resist as we brought him out of the tower. However, all hell broke out at the execution room. He shocked me by suddenly tearing off the blindfold and shouting out for his mother. He kept insisting that his mother be allowed to see him as she could save him because of who she knows, and implored us not to kill him. All the time he was shouting his pleas his eyes roved around wildly searching for his mother but of course she wasn’t there. She was probably in her kitchen praying for him. The staff just stood there staring at him in horror. He really seemed to think his mother was going to appear and save him.
Then he remembered his friend who had gone before him and began to call out for Jumnian.
“Nian! Are you in there? Answer me man. Do you hear me? Answer me you asshole. Are you dead? Why don’t you answer me?”
The silence was almost cruel, as if he was being taunted in his madness on top of everything else … Thanoochai realised that Jumnian would never reply to his shouts, followed by the realisation that it was also too late for him. He crumpled to the floor in front of the execution room, surrounded by staff, and began to cry quietly. … All his fight had gone now, but he still had not lost hope. As we half dragged, half carried him into the room, he still called out for his mother;
“Please help me Mom, please help me.”
… It took four of us to get him standing in front of the cross … I pushed my knee into his back to force him against the cross so that we could bind him to it. One guy tied his hands up around the cross; another guy tied his weight while the other escort and I tried to stop his squirming. Only when he was completely secure did he finally shut up.
At 5.40pm Mui fired 12 bullets into Thanoochai.
… [after the third, more routine, execution] the room stank of blood, sweat and gun powder. There was a lot of blood from each of the men all over the floor and the sand bags. Unfortunately the floor is never cleaned immediately after a shooting. Sand is just thrown down to blot up the puddles and left there overnight for the inmates, who are in charge of the room, to tidy up the following morning.
At this point, Chavoret Jaruboon muses on the spookiness of the execution cell and the belief among some members of the team that the spirits of the shot haunt the place.
The next morning, he tells of being visited by the mother of the panicked Thanoochai Montriwat, who related a dream:
I dreamt about my son last night. He was crying and when I asked him why he didn’t answer. He just stood there and then blood started to ooze out of every part of his body … He told me he lost his shoes and asked me to get them back. He just kept repeating that. I don’t really understand but I’m afraid he won’t be able to rest in peace, which is why I need your help.
Sure enough, one of the prisoners tasked with tidying up the bodies for delivery to the Buddhist temple had taken Thanoochai’s shoes for himself. Thailand’s future last executioner had them retrieved and delivered to the grieving mother.
She was a good woman and kept begging her son’s victims to see into their hearts if they could forgive her son. She was going to cremate the body and wanted Thanoochai to feel in the consuming flames, the goodness and forgiveness emanating from everyone he had hurt which would fill him with regret and sorrow for his criminal ways. A parent’s love can be the purest love there is; no matter what a child does he is forgiven and still fiercely loved.
Having moved to Germany to study, Levine became involved in World War I’s antiwar struggle, which in turn positioned him to be a key player in the communist movement in postwar Germany.
With the end of the Great War, Germany’s destiny was settled with bare knuckles. The now-communist Russian government, whose safety was imperiled from every direction, looked hopefully to a revolutionary proletariat in the more advanced neighboring economy of Germany to consolidate its own position as well as to meet the Marxist mandate for transnational revolution.
The Bolshevik Karl Radek urged an audience of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s KPD that “without the socialist revolution in Germany the Russian workers’ revolution, dependent on itself, would not have sufficient strength to build a new house on the ruins left behind by capitalism.” (Source)
Nonetheless, Munich mounted a revolt breaking away an independent Bavarian state that would eventually usher in a Bavarian Soviet Republic. This state Eugen Levine seized control of on April 12, 1919, with a communist putsch against the expressionist playwright who had served as its first head of state.* Levine would be the second, and last, in that office.
In the end, the KPD in Munich — and not only there, but throughout Germany — simply lacked the organizational strength or the mass mobilization to sustain the attempted revolution(s) against its inevitable foes. By May of 1919, its threadbare forces had been overwhelmed by right-wing soldiers and paramilitaries.** Defenders of the city and actual or perceived revolutionaries were shot out of hand by the hundreds.
This obviously staged photo purports to depict a Freikorps execution of a (theatrically unfazed) Bolshevik in Munich in 1919. (Source)
Levine’s treatment was, if equally certain, at least marginally more ceremonial.
Captured in hiding a few days after the incursion, Levine was saved for a show trial† at the start of June.
We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join [the late] Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped … Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They — and I together with them — we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.
Left and center parties raised a pan-Germanic outcry to stay the executioner’s hand, but Levine was shot two days after condemnation.‡
Munich transmuted, with this conquest, from an outpost of the revolutionary vanguard into a veritable far-right hothouse: just weeks after Levine’s execution, Adolf Hitler would make his fateful acquaintance with the NSDAP in Munich. Within a few years he and his germinated their own Bavarian revolution. Munich and its beer hall (which the Freikorps had used for summary executions in May 1919) were long hallowed of the Third Reich.§
* The deposed president, Ernst Toller, “hanged himself” in 1939. Auden paid him tribute in moving verse.
Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
** The aide-de-camp of the Freikorps Epp that marched into Munich that first week of May was the future SA chief Ernst Röhm. Also participating in this sortie: early Nazi leaders (and eventual Hitler rivals) Gregor and Otto Strasser, and future Wannsee Conference participant Wilhelm Stuckart.
† The young lawyer Max Hirschberg drew first dibs on defending the doomed Levine before his drumhead court, but faint-heartedly passed the assignment off. Hirschberg would remember the moment with shame: “I was too insecure and too cowardly to confront the scornful sneer of the reactionaries,” he wrote.
Maybe Hirschberg’s harsh self-judgment steeled his soul, for soon the “orgy of brutality, bloodthirstiness, and injustice aroused in me a decisive transformation.” He began to aggressively seek out hated revolutionaries to represent in the teeth of the political winds. Hirschberg had a notable mano-a-mano courtroom confrontation with Adolf Hitler in 1930; he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1934, but built a career in New York where he blazed trails with his work on wrongful convictions. There’s a summation of his career in this pdf; or, see the 2005 biography Justice Imperiled.
‡ Primary newspaper coverage (e.g., London Times, June 9, 1919) confirms the date; the “July 5″ widely cited in online articles is mistaken.
§ The Nazis erected a memorial to the Freikorps who crushed the Bavarian Soviet; its remains can still be seen today.
On this date in 1942, leftist Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura was executed at Prague’s Kobylisy shooting range.
An “unsung giant” of European letters, the Bohemian doctor burst onto the literary scene in the 1920s with Peka? Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a vále?ná (Fields to Plough, Fields of War). But he was notable for a remarkable perspicacity in style, genre, and artistic perspective throughout his career. He’s often referred to as a poet in prose, and maybe for this reason was equally keen on writing for and directing cinema.
Milan Kundera credited Vancura with “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.”
His greatest commercial success and possibly his crowning achievement was Marketa Lazarova, a short novel (120 pages in the original Czech) set amid a feud of nobles in he Middle Ages. Only tranlated into English in 2013, it “does for Czech literature something akin to what James Joyce did for English-language literature with Ulysses: breaking with the realism that previously dominated to open up a new frontier in the realm of style.”
Folly scatters without rhyme or reason. Lend an ear to this tale of a place in the county of Mladá Boleslav, in the time of the disturbances, when the king strove for the safety of the highways, having cruel troubles with the nobles, who conducted themselves downright thievishly, and what is worse, who shed blood practically laughing out loud. You have become truly too sensitive from musing upon our nation’s nobility and fair manners, and when you drink, you waste the cook’s water, spilling it ‘cross the table, but the men of whom I speak were an unruly and devilish lot. A rabble which I cannot compare to anything else than stallions. Precious little cared they of that which you account as important. Comb and soap! Why, they did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.
‘Tis said that there were countless such ruffians, but this story concerns itself with none save the family whose name most surely calls to mind Václav unjustly. Shifty nobles they were! The eldest amidst this bloody time was baptized with a graceful name, but forgot it and called himself Kozlík till the time of his beastly death.
Vancura’s death was plenty beastly too, albeit not particularly surprising: Communist avant-garde artists in German-occupied Slavic countries didn’t usually fare the best during the war years, and Vancura compounded his risk by taking active part in the resistance. He was among hundreds of Czechs arrested, tortured, and executed in the bloody German crackdown that followed the May 27, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
That conflict in turn triggered the 1871 working-class revolution in Paris which briefly drove the established government to the old Bourbon haunts at Versailles while maintaining the capital as the Paris Commune.
Darboy declined to follow the many Parisian bourgeoisie who escaped the city in those brief months, but his importance as a visible envoy of the rival order was not so easily refused. The Communards seized Darboy as perhaps the crown jewel among dozens of hostages against the anticipated Versailles counterattack.
Versailles declined to bargain for Darboy or any of the other human shields.** Instead, the city’s cobblestones drank the blood of 20,000 or more in a seven-day urban invasion in late May that has become known as the “bloody week” (semaine sangiante) — and the Commune’s hostages would mingle their blood with the those on the barricades, suffering in their few individual persons the vengeance the Parisian workers longed to visit upon an entire class.
When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”
At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.
The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.
They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ’0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, — met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.
The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.
The six who fell on this occasion would be followed in the Commune’s few remaining days by many more of their fellow hostages — and by countless communards. Theophile Ferre, who authorized the May 24 reprisal execution (and specifically called for Archbishop Darboy’s selection) was himself executed by the victorious bourgeois government that November.
There had been rumblings of disaffection for months before, signals that read portentous in retrospect but passed by the oblivious occupation army. That March, aggrieved at having been issued new ammunition cartridges rumored to have been prepared with pig and cow fat in offense to both Muslim and Hindu soldiery,* Mangal Pandey wrote himself into India’s nationalist lore by mutinying at Barrackpore.
Pandey’s own revolt fizzled, and saw him hanged.
But he’s remembered as the precursor of the much wider rebellion that ensued.
On Sunday, May 10th — the British garrison’s guard was down for religious services — sepoys at Meerut mutinied, too. Just the day before they had seen 85 of their own brothers in arms provocatively marched in chains after refusing the controversial cartridges.
Now, they fell upon their commanding officers, and on their families and British civilians in an wave of pent fury. Brits misforunate enough to be caught in it spent the dark hours that night as prey.
“Never was dawn more welcome to us than on the 11th of May,” one Englishwoman who survived the harrowing night wrote. “The daylight showed how complete the work of destruction had been. All was turned into ruin and desolation, and our once bright happy home was now a blackened pile.”
Meerut is just 60 kilometers or so from Delhi, and the mutineers soon made for that city — where the last Mughal Emperor, 81-year-old Bahadur Shah II, known as Zafar, “reigned” as Prince of Delhi. In reality, he was a pensioned ward of the East India Company … but symbolically, he was the heir to a once-mighty empire.
The rebels fell on Delhi, slaughtering Englishmen and women who had not been quick enough to escape the city, and looting opportunistically. Zafar tsk-tsked the disorder but he and most of his princes joined the revolt. Why not? The Company had already made known that the imperial title would disappear with Zafar’s death; here was the one last chance to restore the Mughal dignity.
This ride on the tiger would prove instead to be the final destruction of Zafar’s house.
On May the 16th, the sepoys, who were far from deferential to the emperor they proposed to raise up, demanded 52 European prisoners that Zafar’s courtiers were holding — holding instead of murdering, a restraint the sepoys angrily suspected was calculated as a potential future sop to the returning British. By putting those prisoners all to sudden death, they relieved the emperor of any avenue for compromise, binding him inescapably to the insurrection.
The sepoys then called for the prisoners, who were being kept and fed by Zafar in a room beside the Palace kitchens, not far from the Lahore Gate. They bound them and took them to a peepul tree near the shallow tank in front of the Palace drum house, the Naqqar Khana, and began to taunt them that they were about to be slaughtered.
According to Jiwan Lal, “the King and his courtiers stood like dumb puppets” at first, horrified by what the sepoys were contemplating. “Then the King ordered the sepoys to separate into parties, Mahommedans and Hindus, and he appealed to each to consult their religious advisers to see if there was any authority for the slaughter of helpless men and women and children.” “Their murder can never be allowed,” said Zafar, adding that the Queen was also wholly opposed to any massacre. Sa’id Mubarak Shah recorded that
the king wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children, saying to them “take care — for if you commit such a deed the vengeance and angel of God will fall on us all. Why slay the innocent?” But the Mutineers refused to listen and replied “we’ll kill them, and in your palace, so that whatever the result you and we shall be considered one in this business, and you will be thought equally guilty by the English.”
… the King continued to argue with the sepoys and refused to give his consent to the murder, but was eventually silenced …
When Zahir saw that the sepoys were preparing to go ahead with the slaughter, he begged the hakim to make a last effort to stop the massacre: “I told him that I had seen the prisoners being taken out,” he recorded later,
and I was afraid that they were about to kill them, and that he must do something quickly to stop them. To this I got a reply, “What can I do?” I told him this is the time to prove our loyalty, and that if he wanted to save the King then he had to try and persuade the rebels to stop this crime and save the prisoners, otherwise the English would come and level Delhi and turn it into an empty wasteland in revenge for this spilling of innocent blood. Ahsanullah Khan replied, “You are still a child. You do not realize that in public life a man must use his reason rather than give way to his emotions. If we try to dissuade the rebels now they will kill us before they kill the English, and then they will kill the King.”
It was anyway too late. By the time Ahsanullah had finished speaking, the sepoys and the Palace mob had got to work.
They made the prisoners sit down, and one of them fired his carbine at them. After this two of the King’s personal armed retainers killed all the Europeans, men, women and children, with their swords. There were about 200 Mussalmans standing at the tank, uttering the coarsest abuse at the prisoners. The sword of one of the king’s retainers broke. After the slaughter, the bodies were taken on two carts, and thrown into the river. This occurrence caused a great excitement amongst the Hindus throughout the city, who said that these Purbeas who had committed this heinous and atrocious cruelty could never be victorious against the English.
For Zafar the massacre was a turning point. The sepoys were quite correct that the British would never forgive the mass killing of innocents, and Zafar’s failure to prevent it proved as fatal for him and his dynasty as it was for them.
Three weeks later, the British besieged Delhi. When the city succumbed that September, it lay at the mercy of a foe which had been incited to spectacularly furious revenge. Vengeful fantasies of razing Delhi to the ground and slaughtering its denizens en masse were openly mooted; if the actual reprisal never attained that scale, it was still wildly indiscriminate. Dalrymple once again:
Everywhere the British convinced themselves that the atrocities committed by the sepoys against their women and children absolved them of any need to treat the rebels as human beings: “Since they had butchered our defenceless women and children,” wrote Colonel A. R. D. Mackenzie, “we would have been more than human, we would have been less than men, if we had not exterminated them as men kill snakes wherever they meet them.” It soon became exceptional among the British to regard anyone on the opposite side of the battle lines as even belonging to the same species: “I [simply] cannot consider these sepoys human beings,” wrote Captain J. M. Wade, “and it is only common practice to destroy them as reptiles.” George Wagentrieber helped fan such flames from his new Delhi Gazette Extra printing press in Lahore: “Our army is exasperated almost to madness by what they have seen of the brutality of the insurgents,” he expostulated in one editorial.
Moreover, as far as many of the British troops were concerned, their fury and thirst for revenge were not so much a desire as a right enshrined in the Bible. One British soldier, “Quaker” Wallace, was in the habit of bayoneting his sepoy adversaries while chanting the 116th Psalm. As General Neill put it, “The Word of God gives no authority to the modern tenderness for human life.” Padre Rotton was in full agreement. The rebels did not realise, he wrote, that the Uprising was in fact
a battle of principles, a conflict between truth and error; and that because they had elected in favour of darkness, and eschewed the light, therefore they could not possibly succeed. Moreover, they had imbrued their hands in the innocent blood of helpless women and children, and that very blood was [now] appealing to heaven for vengeance. The appeal was unquestionably heard. The Lord could not do otherwise than be avenged on such a nation as this.
1857 marks the textbook end date for the Mughal Empire.
For his support of the rebellion, and his failure to avert the May 16 massacre of prisoners, Zafar was deposed and sent to exile in Burma, where he wrote his own epitaph in Urdu verse:
I asked for a long life, I received four days
Two passed in desire, two in waiting.
The days of life are over, evening has fallen
I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb
How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.
Many of Zafar’s sons and grandsons were killed (at least 29 by execution, according to Dalrymple) as the revolt was crushed.