Posts filed under 'Revolutionaries'

1794: Jean-Baptiste Carrier, of the Noyades de Nantes

Add comment December 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794,* a revolutionary Montagnard who had overstayed his welcome made his departure through the guillotine’s window.

Carrier (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the Revolutionary Convention’s proxy in Nantes where he distinguished himself in bloodthirstiness while putting down a counterrevolutionary revolt.

He’s most particularly noted for the Noyades de Nantes, a series of mass drownings in the Loire that claimed two thousand or more victims — mostly priests and civilians viewed as refractory. Overall the casualties in the Vendee ran to six figures; there’s been latter-day debate over whether the Republican policy there rose to the level of genocide.


Les noyades de Nantes en 1793, by Joseph Aubert (1882).

He was “one of those inferior and violent spirits, who, in the excitement of civil wars, become monsters of cruelty and extravagance” Adolphe Thiers judged him. (Ironically, considering Thiers’ subsequent career.) “This frantic wretch imagined that he had no other mission than to slaughter.”

Now, one could author a bloodbath in the provinces and still stick around for posterity, but that play depended on a timely volte-face with the Thermidorean reaction.

Unlike Fouche and Tallien, Carrier couldn’t pull that off. He was left in an increasingly untenable position after Robespierre fell.

What would follow Robespierre? Carrier’s own person and the Noyades de Nantes were central to this question in the tumultuous latter half of 1794. His beheading would be the climax of a string of pivotal trials.

Ninety-four Bretons already under arrest by the revolutionary committee were put to trial in the weeks following Thermidor. En route to their spectacular acquittal, these accused

subpoenaed as witnesses the members of the Nantes revolutionary committee, who had also been arrested … [and] charged that they were guilty of summary executions and of mass drownings in the Loire; they acknowledged these acts but placed the responsibility for them on Carrier. This meant that there were three trials — that of the ninety-four, that of the Nantes revolutionary committee, and that of Carrier — each revealing ghastly atrocities, which were given wide coverage in the anti-Jacobin press throughout France. (Gilded Youth of Thermidor)

The atrocious stories from Nantes promulgated in Paris by these first trials soon had the city in an uproar and dealt the already-reeling Jacobins “a terrible blow in public opinion” according to one newspaper also quoted in Gilded Youth. The Nantes revelations would provide the impetus (or the pretext) for the riots that soon shuttered the Jacobin Club and placed the Parisian bourgeoisie firmly in control.

If Carrier was the casualty in all this, well, he wasn’t exactly in a position to complain about being sacrificed for someone’s ideology.

Gracchus Babeuf, later to drop his own head into the basket, campaigned against Carrier furiously during a robust pamphlet war.

Carrier: this horrible name strikes all ears, is issued from all mouths. Merely speaking it causes a shiver of horror. There is not a single Frenchman for whom this word does not suffice to tell the story of the man it designates. It reminds all of his contemporaries of the most irascible of carnivorous beings. Posterity will not be able to find in any tradition an exterminator who was his equal. The crimes of this master villain are recognized by, and proven to, all, and yet he has unofficial defenders in the National Convention, and it even appears that there exists a strong party that wants to save him. Even more, there are signs that announce that there are those who want to influence, even terrify the just tribunal that, with its usual wisdom, is investigating the affair of the infamous drowner who has far surpassed Nero and all the other great executioners. …

they’ll justify the mass killer of the west with the excuse that the terrorism he provided the earth an example of was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland.

Exterminable system! It was necessary for the salvation of France to erase the entire population of its western parts! It was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland to turn its most beautiful countryside into a horrible desert, to make it the lair of voracious animals both terrestrial and aquatic by covering the waters, fields, and woods with corpses! …

In order to save the Fatherland were the 23 noyades of Nantes, one of 600 children, needed? Were “republican marriages” necessary, where young boys and girls tied together naked were knocked unconscious with saber blows and then tossed into the Loire? (Deposition by Philippe Tronjoli and Bourier) Was it necessary (another deposition of 25 Vendémiaire) to cause to die in the prisons of Nantes through hunger, infection, and misery, 10,000 citizens, 30,000 if we include the executions and noyades? Were the sabrades necessary (deposition of Laéné) on the departmental square, which occupied 300 men for six weeks filling the mass graves with those who perished from this torture? Was it necessary for Carrier (deposition of Tronjoli of the 27) to sleep with three beautiful women and then drown them? Was it necessary to execute (deposition of Renaudot) infantry and cavalry detachments of the rebel army who had voluntarily surrendered? Was it necessary to drown or execute (deposition of Thomas) 500 children, the oldest of whom wasn’t fourteen and who Carrier called vipers that must be suppressed? Was it necessary (same deposition) to drown 30-40 women eight and eight and a half months pregnant and to offer horrified eyes the still palpitating corpses of the babies tossed into a tub filled with excrement? Was it necessary (deposition of Abraham and goodwife Puchotte) to kill in one night by suffocation (caused by infection and lack of air) 50-60 prisoners in a galleon whose side panels were shut expressly to cause suffocation?

Carrier’s likeness is preserved in wax at Madame Tussaud’s.

* A few sources give November 16; this is unambiguously mistaken. (See e.g. London Times, Jan. 15, 1795, reporting the December 16 execution.)

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1797: Figaro the Elder and Jean Louis, Charleston slaves of Dominguan exiles

Add comment November 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.

This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.

As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.

With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.

Revolutionary France’s consul in Charleston (he was U.S. ambassador by the time of the events in this post) maneuvered against that city’s planter exiles (“colonial aristocrats,” as he called them†) and eyed hemispheric emancipation, according to this book.

Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.

It was in this context that Charleston authorities discovered in 1797 “a conspiracy of several French Negroes to fire the City and to act here as they formerly done at St. Domingo.”

These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.

Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.

After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”

(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)

For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”

The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.

Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordan put it.

But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,

Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.

* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.

** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.

There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”

‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.

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1922: Taffy Long, Herbert Hull, and David Lewis, Rand rebels

1 comment November 17th, 2013 Headsman

RAND MINING RECOVERY.

LOWER WORKING COSTS.

(From our correspondent.)

JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 28. The Rand Daily Mail, in an article dealing with the economic situation of the Union, gives striking figures illustrating the steady advance of the gold industry on the march towards prosperity.

Profits for the July-September quarter show an increase of £1,136,000 over the previous quarter. This has been accomplihed not only by lowering wages, but by all-round improvement in efficiency per unit, mining costs having fallen from 25s. 8d. in 1921 to 20s. 5d. in September, 1922 …

[T]he Rand Daily Mail says that these facts “represent unmistakable omens of coming prosperity which should steel the downhearted farmer to greater effort and encourage the suffering industrialist throughout the Union, and transform the pessimism of the merchant into healthy confident and hope.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1922)


THREE RAND EXECUTIONS.

ANTI-GOVERNMENT RIOT.

(From our correspondent.)

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 17. The bitterest feeling prevails among the workers over the refusal to reprieve the three men, Long, Hull, and Lewis, who were condemned to death for murder in connexion with the Rand revolt, and were executed at Pretoria to-day.

Appeals for mercy poured in till almost the last moment, and an open-air mass meeting was held, in which prominent Communists took part. At this meeting angry and threatening speeches were made; the names of General Smuts and Sir Lionel Phillips were boohed, and the crowd attempted to break into the Town Hall, severely injured a detective, and was finally dispersed by armed police. The public generally approves the Government’s firmness. The condemned men sang the Red Flag on the scaffold. (London Times, Nov. 18, 1922)


“Come dungeons dark or gallows grim the sun will be our parting hymn.”

FUNERAL OF RAND MURDERERS.

COMMUNIST APPEAL TO CHILDREN.

(From our correspondent.)

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 19. Remarkable scenes recalling the funeral of the victims of the great strike of 1913 were witnessed at the burial of the remains of Long, Lewis, and Hull, who were executed on Friday. The coffins, in separate hearses, were followed by thousands of workers, with banners and regalia, representing every trade union. “The Red Flag” was sung at the graveside and addresses were delivered, in which members of Parliament, of the Provincial Council, and Town Councils participated.

The latest development of Communist propaganda in Johannesburg is the distribution broadcast among children and students as they are leaving their schools and colleges of a pamphlet denouncing as “legalized murder and a blot on history” the execution of the men convicted of murder at special treason courts. (London Times, Nov. 20, 1922)

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1918: Roman Malinovsky, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy

Add comment November 6th, 2013 Headsman

In the early morning hours this date in 1918, Roman Malinovsky was shot in the Kremlin on the verdict of his trial the previous day.

In the years before the Russian Revolution Malinovsky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a steelworker who was actually a Bolshevik revolutionary, who was actually an Okhrana agent codenamed “Tailor”.

After a stint in the army in the first years of the 20th century, the Polish Catholic Malinovsky went to work as a lathe operator in a St. Petersburg factory, in one of the militant pockets of Russia’s small urban proletariat.

Malinovsky proved a gifted labor organizer — enough that under the Stolypin crackdown, he was arrested in 1909 and expelled from St. Petersburg. Then he was arrested in 1910 in Moscow.

No later than this point, though possibly even before it, he was recruited by tsarist Russia’s secret police. Now Malinovsky’s considerable energies were turned to spying on the communists, and to deepening mistrust between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “The whole purpose of my direction [to Malinovsky] is summed up in this: to give no possibility of the Party’s uniting,” the police director Beletsky later explained.

Malinovsky was an adroit mole.

He got himself elected to the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and ingratiated himself with Lenin so thoroughly that when Malinovsky was openly accused of spying for the Okhrana in 1913, Lenin came to his defense.

Malinovsky’s proximity to Lenin enabled him to tip to cc the police on the latter’s correspondence, but for posterity the mystery is on the other side of the relationship. Was Lenin in denial? Or did he already know that Malinovsky was a spy?

The double games being played around Malinovsky fade into a fog in the 1910s. The Okhrana mysteriously forced Malinovsky to resign from the state Duma — another powerful seat he had obtained — which was such a grievous loss for the Bolsheviks that it further multiplied the suspicions of his leftist comrades. Did the Okrana take this seemingly counterproductive step because Malinovsky was compromised as a spy, or was this just a change of policy? When Malinovsky was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War I, his agitations among fellow-POWs earned Lenin’s admiration. Was this sincere conviction after all, or a maneuver?

Accounts of associates paint Lenin as horribly torn on the accusations against a man whom Lenin plainly admired, even rationalizing that Malinovsky’s organizational talents on behalf of the movement had still outweighed the injury he might have done it by spying.

Nor was this merely a personal consideration, since accusations against Malinovsky — an uncompromising Bolshevik in his party persona, further to the cause of preventing intra-party reconciliation — had emerged earliest from Mensheviks. Their eventual vindication on this matter was an obvious irritant to Lenin, and even late in the war years Lenin downplayed the spying charges.

Most mysteriously of all — at least in retrospect — Malinovsky voluntarily returned to post-Revolution Moscow knowing that his role as an informant had been definitively exposed in Russian newspapers following a sack of the Okrana offices and its revealing files. It was to “wash away the sins of his life with blood,” he told his interrogators, agents of the new secret police — the Cheka. Or was it that he thought he had, via Lenin (who had even sent clothes to the disgraced Malinovsky’s POW camp) an angle on rehabilitation?

Maybe in the end Malinovsky was the victim of his own con. Ralph Carter Elwood’s biography suggests that Malinovsky took Lenin’s surprisingly congenial behavior to mean that he had been forgiven since the fact could no longer be denied … when it might really have meant that Lenin was in denial about the fact itself, almost to to the last. “The last” being, in this case, the courtroom* of Nov. 5 which Lenin himself attended. Malinovsky defended himself for hours, but admitted all; if he anticipated clemency, he did not receive any more of it than the few hours necessary to put his affairs in order.

More tantalizing still, though well into the realm of speculation, is the idea that Lenin did indeed understand what Malinovsky was up to, but wanted to keep the door closed on espionage and counter-espionage vis-a-vis the tsarist police for fear of disgracing old Bolshevik revolutionaries with compromised pasts who had now become men of state. Stalin himself might have been in this same boat, perhaps making this moment yet another missed opportunity to pre-empt the terrifying era yet to come.

“I couldn’t see through that scoundrel Malinovsky,” Lenin later told Gorky, a sentiment we might today echo in retrospect. “It was a very fishy affair, that Malinovsky business.”

* His prosecutor was former comrade Nikolai Krylenko. Krylenko ultimately died in 1938; you may well guess how.

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1940: Lluis Companys, Catalan president

Add comment October 15th, 2013 Headsman

“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.

-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.

Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.

Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.

And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.

That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.

As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.

As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.

It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”

Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)

Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.

When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.

Condemned after the formality of a perfunctory trial for “military rebellion” conducted on October 14, 1940, Companys was shot the very next morning Montjuic Castle. (See Franco: A Biography)

Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.

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1981: Mustapha Danso

Add comment September 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1981, Mustapha Danso was executed for an attempted coup in Gambia.

Gambia (or “The Gambia”: we’re going to dispense with the article here) is a sliver of a country hugging the Gambia River, entirely surrounded (save the coast) by Senegal.

It became independent of Great Britain in 1970 under the leadership of Dawda Jawara, who held the Gambian presidency democratically from that time until 1994. Mustapha Danso, our date’s principal, was one of a coterie of disaffected Gambian junior officers who were scheming a coup against Jawara as the 1980s got underway.

In October 1980, Danso walked up to the deputy commander of the Gambia Field Force, Eku Mahoney, and coolly shot him dead. “Although the first speculations blamed the constable’s action on possible illicit drug influence,” notes a book about Gambia’s subsequent, and successful, 1994 junior officers’ coup, “Mustapha Danso’s unresentful attitude after the incident convinced many people that there was more to it than what met the eye.” Mahoney may have been killed because he was viewed by the prospective coupists as an obstacle.

Danso caught a death sentence, but since Gambia never actually executed anyone, it was essentially symbolic.

That is, until July 1981, when Jawara was in London to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Danso’s former comrades in the Field Force seized the opportunity to join a coup mounted by leftist politician Kukoi Samba Sanyang against the “corrupt, tribalistic, and despotic” Jawara in favor of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

From London, Jawara summoned Senegalese aid: Gambia’s neighbor and sometime rival dispatched troops who successfully crushed the rebellion within a week. Some 500 people lost their lives during the turmoil, and its leaders fled abroad. (Kukoi Sanyang died a few months ago as of this writing, but his version of the “people’s revolution under my able leadership” can be perused here.)

While the coup itself was suppressed, Jawara went pretty easy (as these things go) on his actual or perceived enemies. Danso was the only party to the plot who was executed, and Jawara went out of his way to declare normalcy instead of using a national security emergency to smash up everything.

“In the aftermath of this threat to our internal security some have asked whether it would be appropriate at the time to consolidate both the power of the State and the power of the executive. Let me state categorically and unequivocally that the system of democracy that has always existed will prevail. There will be no dictatorship in The Gambia — neither by the President, nor by the Government, nor by the proletariat.” (Source)

Danso was the first and, for 30 years the only, person executed in Gambia; the country has retained the death penalty in law, but was long considered de facto abolitionist. That changed suddenly in August 2012 when current president Yahya Jammeh unexpectedly ordered nine condemned prisoners put to death on a single day.

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1814: Vicente Salias, Venezuelan national anthem author

Add comment September 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1814, the Venezuelan doctor and writer Vicente Salias was shot in San Felipe castle at Puerto Cabello by the Spanish who meant to run the place.

Salias (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was a founding member of the Sociedad Patriotica de Caracas and editor of the nationalist publication El Patriota de Venezuela.

He worked for the First Republic of Venezuela, a short-lived (1810-1812) attempt to break away from a Spanish empire preoccupied by the Napoleonic Wars. In 1810, Salias is said to have* composed the lyrics for Gloria al Bravo Pueblo (Glory to the Brave People),

Captured attempting to escape the approaching royalist forces of Jose Tomas Boves, Salias was shot with the spectacularly defiant last cry of “God Almighty, if the Heavens admit Spaniards, then I renounce the Heavens!”

* There are some revisionist hypotheses postulating other authors.

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1931: Omar Mukhtar, Libyan revolutionary

Add comment September 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Libyan independence martyr Omar [al-]Mukhtar was publicly hanged by the Italians at their concentration camp in Suluq.

Mukhtar (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born an Ottoman subject back in 1858 and had lived long enough to see his native Libya seized in the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War.

Mukhtar, a religious teacher and follower of the Senussi movement, became the leader of the Libyan resistance that dogged the Italian occupation. Mukhtar proved an energetic and successful desert guerrilla fighter, and he had to be given the Italians’ mechanized military.

The Italians executed an estimated 4,000 Libyans in the 1920s, and drove hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, and gradually, only gradually, gained the upper hand on their adversaries.

Captured in battle after he abandoned a 1929 truce, Mukhtar was denied prisoner-of-war status and subjected to a snap military tribunal in one of the small coastal enclaves actually controlled by Italy — “a regular trial and consequent sentence, which will surely be death,” as the Italian general directed. It surely was.

He’s played by Anthony Quinn in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert — a better movie than you might think given that it was bankrolled by Muammar Gaddafi.

A national hero for contemporary Libyans across any social divide you’d care to name, Omar Mukhtar was valorized by the rebels who recently overthrew the aforementioned Gaddafi (here’s Mukhtar on a billboard in rebel-held Benghazi). “The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did,” Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son told media during the civil war. “That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar.”

His steely profile can be seen on Libya’s 10 10 dinar note.

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1896: Chief Uwini of the Maholi

Add comment September 13th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1896 during the Second Matabele War saw the execution by field court-martial of the rebellious Chief Uwini.

This war, in present-day Zimbabwe, featured a revolt of the Matabele (Ndebele) people against Cecil Rhodes’s* British South African Company.

In the field, it was a short-lived affair.

Ndebele rebels slew over 200 white settlers in Matabeleland and Mashonaland during the first week of the surprising rising in March 1896. But most settlers were able to hunker down in he town of Bulawayo behind makeshift breastworks.

Up to 15,000 Ndebele warriors menaced this little citadel, but were deterred from storming it by the settlers’ modern weapons — artillery and the legendary Maxim gun** — until relieved in May. (Rhodes himself led one of the relief columns.) At that point, the rebels retreated to their strongholds, fragmented from one another, and generally got picked off or bought off group by group over the ensuing months.

One of the men arriving with Rhodes’s relief column was Robert Baden-Powell, an army scout who will bring us to this date’s feature execution.

Baden-Powell was dispatched with a squadron of cavalry to pacify the area northeast of Bulwayo. When he arrived there, one of the main rebel chiefs in the Somabula Forest, Chief Uwini, had just been taken prisoner.

“He was badly wounded in the shoulder, but, enraged at being a prisoner, he would allow nothing to be done for him; no sooner had the surgeon bandaged hi than he tore the dressings off again. He was a fine, truculent-looking savage, and boasted that he had always been able to hold his own against any enemies in this stronghold of his, but now that he was captured he only wished to die.”

-Baden-Powell (Source)

This prisoner put Baden-Powell in a conundrum. He had written orders to turn prisoners over to the Native Commission for civil handling (whether trial or otherwise).

Uwini had been induced to surrender by another officer’s promise to spare his life. However, this wounded chief could not be escorted five days back to Bulawayo by a force large enough to protect against the likely rescue attempt by his followers without abandoning his mission. Neither could Uwini be brought along on the patrol.

Something had to give.

Baden-Powell decided it would be the safe-conduct promise.

“I have taken another step, which I hope you will not disapprove of — viz. — trying Uweena by Court Martial,” Baden-Powell wrote his superiors on September 13. “He is the big chief of this part, we have lots of evidence that he instigated rebellion and murders of whites, he is badly wounded, we cannot send him to Buluwayo, and I must be leaving this with some of the senior officers tonight. So if the court find him guilty and sentence him to be shot I shall take on myself the responsibility of confirming it. The effect too should be very good for being carried out promptly and at his own stronghold — and we have a good number of rebels, prisoners and refugees, here to witness it & report it to the remainder.”

Another letter dated later that same day confirmed that the expected sentence had indeed been rendered, and Uwini had been ceremoniously shot that evening at sunset before the walls of the enemy fortress, in the presence of as many witnesses as Baden-Powell could find.

This quasi-juridical field execution put Baden-Powell in front of a court of inquiry after the fact. The court exonerated him, citing the circumstances and the purported effect of the execution in cowing the local insurgents.

Despite leaving the court of inquiry “without a stain on my character,” in Baden-Powell’s own words, this incident can’t help but throw a morally questionable shade for later observers. And this agent of empire does have later observers — because Lord Baden-Powell (as he eventually became styled) would go on to found the Scout Movement. His 1907 boys scouting camp and subsequent book

And this very Matabele War were crucial parts of the backstory. It was in the course of this campaign that Baden-Powell became acquainted with the American scout and adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham. The two struck up a lifelong friendship, and Baden-Powell cribbed notes from the ranger’s guile (like wood “scoutcraft”) his counterpart had picked up on the dwindling American frontier. It was also in Rhodesia that Baden-Powell first wore the Stetson hat and neckerchief combination that would become a distinctive look both for Baden-Powell himself, and for the scout movement he launched.

* As of this story’s setting, the place in question had just begun to be called Rhodesia.

** It is in the context of Great Britain’s colonial adventures in Africa in this period (though not specifically just those of Matabeleland) that Hilaire Belloc published his 1898 poem “The Modern Traveller”. In it, a character named “Blood” gave this early machine gun its definitive literary tribute: it’s the couplet highlighted below, but the larger excerpt may be illuminating.

Blood understood the Native mind.
He said: “We must be firm but kind.”

A Mutiny resulted.
I never shall forget the way
That Blood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:

“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

He marked them in their rude advance,
He hushed their rebel cheers ;
With one extremely vulgar glance
He broke the Mutineers.
(I have a picture in my book
Of how he quelled them with a look.)
We shot and hanged a few, and then
The rest became devoted men.

And here I wish to say a word
Upon the way my heart was stirred
By those pathetic faces.
Surely our simple duty here
Is both imperative and clear;
While they support us, we should lend
Our every effort to defend,
And from a higher point of view
To give the full direction due
To all the native races.
And I, throughout the expedition,
Insisted upon this position.

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1941: Alexander Svanidze, Stalin’s brother-in-law

Add comment August 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1941,* Stalin’s own brother-in-law was shot in the gulags.

In 1906, a whole lifetime before, the Georgian Alexander Svanidze introduced young Joseph Dzhugashvili to his Svanidze’s sister, Kato. They wed that year, and Kato soon bore her husband’s firstborn, Yakov.

Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.

While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.

Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.

Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.

“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”

At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.

For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”

Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.

By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and found a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.

In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)

Svanidze’s son, Johnreed** — as in the American radical who chronicled the Bolshevik Revolution in Ten Days That Shook The Worlddenounced his doomed father to save his own skin, but was sent to the gulag just the same. Johnreed was released, and Alexander posthumously rehabilitated, after Stalin’s death in 1953.

* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.

** They moved to Baku from Tiflis, where Stalin had helped to orchestrate a huge bank robbery.

† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (crudely blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).

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