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.
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.”
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).
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.
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 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.
… 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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After losing the subsequent civil war, the former President was trapped for a nervous few years in Kabul — blocked from joining his family in flight to India by the offices of former Soviet client and present-day American client Abdul Rashid Dostum.
When Kabul finally surrendered to the Taliban in 1996, the hated onetime Communist viceroy — whose stepping-stone to that post was heading the hated Afghan secret police — had a problem.
At the instigation of future Taliban second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, Najibullah and his brother were hauled out of the U.N. compound where they had taken refuge, publicly beaten, tortured and castrated, and strung up on a traffic barricade.
On this date in 1961, the Turkish Prime Minister deposed in the previous year’s military coup was hanged at the island of Imrali.
Condemned at the same trial as his comrades in government,* Adnan Menderes delayed his execution with an unsuccessful suicide bid. Revived from a sleeping pill-induced coma, the gag about Istanbul was that he would soon be fit enough to hang.
Twenty-four hours and one involuntary stomach-pumping later, and he was.
The 62-year-old Smyrna/Izmir native had had a memorable run. He served in Ataturk’s army, then toppled Ataturk’s political party: Menderes won the first three free elections in Turkey in 1950, 1954, and 1957, a feat never since replicated. He was notorious for his temper and sensitivity to criticism, reportedly given to smashing things in his office and demonstrably given to firing ministers and aides for even trifling differences of opinion. Just months before his ouster, he’d survived a plane crash in England — “the former Premier,” observed the New York Times,** “might have gone down in Turkish history as a great patriot and champion of the people” if he had died in it.
His ignominious end didn’t blacken his name to posterity. Years later, he (and the officials who preceded him to the gallows) was posthumously pardoned and reburied in an Istanbul mausoleum. Today, he’s so far from public opprobrium that his name can be found on public accommodations like airports and ferries
There’s more information about Menderes available online in Turkish, including this biography and this film:
* Among the co-defendants also condemned but reprieved was Mahmut Celal Bayar, President of the Republic of Turkey. Bayar died in 1986 at age 103, supposedly the longest-lived head of state or head of government in all of history.
On this date in 1842, church bells throughout Central America tolled in celebration of the death by firing squad of the great liberal statesman Francisco Morazan.
Morazan monuments litter Central America. Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once claimed (he later backed away from it) that this equestrian job in Tegucigalpa, Honduras was actually a remaindered statue of Napoleonic general Michel Ney.
The self-educated soldier and politician rose to helm the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America after it broke free of Spain (and a brief hitch with Mexico) but before it splintered into Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica.
After beating conservative forces in the field, Morazan forced upon them a slate of liberal reforms that had the knives out for him for a decade-plus: free speech, civil equality, separation of church and state guaranteed by the expulsion of clergy. As this patronizingly favorable biography from the late 19th century wrote,
His ambition was for the advancement and development of Central America; and while the means he used cannot be entirely approved, his purpose should be applauded. His crusade was quite as important in the civilization of this continent as the bloody work England attempted to accomplish in Egypt and the Soudan. He was better than his race, was far in advance of his generation …
Thanks, racist uncle.
Anyway, the Federal Republic fell apart in the late 1830s as its constituent statelets broke apart and the familiar conservatives-landowners-priests coalition started getting the upper hand on Morazan. After an 1842 landing that briefly established him as ruler of Costa Rica (he had also had shifts as the head of state of El Salvador and of Honduras), he overreached with an announcement for universal conscription to form an army that would reunite the Central American state.
“Posterity,” he said before the bullets felled him, “shall do us justice.”
Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) was the only known son of Julius Caesar. Octavian, whose claim to power proceeded from his status as Caesar’s adoptive son, became the Emperor Augustus after eliminating the dangerous rivalry of his “brother”.
While most of us at the age of three were putting Matchbox cars in our mouths and eating macaroni and cheese, little Ptolemy XV was co-ruler of Egypt with his famous mom. King in name only, he must have seen his mother still grieving because of Caesar’s assassination March 15, 44 B.C.
The little tyke, though born in Egypt, spent the first couple of years in Rome with Caesar and his mother. Then his dad was stabbed, repeatedly, and Cleopatra took the boy home to Egypt. Proclaimed “King of Kings,” little Caesarion couldn’t realize at his young age the power struggles roiling around him and his mother.
Indeed, things were a little tense outside the family home. (And inside.)
There was some wrestling going on, and not Greco-Roman. No, there were men who wanted power. Lots of power.
There was Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover and a Roman General. He was Julius Caesar’s second cousin.
There was the patrician Marcus Lepidus, Caesar’s, for lack of a better word, deputy dictator.
Then, the aforementioned Octavian (Julius Caesar was his great uncle).
Together, the three were the Second Triumvirate, a dream team of Roman political heavyweights. Supreme rule they had. Ambition, sometimes, makes a mess of things. Only one of the three would stand victorious at the end, and there’d be casualties, like Caesarion.
Lepidus was driven into exile to Circeii. At least he died peacefully years later, securely ensconced as the Triumvir You’re Most Likely To Forget.
Conflict between Octavian and Antony climaxed at the Battle of Actium, one of history’s signal events.* (Its anniversary is next week, September 2.)
Octavian won the battle.
Antony escaped to Egypt, but as Octavian’s legions closed in the following year, Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. He died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra’s arms would be cold with death soon after when she committed her famous (supposed) suicide-by-asp on August 12, 30 B.C.
Before the Queen died, she sent her son Caesarion away from the political tumult.
Now 17, Caesarion bolted to the Red Sea port city of Berenice. Things were looking bleak for the young man. Octavian controlled Alexandria in early August, annexing Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony died. His mother died. His father had been dead most of his young life. And now Octavian — making an offer he couldn’t refuse — was asking for the lad, the closest living blood relation to Caesar, to come to Alexandria. He was to be spared. There was nothing to fear. Mercy would be heaped upon Caesarion.
It was not to be. “Two Caesars are too many,” Octavian declared … so Caesarion was subtracted. No documentation has been discovered about his death; because of his young age, it is thought he died of strangulation.
Octavian assumed absolute power, became known as Augustus, and died of illness August 19, AD 14. While Augustus, during his reign, was proclaimed a god by the Senate, Caesar’s only known son became a footnote in history, long dead and buried.
Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.
Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.
According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.
But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.
While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.
So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.
Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.
Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.
Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.
* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 423, long after Stilicho was murdered.
** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.
† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.