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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”