On this date in 1355, Marino Faliero* was escorted to the spot where he had been crowned Doge of Venice scant months before. There, he was ceremoniously relieved of his robes of state … and then his head.
Some fog surrounds the day’s proceedings, product not only of time but of the Doge’s executioners’ damnatio memoriae upon their victim. What was written was circumspect; even Faliero‘s portrait in the great hall of the Doge’s Palace was veiled.
What is known — or at any rate, was admitted by the elderly first citizen — is that the ruler attempted a coup against the overweening power of Venice’s great families.
The putsch was supposed to occur on April 15, with the bell of St. Mark’s Cathedral tolling on a fabricated hue and cry. In the tumult, the Doge’s supporters meant to cut down the nobles who flexed the real political muscle in the maritime republic and consolidate ducal power.
The salacious version has the old goat in a tiff with a noble, who made fun of his May-December marriage –
Marino Faliero of the beautiful wife,
Others enjoy her while he maintains her
A tribunal of fellow-nobles let the rascal off with a slap on the wrist.
Power being what it is, and princes and nobilities being born for conflict with one another across the centuries in Europe, one may as well discern a straightforward political intent — heightened, perhaps, by the then-dire state of Venice’s naval contest with Genoa.
Downright Byronic under either scenario … and Byron wrote a play about Faliero. The doomed ruler gives throat to quite a magnificent curse upon his city, with all the foresight of Byron’s half-millennium of hindsight:
I perish, but not unavenged; far ages
Float up from the abyss of time to be,
And show these eyes, before they close, the doom
Of this proud city, and I leave my curse
On her and hers for ever! –
– She shall be bought
And sold, and be an appanage to those
Who shall despise her! — She shall stoop to be
A province for an empire, petty town
In lieu of capital, with slaves for senates,
Beggars for nobles, panders for a people!
Amidst thy many murders, think of mine!
Thou den of drunkards with the blood of princes!
Gehenna of the waters! thou sea Sodom!
Thus I devote thee to the infernal gods!
Thee and thy serpent seed!
[Here the Doge turns, and addresses the executioner.]
Slave, do thine office!
Strike as I struck the foe! Strike as I would
Have struck those tyrants! Strike deep as my curse!
Strike — and but once!
This sort of thing knocking about among litterateurs in the 19th century practically guarantees an opera.
* Or simply “Marin Falier”, in the Venetian dialect.
On this date in 1858, Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was controversially hanged at Fort Steilacoom (present-day Lakewood) in the Washington Territory.
Yankee officer Isaac Stevens only spent four years in the Washington Territory as Franklin Pierce’s appointed governor, but he left his stamp on the state.
And no project defined the tenure of this authoritarian but effective executive like putting the screws to the native peoples. Growing white settlement in the Pacific Northwest was creating conflict with the Indians who already inhabited it. In time, that conflict would claim Leschi.
Late in 1854, Stevens summoned the chiefs of several tribes in the newly-minted Washington Territory for an offer they couldn’t refuse: pack up and move to reservations of a few square miles’ undesirable territory, ceding 2.5 million acres to white settlers.
Chief Leschi — and it was Stevens’ men who had designated him a “chief”, the operation upon an alien culture of a bureaucracy that required official spokesmen — allegedly refused to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek, although the evidence is unclear. Whatever the truth of that matter, sufficient signatures were cajoled for the government to ratify an agreement for massive dispossession, and Leschi became a prominent voice in the growing Indian dissatisfaction once the extent of the hustle became clear.
An attempt to arrest Leschi, who increasingly feared white assassination, touched off the Puget Sound War in 1855, and with an analogous conflict brewing on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, all Washington was soon a conflict zone.
That story’s end is predictable enough, but Leschi’s fate was protested by both native and white contemporaries. Leschi was condemned for “murdering” a militiaman during hostilities, a charge whose logic flowed from the rights asserted by American authorities but whose fundamental injustice (even leaving aside the very doubtful factual evidence) seems manifest, as it did to the defendant.
I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too.
George W. Bush would’ve called him an illegal combatant. That was hardly common sentiment.
So much good will did Leschi enjoy among whites — with whom he had years of amicable relations prior to Gov. Stevens’ arrival — that a scheduled January 22 hanging was deviously put off by the sheriff charged with the task: he arranged to have himself arrested on a liquor charge while in possession of the death warrant shortly before Leschi was to have been hung, and the two-hour window allotted for the execution of the sentence elapsed before matters could be put right.
They carried the sentence out four weeks later — “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” executioner Charles Grainger would say, “and I believe it yet” — but that hardly put an end to Chief Leschi’s story. The Nisqually have pushed hard for Leschi’s official exoneration, and won a Washington Senate resolution to that effect and an “acquittal” (of no legal force) from a panel of state jurists. But even though it attached to a convicted murderer, Leschi’s was never a black name in the state; it adorns a Seattle neighborhood and a number of schools and other public places. (“Stevens” is similarly prominent.)
Beltran de Guzman had set out from Spanish holdings on the hunt for gold, butchering the many natives on his westward jag unable or unwilling to comply with his demand for more and better treasure.
Tangaxuan — or Tangaxoan, or Tanganxoan, or Tangaxhuan, and other such variants — met his foreign-born visitor peacefully with some gifts of gold and silver. This only whetted Nuno Beltran de Guzman’s appetite, and he promptly had the king detained and tortured for more pelf before dispatching him by dragging by horses and burning alive at the confluence of the Río Lerma and the Río Angulo. (Spanish, again.)
The monumental Juan O’Gorman mural in Michoacan, the present-day Mexican state occupying what was once Tarascan land, depicts this day’s execution above the inscription, “Tangaxhuán, the last monarch of the Purhépecha Indians was tortured and assassinated by the ferocious hordes led by the sadistic, vile, Nuño de Guzmán.”
Although even other Spanish officials viewed our bloodthirsty conquistador with distaste, his depredations were ultimately rooted in the logic of imperial expansion, and the conquest of Tarasco consolidated (Spanish link) the colonial power’s grip on “New Spain”.
Fleeing east, Kolchak was arrested by a Bolshevik-allied government in Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. The White army mounted an offensive to retrieve him — leading the Soviet government to order his immediate execution, along with one of his government ministers, Viktor Pepelyayev. Unable to bury them in the frozen soil, their captors unceremoniously dumped the corpses in the Ushakovka River.
A monument to Admiral Kolchak in Irkutsk, Russia. Image courtesy of Jack Sheremetoff of Baikaler.com.
* An inhospitable Arctic island he helped explore was named (and is now again named, following a Soviet change of moniker) for Kolchak.
The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.
“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”
The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”
The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.
Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.
When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**
In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.
* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.
** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.
The set of any given Tudor-era costume drama is a walking Who’s Who of scaffold superstars, most notably, of course, the wives of Henry VIII. That king’s bed did not cease exuding power and danger with Henry’s death.
With Henry’s demise, the crown fell to the only legitimate son the old man had produced in a lifetime of trying, the sickly 9-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry’s beloved* third wife Jane Seymour.
Jane’s brothers had leveraged their late sister’s favor into political muscle, and Edward Seymour smoothly outmaneuvered rival factions late in Henry’s life to set himself up as the true ruler of England during the boy king’s regency.
Created Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector,** Edward ran the country for going on three years, executing the other Seymour sibling as a rival along the way.
But the power of the king’s office without the attendant legitimacy turned out to be a double-edged blade.
That wearisome (and costly) military scenario could only exacerbate the enmities a somewhat tin-eared Somerset generated in the course of everyday politics at the treacherous Tudor court. Catholics resented his liberal religious policy (Thomas Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer on Edward Seymour’s watch); noble rivals wheedled and flattered the youthful king in his charge; and Edward Seymour’s populist political style rubbed stodgier nobles the wrong way without quite satisfying discontent among commoners† who rebelled widely in 1549, a year of terrible harvests and economic breakdown. By October of 1549, he had been politically isolated and was supplanted by John Dudley. (Guess what happened to him.)
Interestingly, that transition initially looked to be as bloodless a coup d’etat as 16th century England could enjoy: Seymour did a couple months in the Tower of London but accepted his place and not only rejoined the Privy Council but dynastically married his daughter to Dudley’s heir.
All it took, however, was an ounce of paranoia on Dudley’s part to suspect the former Lord Protector of plotting against him. The peers of the realm wouldn’t convict him of a trumped-up treason charge, but “compromised” with a felony conviction that had, for old man Somerset, the exact same result.
We have an account of the Duke’s oddly portentous end from diarist Henry Machyn, whose record of the scene in the original text of Early Modern English we present here beside its “translation” — courtesy of Machyn diaries here and here.
[The xxij of January, soon after eight of the clock in the morning, the duke of Somerset was beheaded on Tower hill. There was as] grett compeny as have bene syne . . the kynges gard behynge there with ther ha[lbards, and a] M1. [i.e., a thousand] mo with halbards of the prevelege of the Towre, [Ratcliffe,] Lymhowsse, Whyt-chapell, Sant Kateryn, and Strettford [Bow], as Hogston, Sordyche; and ther the ij shreyfs behyng th[ere present] seyng the execusyon of my lord, and ys hed to be [smitten] of, and after shortely ys body was putt in to a coffin, [and carried] in to the Towre, and ther bered in the chyrche, of [the north] syd of the qwyre of sant Peters, the wyche I beseeche [God] have mercy on ys sowlle, amen! And ther was [a sudden] rumbelyng a lytyll a-for he ded, as yt had byn [guns] shuttyng [i.e., shooting] and grett horsys commyng, that a M1. [i.e., a thousand] fell [to the] grond for fere, for thay that wher at the on syd [thought] no nodur butt that one was kyllyng odur, that [they fell] down to the grond on apon anodur with ther halb[ards], they thought no nodur butt that thay shuld . . . . . sum fell in to [the] dyche of the Towre and odur plasys, . . . and a C. [i.e., 100] in to the Towre-dyche, and sum ran a way for [fear.]
He [the Duke of Somerset] was beheaded soon after eight o’clock in the morning, being brought to his execution the sooner to prevent the concourse of the people, who would be forward to see the last end of one so well beloved by them. It was the greatest company as have been seen. The King’s guard being there with their arms, there were a thousand more with halberds of the privilege of the Tower, from Ratcliff, Limehouse, Whitechapel, St. Katherine, and Stratford Bow, as Hoxton, Shoreditch.
And there the two sheriffs being there present seeing the execution of my lord. And his head to be off. And after shortly his body was put into a coffin and carried into the Tower and there buried in the church of the north side of the choir of St. Peter. The which I beseech God have mercy on his soul. Amen.
And there was a sudden rumbling a little before he died as it had been guns shooting and great horses coming, that a thousand fell to the ground for fear. For they that were at the one side thought no other but that one was killing other. That they fell down to the ground, one upon another with their halberds. They thought no other but that they should flee. Some fell into the ditch of the Tower and other places, and a hundred into the Tower ditch, and some ran away.
* Henry was buried next to Jane, a meek spouse who had stayed out of politics, given him an heir, and died from the birth.
† Notably, Somerset ordered a commission to look into nobles enclosing common land, a burning issue throughout the century. Some think this raised hopes in the hoi polloi for a resolution to the great class conflict that the Duke didn’t have the juice to implement.
No brutality, no torture has ever made me plead for mercy, because I prefer to die with my head up, with unshakable faith and deep confidence in the destiny of my country, rather than live in submission and spurning of scared principles.
One person’s “murdered under controversial circumstances” is another person’s “executed.” By most unbiased accounts, Patrice Lumumba was both.
A strident anti-colonialist caught in the most inflammatory of Cold War power struggles, Lumumba remains a controversial figure.
In 1956, Patrice Lumumba was a mail clerk in Belgian Congo recently out of prison for embezzlement of post office funds. Though previously involved with the Liberal Party of Belgium, a colonialist political party, after prison, he helped found the Mouvement National Congolais, a pro-independence national party (an important distinction at the time, as most pro-independence parties were at least partially tribal in nature).
Convicted in 1959 of inciting an anti-colonial riot and sentenced to 6 months in prison, Lumumba was released early as Congo won its independence and the MNC became an important political force. Just how important became apparent the following June, when the 35-year-old Lumumba was ratified as the newly independent Congo’s first prime minister.
From criminal to high statesman in just over a year, Lumumba took his new power in stride, and watched in disgust as the deposed King Baudouin of Belgium attended the new nation’s first Independence Day celebration, and before a fawning international media condescendingly congratulated Belgium’s colonial beneficence to its former slave plantation.
Struck from the day’s official celebrations in favor of the the lukewarm exhortations of the new President Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba found time on the day’s unofficial program. Strident, emotional, and unabashed in its anticolonialist, nationalist, and pan-Africanist bent, Lumumba’s famous speech was roundly criticized by the domestic and foreign press, but well-received by the crowd and ultimately delivered directly to history.
Lumumba’s tenure as prime minister was short-lived, however.
Mere weeks after independence, a mutiny on army bases broke out in reaction to Lumumba’s ill-fated decision to leave the military out of a government pay raise. The resulting anarchy quickly spread throughout the country, and the province of Katanga, with the support of King Baudouin and powerful mining companies, declared independence. As United Nations troops failed to quell the situation, Lumumba appealed to the Soviets, whose intervention succeeded only in causing Lumumba’s political support to crumble.
Kasa-Vuba dismissed Lumumba in September; in response, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vuba deposed — quite illegally, as it happens — and appealed to the Senate, from whom he managed to win a vote of confidence.
At this point, in the heat of the Cold War, things got interesting.
Deposed again, this time in a CIA-endorsed coup, Lumumba found himself under house arrest and under the protection of UN troops. Not certain whether to trust the rule of the various laws surrounding him, Lumumba slipped out under the cover of night and escaped to nearby Stanleyville (now Kisangani), where he believed he had enough supporters to set up his own government — and army, whom one supposes he had by then resolved to pay rather better.
Pursued by forces loyal to the new government, Lumumba was captured and arrested in early December 1960 and charged with “inciting the army to rebellion.” Devoid of his former UN protection, the man who would be the leader of a newly free nation watched as he became a pawn in a much larger struggle. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld appealed to the process of law –- whatever that was –- while the USSR jumped a step ahead, demanding that Lumumba be immediately released and reinstated as prime minister and all UN forces withdrawn.
So much for that. The UN Security Council convened, and, a week later, the USSR’s resolution was defeated. Another, Western-backed resolution that would have given the UN power to act as impartial arbitrator was vetoed by the USSR.
At this point, caught between hostility of Cold War politics and the ever-hazy idea of “international law,” Lumumba languished in the military barracks of an even more hostile government. Hearing of plans for his transfer to barracks at the now-subdued Katanga province, Lumumba was wild on the plane trip and was forcibly restrained after appealing to other passengers to intervene on his behalf. Late at night after his arrival at his new prison, Lumumba was driven to an isolated spot and executed by firing squad. News of his death was not released until three weeks later, when it sparked protests in several European cities over the role of the Belgian government, which denied any involvement.
On this date in 1979, the 104-day term of Afghan president Hafizullah Amin met a violent end as a Soviet-engineered coup raised the curtain on a war destined to bring misery to both Cold War combatants.
The Soviet Union’s ongoing intervention in Afghan politics had through the 1970′s steadily mired it deeper into an unstable political situation.
Now, it was running out of patience with the country’s president, Hafizullah Amin.
He’d got the best of rival Nur Mohammad Taraki in a power struggle that September, but to the political chaos and the blossoming Islamic insurgency roiling his country, Amin added a level of brutality that was all his own, and a streak of diplomatic independence that was distinctly unwelcome in Moscow.
Amin was a Communist himself, and both he and the predecessor he’d murdered had wanted ever-increasing Soviet aid to keep the country stable.
Though Kabul radio would announce that Amin had been tried and summarily executed for “crimes against the state,” the short-lived dictator’s fate had been decided two weeks before when the Soviet Politburo passed a secret resolution for his ouster — having lost whatever confidence it had once held in him as a dependable satellite governor.
On this date in 1948, seven “Class A” war criminals, including Japan’s wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, were hanged at Sugamo Prison by the American occupation authorities.
Like other Axis heads of state, Tojo was in for a bad end: he shot himself in the chest before American troops could arrest him, but missed his heart even though a doctor had helpfully marked the spot on his chest for him.
However inevitable Tojo’s postwar fate, however, he was not exactly of a kind with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, he’d been cashiered from his Prime Ministerial gig in 1944 by the real power behind the throne — the Japanese military.
Unlike the “Fuhrer” and “Il Duce,” Tojo was a reflector, not a creator, of national thought. His word was not law. It was not his command or dictate. He was one among many and not even the first among equals. He was a militarist — misguided, naive, and narrow in outlook; he regarded war as a legitimate instrument of national policy; he apparently believed what he told the court, and failed to recognize the patent contradictions between his contentions and the facts. This had been his undoing.
That’s Robert Butow in Tojo and the Coming of War. Butow argues that the titular authority in Japan (he became Prime Minister shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor), a dedicated, patriotic officer of adequate talents but limited vision, came much too late and controlled much too little to be seen as the equal of the European theater’s villains.
The Japan of which General Hideki Tojo became premier was operated by remote control. It was a country in which puppet politics had reached a high state of development, to the detriment of the national welfare. The ranking members of the military services were the robots of their subordinates — the so-called chuken shoko, the nucleus group, which was active “at the center” and which was composed largely of field-grade officers. They, in turn, were influenced by younger elements within the services at large and by ultranationalists outside military ranks. The civilian members of the cabinet were the robots of the military — especially of the nucleus group, working through the service ministers and the chiefs of the army and navy general staffs. The Emperor himself, through no fault of his own, was the robot of the government — of the cabinet and the supreme command, a prisoner of the circumstances into which he was born … Finally, the nation — the one hundred million dedicated souls, the sum and substance of Japan, from whom the blood and toil and tears and sweat of Churchill’s phrase were wrung — the nation was the robot of the throne.
He was the man for his time and place. He fit right in.
The former premier embraced responsibility, diligently shielding the Emperor from any intimation of guilt (some argue this was the procedure’s entire raison d’etre, from the perspective of both the prosecution and the defense), and walked a dignified and honorable last mile in the courtrooms of the victor’s justice, presenting his perspective as he knew it in the context of a wish for peace between the late antagonists.
1. I deny that Japan “declared war on civilization.”
2. To advocate a New Order was to seek freedom and respect for peoples without prejudice, and to seek a stable basis for the existence all peoples, equally, and free of threats. Thus, it was to seek true civilization and true justice for all the peoples of the world, and to view this as the destruction of personal freedom and respect is to be assailed by the hatred and emotion of war, and to make hasty judgments.
3. I would like to point out their [my accusers'] inhumane and uncivilized actions in East Asia ever since the Middle Ages.
4. In the shadow of the prosperity of Europe and America, the colored peoples of East Asia and Africa have been sacrificed and forced into a state of semi-colonization. I would point out that the cultural advance of these people has been suppressed in the past and continues to be suppressed in the present by policies designed to keep them in ignorance.
5. I would point out that Japan’s proposal at the Versailles Peace Conference on the principle of racial equality was rejected by delegates such as those from Britain and the United States.
6. Of two through five above, which is civilization? Which is international justice? Justice has nothing to do with victor nations and vanquished nations, but must be a moral standard that all the world’s peoples can agree to. To seek this and to achieve it — that is true civilization.
7. In order to understand this, all nations must hate war, forsake emotion, reflect upon their pasts, and think calmly.
Tojo has enjoyed a bit of a latter-day resurgence in the public regard, product of the nationalist right’s resurgence in Japan. The hanged man’s granddaughter Yuko Tojo has waged a tireless campaign to clear him.
Further to that end, his ashes — and those of the other Class A convicts — were covertly added to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and remain there to this day. That public tribute to principals of Japan’s bloody foreign occupations has become a hot political football between Japan and other nations, especially China.
Japan … faced considerable military threats as well.
Japan attempted to circumvent these dangerous circumstances by diplomatic negotiation, and though Japan heaped concession upon concession, in the hope of finding a solution through mutual compromise, there was no progress because the United States would not retreat from its original position. …
Since events had progressed as they had, it became clear that to continue in this manner was to lead the nation to disaster. With options thus foreclosed, in order to protect and defend the nation and clear the obstacles that stood in its path, a decisive appeal to arms was made.
* According to John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, the suicide scenario angered some nationalists because Tojo only “belatedly summoned the will to die,” and “chose the foreigner’s way of the bullet rather than the samurai’s way of the sword, and then botched even this.”
Just deserts for his efforts as chief of the fascist party Nasjonal Samling to aid the Nazi conquest of his home country. Quisling interrupted a radio broadcast on April 9, 1940 to proclaim himself Prime Minister* and order cooperation with invading Germans.
Although Quisling’s lack of popular support compromised his value even as a puppet, he remained as Minister President of Norway through the war — a crucial tool in Germany’s counter-encirclement jousting with Britain, nicely explained at the outset of Frank Capra’s American propaganda flick Why We Fight:
He enjoyed public regard commensurate with his station.
A 1944 cartoon in Sweden (which remained tenuously neutral and unoccupied during the war) indicates that Quisling had already made his name a byword for treachery. The caption reads:
“I am Quisling.”
“And the name?”