For the Nevilles, as indeed for the House of Lancaster in general, everything had gone pear-shaped with the 1461 deposition of the feebleminded Lancastrian ruler Henry VI. That seated on Albion’s throne the Yorkist contender Edward IV; the imprisoned Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou — who had already been the effective sovereign in view of Henry’s mental incapacitation — retreated to Scotland. Humphrey Neville was among the irreconcilable Lancastrians who went with her; he would be captured raiding into England later that same year of 1461.
The House of Neville being one of the greatest in northern England (and having under its roof adherents to both white rose and red), Neville had his life secured by royal pardon and even received a knighthood from the usurping king — just the messy expediency of court politics.
The problem was that Neville just wouldn’t stay bought. 1464 finds him back in the field on the wrong team when the Lancastrians were routed at the Battle of Hexham; it is said that he hied himself thereafter to a cave on the banks of the Derwent and survived an outlaw, for five long years.
Warwick, however, found his own position as jailer of the king untenable. Neither could he himself quell the Lancastrian ultras who intended a proper restoration and not merely leveraging the royal prisoner — so to Warwick’s chagrin, he was forced to release King Edward in order to raise the army needed to move against the Lancastrian rebels who were supposed to be his allies.
Neville’s rising, and then Neville himself, were dispatched with ease — but the cost of doing so was the imminent failure of the entire Lancastrian movement.
On this date in 1897,* anarchist Michele Angiolillo was garroted in Vergara prison for assassinating the Spanish Prime Minister.
Angiolillo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was an Italian expatriate in England who was so incensed by the procesos de Montjuic — a spasm of indiscriminate arrests and torture that followed an anarchist bombing in Barcelona — that he resolved to avenge the crime against his brothers.
“He read of the great wave of human sympathy with the helpless victims at Montjuich,” Emma Goldman wrote of Angiolillo. “On Trafalgar Square he saw with his own eyes the results of those atrocities, when the few Spaniards, who escaped Castillo’s clutches, came to seek asylum in England. There, at the great meeting, these men opened their shirts and showed the horrible scars of burned flesh. Angiolillo saw, and the effect surpassed a thousand theories; the impetus was beyond words, beyond arguments, beyond himself even.”
That named “Castillo” whose clutches rent so much flesh was the Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo, a statesman whose pioneering contribution to the art of manufactured consent was the turno system whereby two major Spanish political parties alternated turns in power/opposition and mutually connived to engineer ceremonial elections to that effect.
Upon his shoulders rested responsibility for the Barcelona torture regime.
And Angiolillo took it upon his shoulders to hold the executive to account.
Slipping into Spain with false papers, Angiolillo found Canovas taking a restorative visit to the Santa Agueda thermal baths and shot him dead on August 8.
As guards overcame the gunman — much too late — Canovas’s wife shrieked at him, “Murderer! Murderer!” The shooter gave her a bow and asked her pardon, for “I respect you, because you are an honorable lady, but I have done my duty and I am now easy in my mind, for I have avenged my friends and brothers of Montjuich.” (There are different versions of this bit of faux-politesse reported; suffice to say that in any form the remark was more pleasurable for Angiolillo to deliver than for the widow to receive.)
Official undesirables, by no means limited to anarchists who had survived Inquisition tactics in Montjuic, could scarcely contain their glee. New York anarchists avowed their support. Cuban and Puerto Rican separatists fretted only that the glory of the deed did not belong to one of their own. The Cubans specifically (and correctly) anticipated that the death of Canovas spelled the imminent recall of “Butcher” Weyler, the island’s strongman governor who had brutally crushed a rebellion there.**
His trial was undertaken within days, a mere formality considering that Angiolillo obviously shared the pride taken in his act by his overseas supporters. He justified the murder with reference not only to the torture and execution of anarchists at Montjuic, but of the execution of Philippines independence martyr Jose Rizal a few months prior.
* There are some sites proposing August 19 or 21. Period press reports are unambiguous that the correct execution date is August 20.
** William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal would publish a banner headline during the imminent Spanish-American War triumphantly asking readers, “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Its claim to ownership stemmed in part from Hearst’s relentless hyping of Weyler’s (very real) atrocities over the preceding years.
At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.
But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.
The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.
The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.
As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.
Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.
It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.
In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.
A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.
It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.
Basiliscus forced into the cistern.
The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.
Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.
* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”
** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.
On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.
These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.
Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.
Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.
“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”
This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.
The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.
“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”
London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:
the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.
Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.
(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)
While captaining a unit for Frederick, Kunz had his lands ravaged by William’s guys; eventually he even got outright captured and had to spring for a crippling 4,000-florin ransom.
The warring brothers settled things in 1451, but Kunz found to his fury that his postwar meaningful ahems around the Elector of Saxony did not meet with any compensation reciprocating the fortune ruined in the Elector’s service. (During the war Kunz had been given some captured property of one of William’s supporters, but the terms of the peace reverted everything to its original owner.)
Kunz skulked, and sued, and eventually Frederick flat-out banished him. But his grievance was never met, and in that day German nobles felt themselves entitled to force redress via feuds and private wars entirely alien to our post-Westphalian states.
Kunz’s personal contribution to the annals of noble vendetta was the Altenburg Prinzenraub — the Altenburg Prince-Robbery, which consisted of, well, robbing Frederick of his two sons Ernest** and Albert.
On the night of July 7-8, 1455, Kunz and his retainers snatched the two boys, aged 14 and 11 respectively, from Altenburg. The kidnapping went pear-shaped almost immediately: starting for Bohemia on the 8th, Kunz was captured by some concerned citizen or other, liberating Albert. Various legends make it monks, villagers, or a heroic collier.
His buddies took Ernest to an abandoned medieval mine shaft, today known as the “Prince Cave”. After holing up three days — and catching the news of Kunz’s ignominiously easy capture — this party arranged to turn Ernest back over in exchange for an amnesty, and scuttled away.
Kunz, of course, was not so lucky. A black paving-stone in Freiburg is said to mark the spot where his severed head came to rest on the 14th of July, 1455.
* Data point for the nature vs. nurture debate: the father of Frederick and William was known as Frederick the Belligerent or Frederick the Warlike.
** This is the “Ernest” referenced by the the Ernestine line — a lineage ancestor to present-day royal families of Belgium and Great Britain.
On this date in 1589, Hans Volckla of Onoltzbach, alias Hemmerlein, was beheaded by Nuremberg.
In early modern Germany’s crazy quiltwork of rivalrous fiefdoms and principalities nominally confederated in the Holy Roman Empire, the free imperial city of Nuremberg and its surrounding lands stood irritatingly athwart the non-contiguous Margravate of George Frederick — who ruled Ansback to Nuremberg’s southwest, and also Brandenburg-Bayreuth to Nuremberg’s northeast.
Local rivalries in this period could easily boil over into micro-wars, and this had happened before between Nuremberg and the Margravate. In 1502, George Frederick’s grandfather* had raided the disputed village of Affalterbach causing several hundred casualties; in 1552, that long-running dispute saw the village burned to the ground.
Tensions were running high again (or still) in the late 1580s,** and the margrave’s chief ranger did not mind making provocations out in the disputed (and unpopulated) frontiers. According to Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt, our man Hans Volckla, alias Hemmerlein, “had been so bold as to seize the snares of the fowlers” and “took wares from the pedlars.”
Moreover, he led a little gang that shot three men fatally in 1587. Nuremberg declared him an outlaw.
Nuremberg, for its part, tried to check the poaching threat through the use of informers. We know of one man in particular, one Michael, resident of the wealthy nearby town of Furth whose sovereignty was likewise the subject of regional squabbling. (The town’s emblem is still today a three-leafed clover, said to represent (pdf) the “triple government” of Nuremberg, Ansbach, and the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg.)
Like 20% or more of Furth’s population, Michael was Jewish — but Nuremberg didn’t mind so long as he caught poachers, which he did. George Frederick did mind: he had Michael put to death in 1596, and buried under an insolent marker reading “Michael, Nuremberg Jew, Betrayer.”
But this date our concern is Hemmerlein, and it was a serious concern of Nuremberg as well: they meant to cut off the head of a man in the train of the very tetchy next lord over. Only weeks earlier, on May 28th, Nuremberg had likewise executed a man named Hans Ramsperger as a betrayer and a spy for the Margrave, but at least that man was a Nuremberger.
Schmidt remembered that in preparation for Hemmerlein’s execution “some cannon were placed on the walls, some sharpshooters posted, and precautions taken against an attack by the Margrave’s men. Orders were also given to me, Master Franz the executioner … that I should put him to death on the bridge or elsewhere in case the Margrave’s men attacked us, so that they might not find him alive.”
In the event, there was no attack and the execution went off without incident in the early morning.
On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.
Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.
Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.
But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.
He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.
The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the everycornerofearth.
But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.
The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.
The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.
As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,
The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.
(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)
Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.
According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)
* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.
On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.
The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.
As was thestyleatthetime, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.
And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.
This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.
For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.
Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.
Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:
May 4, 1471 was the date of one of England’s most pivotal battles, Tewkesbury.
Tewkesbury was the last great victory in the War of the Roses for the House of York, and it must have seemed to contemporaries like the last victory Yorkists would ever need. The “kingmaker” Warwick was dead from a previous battle that April; the Lancastrian claimant Henry VI was imprisoned by the Yorkists, who would murder him before the month was out; and Henri’s heir apparent, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, was put to death immediately after Tewkesbury.
Young Edward of Westminster had been stewing these past several years — until the aforementioned Kingmaker swung to his side — in exile in France, trying to finagle a way to rally the Lancastrian cause. Like many a teenager he was prone to nursing bilious fantasies of revenging himself on people, as the Milanese ambassador wrote in 1467.
This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads* or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.
“Peace” would not be the watchword of the abortive Lancastrian restoration attempt.
Shortly after returning to England, Edward had word of Warwick’s defeat. But having taken the trouble to come all this way from France, he still plowed ahead into the desperate stand at Tewkesbury. Edward had no experience at all in battlefield command.
When the Lancastrian lines broke at Tewkesbury, a disordered route fled towards nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. The nobles who reached it would hole up there claiming the privilege of sanctuary … for just two days, at which point the victorious Yorkist King Edward IV had them arrested and put to swift execution, sanctuary be damned. (The abbey had to close to re-purify.)
Prince Edward didn’t even make it that long. There are varying accounts of his death at Tewkesbury suggesting a summary execution scenario of some kind.
In one version, the Duke of Clarence overtook him in flight. Clarence having himself briefly supported the rebellion before he returned to the Yorkist side, he’s supposed to have immediately beheaded the youth in a paroxysm of demonstrative loyalty.
Prince Edward was taken as he fled towards the towne, by Sir Richard Crofts, and kept close … After the field was ended, proclamation was made, that whosoever could bring forth prince Edward alive or dead, should have an annuity of a hundred pounds during his life, and the princes life to be saved, if he were brought forth alive. Sir Richard Crofts, nothing mistrusting the kings promise, brought forth his prisoner prince Edward, being a faire and well proportioned young gentleman; whom when king Edward had well advised, he demanded of him, how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realm with banner displayed.
Whereunto the prince boldly answered, saying; “To recover my fathers kingdom and heritage, from his father and grandfather to him and from him after him to me lineally descended.” At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some say) stroke him with his gauntlet; whom incontinently, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas Grey marquess Dorset,** and William lord Hastings that stood by, suddenly murdered: for the which cruel act, the more part of the doers in their latter days drank of the like cup, by the righteous justice and due punishment of God.
Shakespeare dramatized this (considerably more dramatic — if admittedly less execution-like) version in Henry VI, Part 3.
Lancaster’s very dim (circa 1471) fortunes would ultimately be rescued in the 1480s by the grandson of a beheaded Welsh courtier — who won the throne as Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty.
* Edward as a seven-year-old was alleged to have been given the authority by his mother to decide what fate should befall the knights who had not successfully protected Henry VI from capture. Edward decreed their beheading.
On this date in 1975, Sisowath Sirik Matak was executed with his aides by the Khmer Rouge.
As a young royal in French-administered Cambodia, Sirik Matak had had a shot to be selected as king in 1941. Instead, that dignity went to Norodom Sihanouk — and with it, Sihanouk would later charge, Sirik Matak’s lifelong resentment.
Sihanouk the “god-king” dominated the ensuing decades of Cambodian politics, and he kept Sirik Matak well away from domestic influence throughout the 1960s by shunting him off to a series of overseas diplomatic appointments. But the arch-conservative Sirik Matak’s longtime ally Lon Nol became Prime Minister in 1969 and took Sirik Matak on as his chief aide.
Sihanouk’s complex political career had by this time seen him abdicate the kingship as well as the Prime Ministership. Now he was head of state under the title “Prince” but by the end of the Sixties his power was faltering: an alliance with China yielded little as that country navigated the turbulent Cultural Revolution, while the Vietnam War next door fed into a Cambodian Civil War, too. (Sihanouk permitted the North Vietnamese to use bases in Cambodia.)
On March 18, 1970, Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a bloodless coup — but it was Sirik Matak who orchestrated the move. There’s even an account that says Sirik Matak forced a wavering Lon Nol at gunpoint to go through with it.
The United States strongly supported the regime change, which was not exactly a portent of its success. Prince Sihanouk might be gone, but he did not take Cambodia’s civil conflict with him; arguably, his ouster intensified it, for Sihanouk was far more popular with the peasantry than the new, Washington-backed leaders. The existing secret bombing campaign the U.S. was directing at North Vietnamese refuges in Cambodia vastly intensified, becoming a campaign against the Khmer Rouge that outlasted the Vietnam War itself. Tens of thousands of people died under those bombs, and millions more were made refugees — and the insurgency only multiplied.
The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide … the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent …
[T]he bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas … scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
Within a few years, the capital fell to the growing insurgency. The U.S. offered asylum to the leaders of Cambodia’s collapsing government; many accepted it, but many others refused. Preferring near-certain execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (his name was already published on the movement’s list of “seven traitors”) Sisowath Sirik Matak reproached his U.S. patrons in a letter to the American ambassador declining evacuation.
Dear Excellency and friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.
As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.
But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.
Please accept, E
Just days into the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Phnom Penh, the Communists forced the French embassy to hand over Sirik Matak and a number of aides who had taken temporary refuge there. They were summarily executed (apparently by shooting) at the old Cercle Sportif swimming pool — a site that has since become the location of the new U.S. embassy.
* Taylor Owen has mapped the known U.S. bombing sorties into Cambodia; he discusses that project, and the ways the bombing impacted the Khmer Rouge, here.