Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

104 B.C.E.: Jugurtha

1 comment January 1st, 2010 emperorhadrian

(Thanks to Daily Kos diarist “emperorhadrian” for licensing this guest post, originally published on that site June 24, 2007. -ed.)

The Jugurthine War was a key war in the final century of the Roman Republic.

Like the Americans in Iraq, Rome assumed that their war against Jugurtha, King of Numidia (a nation in north Africa), would be a cakewalk. They believed that Numidia was a nation of savages with a bizarre religion. They assumed that their own “shock and awe” attacks by the superior legions would decapitate and destroy the “evil doer” Jugurtha. They believed that in order to liberate the Numidians of their primitive ways, they had to impose the civilized will of the Roman state on this backward nation. Rome never expected that the Numidians would wage an insurgent war against their Roman occupiers. This war ended up dragging on for almost a decade. And in the end, it showed the depravity of the ruling party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimate party), which was sending the Roman Republic on its way to tyranny, empire and ruin.

In 148 BC, the King of Numidia, Masinissa, died. The Roman proconsul, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, had been given authority by Masinissa to divide Masinissa’s estate. He divided it between Masinissa’s three sons, Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastarnable. Soon after, Gulussa and Mastarnable died, leaving Micipsa as the sole King of Numidia. Around the year 134 BC, Micipsa sent Jugurtha (who was Masinissa’s grandson, but the son of another Numidian) to Spain with Scipio Aemilianius. Scipio was fighting the Celtiberians, who lived in a part of what is now Spain. Jugurtha was able to raise an army to help Scipio. Because of the valor of Jugurtha and his army at the Siege of Numantia, Scipio was able to win his war against the Celtiberians.

While fighting for Rome, Jugurtha worked alongside his future enemy, Gaius Marius. Jugurtha not only learned the superior Roman style of fighting, but he also learned of Rome’s weakness for money and thus bribery. Jugurtha described Rome as “urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit” (“a city for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should ever find a buyer”). When Jugurtha returned to Numidia, Micipsa adopted Jugurtha, and decided to include Jugurtha in his will.

After the fall of Numantia, Jugurtha returned home with a letter from Scipio addressed to his uncle; in it, the commander praised Jugurtha’s exploits and congratulated Micipsa for having “a kinsman worthy of yourself, and of his grandfather Masinissa” (Sallust Iug. 9). On this recommendation the king formally adopted Jugurtha and made him co-heir with his own children

In 118, Micipsa died. He left his kingdom to Jugurtha and his two natural sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. Shortly after Micipsa’s death, Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed. Adherbal fled to Rome. The Roman Senate sent a commission to Numidia to make peace. Jugurtha bribed the Romans on the commission, and thus the commission gave the better regions of the kingdom to Jugurtha.

In 113 BC, Jugurtha took his army and cornered Adherbal in his capital city of Citra. According to Sallust, Adherbal had the support of the people, but Jugurtha had the support of the best soldiers. A Roman Commission was sent to Numidia to forge a new peace. Jugurtha then bribed the Romans on this commission. The Romans thus allowed Jugurtha to storm Citra, and slaughter Adherbal and his supporters. Because Jugurtha slaughtered a number of Italian business people (including Roman Equites, or “Knights“), the Roman senate declared war on Jugurtha.

The Roman Senate sent an army under the command of the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to fight Jugurtha. Bestia decisively defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha bribed Bestia, and thus was given unusually favorable terms. The Roman Senate viewed the favorable terms with suspicion, so it summoned Jugurtha to Rome. When Jugurtha arrived in Rome, he bribed two Tribunes, who thus prevented him from testifying. While in Rome, Jugurtha attempted to have his cousin and rival Massiva assassinated. Because of this, he was expelled from the city and returned to Numidia.

In 110 BC, the Roman Senate sent the praetor Aulus Postumus Albinus (who was the cousin of a consul for that year) to defeat Jugurtha. Because Jugurtha bribed key Romans involved in Albinus’ army (who then betrayed Albinus), Albinus was defeated.

The Roman Senate then sent the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus to fight Jugurtha. At the Battle of the Muthul, a young Roman officer named Gaius Marius helped to reorganize Metellus’ legions, which then defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha was defeated because he forced his army to retreat before it could suffer heavy losses. The Romans did suffer their own heavy losses. Jugurtha disbanded his army, and had his soliders mount an insurgency to fight the Roman occupiers.

Marius returned to Rome. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the war under Metellus, the Roman Military Assembly (one of the two Roman legislative assemblies, similar to the US Senate) appointed Marius consul (the Military Assembly, not the senate, appointed consuls). The Roman consuls had similar powers as the US President. The consulship was the highest constitutional office, and the consuls had imperium powers, which allowed them to command armies and conduct wars. The senate didn’t want Marius to be consul, because at this time it was dominated by an ultra-conservative republican party of aristocratic elites known as the Optimates. Marius belonged to the party that opposed the Optimates, the Populares. Partly because the senate didn’t like Marius, and partly because of the increasing difficulty Rome was having in recruiting armies, Marius was forced to raise his own army.

The capture of Jugurtha, from this French history of the Jugurthine War.

Marius took his army to Numidia to fight Jugurtha. But while Marius had been raising his army, Jugurtha allied with his father-in-law, Bocchus, the King of Mauretania. Marius defeated Jugurtha and Bocchus in several key battles. But much like with the American occupation in Iraq, Jugurtha’s strategy of insurgency warfare against the occupiers rendered all conventional victories irrelevant. Marius was playing a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how many times the Numidians were defeated, Jugurtha’s insurgents would regroup and keep fighting. It became clear that because of this, Rome could not defeat Jugurtha.

Marius sent his young Quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to Bocchus. Sulla bribed Bocchus, and told him that Bocchus would be given a part of Numidia if he would betray Jugurtha. Bocchus then decided to give Jugurtha to Sulla. Sulla took Jugurtha to Rome, where Jugurtha was strangled in the Tullianum in Rome after marching in Marius’ January 1, 104 B.C. Triumph.


The Triumph of Marius (1729) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The inscription in Latin reads “The Roman people behold Jugurtha laden with chains”.

The Jugurthine War was over. But in the process, several problems were exposed that would cause Rome serious pain in the future. Republicans in this country love to tell us that money in politics is harmless free speech. But as we saw in the Roman Republic during the Jugurthine War, money can be very corrupting. Rome almost lost the war because of money in politics, and the susceptibility of public officials to bribery.

In addition, this war saw the rise of two Romans who would play a key role in the events that directly preceded the fall of the Roman Republic. The first Roman made famous through this war was Gaius Marius. Gaius Marius would later hold the Roman Consulship an unconstitutional 7 times in 21 years (constitutionally, a Roman had to wait 10 years before being reelected consul).

The second Roman made famous through this war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla and Marius would fight an unconstitutional civil war with each other several years after this war had ended. Sulla would illegally march his troops on Rome, and unconstitutionally legalize the mass killing of Marius’ supporters. Marius’ supporters in the senate would unconstitutionally prevent Sulla from fighting a war during one of Sulla’s consulships. Sulla would eventually seize absolute power for himself. Sulla would be the first Roman to be Dictator in almost 150 years. He would also be the first Roman in history to hold the dictatorship without the traditional six month term limit.

As dictator, Sulla would illegally change the Roman constitution to make himself and his party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimates) even more powerful. And most importantly, Sulla would set the example (of civil war on Romans, and then the seizing of absolute power) that the future tyrant Gaius Julius Caesar would follow.

In the end, the actions taken by key players in the war against Jugurtha would be repeated in the final destruction of the Roman Republic. The future triumvir Pompey would unconstitutionally hold multiple consulships in a short period of time. Crassus, another future triumvir, would illegally bribe politicians to get his way. And the future tyrant Julius Caesar would bribe, unconstitutionally hold the consulship, and become dictator for life (as Sulla had done). It was Caesar’s actions in this regard, as well as the similar actions of his adopted son and heir, Gaius Octavius (later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the Emperor Augustus) that would once and for all destroy the Roman Republic, and create the Roman Empire.

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
2. Moving naked over Acheron
3. Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
4. Marius and Jugurtha together,
5. one tangle of shadows.

6. Caesar plots against India,
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding,
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary
10. and acquire a Roman religion;

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
12. Marius and Jagurtha together.
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail,
14. bearing ancestral lares and images;
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness,
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed;
17. The perfumed cloths shall be absent.
18. A small plebeian procession.
19. Enough, enough and in plenty
20. There will be three books at my obsequies
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius, Canto VI by Ezra Pound

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1818: Abdullah ibn Saud, last ruler of the first Saudi state

3 comments December 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1818, the last ruler of the first state established by the Al Saud who rule the modern state of Saudi Arabia lost his head to the Ottoman Sultan.

The Ottoman state and its (largely independent) vassal Egypt begged to dispute the Wahhabi tribe’s authority in the Arabian peninsula (and its proclivity for raiding Ottoman caravans) and made war on the House of Saud throughout the 1810’s.

The Battle of ad-Dir’iyah in 1818 settled the matter, with our day’s principal Abdullah I surrendering to the Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha.

We pick up the action from the third-hand, well-after-the-fact reports of the London Times. This, printed on Jan. 16 1819 under the “German Papers” heading:

FROM THE TURKISH FRONTIERS, DEC. 16.

The last victory over the Wechabites puts an end to the war at once. Ibrahim Pacha, who commanded the Turkish army, sends the captive Abdallah to Constantinople, but he first had his head shaved, and all his teeth pulled out.

On Feb. 6, the Times channeled the Dutch and Flanders mail:

Intelligence from Constantinople, dated the 24th December, states, that the Chief of the Wechabites, Abdallah, and his Iman, were brought prisoners into that capital on the 16th of the same month. After being led, in chains, through the principal streets, they were taken to prison and put to the torture. On the following morning, they were brought before the Sultan and beheaded. Their naked bodies were exposed during three days, and then delivered to the populace.

In addition to Abdullah himself, this affair finished off the city of Diriyah as a Saudi capital.

But of course, the Saud and their state were just getting started.

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1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II’s lover?

8 comments November 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1326, the power behind Edward II’s throne — and the presumed lover in his bed — was hanged, drawn and quartered and pointedly emasculated in a grisly public execution as the Queen and her lover took control of England.

(Wince.)

The younger Despenser, being carved up in an illustration from Froissart.

Poor King Edward — that’s the swishy princeling gay-baited in Braveheart — would suffer a horrid demise of his own a few weeks later. He’s the one most conveniently read as a gay martyr.

Hugh Despenser the Younger (or Hugh le Despenser) has his fans, but he’s much more likely to be taken for a villain.

An upstart knight who unexpectedly lucked into a jackpot inheritance when his wife’s brother died at Bannockburn — that’s the rumble Robert the Bruce starts at the end of Braveheart — Hugh the younger parlayed his newfound position of feudal magnate into the still better gig of royal favorite.

That job was open because its occupants had a distressing tendency to get dead, a fate obviously ordained for Hugh Despenser as well.

But whereas Edward’s childhood pal Piers Gaveston, the murdered former fave, aroused mostly personal pique among rival nobles, Hugh Despenser meant to use his favor to rule.

Despenser exploited his position to build up his wealth and control the king; with his father (you’ll never guess that he went by “the elder”), he became the de facto if never the de jure ruler of the realm.

At one point, his rivals in the nobility turned the tables and got him exiled. Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel while he maneuvered his way back onto dry land in his customary most-favored-consigliere position.

So although the British barons who wanted Despenser’s head were undoubtedly a distasteful lot themselves, and certainly capable of all manner of depravity in pursuit of their own crass self-interest, it doesn’t take a backwards view of human sexuality to get why Hugh Despenser would raise an early 14th century Briton’s hackles.

But you have to give England this: its politics back then were a damn sight more interesting than you get today. Anyone who uses the term “bloodsport” for the modern electoral charade ought to cross cutlasses with the likes of the dread pirate Despenser.

And it gets better. Meaning, for Hugh Despenser the Younger, worse. Much.

Queen Isabella — that’s Sophie Marceau’s hot-for-barbarian imported princess in Braveheart — became estranged from her Hugh-lovin’ husband,* and established herself back in France with her lover Roger Mortimer.

Then, the lovebirds invaded England.

Edward and Hugh were so unpopular at this point that “their” nobles who should have repelled the incursion went in a landslide for the invading adulterers.

Hugh Despenser’s father had already been hanged for his trouble by the time The Younger was taken; the latter tried to cheat the executioner by refusing all food and drink for days, truly a spartan image of desperate self-mortification in a rough day and age.

When you get a load of the death his royal captors had worked out for him — and which they were obliged to deliver to their starving captive hurriedly in Hereford rather than more ceremoniously back in London — you can understand why. After a perfunctory trial that same morning, they tore the former favorite apart.

Froissart’s rendering:

When the feast was over sir Hugh, who was not beloved in those parts, was brought before the queen and knights assembled; the charges were read to him – to which he made no reply; the barons and knights then passed the following sentence on him: first, that he should be drawn on a hurdle, attended by trumpets and clarions, through all the streets in the city of Hereford, and then conducted to the market-place, where all the people were assembled; at that place he was to be bound on a high scaffold, in order that he might be more easily seen by the people. First, his privates were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic, and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were cast into a large fire kindled close to him; Afterwards, his heart was thrown into the same fire, because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable counsels so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land, and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded, by whom the kingdom ought to have been supported and defended; and had so seduced the king, that he could not or would not see the queen, or his eldest son, who was to be their future sovereign, both of whom had, to preserve their lives, been forced to quit the kingdom. The other parts of sir Hugh thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London.**

It’s reported that Isabella and Mortimer feasted and made merry as they beheld this hideous spectacle. Now that’s bloodsport politics.

Hugh the younger Despenser and his life and times are covered in amazing detail by a couple of active-posting enthusiasts of this particular period who have already been linked elsewhere in this post: the aptly-named Edward II blog (dig his biography of Hugh Despenser, among many other such dramatis personae; also his account of the execution, already cited); and, Lady Despenser’s Scribery (whose entire sidebar is pretty much all about our day’s principal; for the quick tour, see her biography and posts on the “trial” and execution).

* The reason for said estrangement can be situated anywhere one likes along the personal-political spectrum; one recent historical novel speculates (upon no authority but dramatic license) that Hugh raped the queen.

** Remains reportedly discovered last year were speculatively identified as Hugh Despenser’s; the litany of injuries to the body testify to the ghastly death-ritual its owner underwent.

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1974: Black Saturday in Ethiopia

3 comments November 23rd, 2009 Headsman

November 23, 1974 was “Bloody Saturday” in Ethiopia for that day’s* surprise purge of some threescore politicians and soldiers by the ruling Derg.

It was barely ten weeks since the Derg — an Amharic word meaning “committee”, in this case a leftist military junta — had formally overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, so ancient that he was already middle-aged back when he’d been leading Ethiopia’s resistance against Mussolini.

It’s strange to say in retrospect, but having spent the best part of a year systematically supplanting the political authority of the decrepit ancien regime with widespread public support, the Derg had engendered hope that its revolution would be accomplished without slaughter.

“Ityopiya tikdem/yala mimin dem” — “Let Ethiopia progress/Without any bloodshed” — became the popular slogan of that heady time. (pdf source)

Black Saturday turned the leaf on all that, and opened the sanguinary chapter of Ethiopian history today evoked by the name of the Derg.

What went wrong with Ethiopia's bloodless revolution?
“The prospect,” concluded the analysis that appeared under this headline in the Nov. 29, 1974 London Times, “is that the mass executions will be followed by further drastic action aimed at consolidating the control of the new military rulers.” The same author, Michael Knipe, had written on Nov. 16 that “the firmness of [the military’s] control appears to be matched by an overall moderation of approach, which holds promise for Ethiopia’s future.”

The Derg long remained a shadowy body, its members largely unknown and its internecine factional politics only guessed-at. The executions this date are generally read as the consolidation of the coup’s “radical” elements as against its “moderates” and the first signal event in Derg member Mengistu Haile Mariam‘s eventual conquest of supreme authority.

The crucial issue that separated radicals from moderates at the revolution’s early stage appears to be their approach to the ongoing struggle of coastal Eritrea — then still a province of Ethiopia.

Ethnically Eritrean officer Aman Michael Andom, the first titular head of the Derg who had been deposed from his position only a week ago, was a noteworthy advocate of negotiating a peacable settlement with Eritrean agitators. He was among the casualties of Black Saturday. (Aman was later reported to have been killed resisting arrest, rather than actually executed; many of the available accounts of this massacre have slightly varying numbers and particulars.) Henceforth, military force would be Addis Ababa’s only approach to the Eritrean problem.

A few other Aman supporters in the Derg shared his fate in a political wipeout. But more numerous among the 29 civilian and 31 military men announced as casualties the next morning — and there had been no prior warning that executions were imminent — were aristocrats and officials of the Haile Selassie government, including:

  • Two former Prime Ministers, Endelkachew Makonnen and Aklilu Habte-Wold (or Aklilou Wold), both of whom had been slated for trial for the recent famine in Wollo (London Times, Nov. 14, 1974);**

  • Solomon Abrahami, the former governor of Wollo;
  • Selassie’s own grandsom, Rear Adm. Iskender (Alexander) Desta;
  • 16 generals, including Selassie’s son-in-law (and former Defense Minister) Abiye Abebe.

(This Nov. 25, 1974 New York Times article — behind the paper’s pay wall — lists all 60 vicitms.)

These were a selection of some 200 political prisoners held by the Derg; how hard to come down on these officials was another point of contention between radicals and moderates. It emerged later that the Derg had met earlier on the 23rd to vote, name by name, which among its prisoners deserved execution.

So if you look at it right, summarily machine-gunning only 30% of your political prisoners is a moderate policy. Alas: these would hardly be the last.

After the Derg government was itself finally overthrown in 1991 — and the troubled province of Eritrea finally won its independence from Ethiopia — some of the perpetrators of its genocidal atrocities were themselves put on trial.

* It’s obscure — perhaps permanently so — whether the nighttime killings transpired before or after the end of the day, and both the 23rd and 24th are variously cited as the date of death. “Reliable sources said the executions were by machine gun at midnight,” the unhelpfully breezy New York Times reported on Nov. 25. This account (pdf) has the shootings occupying several batches with midnight passing during the process. We give precedence to Saturday the 23rd here because that’s the day that earned the “Bloody” appellation.

** According to Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution, Mengistu was rumored to have disposed of Aklilu personally.

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1864: Hong Tianguifu, in the Taiping Rebellion

8 comments November 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the sins of the father were visited upon the son when the Qing Dynasty dealt a coup de grace in what is perhaps history’s bloodiest civil war, executing the luckless teenager to whom leadership of the Taiping Rebellion had fallen.

Strangely little-known, the Taiping Rebellion shook the weakened Chinese state through the middle of the 19th century, nearly to its very foundations.

From 1851 until the 1864 death of its queer leader figure, prophetic Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, it maintained its own state in southern China, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Also of interest: Google freebies from the 19th century. Ti-ping tien-kwoh: the history of the Ti-ping revolution and History of the insurrection in China: with notices of the Christianity, creed, and proclamations of the insurgents.

China’s defeat in the First Opium War in the 1840’s set the stage for Hong Xiuquan’s movement, and not only geopolitically: western powers had pried open the Orient to proselytizers as well as poppies, and though Christianity would find a rough go of it in China, it did win over Hong.

Fired by his supposed divine vision, Hong’s Heavenly Kingdom conquered the Yangtze Valley and much of the south, with an outlook radically progressive as against the hidebound Qing: egalitarian land distribution and gender equity (the Kingdom’s administrative acumen is less generously accounted). Naturally, the “real” Christian missionaries abhorred it, which sincere theology happily comported with the policy of their national statesmen who abhorred the Taiping’s encumbrance upon the opium trade.

This illustrated podcast does creditable coverage of the Qing’s twilight century; from about 14:17, it covers Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion specifically.

The rebellion waxed while the Qing lost a second Opium War to the west, but a Taiping bid to capture Shanghai fell short in 1860. By this time, westerners had the Qing by the short-and-curlies and were not eager to see the client dynasty they had so painstakingly browbeaten supplanted by a bunch of millenarian Levellers without the common courtesy to promulgate smack; accordingly, China’s recent Opium War antagonists now helped China field the forces necessary to suppress the rebellion.

Charles George Gordon, a British evangelical Christian himself destined for eventual beheading, even led the pacification force swaggeringly branded the “Ever Victorious Army“.

We’ve reached the end here and only just met our day’s principal, the son and heir who at 15 was handed the helm of the collapsing state by his visionary father. (Hong Xiuquan conveniently proceeded to kick the bucket just before the Qing finished off the rebellion.)

Officially the second (and obviously the last) ruler of the Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Tianguifu had no juice with his military or administration, and no time to enjoy the more prosaic perquisites of regal authority, but was available as the object of official vengeance. (Thanks, dad.)


Less exalted Taiping Rebellion prisoners, from here (click through the pages for a detailed history of the rebellion).

The Taiping Rebellion features in the 2007 Chinese flick Tau ming chong (The Warlods), which represents a Qing-Taiping battle in the fine cinematic bloodbath below. Some 20 to 30 million people are thought to have perished in this civil war, which was also one of the last significant conflicts fought primarily with blades rather than bullets.

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1885: Louis Riel, Metis leader

3 comments November 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1885, Louis Riel, “the puzzling Messianic figure of Canadian history,” was hanged in Regina for treason.

We have already met in these pages the magnetic, controversial figure of Louis Riel when his Red River Rebellion caused the 1870 execution of Thomas Scott, one of the soldiers sent to suppress it.

Now, after a decade and a half in the political and sometimes literal wilderness, the champion of the Métis had been recalled from the United States to press the rights of his mixed-race French-indigenous people against the Anglo Canadians’ westward march.

It was North America’s familiar clash of civilizations between expanding industrial economies and the traditional ways of life they displaced. (Here’s a good background documentary video, with a Part 2 that gets into the weeds on battlefield events.) Because the Metis were “half-breeds” whose European stock was French, the story’s familiar cocktail of racism had a twist of Canada’s Anglo-French rivalry, too.

Riel declared an independent Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, and the North-West Rebellion was on.

The rebels had some initial successes. But hampered by an inability to make a firm alliance with the more politically realistic Cree, by the non-support of the Catholic Church in view of Riel’s increasingly out-there millenarianism, and by the extension of technological superiority another 15 years’ railroad-building had given the Ottawa government, Riel’s forces soon gave way.

The lightning-rod leader was arrested and repaired to the provincial capital for trial, where he spurned his lawyers’ desperation attempt to plead insanity and cogently vindicated his position.

“Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.”
-Riel

For a man twice a rebel, the hanging sentence was no surprise. Later, juror Edwin Brooks would tell a newspaper “We [the jury] tried Louis Riel for treason but he was hanged for the murder of Thomas Scott.” (Source, via this pdf handbook all about the Metis.)

His hanging was met with outrage in Francophone Quebec, and Louis Riel remains a polarizing figure down to the present day — an emblem of multiple overlapping cultural conflicts never fully resolved. The upcoming year’s 125th anniversary of events profiled here promise a renewed examination of Louis Riel (or at least of his tourism potential).

Below are a few more-or-less obtainable recent books about Riel and the North-West Rebellion, culled from this pdf reading list. Also note the public-domain volume The history of the North-west rebellion of 1885.

Recent considerations of Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion

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1463: David of Trebizond and his heirs

1 comment November 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1463, the last regal claimants of Byzantium’s last successor state were executed in Constantinople.

They were, by this time, two years deposed from actual power. David of Trebizond (aka David Comnenos) had inherited the enclave“empire” clinging to the Black Sea coast in 1459, and proved himself “a fit agent for consummating the ruin of an empire.”

Specifically, he cleverly set about needling the overwhelming Turkish power on his borders by vainly attempting to stir up another Crusade, and refused to pay the Mohammedan tribute.

Having recently reduced the impregnable fastness of Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror handily availed this provocation to overrun Trebizond.

David and kin made out okay by this calamitous extinction of the Byzantine candle, negotiating in the summer of 1461 an arrangement to settle in Adrianople under the sultan’s protection (and monitoring).

Two years later, David was reportedly caught plotting against the keeper of his gilded cage once more, and Mehmed had the former Emperor, his sons, a nephew and a brother-in-law beheaded, neatly extinguishing the last people with any lineal claim the late Greek imperium.

Theodore Spandounes, a Venetian of Byzantine refugee stock writing in the early 16th century,* claims this was a set-up by Mehmet, “ravenously thirsting for Christian blood,” and that the Komnenoi were given the chance to convert to Islam and atoned their poor statecraft with holy martyrdom.

Furthermore,

Mehmed confiscated all the property of the imperial family of Trebizond and condemned the Empress [Helen Kantakouzene or Cantacuzene] to pay 15,000 ducats within three days or be executed. Her servants, who were Mehmed’s prisoners in Constantinople, worked from dawn to dusk to raise the money and paid it … [but] she had no desire to remain in this world; and, clad in sackcloth, she who had been accustomed to regal finery, refused to eat meat any more and built herself a hovel covered in straw in which she slept rough. Mehmed had decreed that no one was to bury the bodies under pain of death. They were to be left for the dogs and ravens to devour. But the sainted Empress secretly acquired a spade and with her own delicate hands as best she could dug a trench in her hut. All day long she defended the corpses against the animals and at night she took them one by one and gave them burial. Thus did God give her the grace to bury her husband and her sons; and a few days later she too died.

* And writing, it should be observed, with the polemical intent of persuading western powers to go fight the Ottomans.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Royalty,Treason,Trebizond,Turkey

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1815: Joachim Murat, Napoleonic Marshal

4 comments October 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1815, French Marshal-cum-Neapolitan King Joachim Murat was shot in Pizzo, Italy, for a failed attempt to regain his throne.

The charismatic cavalryman cuts a snazzy figure in the Napoleonic era, from its very infancy: it was Murat who secured for the 26-year-old Bonaparte the cannon used to deliver the “whiff of grapeshot” whose odor set Napoleon on the path to becoming Emperor.

Murat knew a good thing when he had it, and thereafter zipped around with the peripatetic conqueror, finding time between dashing mounted charges to marry Napoleon’s sister Caroline.

Murat’s honors multiplied with his commander’s victories: “First Horseman of Europe” (whatever that means); Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves; at last, in 1808, he was appointed King of Naples and Sicily, beneficiary via Caroline of the Corsican’s policy of installing family members to helm his satellite kingdoms.

Still, that elevation didn’t mean Murat would just retire to his Mediterranean villa and his mistresses: he was on call when Bonaparte went to invade Russia.

Leo Tolstoy, undoubtedly a hostile witness in his epic War and Peace, renders Murat as something of an oblivious dunderhead:

Though it was quite incomprehensible why he should be King of Naples, he was called so, and was himself convinced that he was so, and therefore assumed a more solemn and important air than formerly. He was so sure that he really was the King of Naples that when, on the eve of his departure from that city, while walking through the streets with his wife, some Italians called out to him: “Viva il re!” he turned to his wife with a pensive smile and said: “Poor fellows, they don’t know that I am leaving them tomorrow!”

But though he firmly believed himself to be King of Naples and pitied the grief felt by the subjects he was abandoning, latterly, after he had been ordered to return to military service — and especially since his last interview with Napoleon in Danzig, when his august brother-in-law had told him: “I made you King that you should reign in my way, but not in yours!” — he had cheerfully taken up his familiar business, and — like a well-fed but not overfat horse that feels himself in harness and grows skittish between the shafts — he dressed up in clothes as variegated and expensive as possible, and gaily and contentedly galloped along the roads of Poland, without himself knowing why or whither.

Like his fellow-Marshal Michel Ney, Murat nevertheless had the realpolitik chops to get on after their thrust to Moscow had so calamitously reversed — in Murat’s case, by cutting a deal with the Austrian Empire to retain his kingship.

But also like Ney, he couldn’t resist joining Napoleon’s ill-fated 1815 reunion tour. Murat could have survived the consequent loss of his throne, but made a quixotic bid to invade with only a handful of men the former possession whose people he quite wrongly imagined would rally to his cause.

Not the realization of the day-dreams of the most dreaming youth, not the visible acting of the strangest visions which the dramatist and romance-writer have conceived, could strike us with more wonder than the simple narration of that which befel the son of the baker of Cahors in his passage from the ranks of the French army to the throne and sceptre of Naples; and, alas! one step farther, an unquiet and a mournful one, to that small court in the castle of Pizzo, where the hero of a hundred fights, — the Achilles of the chivalrous French, — gazed for a second, with uncovered eye and serene brow on the party drawn out to send the death-volley home to his heart.

Well, this depiction of Murat’s end is plainly of more sympathetic character than Tolstoy would have done.

… the disgraceful tribunal, after consultation, declared, “That Joachim Murat, having by the fate of arms returned to the private station whence he sprung, had rashly landed in the Neapolitan dominions with twenty-eight followers, no longer relying upon war, but upon tumults and rioting; that he had excited the people to rebellion; that he had offended the rightful King; that he had attempted to throw the kingdom of Naples and the whole of Italy into confusion; and that therefore, as a public enemy, he was condemned to die, by authority of the law of the Decennium, which was still in vigour.” This very law, by a strange caprice of fortune, was one which Joachim himself had passed seven years before. He had, however, humanely suspended its operations many times, at particular seasons of his rule; and yet this very law, so passed, and so suspended by him, was made the instrument of his death.

The prisoner listened to his sentence with coolness and contempt. He was then led into a little court of the castle, where he found a party of soldiers drawn up in two files. Upon these preparations he looked calmly, and refused to permit his eyes to be covered. Then advancing in front of the party, and, placing himself in an attitude to meet the bullets, he called out to the soldiers, “Spare my face — aim at the heart.” No sooner had he uttered these words than the party fired, and he, who had been so lately King of the Two Sicilies, fell dead, holding fast with his hands the portraits of his family …

* More evidence that blood is thicker than water, since Napoleon and Murat were not chummy. According to Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, by the wife of another Napoleonic general,

The Emperor did not cherish for Murat the sincere friendship which he entertained for the other officers of the army of Italy. He used frequently to make him the subject of derision; and many of us have heard him laugh at the King of Naples, whom he used to call a Franconi King.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Heads of State,History,Italy,Naples,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Shot,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1283: Dafydd ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales

9 comments October 3rd, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Do not cross King Edward I.

If you cross “Longshanks,” as the regal man was called, you’re in for some serious pain. And then, eventually, you’ll die, like Dafydd ap Gruffydd did this day in 1283.

It is Dafydd, a Prince of Wales, who became the first prominent person in recorded history to have been hanged, drawn and quartered.

Yes, Dafydd’s death was particularly gruesome. Having fought alongside King Edward against Dafydd’s own brother and then returning to his brother’s side attacking King Edward’s Englishmen at Hawarden Castle, made the king rather peeved.

The English conquest of Wales: end of an era.

When Longshanks got the better of him, Dafydd was dragged through the streets of Shrewsbury attached to a horse’s tail. He was then hanged, but not enough to kill him, just enough to make it awfully uncomfortable.

More uncomfortable was the emasculation.

Perhaps more uncomfortable than being emasculated was when Dafydd was disemboweled and his entrails burned before his eyes.

Then they cut off his head, which must have been a relief.

Then they cut off his limbs.

Then they parboiled his head for later viewing.

(William Wallace met the same fate from the same king a couple of decades later.)

It wasn’t always so gruesome for Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the well-to-do Welshman. Things were going quite well there for a time -– as good as a bloody power struggle with your brother can be. Prince of Gwynedd, son of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, grandson of the mightly Llweyln the Great, Dafydd ap Gruffydd was born in 1238 under the English King Henry III. In his teens, that wily rebel, Dafydd joined one brother (Owain Goch ap Gruffydd) to challenge another brother (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd) for power. Llwelyn won at the Battle of Bryn Derwin. In 1263 Dafydd tried again, joining King Henry against his brother. In 1274 he tried once again. This time with the new king, “Longshanks.”

Things were great. Dafydd was favored by the king. He married Lady Elizabeth Ferrers, daughter of the 5th Earl of Derby. He enjoyed a manor in Norfolk, before exchanging it for another in Northampton. Indeed, it was high society living for the Welshman.

But Wales wanted independence from England. In the spring of 1282 Dafydd, with his brother (the one he tried to defeat many times before, Llywelyn) attacked an English castle. Foolish. Compelled to help his brother yet not being prepared for all-out war, Dafydd crossed the king and the king, angered, pursued him with a vengeance. Troops marched out. Fortifications (Caernarfon Castle, Conwy Castle, Harlech Castle, etc.) were thrown up to squash any thoughts of any further Welsh rebellion, and seed the future Welsh tourist industry.

Come December of 1282, Llywelyn, Dafydd’s dear brother, was lured into a trap and killed. Dafydd became prince, for a brief and stressful span, what the pursuit of the Enligh army, and a king behind it all still fuming over being backstabbed by a Welshman.

Whenever the English caught up with him, he escaped. In April he went north to Dolbadarn Castle. In May he moved to Garth Celyn. Then to a bog. It was by Bera Mountain, in said bog, that Dafydd and his younger brother Owain were captured on June 22, 1284. Dafydd’s wife was taken prisoner, as were their seven daughters, and one niece. About a week later Edward proclaimed the last of the ‘treacherous lineage’ were now his. Dafydd’s fate was then discussed by parliament.

He was condemned to death, the first person known to have been tried and executed for what, from that time onwards, would be described as high treason against the King. And treasonous blokes don’t get off very easily when it comes to a peaceful execution. No, his entrails were burned before him for “his sacrilege in committing his crimes in the week of Christ’s passion.” His body was chopped up “for plotting the king’s death.” A gentlemen by the name of Geoffrey carried out the execution of the last native Prince of Wales. His payment? 20 shillings.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Soldiers,Treason,Wales

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1503: Anacaona and the caciques of Xaragua

3 comments September 29th, 2009 Headsman

Sometime around this date in 1503, the Spanish destroyed the independent territory of Xaragua on Hispaniola in a bloodbath of native caciques — capped with the ignominious public hanging of the Taino queen Anacaona.

The widow of the chief Caonabo (Spanish link), who had been captured and shipped to Spain by Christopher Columbus himself, Anacaona inherited leadership of one of the principle Taino realms of Hispaniola, present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic.

Spain had the werewithal to be extremely crappy to the Hispaniola “Indians”, but it would take a few years to have sufficient presence to conquer them all.

By 1503, after a decade’s slaughter and disease had decimated the native populace, villainous Spanish Governor Nicolas de Ovando was ready to dominate the whole island.

Calling a meeting with the Xaragua caciques, Ovando’s troops enjoyed the Taino hospitality. Bartolome de las Casas describes the festivities:

Xaraqua is the Fourth Kingdom, and as it were the Centre and Middle of the whole Island, and is not to be equalled for fluency of Speech and politeness of Idiom or Dialect by any Inhabitants of the other Kingdoms, and in Policy and Morality transcends them all. Herein the Lords and Peers abounded, and the very Populace excelled in in stature and habit of Body: Their King was Behechio by name and who had a Sister called Anacaona, and both the Brother as well as Sister had loaded the Spaniards with Benefits (pdf) and singular acts of Civility, and by delivering them from the evident and apparent danger of Death, did signal services to the Castilian Kings. Behechio dying the supreme power of the Kingdom fell to Anacaona: But it happened one day, that the Governour of an Island, attended by 60 Horse, and 30 Foot (now the Cavalry was sufficiently able to unpeople not only the Isle, but also the whole Continent) he summoned about 300 … noblemen to appear before him, and commanded the most powerful of them, being first crouded into a Thatcht Barn or Hovel, to be exposed to the fury of the merciless Fire, and the rest to be pierced with Lances, and run through with the point of the Sword, by a multitude of Men: And Anacaona herself who (as we said before) sway’d the Imperial Scepter, to her greater honor was hanged on a Gibbet. And if it fell out that any person instigated by Compassion or Covetousness, did entertain any Indian Boys and mount them on Horses, to prevent their Murder, another was appointed to follow them, who ran them through the back or in the hinder parts, and if they chanced to escape Death, and fall to the ground, they immediately cut off his Legs; and when any of those Indians, that survived these Barbarous Massacres, betook themselves to an Isle eight miles distant, to escape their Butcheries, they were then committed to servitude during Life.

Horror followed horror. Washington Irving‘s History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus:

Contemporary writers … have concurred in representing Anacaona, as remarkable for her native propriety and dignity. She was adored by her subjects, so as to hold a kind of dominion over them, even during the lifetime of her brother; she is said to have been skilled in composing the areytos or legendary ballads of her nation, and may have conduced much towards producing that superior degree or refinement remarked among her people … After the massacre ot Xaragua, the destruction of its inhabitants still continued. The favourite nephew of Anacaona, the cacique Guaora who had fled to the mountains, was hunted like a wild beast, until he was taken, and likewise hanged. For six months the Spaniards continued ravaging the country with horse and foot, under the pretext of quelling insurrections; for, wherever the affrighted natives took refuge in their despair, herding in dismal caverns and the fastnesses of the mountains, they were represented as assembling in arms to make a head of rebellion. Having at length hunted them out of their retreats, destroyed many, and reduced the survivors to the most deplorable misery and abject submission, the whole of that part of the island was considered as restored to good order; and in commemoration of this great triumph, Ovando founded a town near to the lake, which he called Santa Maria de la verdadera Paz. (St. Mary of the true Peace.)

Such is the tragical story of the delightful region of Xaragua, and of its amiable and hospitable people. A place which the Europeans, by their own account, found a perfect paradise, but which, by their vile passions, they filled with horror and desolation.

The martyred artist-queen continues to inspire art of her own.

(More — in Spanish — about this Cheo Feliciano song.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dominican Republic,Execution,Haiti,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Royalty,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture,Women

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