Posts filed under 'Occupation and Colonialism'

1959: John Day Jr., Korean War casualty

Add comment September 23rd, 2020 Headsman

From Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History:

Day, John E., Jr.
September 23, 1959

On December 23, 1950, twenty-two-year-old John E. Day, Jr., a black private serving in Korea, made sexual advances toward the wife of Korean civilian Lee Hak Chum, sometimes given as Lee Mak Chun, in Seoul. Chum came to her defense but Day pulled a pistol and shot Chum to death. Day was immediately arrested, and in January 1951 he faced a general court-martial. Day was found guilty of murder and on October 1, 1951, he was sentence to hang at Fort Leavenworth, the first American to receive a death sentences during the Korean conflict. He was transported to the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth while the case was under review. The verdict and sentence were approved by the general staff and then the appeals process commenced. The case was considered numerous times but finally the U.S. Supreme Court, after eight years, approved the verdict and sentence, and the matter was forwarded to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president carefully considered the matter before issuing an executive order to proceed with the execution and set the date for execution at September 23, 1959.

Just before midnight Commandant Colonel Weldon W. Cox appeared at the cell door and escorted Day into the power plant building and onto the gallows platform. The prisoner took his place on the trapdoor where Colonel Cox read the warrant for execution of sentence. When the reading concluded Day declined to speak to the witnesses, and, while the chaplain prayed for his soul, Colonel Cox retired and turned preparations over to three sergeants. While the chaplain continued praying the three sergeants bound the prisoner’s limbs with straps, adjusted the noose, and pulled the black cap over his head. At 12:02 a.m. the trap was sprung and Day dropped, breaking his neck in the fall. An Army physician was in attendance and he pronounced Day dead in fifteen minutes, and then the remains were lowered into the coffin provided. He was buried in the military portion of the cemetery later that day.

Sources: Daily Herald (Utah County, UT): September 23, 1959. Dallas Morning News (TX): September 25, 1959.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kansas,Korea,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Korea,U.S. Federal,USA

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1809: Six at Halifax for the mutiny aboard the HMS Columbine

Add comment September 18th, 2020 Headsman


(cc) image by Dennis Jarvis.

On this date in 1809, the Royal Navy hanged six for a failed mutiny bid aboard the HMS Columbine, subsequently gibbeting four of them at Maugher Beach upon McNabs Island at the entrance to the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Boatswain William Coates, seamen Jacques L’Oiseau, Alexander McKinley, and William Stock, and marines Henry Coffee and Edward Kelly — the latter of whom might also have been acting as the ship’s steward — suffered the extreme penalty, while a seventh man, Pierre Francoise, was reprieved by royal mercy. L’Oiseau, McKinley, Stock, and Kelly were then painted with tar and hung in chains at the same site as a public warning to seafarers, a scene “very disagreeable as it is hardly possible to sail anywhere below George’s Island without being offended at the sight of those unfortunate sufferers,” in the estimation of the provincial secretary.* Sixteen other actual or aspirant mutineers were tried with them, many receiving heavy sentences of flogging followed by convict transportation in irons.

The Columbine’s tars were motivated by the grievances of ill-treatment typical in the British navy, and the proximity of United States territory — whose appeal to deserters as an escape from the empire’s lash would soon help bring about war between the U.S. and the U.K. — presented an inducement to rebel that they could not resist.

For greater detail, I cannot begin to improve upon the thorough and nuanced exploration of this event presented by the Nova Scotia Maritime Museum. Click through for a great read.

* Legend has it that the guy McNabs Island was named for, Peter McNab, was so put off by the practice of gibbeting near his land that one night he cut down whatever poor sufferers were dangling there, plus the whole apparatus.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions

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1943: The officers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, during the Villefranche-de-Rouergue mutiny

Add comment September 17th, 2020 Headsman


Inscription: ICI REPOSANT LES COMBATTANTS YOUGOSLAVES QUI TOMBERENT LOIN DE LEUR PATRIE SOUS LES BALS DE L’ENNEMI NAXI A LA SUITE DE L’INSURRECTION DE VILLEFRANCHE DE ROUERGUE DU 17 SEPTEMBRE 1943

The monument pictured above in the southern France commune of Villefranche-de-Rouergue honors a group of Balkan soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar who attempted a bold mutiny on the night of September 16-17, 1943 … which began with the arrest and execution of their German commanders.

The mutineers were ethnic Bosniaks recruited and/or conscripted via the Third Reich’s fascist Croatian puppet state. Many were unenthusiastic about their situation, whether due to bigotry from their German officers, rumors of a redeployment to the frightful eastern front, or prior left-wing ideological commitments. Pressed by desperate manpower needs, Berlin could not be so choosy about the political orientations of its cannon-meat.

Some like Ferid Dzanic, actually volunteered out of captivity still in a prisoner of war camp. In Dresden, during the summer of 1943, he met Bozo Jelenek (under the pseudonym Eduard Matutinovic) and Nikola Vukelic at the pionir leaders course. Their plans were to “either desert or organize an uprising against the Germans” Another lesser known ring leader was Luftija Dizdarevic.

The ambitious plan was to have all of the German officers in the town arrested and executed, disarm all of the remaining Bosnians and Germans, assemble them and depart towards the town of Rodez (1st Regt garrison) with the sympathetic French police and deal with the rest in a similar manner. Further plans called for the liquidation of the entire divisional staff. Dzanic spoke of two options following the success of the mutiny, sailing to Northern Africa and putting themselves at the disposal of the western Allies or crossing the Alps and liberating Croatia. (Source)

Shortly after midnight on the big night, the mutineers seized and disarmed German non-commissioned officers, and arrested higher-ranking Germans. Five officers, including SS-Obersturmbannführer Oskar Kirchbaum, were executed within hours, but a deficiency of ruthlessness hamstrung the operation by sparing two men who would be key organizers of the German rally as that morning unfolded: a junior medical officer who was able to talk his way out of their clutches, and the unit’s chaplain-imam* who shammed sympathy long enough to release the NCOs. There was a fearsome firefight through the streets of Villefranche as that bloody Friday unfolded.

Soon reinforced from without, the Germans overwhelmingly prevailed; in the week or so that followed some uncertain number of them — thought to range well over 100 — were hunted to ground and killed in no-hope fight-to-the-death shootouts, or captured and executed in their own turn. But not all of the mutineers. A few managed, with the aid of the sympathetic French civilians, to escape the manhunt; one of the mutiny’s leaders, Božo Jelenek, even reached the French Resistance and earned the Croix de Guerre for his service in that cause over the balance of the war.

After Allied forces liberated the town, Villefranche named a street the Avenue des Croates — the mutineers being perceived by the French as “Muslim Croats” rather than distinctly Bosnian — and marked the 17th of September for annual commemoration of the “revolt of the Croats”. The postwar Yugoslavian government vainly implored Villefranche to recategorize both street and celebration to the honor of “Yugoslavs”.

* After making his way to a company of confused or wavering Bosniak soldiers, Halim Malkoč said, “All of the men looked at me as if they were praying for my help, or hoping that I would protect them. They wanted to hear my word. I stood before them, explained the entire situation, and demanded that they follow me. At this time I took command. I then freed the German men, who were being held in a room. They looked at me with astonished eyes and apparently had little faith in me. I called out to them “Heil Hitler! Long Live the Poglavnik!” and told them that all weapons were to be turned against the communists. They then followed me.” He was executed by the communist Yugoslavian government on March 7, 1947.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Croatia,Execution,France,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1927: Pascual Ramos, the last execution in Puerto Rico

Add comment September 15th, 2020 Headsman

The last hanging in Puerto Rico history took place on this date in 1927.

Like most such instances, it was more remarkable as a milestone than as a crime. Pascual Ramos, piqued that he’d been fired from a night watchman job upon his boss’s accusation of theft, revenged himself upon that man:

According to eye witness accounts, on December 23, 1926, Pascual Ramos went to the Hacienda Sabater and “[n]ervously … circled the oxcart where Rosso was working. He stalked his prey for forty minutes, waiting for the proper moment to strike the mortal blow.” Those present were unaware of [Carlos] Ramos’ “fierce intentions” and, because of this “unfortunate circumstance, Pascual [Ramos] was able to close in reepeatedly, machete in hand, where Carlos Rosso was working.” Ramos tarried, “waiting for the moment in which Rosso was more exposed so as not to miss and make the blow more effective” …

The “lethal instant came” when Rosso kneeled to unscrew the wooden slab usually placed below an oxcart to keep it horizontal, lightened the load for the oxen while the cart was at rest. As Rosso “lowered his head” Ramos, “with the agility fo a beast, with the speed of a lightning bolt, lifted the weapon and let it fall with all his strength” in the center of Rosso’s neck, “miraculously not completely severing it … The head was left dangling from a thin muscle and, as Rosso’s body fell, lifeless, it resembled a heap of human flesh”.

Twenty-seven people were executed in Puerto Rico under American auspices, after the U.S. seized the territory during the Spanish-American War — including at least five via the holdover Spanish execution method of garroting.

The Puerto Rico legislature abolished the death penalty in 1929, and that prohibition was enshrined in the island-territory’s constitution in 1952. (Article 2, Section 7: “The right to life, liberty and the enjoyment of property is recognized as a fundamental right of man. The death penalty shall not exist.”)

The death penalty remains broadly unpopular in Puerto Rico, and the fact that one of the most prominent recent wrongful conviction cases on the mainland involved a Puerto Rican man, Juan Melendez, surely does the executioner’s standing no further favors. U.S. federal death penalty prosecutions there have a tough row to hoe.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Puerto Rico,USA

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1812: Juan Jose Crespo y Castillo, Huanuco rebel

Add comment September 14th, 2020 Headsman

Peruvian revolutionary Juan Jose Crespo y Castillo was garroted on this date in 1812.

Bust of Juan Jose Crespo y Castillo at Lima’s Panteon de los Proceres. (cc) image from Fernando Murillo.

An advance shock of the coming Peruvian War of Independence, Crespo y Castillo came to the fore of an indigenous rebellion against Spanish dominion in the mountainous department of Huanuco.

This small — perhaps 1,500 rebels were involveed — rising broke out in February 1812 and lasted only a couple of months but testified to Peru’s ongoing current of native resistance.

Crespo y Castillo wasn’t a firebrand but a prosperous local Creole elite, a farmer and alderman of long standing. Beyond the common grievances of state abuses and corruption he acutely felt the injury imposed by trade tightening that devastated the value of his tobacco crops.

On February 22, 1812, Indians from several outlying towns marched on the town of Huanuco, putting the Spanish authorities to flight. Crespo y Castillo was elevated to the leadership of a small governing board for the rebellion, whose limited ambitions were marked by its slogan, Viva el rey, muera el mal gobierno.

By May, the whole thing had succumbed to the customary remedy of overwhelming counterattack plus clemency offer for the rank-and-file — among whom, of course, our man numbered not.

He was put to death at the Plaza Mayor of Huanoco, uttering the inspiring last words,

“Muero yo, pero mil se levantaran para ahorcar a los tiranos. Viva la libertad!”

(“I die, but a thousand will rise to hang the tyrants! Long live freedom!”)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled,Treason

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1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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2015: Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra archaeologist

Add comment August 18th, 2020 Headsman

Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by the Islamic State on this date in 2015 for refusing them the ancient artifacts of his native Palmyra.

Eighty-two years old — Palmyra was still a French colony at the time of this birth — Al-Asaad was involved in excavations around that city throughout his adult life. He became the custodian of the archaeological site in 1963 and held the post for 40 years.

When the Salafist militant army rolled up on his oasis city that spring.* he helped to evacuate the town’s museum and Daesh put him to torture to extract the whereabouts of the priceless cultural treasures he’d concealed from them. He made himself a hero to Syrians and antiquarians alike by denying his captors any satisfaction save his death — which was accomplished by a public beheading.

At least one other scholar, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of DGAM Laboratories, was also killed by ISIS/ISIL for protecting the dig site.

after Khaled al-Asaad

bonepole bonepole since you died
there’s been dying everywhere
do you see it slivered where you are
between a crown and a tongue     the question still
more god or less     I am all tangled
in the smoke you left     the swampy herbs
the paper crows     horror leans in and brings
its own light     this life so often inadequately
lit     your skin peels away     your bones soften
your rich unbecoming     a kind of apology

when you were alive your cheekbones
dropped shadows across your jaw     I saw a picture
I want to dive into that darkness     smell
the rosewater     the sand     irreplaceable
jewel how much of the map did you leave
unfinished     there were so many spiders
your mouth a moonless system
of caves filling with dust
the dust thickened to tar
your mouth opened and tar spilled out

“Palmyra”, by Kaveh Akbar

* The modern city of Palmyra (also called Tadmur) is adjacent to but not synonymous with the ancient city/archaeological site of Palmyra.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Caliphate,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Intellectuals,ISIS/ISIL,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Syria,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1956: Andreas Zakos, Charilaos Michael, and Iakovos Patatsos, Cypriots

Add comment August 9th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1956, three Greek Cypriot nationalists were hanged by the British

Andreas Zakos, Charilaos Michael and Iakovos Patatsos were all members of the EOKA guerrilla movement, which fought the British for independence during the late 1950s. Nine of their ranks overall were executed in 1956-1957, including the three on August 9, 1956 and several others whom we’ve met in these grim annals. As for Zakos, Michael and Patatsos, “the first two had been convicted of taking part in an ambush in December 1955 during which a British soldier was killed, and the third was convicted of shooting a Turkish policeman in Nicosia.” (Source)

All nine are entombed together with four other EOKA men who died less ceremonially at British hands, at what’s known as the “Imprisoned Graves”: the British proconsul John Harding buried them behind prison walls in Nicosia quietly, two to a grave, to avoid creating sites of nationalistic pilgrimage.

But holding onto colonies long-term was not in the wind post-World War II. EOKA did not achieve its ultimate objective of unification with Greece, but its rebellion achieved independence for Cyprus in 1960. Today, that cemetery (emblazoned with the words “The brave man’s death is no death at all”) and the gallows that ushered men into it are that very patriotic monument the British once sought to pre-empt.


The gallows at the Central Jail of Nicosia; on the walls behind the visitors, the leftmost photo is that of Andreas Zakos. (cc) image from Lapost.

The EOKA martyrs can also be seen at various other public memorials in Cyprus, such as a bust of Andreas Zakos at the Legions Heroes Monument, or this statue of Iakovos Patatsos communing with a bird.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cyprus,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1905: Kinjikitile Ngwale, Maji Maji Rebellion prophet

Add comment August 4th, 2020 Headsman

Tanzanian medium Kinjikitile Ngwale was hanged as a traitor to Germany on this date in 1905.

He emerged as a prophet of the Maji Maji Rebellion, a rising in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) — provoked by the strains imposed by the mother country’s exploitation of their possession, most particularly the tilt into growing cotton for export.

The rebellion takes its name from the magical maji — that’s just the Swahili word for “water” — supplied by Kinjikitile, a castor oil potion that he said would melt German bullets into water. Both the ointment and the cult* behind it provided an organizing principle for disparate peoples and grievances of what is now southeast Tanzania. The German bullets, however, did not melt.

Kinjikitile was arrested almost immediately with the onset of the revolt in July 1905 and hanged soon thereafter. The rising that he kindled raged on until 1907, and the German reply of imposing famine** laid tens of thousands of souls in the earth in the course of suppressing it. In the 1950s, a journalist would remark that “even today the Southern Province of Tanganyika, the ‘Cinderella Province,’ has not fully recovered from the German terror half a century ago. The economy of the region has never been successfully rebuilt.” But the rebellion’s spirit of fellow-feeling against the colonizer has been invoked many times since as one of the foundational stirrings of Tanzanian nationalism.

* We use the term entirely without pejorative intent.

** Not unlike what had been done immediately prior to the Herero in German South West Africa (present-day Namibia).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1869: Katkeena and John Anayitzaschist, Glyphs and Gallows

Add comment July 29th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1869, two men of the aboriginal Hesquiat nation of Vancouver Island off British Columbia’s Pacific coast were hanged outside their village by the white colonial authorities, on the charge of gratuitously murdering the (again, white) survivors of a shipwreck.

The English-built barque John Bright foundered in a gale just offshore from the location of the eventual gallows in February of that same year, with all aboard lost — including apparently the wife of the captain, their children, and the pretty young English nursemaid who looked after them.* Although within sight of a Hesquiat village also called Hesquiat, the violent surf put the vessel beyond aid.

The tale of a ship lost to the sea soon became in the eyes of Vancouver Island’s European capital city, Victoria, a very different tale of villainous “West Coast savages.” An unprincipled trader named James Christenson was the first to report the shipwreck in Victoria and put about his suspicions that at least some of the John Bright‘s denizens had reached shore alive. His evidence for this claim was seeing several headless bodies. A more generous interlocutor might proceed from this observation to indict the implacable violence of the rough open-ocean surf that would have carried the drowned to shore, crashing through the John Bright‘s timbers and tossing boulders hither and yon.

Instead the most diabolical inferences were immediately bandied as fact, with the city’s preeminent journalist D.W. Higgins categorically broadcasting that the ship’s personnel “were without doubt murdered by the Indians” and whipping political pressure that forced the colonial government into action. The HMS Sparrowhawk was dispatched to investigate with its conclusions so firmly determined that the refusal of the ship’s doctor to endorse a finding of homicide relative to the bodies he examined did not save native canoes from a cannonade meant to force the village to surrender some suspects. In the end the gunboat returned to Victoria with seven new passengers, two of whom wound up on the gallows: a man named John Anayitzaschist, whom some witnesses accused in contradictory accounts of shooting survivors on the beach, and a wretch named Katkeena (or Kahtkayna) who wasn’t even present in Hesquiat Village at the time of the shipwreck. The former man was a factional rival of the Hesquiat chief. The latter “was a simpleton of inferior rank and considered so worthless that not one woman of his tribe would take him as a husband,” according to the Catholic missionary Augustin Brabant, who lived for many years afterward among the Hesquiat people. He seems to have been given over to the executioner because he was disposable.

The case has receive a bit of renewed scrutiny in the 21st century: the British Columbia government issued a statement of regret in 2012, and an empathetic musician composed a string quartet (“Cradle Song for the Useless Man”) in honor of the forlorn Katkeena.

Executed Today comes by the affair via a wonderful 1997 book, Glyphs and Gallows: The Art of Clo-oose and the Wreck of John Bright. Author Peter Johnson weaves the wreck of the John Bright and the legal shambles that ensued with his exploration of native art — including the titular petroglyphs etched into coastal stone by native artists where still they sit to this day.

Drawn to the story by (accurate) reports of glyphs depicting European ships, Johnson hiked to the petroglyph site at Clo-oose where he sketched and photographed these amazing productions. The glyphs tantalize with the never-consummated possibility that they might directly allude to the John Bright affair, but more than this: in Johnson’s telling, they’re a priceless point of contact offered us by the hand of the artist to a cosmology in the moment before it is irrevocably lost to the tectonic action of European settlement.

Soon after the John Bright affair, things changed on the coast. The Colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, and the Royal Navy no longer sent its gunboats to intimidate worrisome Aboriginals. Settlement occurred, law and order prevailed, the potlatch and the totem poles were taken away. Disease forced a good many Natives to sanitoria, and Native children were sent to the residential schools run by Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries. Families were disconsolate. The soul of a race was broken, and the moss-wet forest slowly reclaimed the longhouses and the welcome figures of a once proud people. A whole culture was literally on the brink of being wiped out completely. And then, from the very edge of oblivion, the elders began to retell their stories. It was these bits of remembered tales, called up from a desperate soul’s interior like images forced onto stone, that would enable everything to begin again.

The motive for metaphor is the motive to create a story: it is the artistic drive. The impulse to use symbols is connected to our desire to create something to which we can become emotionally attached. Symbols, like relationships, involve us with deeply human attributes. Raven and Bear can speak to us directly. I can smile at the glyph of a seal, with its curious smiling head poking just above the water, and I am filled with wonder at the image of a bird carrying a small child or a bodiless head. A symbols is at once concrete, palpable, and sensual — like a rose. At the same time, it reaches beyond itself to convey an idea of beauty, of fragility, and of transience. The great thing about art is that it continually forces us to see new sets of resemblances. Those long-gone artists who created the petroglyphs at Clo-oose used two sets of symbols — their own and those of nineteenth-century Western Europeans — in order to depict a vignette that was firmly grounded in their point of view. Like the carvers of the Rosetta Stone, they wisely used sets of metaphors and imaginative icons against materialist images of nineteenth-century commercial technology. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, however, the petroglyphs of Clo-oose do not use one set of images to explicate the other; the petroglyphs of Clo-oose are stunning because they incorporate one set of images into the other. Like a series of lap dissolves in modern film, we are drawn to ponder one story while at the same time being faced with the jarring reality of another … They are rich metaphors of the interior world of Native spirituality and history, and they have been juxtaposed with metaphors of European conquest. As such, they are eloquent indeed.

It is impossible to completely crack the codes of the sailing-ship glyphs of Clo-oose because the meaning of the Native spiritual images cast upon the rocks on that lonely shore has died with those to whom it was relevant. Our interpretations are approximations born of respect for the images themselves and of a renewed feeling for the time. We are left to ponder one significant story born of cultural collision. The petroglyphs of Clo-oose have served us well. They have, like any great code, prompted us to express, and urged us to remember, what might otherwise have been ignored. They have brought some light to an obscure world.

“Petroglyphs, monuments, art, music, dance, poetry, etc. are at the core of any culture,” Peter Johnson told us in an interview. “Where a mix of cultures occurs, then look to its art as a means of understanding the complex motives of such clashes.”

Executed Today: It’s the “Gallows” that draws our site‘s eye but can you introduce the native-carved petroglyphs of Clo-oose, including glyphs of 19th century ships akin to the ones involved in your narrative? Twenty-plus years after your book, have these treasures become any better appreciated as art and cultural heritage, or any better preserved and curated at their site?

Peter Johnson: An excerpt of the Clo-oose affair from D. W. Higgins’s The Passing of a Race (Toronto: William Briggs Publisher, 1905) is included in the back of Glyphs and Gallows. Being directly facing the Pacific, the Clo-oose site is one of many that Higgins suggests captures Native / Indigenous interactions in the 19th century. The four ships at the Clo-oose Site, Higgins suggests, are: the Sparrowhawk (long thin one that the Royal Navy used as a gunship to apprehend the so-called guilty tribesmen who “murdered the crew of the John Bright as it foundered just offshore”); the John Bright (the other long one, a barkentine freighting lumber from the coast to Valpariso, Chile); and, the smaller two ships may have been ships that sailed to the site and “discovered” the bodies. The official name of the site (anthropologically speaking) is DdSf 1 or commonly called Blowhole Site, because of a spout of water that comes shooting out of a cleft in the rocky shore at high tide. Other sites nearby are Hill Site, nearby on a sandstone ledge showing a huge beaked bird, and a copulating couple. Southeast of Clo-oose about 6 miles away, is Carmanah Lighthouse; there is a site there that contains several petroglyphs of human figures (one seemingly impregnated with a child) and other sites nearby show huge, fat, birds, and various fishes. These don’t say anything we can understand about first contact with “whites” and are likely religious figures which had a role in Native cosmology or family organization.


Peter Johnson’s sketch of the Blowhole Site, circa mid-1990s: there’s no way to conclusively identify any of the ship images with any one specific vessel, but if we are to suppose that association then in Johnson’s estimation the ship at the top would be the Sparrowhawk and the one at just left of center at the bottom the John Bright. The image is (c) Peter Johnson and used with permission.

The maps, mention and location of the sites are no longer found in recent books about the West Coast Trail, and the sites themselves have been left to erode away along the shore. Since Glyphs and Gallows, there has been no attempt, that I am aware of, to cover, reveal or understand more of their cultural and artistic messages. It’s as if the Natives don’t wish any further trace of information to be transmitted to other cultures and perhaps, they don’t know any more about the sites than we do. For example, totem poles of other indigenous peoples are left, as part of their meaning, to rot in the bush. We have a different predilection, and that is to save objects from the past. Which is more important? Who knows? Perhaps, the one that serves the intent of the original artist is most important?

As sandstone erodes fairly quickly, these important cultural sites will be gone in 100 years. I personally believe they are very important artistically and historically. Were they found in Britain, like the monoliths on the Orkneys, (at Scara Brae) or Stonehenge and other henges, they would be covered and revered. Here, the new Natives at Clo-oose don’t seem to know much more detail about such petroglyphs at Clo-oose, or do not wish to preserve them as culturally important artifacts. Perhaps, too, they are too difficult to decipher, much like Champolion’s translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, that previously to him took many hundreds of years. Native myths do not seem to be currently studied as much as they are simply appreciated … appreciation is good, but it’s only a start of understanding. Digging for meaning, beyond a purely aesthetic appreciation, is equally, if not more important.

One of the questions you set out to explore was whether these glyphs directly depict the events around the John Bright wreck and the subsequent hangings. Your answer is indeterminate on that … but how should we understand what they say more generally about the cultural upheavals concerning contact with Europeans, and about the civilization that preceded that contact?

The context of what happened during the first 50 years of European contact with West Coast natives, needs to be read about and understood by more “Whites” and Natives alike. D. W. Higgins believes whiskey traders destroyed many Native lives through the products they brought. (I don’t entirely believe this.) Higgins suggests in July 1858, the Native population in Victoria was 8,500, and goes on to say that at least 100,00 Natives perished from booze-related afflictions. I believe smallpox wiped out great numbers as Natives were moved away from Victoria up-country and spread the disease (like Covid), as they met other indigenous groups. Many were vaccinated, but Gov. Douglas at the time (1862), needed to save some vaccine for his own Europeans who settled in Victoria. They did not cruelly withhold the vaccine from the Natives, several European governors helped them as much as possible … that so-called dismissal today is a more popular misreading of the history of the time which serves a current, darker political purpose.

Once the idea that the John Bright survivors had reached shore only to be murdered by the Hesquiat got around, it’s comprehensible how a racist “tunnel vision” fit all facts into this understanding. However, I struggled with why this idea was initially formulated at all — it’s not the null hypothesis when a ship founders in a gale and nobody survives. Was it the shock value of “headless bodies” even though the Europeans on Vancouver Island should have been familiar with the devastating force of the surf? Was it a wholly cynical formulation by James Christenson to, as you put it, “elicit regular naval protection from Natives that he and other unscrupulous traders had cheated”?

Yes, it was a cynical formulation by Christenson and others to elicit naval protection from bald-faced raiding of their Native resources (lumber, fish, etc.). Shock value of the headless bodies certainly inculcated White racist reaction against Native action.

Victoria’s precarity at this moment, as a city that aspired to political leadership but was still a muddy frontier settlement, riven by class conflict, so bereft of women that they arranged bride ships — another of your books — and with a politically uncertain future between England, Canada, and the U.S. … felt eerily resonant with our treacherous current historical moment. Can we interpret the rush to judgment and the hangings here as to some extent expressions of a civic psychological insecurity? If so, did anyone involved in the prosecution later express any misgivings about it as Victoria grew and Canadian confederation became settled?

Yes I think so, not so much insecurity as fear. Myths had been perpetrated about Native violence (Natives attacked and killed white settlers on Lummi Island and in Cowichan Bay about this same time). So certainly, the Indigenous peoples gained much “bad press” about their time. That probably led to the gunboat frontier mentality of the time and the not-so-much later movement to remove the diminishing numbers of children in Native settlements to the White residential schools. This movement is usually interpreted as Native genocide on the part of ingigenous peoples and many Europeans themselves believe this. A few felt it was the only way to save what they believed was a dying culture by giving them proficiency in English so they could survive and integrate among a juggernaut of white settlers that became Canada. I guess the anxiety here is about the meaning on the word “integration.’

The debate over that issue remains. Too bad the petroglyphs are ignored today, they (and pictographs, etc.) could shed more light on the complex cosmology of the region’s Native cultures. Protest, and not an understanding of the historical context, seems to get more coverage. Real knowledge, not bitterness on both sides, is the answer. Proper historical co-operation would help immensely here.

One of the threads in your narrative is teasing out this undercurrent of skepticism about the verdict that stretches back to the European coroner who would not support a finding of homicide and includes the missionary priest Augustin Brabant, who extensively rebutted the D.W. Higgins narrative of native guilt … but only in private. Do we have any direct native sources from the time, or any later traditions, that tell us how the John Bright affair has been remembered in that community? And why did Brabant never publish his extensive personal knowledge from decades of living with the Hesquiat?

Father Brabant had a Catholic ulterior motive. His answer was to turn the Natives away from their own cosmology to a belief in Catholicism. That kind of religious zeal and “cultural blindness” led to the divisions we are trying to solve today. I bet very few remember the John Bright Affair or even care to, as an example and a means to dismiss and/or destroy early Native humanity. It took him years to write about his own view, likely because the Catholic Church would have condemned or excommunicated him.

[Brabant told Higgins in private correspondence that Christenson was at Hesquiat Village when the John Bright wrecked, but fled without attempting to render aid for fear that he would “expose myself to be killed by the Indians.” (That’s Brabant quoting Christenson at third hand.) Brabant thought Christenson only returned, weeks later, to cover up his own cowardice by bearing “to town a tale of cruelty, and barbarism, of which there is not a particle of truth.” Since Higgins extensively published the tale of cruelty and barbarism, it’s no surprise that he didn’t buy what Brabant was selling. Brabant also witnessed another shipwreck in 1882 — he wasn’t there for the John Bright itself — and described victims washing up on the beach in pieces, arms and legs horrifically torn from their torsos by the incredible force of the surf. -ed.]

* We lack a precise complement of the ship and especially of the women-and-children contingent, who were renumbered and rearranged by conflicting reports. Rumors that one or more of the children lived on as wards of this or that tribe circulated for years afterwars.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Interviews,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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