Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)
A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.
Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.
The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between tworevolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.
Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.
Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.
The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.
After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:
“Now God help you! Go!”
It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.
“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.
At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.
“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.
“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.
He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”
Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.
— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:
“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”
Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.
“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡
as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.
* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.
** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.
† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.
‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).
Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.
September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.
One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.
But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.
Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.
This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**
He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.
Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.
It was a right massacre.
Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.
Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).
The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.
“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”
To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.
Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.
In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.
And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.
Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.
A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)
** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.
The ensuing Retreat from Mons scrambled the BEF, sprinkling the French countryside with stragglers, though there is little evidence that these men represented a trend towards wholesale desertion as against the disorder inherent to the retreat. The horrors of trench warfare still lay in the (very near) future but perhaps British commanders who aspired to put the Hun to jolly rout were already shaken by the dawning reality of a long and inglorious slog.
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once quipped. In Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson suggest that BEF Commander-in-Chief John French had become a bit unmanned by the punches the Germans had thrown at his beautiful army* and fired off the memo that would doom Thomas Highgate in an embarrassed panic.
The C in C views with grave displeasure the straggling which still continues … and has reason to think that in certain cases sufficient effort is not being made to rejoin units. … All ranks will in the event of being detached from their units use every effort to [rejoin] … and [will face] severe punishment if there is reason to suppose that every effort has not been made.
On September 5, Highgate slipped away from his unit to relieve himself, then just stayed away. “I got strolling about, went down into a farm, lay down in an empty house,” he would explain to his court-martial. (For whom Highgate’s inability to account for doffing his military duds played very ill.**) A few hours later, he had the rum luck to be found by a manor gamekeeper who happened to be a former British soldier. “I have lost my army,” Highgate declared, “and I mean to get out of it.” The private suggested to his judges that the sense of this remark was to express his intent to return (i.e., get out of the barn).
The court martial didn’t buy it: here was the public example to make as a sop to the boss’s anti-straggling ukase. There was little time wasted.
Highgate was condemned on the 6th, the death sentence endorsed by superior officers on the 7th, and it was carried into effect on the morning of the 8th — Highgate having the benefit of only 47 minutes’ advance notice, just enough time to scribble a tear-jerking “will” leaving the remains of his salary due to a girlfriend in Dublin. His execution was published in army orders a few days later — a little warning to the rest of the team.
* French would be relieved of BEF command in 1916.
** Dressing in civvies reads pretty badly, but slumming in more comfortable French peasant gear too was a (disturbingly, to the brass) common indiscipline in these days. Adrian Gilbert in Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914 quotes a cross directive of Brig. Gen. Forestier-Walker: “No unauthorized articles of dress should be allowed. Articles of civilian pattern are absolutely prohibited … The crime of throwing away clothing must be severely dealt with.” To be fair, Forestier-Walker had in mind ad hoc amendments to the gear, like tossing the army cap in favor of a shady straw hat, more so than wholesale wardrobe changes.
Carrera hurried home to join it … and in 1811, he seized control of it in a coup d’etat.** As a progressive dictator type, Carrera would go on to promulgate a constitution, set the stage for slavery abolition by declaring “freedom of the womb”, introduce the country’s first printing press, and establish diplomatic relations with the United States. Carrera’s sister Javiera even sewed the first Chilean flag.
The entire Carrera family would play a leading part in their nation’s birth throes, although whether for good or for ill history has hotly disputed. Our man Jose put himself at the head of the army to meet the Spanish reconquista force in the field — leaving his brother Juan Jose at the head of an unstable government — and by 1814 was mired in a virtual civil war against his former subordinate turned rival Bernardo O’Higgins. Spain (temporarily) recaptured Chile from its divided patriots, who by and large fled into exile.
Never a soul to eschew adventure, Carrera spent the next several years in derring-do plots. He finagled a flotilla from the Yankees, sailed it back to Argentina where he was arrested, and escaped captivity to Montevideo from which perch he waged a propaganda campaign against the Argentine government. By that time his enmity with Argentine revolutionary Jose de San Martin was quite personal: the O’Higgins-aligned San Martin had captured Carrera’s brothers Juan Jose and Luis and had them shot in Mendoza in 1818.
Carrera threw himself into the federalist war against San Martin’s unitary government in Argentina. The hated O’Higgins — who had by now declared Chilean independence and made it stick — routed aid to his longtime rival’s enemies. He was at last betrayed to his death after a defeat at Punta del Medano, and like his siblings, given over to a firing squad in Mendoza.
The Last Moments of J.M. Carrera.
* Present-day Chile’s independence day, September 18, marks the founding of this junta in 1810. It was Carrera who established the holiday.
** Actually Carrera authored two distinct coups in 1811: one to replace the junta with a new council, in September 1811 — and a second to replace that new council with himself that November. In January of 1812, he then replaced his November governing council in a move that essentially made him the dictator. Let’s say that institution-building wasn’t Carrera’s thing.
In Philadelphia this date in 1778, “Lyons, Ford and Wilson, late Lieutenants, and John Lawrence, late gunner, in the navy of this State, were taken from the gaol to one of the gallies lying off Market Street wharf, where the two former were shot agreeable to their sentence, but the two latter reprieved.” (Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 2, 1778)
Samuel Lyons, Samuel Ford, John Wilson and John Lawrence all served on various of the American “row galley” fleet that gave the American revolutionaries at least some seaborne presence in their fight against the world’s preeminent naval power.
The four, executed and pardoned alike, had deserted the American garrison when that preeminent power put Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River under siege the previous autumn. (There’s a very detailed account of this operation here; the British eventually captured the fort from its badly outnumbered defenders.)
While desertion between the antagonists was a common phenomenon in the American Revolution, this made for an especially bad look a year later once the British abandoned Philadelphia to the aggressively triumphalist Patriots.
Even so, the last-minute clemencies alongside the actual shootings were also very much a part of the Continental Army’s delicate enforcement of discipline, in an environment where it feared that being either too lenient or too harsh could fatally undermine the tenuous morale of the rank and file. Every enforcement was considered in the light of its public impression.
“The number of spectators was very great,” our short report in the Evening Post concluded. “And it is hoped the melancholy scene will have a proper effect upon the profligate and thoughtless, who do not seriously consider that the crime of desertion is attended with the dreadful consequences of wilful perjury.”
On this date in 1870, a spy of the Franco-Prussian War was shot in Paris.
Barely a month old at this point, the Franco-Prussian War was a fast-unfolding fiasco for the Franco side. For three weeks, Frenchreverses as the Prussians pressed through the frontier had been the talk of the capital.
The action at this moment was the huge Prussian siege of Metz, for whose relief the French emperor Napoleon III — Marx’s original “first as tragedy, then as farce” guy — was even then mobilizing a relief force. Napoleon was ridiculously out in the field, personally “leading” the army; on September 1, his column would be intercepted by the Germans and the resulting Battle of Sedan ended with the emperor’s own capture and the demise of his Second French Empire.
“Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe”: Illustrated London News, September 17, 1870. Within a few months the burghers will have fled these uproarious cafes with the rise of the Paris Commune.
For the moment, however, that empire is still alive in its final hours; Charles Harth must number among the last executions it ever carried out. The London Standard reported the story under an August 27 dateline (we excerpt here from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel‘s reprint of September 16):
Prussian blood has been drawn for the first time since the declaration of war within the enceinte of Paris.
Charles Harth, found guilty of having visited France for the purpose of spying out its weakness, died the death this morning. His trial took place on Monday, as you will remember, and after a very brief procedure, the court martial that tried the man condemned him without a single dissenting voice. The Prussians (who, by the way, are accused in the Paris Press to-day of having hanged a woman at Gorse) will protest, no doubt, against the manner in which their countryman was treated, but military law is short and sharp in its decrees, and his judges were satisfied of Harth’s culpability. If he was guilty, as we are bound to believe, there is no room for protest. He deserved his fate.
After his condemnation, in the first instance, he had the privilege of appeal, which was availed of, on his behalf, by his council, but the Court of Revision, which considered the case on Thursday, found no reason to reverse the judgment. M. Weber, the advocate assigned by the prisoner, appears to have stuck generously by him, and even to have forwarded a petition for mercy to the Empress Regent. However much it must have cost the Empress to refuse it, as Regent no other course was open to her. Mercy could not be extended to the enemy’s spy, while the enemy himself was on French soil, and French blood was bieng shed in torrents on the battle-field.
Accordingly the order was given that the sentence should be carried out. At 5 o’clock this morning Harth was awakened in his cell in the military prison in the Rue du Cherche Midi by a messenger, who announced to him that his hour had come. He received the news calmly, like a man who had given up all hope, and was expecting it; more than that, like a man who was prepared to meet the worst, with the courage of dogged resignation.
M. Roth de Lille, the Protestant pastor of the gaol, was shown into the cell of the doomed man, and remained with him until the cellular van that was to convey him to the scene of his execution drew up with a rumble and a clatter of horses hoofs at the prison gate. Harth entered it boldly, and the vehicle drove off through the quiet streets with their early freshness upon them escorted by twelve mounted gendarmes, armed cap a pie, and making music to the ride of death with their clunking accoutrements.
The Ecole Militaire, that huge pile of barracks that will be familiar to those who visited the Exposition of 1867, from its position facing the Champs de Mars, was fixed on as the place of execution. The Polygon of Vincennes is the spot usually designed, but the Ecole Militaire was nearer, and this is no time for the formalities of precedent. Whatever is done to paralyze the invader had better be done quickly.
The courtyard of the barracks was occupied by all the troops quartered there in marching order. The battalion of the Grenadiers of the Guard, that serves as depot, was there in line with fixed bayonets, and detachments of Lancers with their gay pennons, and brown, brawny Cuirassiers, and the guides — the daintiest of all the French cavalry — in their heavily-embroidered jackets, were there too. A pretty sight for a military man, these flashing arms and helmets and polished cuirasses in the cheerful morning sunshine.
How did it strike Charles Harth, for he had been a military man by his own admission, a Lieutenant in the Prussian infantry. When the prisoner stepped from the van and threw a rapid look over the assembled troops, he gave a few nervous twitches of his head.
The clock over the centre of the building chimed the quarter to six. Six precisely was the hour fixed for the shooting. The prisoner had yet fifteen minutes to live.
He was led into an angle of the court yard, where the troop horses are usually shod, and which forms a quiet corner to itself. Here he was placed close to the wall, and in front of a squad of twelve men of the Forty-second Regiment of the line, namely, two sergeants, four corporals, and half-a-dozen privates. The firing party stood in two ranks, the two sergeants being stationed in the rear.
As the prisoner was approached by the turnkeys of the military prison whose duty it was to tie his hands behind his back, he shrunk back and said, ‘No! I wish to die like a soldier.’ But on representations being made to him that there was no exception to the rule, he yielded. His eyes were then bandaged, when he expressed a wish to be allowed to give the word ‘fire.’ Adjt. Codont, who had acted as registrat to the court-marshal [sic], came forward and read the sentence amid an impressive silence.
At a pause at one of the paragraphs in the document, the prisoner, fancying the reading had been finished, cried” ‘Tirez, coquns, et ne me manquez pas.’ ‘Fire, you rascals, and mind you don’t miss!’ But the squad did not stir; it was waiting another signal.
As the last syllable died away on the Adjutant’s lips the officer commanding the firing party drew his sword, the soldiers raised their Chassepots to their shoulder and took aim, the sword was lowered, and a dozen shots went off like one, with a sudden startling detonation. Before the report of the discharge had smitten the straining ears of those who looked on, the prisoner fell forward with an inclination to his right side. Over his left breast, in the region of his heart, his shirt was torn into a jagged hole, where the bullets had entered.
As he lay motionless on the ground one of the sergeants in the rear of the firing party advanced through the little cloud of smoke and discharged his piece into the dead man’s brain. Dead man, I say, for Harth must have died before he reached the ground in his fall.
The troops were marched past the body, which was then lifted, limp and warm, and put, dressed as it was, into a coffin, and trotted off to the Cemetery of Mont Parnasse, where it was dropped into a grave which had been opened to receive it, and hastily hidden from view.
August 16 is a day of reverence in France for the execution on that date in 1944 — just days ahead of the allied liberation of Paris — of 35 young Francs Tireurs partisans.
In a dastardly operation, a French collaborator known as “Jacques” — actually Guy Glebe d’Eu, who was himself executed after the war — who had insinuated himself into resistance networks lured the youths, all aged about 18 to 22, to a purported weapons-smuggling operation. They were unarmed when they arrived, but the Gestapo was not.
This date in 1741 saw the hanging of Juan de la Silva for the slave plot to torch New York.
This second-last execution in that bloody affair takes us to a side plot we have not yet explored in our running series: the “Spanish Negroes”.
New York in 1741 was a distant outpost of the British empire, which itself had seized the colony from the Dutch not eighty years before. The ongoing Atlantic war that Britain was then fighting against Spain and France, winsomely christened the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was serious and frightening business out on the fringe of the wilderness.
The prospect of slave rebels doubling as a fifth column surely helped to stoke the coals under the stakes in 1741. When the Irish soldier William Kane was forced by the threat of execution into giving obviously specious testimony about the plot, he reported that the conspirators’ “design was to wait for the French and Spaniards, whom they expected; and if they did not come in six Weeks, then they were to try what they could do for themselves.” In fact, Spain had even published an offer of “Freedom to all Negroes, and other slaves, that shall Desert from the English Colonies.”
And it just so happened that there were men in New York at that very moment whose own persons straddled the threats within and without.
The previous year, a New York privateer named John Lush had gone adventuring in the Caribbean and returned home with two Spanish prize ships, the Nuestra Senora de la Vittoria and the Solidad … along with about 100 Spanish prisoners.
Among them were 19 dark-skinned men whom Lush described as Negroes or mulattoes and auctioned accordingly. The slaves or “slaves” protested in vain that they were free Spanish subjects, but having no evidence they could produce to that effect they were sold off to various households around the city, and obviously nonplussed about it.
On April 6, 1741, no fewer than four New York homes caught fire, and one of them was the next-door neighbor to one of those Spanish Negroes — to our man, in fact, Juan de la Silva. Someone put two and two together and by evening a cry “Take up the Spanish Negroes!” echoed around Manhattan. A mob descended on de la Silva and hauled him to jail, along with a number of other Lush imports.
Accusations against these Spanish Negroes have more than the usual ration of absurdity, and not only because of the language gap with the witnesses who “overheard” them. At one point, nine of them were brought in turn before two of the major crown witnesses, the slaves Sarah and Sandy, who variously described each as present or not present at the committee meetings; in only three instances did Sarah and Sandy produce the same answer about a Spaniard. They’d have done better flipping pieces of eight.
Investigation of the “Spanish Plot” angle would ultimately zero in on six of these prisoners-made-slaves.
One luckless fellow, named Francis, was tried among an early batch of (non-Spanish) slaves and wound up burned at the stake on June 12, an undercard attraction that day to the hanging of the supposed arch-villains John and Sarah Hughson. Francis spoke little English but this did not inhibit the Hughsons’ monolingual serving-girl Mary Burton from impeaching him: in Daniel Horsmanden‘s account, she tells the court that “She saw [Francis] often at the Meetings at Hughson’s when they were talking of burning the Town and killing the People; and he seemed to be consenting; he spoke a little English, and some other Language she did not understand.”
The very next day after Francis burned, the main body of “Spanish Negroes, lately imported into this City as Prize Slaves, were put to the Bar; and arraigned upon an Indictment for the Conspiracy.”
Though strangers in an enemy kingdom, Juan de la Silva, Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito would fight their corner as ably as any who came before New York’s courts in that terrible year, and four of the five apparently lived to tell the tale.
Brought to trial on June 15, they ferociously renewed their protest against their enslavement. Horsmanden, who was both junior judge and senior investigator in this matter, noticed what a savvy approach this was. The bulk of evidence was slave testimony, and by the court’s rules slaves could only testify against other slaves. Getting themselves ruled free would be the colonial equivalent of having the DNA evidence suppressed.
They complained (as ’tis supposed, they were advised) that they had great Injustice done them by being sold here as Slaves; for that, as they pretended, they were Freemen in their own Country, and gave in their several Sir-names.
The Indictment was grounded upon an Act of Assembly which enumerated several Offences; and Conspiracies amongst the rest; and made one Slave Evidence against another; so that this Fetch might probably be calculated to take off the Negro Evidence: The Prisoners all protested they could not speak English; and as Mary Burton was the only white Evidence against them, and should it be credited that they could speak only in a Tongue which she did not understand, how could she tell what passed between them in Conversation at Hughson’s? Thus their Advisers might think they would stand the best Chance for the Jury to acquit them.
This was indeed an awkward argument. New York’s Supreme Court took a two-day adjournment to mull how to counter the gambit.
Its solution was quite bizarre. In a single trial, with a single jury, it would try the five men on two different indictments for the same crime: one indictment charged them as slaves; the other, as free men. Even their names varied with their station: from “Juan, Sarly’s” the slave locution indicating Juan’s owner, into the more dignified “Juan de la Sylva”.
This did allow the jurors to hear all the Negro evidence, from the several slaves who (like the Irishman Kane) were made to name whatever names the prosecutors demanded as the price of escaping a gallows of their own — plus, of course, Mary Burton, that ubiquitous accuser who said her late master had informed her that the Spanish Negroes “would burn Lush’s House, and tie Lush to a Beam, and roast him like a Piece of Beef.”
Still, the Spaniards mounted a resourceful defense.
They summoned no fewer than twelve witnesses, all white men and women; each also had his New York owner speak in defense. Four of those owners positively insisted that after a brutal winter their man had been confined at home with an ailment of some kind at the time he was alleged to be out making revolution. The fifth, Juan de la Silva’s master Jacob Sarly, could not posit an ailment but noted that Juan was not permitted out of the house at night and that Juan himself had discovered one of the fires and faithfully called the alarm to Salary’s wife. Sarly even acknowledged “that he heard that his Negro was free.”
Through an interpreter, each man also spoke in his own defense, generally insisting that they were not slaves and had not kept slaves’ company in New York.
The jury convicted them all just the same — “in about half an Hour,” as Horsmanden recalls it.
And then … something happened.
The Spanish Negroes all but disappear from the record for two months, months when New York conducted numerous additional executions but seemingly did not lay a hand on these condemned foreigners. What was afoot?
Two weeks after their conviction — during which time an offer of executive amnesty came and went — we catch sight of them again when they are brought out of the city dungeon for sentencing. The court’s translator was instructed to advise them to this effect:
1st. THAT they were taken with some Spaniards by an English Privateer; were brought into this Port, and condemned as lawful Prize, being suppos’d to be Slaves belonging to the Subjects of the King of Spain; and Nothing appear’d to the Court of Admiralty (which is the Court, to which Jurisdiction concerning Things of this Nature does properly belong) to shew that they were Freemen; and they having made no Pretence or Claim in that Court to be such, they were therefore adjudg’d to be Slaves.
2dly. That the Court of Admiralty having so adjudg’d them to be Slaves, they had been severally sold and disposed of; by which means they were discharged from Confinement in Prison; and thereby have had the Opportunity of caballing with other wicked, mischievous and evil disposed Persons, as well White-Men as Slaves, and have confederated themselves with them, in a most diabolical Conspiracy, to lay this City in Ashes, and to murder and destroy all the Inhabitants; whereas had they appear’d to have been Freemen, they would have been prevented this Opportunity of venting and gratifying the Rancour of their Hearts, by being closely confined as Prisoners of War.
3dly, If notwithstanding they were Free-men, they ought in all Reason to have waited the Event of the War, and suffer’d patiently under their Misfortune; and when Peace should have been concluded, they might have made the Truth of their Pretensions appear, and then Justice would have been done them.
But now, as they are found Guilty of this most horrid and villainous Conspiracy, by the Laws of our Land, Nothing remains but to pronounce Sentence of Death against them.
Accordingly they were Sentenced to be hanged.
Had they been offered the amnesty, but refused it — whether pridefully or tactically? How comes it that these are the very last words, in Horsmanden or anywhere else, that we have of Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito? One infers that these four must have been pardoned and transported out of New York like scores of other condemned slaves in that period, though these pardons are themselves extensively recorded by Horsmanden. Perhaps they were quietly handled another way — able to buy their freedom or return to Spanish hands in some prisoner swap. Maybe their anonymous helper was able to orchestrate something.
Only Juan de la Silva makes it from sentence to execution, and he with unnervingly little comment. Six more unwritten weeks after his condemnation, he was brought back to court for a pro forma hearing to order his hanging, his comrades now nowhere to be found.
He was supposed to join John Ury on the gallows; our series will meet this man in its next post. But Ury was respited, leaving “Wan” to a strange, lonely death far from his kith and kin — and one single sentence from Horsmanden to dispatch the strangest sub-plot of a sordid story.
Juan, alias Wan de Sylva; the Spanish Negro, condemned for the Conspiracy, was this Day executed according to Sentence: He was neatly dressed in a white Shirt, Jacket, Drawers and Stockings, behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kiss’d a Crucifix, insisting on his Innocence to the last.
* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore speculates that the attorney James Alexander might have given the Spanish Negroes advice. Although he would have been seated at the prosecutors’ bar in this trial — defending any of the accused terrorists was politically impossible for any of the city’s lawyers — Horsmanden never records Alexander speaking or taking any other active part in the prosecution, and Lepore thinks that might indicate that he was becoming silently disenchanted with events.
Alexander did have the dissident chops to play this part: it was he who “anonymously” penned the scathing attacks on the previous governor that led to the arrest of the man who printed them, Peter Zenger, and thence to Zenger’s acquittal in a landmark freedom of the press case.
Part of the deal for these princely states was that the British guaranteed the throne and the succession of the cooperating ruler, but the British waffled when the warrior chief Tikendrajit deposed Manipur’s raja in the fall of 1890 and for several months the revolution appeared to be a fait accompli. Eventually, Lord Lansdowne decided to let the transfer of power to the ex-raja’s brother stand, but marched 400-500 Gurkhas into Manipur to demand surrender of Tikendrajit for punishment.
Tikendrajit had the honor of commanding Manipuri’s forces in the brief ensuing conflict: the Anglo-Manipur War. It lasted only a few weeks, as the British scaled their punitive deployments to “overwhelming” and by the end of April hoisted the Union Jack over Kangla Palace.
Tikendrajit was hanged on the evening of August 13, 1891, along with an aged general named Thangal, on the polo grounds of Imphal. Today that place is known as Bir Tikendrajit Park, in honor of a man remembered as a patriotic hero.
Three other Manipuri leaders were hanged for the rebellion, and 22 suffered penal transportation.
On this date in 1916, Italian nationalist and sailor Nazario Sauro was hanged by an Austro-Hungarian military court in Pula, Croatia.
Born in the Habsburg-controlled port of Koper at the crown of the Adriatic Sea,* young Sauro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) evinced a much greater affinity for the seas than his schooling and had his first command — a merchant ship — by the tender age of 20.
Besides seamanship, his birthplace blessed or cursed him with the fin de siecle‘s ferment of Italian irredentism: his native Istria was one of those outlying lands with an ample Italian heritage laboring under the moldering Austrian boot. Patriots pined to append it to Mazzini’s energetic young state.
So, Sauro alongside his nautical career developed an avocation in remaking the map. He took pains to monitor harbor defenses during his shipping runs around the Adriatic; nor was his conviction in national self-determination confined to his own country, for he won admiration in Albania by smuggling supplies to anti-Ottoman rebels there.
With the outbreak of World War I, Sauro — then nearing 34 years of age — hopped a train over the border into his true nation and enlisted in Venice to fight against Austria. Considering that he was still a subject of Austria, this action invited a treason charge were he ever to be captured … and this finally occurred when now-Lt. Sauro ran aground in a submarine in the Austrian Bay of Kvarner on July 30, 1916. Once someone recognized him from his long prewar career at sea, his fate was sealed.
Still a celebrated patriotic martyr to this day, number of cities around Italy host monuments to Sauro and streets named for Sauro; he’s also honored by the Italian navy’s Sauro-class submarine. Mussolini had a grand statue of the illustrious native son erected in Koper in 1935, when that city was under Italian control … but Nazi Germany tore it down in 1944 once relations between the former Axis partners went pear-shaped.
* Koper is in present-day Slovenia, but within literal (and littoral) walking distance of Italy.