Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

1861: Francisco del Rosario Sanchez

1 comment July 4th, 2011 Headsman

This is the sesquicentennial of the execution of Dominican Republic independence hero Francisco del Rosario Sanchez.

Statue of Sanchez at the image (cc) PBT Foto

The biggest name in the Dominican Republic’s successful separation from Haiti is generally reckoned to be liberal visionary Juan Pablo Duarte, but he’d been exiled to Venezuela by 1843.

In his absence, the republican cause coalesced around the 26-year-old Sanchez — who was saluted as chief of the government junta by the rebels whose February 27, 1844* seizure of Ozama Fortress commenced the victorious Dominican War of Independence. This makes him kinda-sorta the first head of state for his country.

This circumstance returned Duarte from exile, but the latter lost the ensuing presidential election to rancher Pedro Santana, who steered the country towards Spanish annexation as a hedge against Haitian recapture. Santana re-exiled Duarte, and booted Sanchez as well. Ironically, he had to take refuge in Haiti.

If the evil seek pretexts to sully my conduct, we respond with a charge saying loudly, but without boasting, that I am the Dominican flag.

-Sanchez

His attempt to invade the Dominican Republic to prevent the Spanish takeover quickly foundered, and within weeks of his capture he was shot at San Juan de la Maguana.**

Just a couple of years later, a different revolt achieved the same objective. Their successors in the independent Dominican Republic continue to honor Francisco del Rosario Sanchez as one of the nation’s foremost visionaries.

His son, Gen. Juan Francisco Sanchez, went on to become the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

* February 27 is the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day.

** He was the second member of his family executed by Pedro Santana: a province of the Dominican Republic is named for his sister, the independence movement’s first female martyr.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dominican Republic,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot

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317 B.C.E.: Philip III Arrhidaeus, who succeeded Alexander the Great

1 comment December 25th, 2010 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.

The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.

Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.

-Plutarch

Philip III Arrhidaeus is one of the main characters of this historical novel.

Whatever potions Olympias did or did not administer, she did in fact put her kid in line to follow Philip; that boy vindicated the succession by rolling his phalanxes over vulnerable potentates from Hellas to India. You might have heard of the guy.

The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.

The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.

“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.

Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.

(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)


The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.


Royal Macedonian Tomb, Vergina. (cc) image from Templar1307 (whose user ID alludes to another blog-worthy incident).

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Greece,Heads of State,History,Macedonia,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions

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1965: Joseph Bamina, former Burundi Premier

Add comment December 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, 24 Burundians were shot following mass trials in the stormy aftermath of an attempted coup.

Burundi met post-colonial independence deprived by an assassin’s bullet of the popular, unifying figure who might have kept ethnic conflict under control, and many years of living dangerously ensued as Hutu and Tutsi grappled for power.

On October 18, 1965, a group of Hutu officers attempted a coup d’etat against Burundi’s monarchy — and failed.

the events of October 1965 carried momentous consequences. The mutineers took a huge gamble and lost … power became the exclusive monopoly of Tutsi elements.

… In the capital, virtually every Hutu leader was apprehended.

-Rene Lamarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide

While the putschists were unsurprisingly executed, the Tutsi-authored backlash cast a much wider net, ultimately claiming up to 5,000 lives. (It was only a dress rehearsal for a similar scenario — Hutu rebellion triggering massive Tutsi crackdown — that resulted in a full-on genocide in 1972.)

Various executions peppered the weeks after the intended coup; this date’s was one of the last of the particularly noteworthy. The New York Times (Dec. 21, 1965) described those “executed in the Central African kingdom Wednesday after mass trials” as “Joseph Bamina,* a former Burundi Premier … [and] 23 others included two prominent political leaders.”

Burundi did not live happily ever after.

* Lamarchand calls Bamina one of the “hard-core Hutu opposition.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Burundi,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot

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1828: Manuel Dorrego, Governor of Buenos Aires

1 comment December 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Argentine independence hero Manuel Dorrego was shot in Buenos Aires — a casualty of that country’s unfolding civil war.

Dorrego (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Spanish), the youngest son of a Portuguese merchant, became a brilliant soldier of his country with an adventuresome career in the Argentine War of Independence, at one point taking refuge in exile in Baltimore, U.S.

If one likes, that sojourn in a functioning republic firmed up Dorrego’s commitment to federalism — the principle that would animate a decades-long internal conflict over division of power in the newly independent state.

Argentina’s federalists approved a distribution of power to its constituent regions; the opposing unitarians wanted a strong central government in Buenos Aires.

And they did not confine their disputes to pamphlets.

Resistance from the provinces to overweening Buenos Aires and Argentina’s unitarian first president Bernardino Rivadavia helped precipitate that gentleman’s fall from power and the dissolution of the national government.

Dorrego became Governor of Buenos Aires in August 1827, and exercised de facto head of state powers — for instance, he formally accepted the treaty ending hostilities in the Argentina-Brazil War.*

But a rough customer of the unitarian camp, Gen. Juan Lavalle, overthrew Dorrego’s government and mounted a terrifying purge of federales.**

Beginning, of course, with Dorrego himself, who was given one hour’s advance notice of his entirely extrajudicial shooting.

Most of the detailed information available online about this martyr is in Spanish — see here, here, here, and here, for instance.

* The fruit of this treaty was the independent state of Uruguay, as each side gave up trying to take that territory from the other by force.

** Until Lavalle was ousted by the next great federalist leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1499: Perkin Warbeck, Princes in the Tower pretender

18 comments November 23rd, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, was hung at Tyburn for treason. He didn’t fare as well as the previous royal pretender, Lambert Simnel, who was pardoned by King Henry VII and made a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.

Warbeck claimed he was Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of King Edward IV. Richard and his older brother, the would-be Edward V, mysteriously vanished around 1483, allegedly murdered by their allegedly evil uncle Richard III, who had already had them declared illegitimate. (Shakespeare made this version — which was congenial to the ruling Tudor dynasty of his time — the standard in Richard III; the play channeled Thomas More‘s history of Richard.)

The murder story has never been proven and the princes’ bodies were never identified, leaving a yeasty petri dish for pretenders to grow and multiply — and so they did.

Warbeck, who later admitted he was actually born in Tournai, in Flanders, in approximately 1474 (his father is described by one source as “a renegade Jew”) first claimed to be the Duke of York either while at the court of Burgundy in France in 1490, or while serving a silk merchant in Ireland in 1491.

He did bear a strong resemblance to Edward IV, but there is no evidence that he was really Richard of York or that he and the late king were related in any way.

Nonetheless, his claim was soon recognized by Charles VIII, King of France … and it naturally appealed to the fledgling Tudor dynasty’s potential internal rivals, too.

Margaret of Burgundy, who was Edward IV’s sister and the disappeared Duke of York’s aunt, was one of these educated the pretender about “his” history and the ways of the English court, and she helped finance Warbeck’s attempted conquest of England in 1495. It went badly from the beginning: Warbeck’s army was trounced and 150 of his troops were killed on the beach in Kent before he even made it ashore. Warbeck fled to Ireland and then Scotland.

Warbeck had more success in his second invasion attempt, in Cornwall in 1497 on the heels of the Cornish Rebellion.

Warbeck promised an end to the exorbitant taxes levied on the citizenry, which welcomed both pretender and promise with open arms. His army grew to 6,000 or 7,000 men, and Warbeck began calling himself Richard IV of England, but when he found out King Henry was after him he panicked and deserted his men.

He was captured and imprisoned at the infamous Tower of London, but not before being “paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens.”

The execution was not until 1499, and only after it was alleged that Warbeck tried to escape with a real royal claimant, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. On November 23, Warbeck was taken from the Tower to Tyburn, where he read out a confession and was hanged. His wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, a cousin of the King of Scotland, had a better fate; she was given a pension and a job of lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

At least she didn’t have to turn a kitchen spit.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Treason

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1808: Sultan Mustafa IV, by his brother

Add comment November 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1808, the former, and now deposed, Ottoman Sultan Mustafa IV was strangled at the command of his successor and brother.

The Ottoman Empire, once the very terror of western Christendom, entered the 19th century in a stagnation that had it well on its way to its way to “sick man of Europe” status.

Its fate would be defined by the political — and sometimes literal — battle between its entrenched interests and forward-looking reformers who struggled to restructure the empire for the challenges that lay ahead.

And at this point, it wasn’t only the Ottoman polity that had to fret for its survival. Its very namesake dynasty was in danger of extinguishing itself. There hadn’t been a male born to the House of Osman in twenty years, and in the events herein narrated, internecine conflict would winnow the Osmans down to their very last man.

Aggressive Progressive

Reform was the project of our principal’s predecessor, Selim. In the years around the turn of the century, Selim endeavored to get Turkey out of its wasteful foreign conflicts to gain maneuvering room for more urgent domestic projects.*

Chief among the many oxes Selim proposed to gore were the Janissaries, the Ottomans’ powerful and increasingly archaic military elite, much given to destructive use of their martial prowess in various factional conflicts within the Empire.

Possessive Regressive

The Janissaries deposed Selim in 1807, elevating his cousin — our man, Mustafa, a mere handmaiden of the hidebound. (His contemporaries in Europe more commonly transliterated the name “Mustapha”)

They didn’t kill Selim … just left him alive within the palace where armed men could find him in a pinch.

That pinch arrived in June in the form of Mustafa Bayrakdar, a reformist official who marched on Istanbul to overthrow the reactionary elements. As Bayrakdar took the city in hand, Mustafa desperately ordered the executions of Selim and of Mustafa’s own brother, Mahmud.

Selim was disposed of. Mahmud got tipped off, and the servants — most famously, a Georgian harem girl named Cevri Kalfa — helped him escape to the roof. Mustafa Bayrakdar ousted the ousters before anyone who meant Mahmud ill could find him.

Impressive Successive

That left Mahmud the only choice for Sultan, and he followed his brother’s own questionable policy of consanguinary clemency. Mustafa’s demotion back to crown prince after having once ordered the now-sultan’s death must have made for some awkward chit-chat around the family table.

It didn’t last long. The London Times of January 16, 1809 reported** that

[o]n the 14th of November, at day-break, the Janissaries were seen assembling from all quarters, and being reinforced by those who were in the vicinity of Constantinople, they … massacred all the partisans of the Grand Vizier that came in their way. The contest spread to eveyr street in Constantinople … On the 15th, the Janissaries assaulted the high walls of the Seraglio; and it was at this moment that the Grand Vizier, after causing the unfortunate Mustapha IV, who was a prisoner there, to be strangled, blew himself up in his own Palace with gunpowder, of which he purposely provided a large quantity before-hand, to prevent his falling alive into the hands of his enemies.

Sauce for the goose was sauce for Mustafa, and on this same desperate day when he lost Bayrakdar to a vault of gunpowder, Mahmud had his brother put to death. This maneuver left Mahmud the last surviving male Osman.

Passive Aggressive?

The legacies of this date were varied and ambiguous.

Mahmud II remained on the Ottoman throne for the next three decades, ample time to secure the Osman line.

The Janissaries returned to their barracks, chastened; Mahmud would destroy them after an attempted revolt in 1826.

But Mahmud too was chastened by the experience — or else, too encumbered by the apparatus of the state, or too cautious of his legacy before that heir appeared (it took years), or simply too unskillful — and his reformist vision proceeded haltingly until the very end of his life, even as breakaway nations continued to erode the Porte’s influence.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Palmer says of Mahmud,

Over a century and a half after his death, Mahmud II remains the most puzzling of the thirty-six Ottoman Sultans … Was he a despot or a reformer, a capricious betrayer of trust or a dedicated ruler of a vision, a muddler who plunged into disastrous wars or a shrewd statesman who preserved his Empire from rapacious neighbors? Should we think of him as the ‘Infidel Sultan’ who imposed European ways on the Islamic faithful, or as Mahmud Adli (‘Mahmud the Just’), like Turks today? The contrasts seem endless. Mahmud is one of history’s most enigmatic figures …

* Selim was sucked back into armed conflict by the Napoleonic wars.

** Though two months after the fact, the report is in media res, since it was transcribing German papers from mail dispatched out of the Ottoman capital on Nov. 16 when “the utmost confusion still prevailed there.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey

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1268: Conradin of Swabia

3 comments October 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1268, 16-year-old boy-king Conradin was beheaded in Naples with his best friend.

This short-lived son of German king Conrad IV inherited his call on the purple at the age of 26. 26 months.

While the infant king worked on his ABC’s in Swabia, different regents tried to keep his Sicily and Jerusalem thrones warm in the far-flung empire.

Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Conradin’s uncle and “regent” Manfred usurped him in Sicily, tipping over the first domino in a peninsular political chain that would fell both relatives. With Manfred’s accession, the rival power of the papacy now faced an active military strongman at its doorstep — and it, in turn, sponsored French noble Charles of Anjou to oppose, and eventually overthrow, Manfred.

By the time all this played out, Conradin was, if not exactly a seasoned man of the world, at least old enough to hear his voice cracking and start noticing girls. By the standards of medieval Europe, that was plenty old enough to press his injured rights in battle.

Accordingly, Conradin — Corradino, to the Italians — led Hohenstaufen boots down the boot to reclaim Sicily. No dice.

His captor’s attitude was summed up in the sentiment, Conradi vita, Caroli mors — “Conrad’s life is Charles’s death,” somewhat doubtfully ascribed to the counsel of Pope Clement IV — so when you think about it, it was no more than self-defense to cut short that vita. And his buddy’s, too, since the scaffold was already hired for the day.


Conradin of Swabia and Frederick of Baden Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples, by Goethe buddy Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Did either try the Sicilian Defence?

He turns to clasp with longing arms his friend,
And turning, sees the fatal blow descend,
Then presses with his lips the severed head,
Last greeting of the dying to the dead.
One quivering flash, a shock that is not pain,
And those he parted death unites again.
So perished Conradin, but legends tell
That as the trenchant blade descending fell,
An eagle, that, unseen by human eyes,
Had poised aloft, down swooping from the skies,
For one short instant hovered o’er the slain,
And dyed his pinions with a crimson stain,
Then wildly shrieked, and upward soaring sped
To witness for the blood unjustly shed.

-Tribute in purple poetry by William John Rous (Here’s a more prose-y review of Conradin’s campaign and demise)

This upward-soaring, crimson-pinioned raptor saw off the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the unstable years that followed, as rival princes and factions jockeyed for influence, there’d be some serious nostalgia for the bygone Hohenstaufens. But there is opportunity as well as peril in change, and though it may be that this fractious realm was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, it emerged from its interregnum with its first Habsburg ruler — of many.

What’s left of Corradino di Svevia (and Frederick of Baden) lies entombed at a Neapolitan church, watched over by a monumental 19th century marble sculpture of the youth.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Heads of State,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,Power,Royalty,Treason

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1983: Maurice Bishop, Prime Minister of Grenada

Add comment October 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1983, Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was shot with seven supporters during the chaotic struggle of power that precipitated a U.S. invasion.

The charismatic Bishop grew up on the small British Commonwealth island in the south Caribbean, attended the London School of Economics, and became the leader of the Marxist New Jewel Movement.

In 1979, Bishop and the NJM overthrew the paranormal government of Eric Gairy (he’s famous for his controversial judging in the wild 1970 Miss World pageant).

Leftist governments in the hemisphere were just the sort of thing to irk the Yankee hegemon. Collaboration with Cuba and Nicaragua to build an airstrip on Grenada … could that open the door for Soviet air support when the Sandinistas invaded Harlingen, Texas?

Ironically, it would be an intra-party Communist coup against the fellow-Communist Bishop that provided the pretext for said hegemon to stanch this existential threat.

A deputy, one Bernard Coard, ousted Bishop in October 1983, apparently a factional dispute in the NJM along ideological lines. Bishop broke out of house arrest and led a march on Coard’s position on this date, contesting his control of the government; the march was broken up and its leadership collared — and, later that day, disposed of.

The Reagan administration didn’t care two figs about Maurice Bishop, but a scene of general chaos offered it all the pretext necessary* to invade on Oct. 25. To save from the red menace, oh, let’s say, a few American med students, plus a little thing called the free world.

Whew!

Years later, that provocative airstrip bears Maurice Bishop’s name.

Audio of several Bishop speeches can be had here; others can be found on YouTube.

* Another possible precipitating factor: a U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon was spectacularly bombed by terrorists on Oct. 23, 1983, forcing (eventually) American withdrawal. The New Jewel Movement turned out to be an opponent more in Washington’s wheelhouse.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,Grenada,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions

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1860: Juan Rafael Mora Porras, President of Costa Rica

Add comment September 30th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the sesquicentennial of former Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora Porras’s death by firing squad, for attempting to retake that office from his brother-in-law after being ousted in a coup.

In the mid-19th century, coffee was king in Costa Rica — say, wouldn’t you enjoy a refreshing cup right now? — and Juan Rafael Mora was the young country’s wealthy leading exporter of the ground black gold.

Little wonder he held the presidency for most of the 1850s.

(Signal achievement: allied with American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt to help drive filibuster William Walker out of neighboring Nicaragua. Unfortunately, Mora’s army returned home bearing something besides the enemy standards: a cholera epidemic that decimated — literally, killed 10% of — the Costa Rican populace.)

In 1859, while making unwelcome sounds about a national bank not controlled by the coffee barons, Mora was overthrown by another coffee baron — Jose Maria Montealegre.

Rather than leave well enough alone, Mora regrouped in exile and launched an 1860 bid to regain power.

While Juan Rafael Mora was introduced to a firing squad for his trouble, one of his party who was spared that indignity was Mora’s nephew Manuel Arguello Mora, a future novelist and Costa Rican Supreme Court justice.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Costa Rica,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Notably Survived By,Pelf,Politicians,Power,Shot

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1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

7 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.


A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan’s] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.

-Dumas

The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

-History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.**

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

** Albion did not forget the de Witts, either: according to this 1785 cant dictionary, the term “dewitted” had a 17th-18th century run in English to denote — well, exactly what happened to Cornelis and Johan.

On this day..

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