1799: Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas, anti-slavery insurrectionist

Add comment December 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Portuguese Jew Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas was publicly hanged in Kingston for attempting to incite a slave revolt in the British colony of Jamaica.

Here in a revolutionary age, probably no insurrection could terrify Europe’s ancien regimes like the Haitian Revolution.

History’s most successful slave revolt, the rising that seized Saint-Domingue from the French conceivably threatened — if it should spread — the entire material foundation of Europe’s colonial exploitation, and the racist intellectual superstructure that justified it.

This nightmare of crowned heads was also the dream of the epoch’s visionaries, and the subject of a struggle whose victims included Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas among many, many others.

Domingue if I do

An insurrection of Caribbean slaves against European exploiters had obvious appeal to their brethren groaning at the bottom of the Atlantic economy. In “Saint Domingue in Virginia: Ideology, Local Meanings, and Resistance to Slavery, 1790-1800” (Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1997) James Sidbury explores the (to whites) nerve-wracking arrival in that U.S. state of both news and refugees from revolutionary Saint-Domingue.

In 1793 Willis Wilson complained to Governor Lee of the “defenceless situation” of the town of Portsmouth, whose militia lacked arms and whose streets contained “many hundreds [of] French Negroes” including, Wilson had been “inform’d,” many who “belong[ed] tothe insurrection of Hispaniola.” … a commander at the state arsenal of Point of Fork — located on the James River west of Richmond and southesat of Charlottesville — reported dangerous “conversations amount the “people of colour” … “particularly since the Arrival of the French from C[ap] F[rancois],” Saint Domingue.

While these currents carried along Gabriel Prosser and a young Denmark Vesey, they also swept up men who were not slaves at all.

Isaac Sasportas, the nephew of a prominent Charleston trader (said trader’s 200-year-old home still stands there), was himself a wealthy Caribbean shipper who in the 1790s seems to have taken a nearly professional interest in revolution. After trying and failing to re-ignite a rebellion in Dutch Curacao, he started zeroing in on Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the brutal British sugar colony of Jamaica. Distinguished as it was by a running history of slave revolts, it was a natural target for the fin de siecle‘s savvy revolution-exporter.

Sasportas landed there in 1799 under cover of his gadabout-merchant act to reconnoiter British defenses and make contact with the island’s maroons.

Diplomatic L’Ouverture

The Haitian Revolution’s progress through the 1790s and into the first years of the 19th century was itself a complicated political process entailing the realest of realpolitik. Here was a colony surrounded by rival empires’ outposts, whose home country was itself engulfed in revolution. This could, and did, cut a lot of different ways.

Legendary national liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture agreed to work with the French revolutionary government in April 1793 to repel the inroads of Brits, who smelled an opportunity to swipe the lucrative colony. Alliance with the French (L’Ouverture’s black regiments served under French colors) came in exchange for the French recognizing emancipation. Win-win.

But the script had flipped by the last years of the decade.

Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals to British officer Thomas Maitland papers from the French representative d’Hedouville.

In 1798, the British were evacuating their Saint-Domingue enclaves … and L’Ouverture, now the Bonaparte figure of a somewhat autonomous polity, had to maneuver it regionally vis-a-vis its neighbors.

Fomenting slave rebellions willy-nilly was not on his agenda. Indeed, “one could even describe Louverture, in the diplomatic field, as an active impediment to the spread of emancipation.”*

So far was the former slave L’Ouverture from anti-slavery firebrand that in 1798-99 he made arrangements with the slave powers Britain and the United States, helping them oppose the French. And when the French envoy went to work on the grab-Jamaica scheme with Sasportas as an agent — Paris now being the one to smell an opportunity to steal a rival’s colony — L’Ouverture found it expedient to play along whilst quietly tipping the British to the whole plot. In effect, L’Ouverture shopped Sasportas.

Louverture could have used his newfound power to advocate independence and emancipation across the Caribbean; he decided otherwise.

Napoleon Bonaparte and other French leaders hoped that Louverture would turn Saint-Domingue into the centerpiece of a revolutionary French empire in the Americas. With an army of twenty thousand veteran black soldiers, Louverture could have threatened France’s enemies in North America, most notably British Jamaica and the United States. But Louverture declined the offer, choosing instead to sign secret treaies of nonaggression and commerce with these two countries in 1799 …

That same year, the French agent Roume drafted an ambitious plan to use part of Louverture’s army to invade British Jamaica. After the landing, Roume redicted, Jamaica’s slaves would revolt and join local maroons and Dominguian liberators on a victorious march to Kingston. Dominguian troops would become heralds of freedom, France would acquire a lucrative colony at little cost, and the expedition would deal a mortal blow to British commerce. Louverture acquiesced in public, but in private he notified British and U.S. authorities of Roume’s bellicose plans. England subsequently captured France’s secret agent in Jamaica, a French Jew named Isaac Sasportas, and the entire venture foundered. Having apparently concluded that an expedition would divert key troops and resources that were needed to secure his power base in Saint-Domingue, Louverture chose to sacrifice the Jamaiacans’ freedom on the altar of his own ambitions. Jamaican slaves would remain in bondage until 1834.

– From Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation

Haiti the Game

Whether one rates it as dextrous statecraft or unconscionble betrayal, L’Ouverture’s maneuvering to maintain a scope of action for himself and his fledgling nation would continue until 1802. It featured brutal continuation of Haiti’s cash crop plantation economy — now worked by cultivateurs supporting black elites, instead of slaves supporting French elites — rough suppression of labor protests, high-minded assertion of racial equality, and unsentimental diplomatic skullduggery shifting arrangents among France, Britain, and the U.S. He even bought slaves to regenerate the half-island’s labor force, decimated by years of warfare.

In the end, this Bonaparte of Haiti was undone by the Bonaparte of France** in 1802, with the full support of the British. During a lull in those nations’ hostilities, they found frank agreement that “Toussaint’s black empire” was to neither’s liking — and “We both want to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the blacks”.† L’Ouverture played the diplomatic game very adroitly, but he had no card to match a mutual agreement of white privilege among his opposite numbers.

Toussaint L’Ouverture died of pneumonia in a French dungeon … but his countrymen rallied against the French incursion and completed the Haitian Revolution. Its independence day is January 1, 1804.‡

* Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2009

** Napoleon’s wife Josephine was herself of Caribbean aristocratic stock: she grew up on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique.

† Prime Minister Henry Addington, as quoted in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Thomas Jefferson, fretting “another Algiers in the seas of America,” also kinda-sorta went along with the idea, although Jefferson was at least equally concerned about a potential French resurgence keyed by its unruly Caribbean base; for America, this politicking set up the Louisiana Purchase, and that transaction was considerably facilitated by the French failure to re-establish control in Haiti after arresting L’Ouverture.

‡ In one last warped expression of colonialism — and a dreadful preview of the ruinous debt peonage more familiar to our present day — Haiti had to pay “reparations” to France for the loss to the French empire of itself, Haiti. It made these payments until 1947. France has no plans to repair the reparations.

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1799: Heshen forced to commit suicide

2 comments February 22nd, 2011 Headsman

It was on this date that notoriously corrupt Chinese minister of state Heshen or Ho-Shen was forced to commit suicide in lieu of execution.

The able child of a Manchu military officer, Heshen came of age in the long reign of the emperor Qianlong.

That Heshen rose above his modest station with this monarch’s favor was the source of no small resentment. Rumors circulated that the attractive young former bodyguard reminded the emperor of a lost, beloved concubine — with all that implies.

“Elegant in looks, sprucely handsome in a dandified way that suggested a lack of virtue,” a Korean diplomat described Heshen.

Whatever there might have been to the homosexuality angle, Heshen exploited the imperial protection to gorge himself on the state’s revenues; he’s reported to have filled the bureaucracy with clients who saw to it that Heshen got a yuan out of every tael that passed through state business in the last quarter of the 18th century. He even dynastically married his own son to one of Qianlong’s daughters.

It was the peak of the Qing dynasty’s glory, and the dawn of its imperial stagnation. Heshen — resplendent, omnipotent, and sunk in vice* — remains to this day its persona par excellence.

As long as the emperor lived, Heshen had a virtual free hand.

But as soon as the emperor died — on February 7, 1799, at the age of 87 — the successor** Jiaqing destroyed him.

Citing Heshen’s inability to suppress the nettlesome White Lotus and Miao rebellions, Jiaqing arrested and tortured the former retainer into copping to all manner of offenses both mortal and venial.

My thoughts dwell ever on the Confucian precept: ‘For three years after a parent’s death none of his former surroundings should be changed.’ …

But as regards Ho Shen, his crimes are too grave to admit of possible pardon … Ho Shen is a deep-dyed traitor, lost to all moral sense, who has betrayed his Sovereign and jeopardised the State. As self-constituted dictator he has usurped supreme authority.

Seeing the man’s abrupt change of fortunes, Heshen’s people in the bureaucracy fell over each other to denounce him.

He was condemned to the horrific expiation of “slow slicing”; however, given “the undesirability of executing the chief Minister of State like a common felon in the public square,” Jiaqing “allowed him the privilege of committing suicide, as a mark of high favour and out of regard to the dignity of the nation.”

A principal accomplice was made to witness Heshen ceremonially hanging himself; then the accomplice was reprieved of his own death sentence and sent into exile.

The new sovereign found his nation’s dignity sufficiently upheld by the doomed man’s melancholy inventory of loot destined (of course) for the re-appropriation of the Qing … and sufficiently outraged that, upon discovering weeks after the some artifact Heshen had failed to enumerate,

Had these facts come to Our knowledge before the 18th day of the 1st Moon [i.e., February 22], we should assuredly have decreed Ho Shen’s decapitation, even if We had spared him the lingering death and dismemberment.

However, he has already been permitted to commit suicide, and thus luckily escaped the extreme penalty of public execution. We do not, therefore, insist on his corpse being hacked to pieces.

Jiaqing had better to worry about his own now-declining state, which was about to be hacked to pieces by encroaching European powers.

Having made an example of Heshen and a handful of his most visible allies, he was still saddled with the endemic structural corruption Heshen had fostered in the institutions of Qing governance.

“Historians have tended to see Jiaqing’s failure of nerve in purging the bureaucracy of all tainted officials as something of an original sin whose commission predetermined the dynasty’s steady decline,” writes William T. Rowe of this turning point. “But given the need for at least some continuity in routine administration, it is not at all clear that he could have acted otherwise.”

(Hey, at least he did make the few examples. Not everyone even does that much.)

And so Jiaqing struggled in vain to maintain China’s fading prestige; his reign would witness economic erosion and a burgeoning opium trade that eventually led it to war with the British and humiliating western domination.

Since a sclerotic bureaucracy at once crushing in its expanse, helpless in its effect, and riven with self-dealers, is a timeless theme (especially in China), Heshen persists as a lively emblem of corruption.

Heshen’s luxurious mansion — which was also among Jiaqing’s indictments — still stands; today, it’s a museum.

* It bears remembering that it is principally by the testimony of Heshen’s enemies that we know him.

** Technically, Jiaqing had been ruling since Qianlong symbolically “abdicated” in 1796; in reality, Qianlong continued to run the realm until his death.

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1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

4 comments August 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Thomas Nash was hanged in Jamaica for the bloody mutiny on the HMS Hermione.


Before there was Hermione Granger, there was the HMS Hermione. Painting by Thomas Whitcombe.

The Admiralty’s most notorious mutiny this side of the Bounty was actually a far bloodier affair. Dig the description from one of the conspirators who later turned state’s evidence.

“The captain,” said he, “was very severe with the men, who were all good seamen, and they were determined to either run the ship on shore and desert, or else take her by force. This had been in their minds for months before it happened. At last,” said he, “on a dark night, when the young lieutenant had the watch, our minds were made up. A party went to the cabin-door, knocked down the sentry, and entered it. The captain was in his cot, and he was soon overpowered. We threw him out of the cabin-window. Another party threw the officer of the watch over the larboard quarter, but he, being young and active, caught hold of the hammock-stanchion, when one of the men cut his hands off, and he soon dropped astern. The first lieutenant had been ill and keeping his cot, but on hearing the noise, he came up the hatchway in his shirt, when one of the carpenter’s crew cut him down with an axe, and he was sent overboard with several others.”

(There’s a fine audio lecture about this mutiny in the context of maritime class violence at the Bristol Radical History Group, which reminds that in a context where most of a ship’s manpower was marshaled with the violence of involuntary conscription, mutiny bids were a regular feature of Old Blighty’s maritime empire. London Times archives are available from 1785, and searches on the word “mutiny” in those early years reveal dozens of episodes — and those were just the reported ones.)

After making sharkmeat of that tyrannical captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, the Hermione mutineers got drunk, and then delivered the frigate to the Spanish.

A Royal Navy vessel aptly named the Surprise* was able to surprise the wayward warship and cut her out of the Venezuelan harbor Puerto Cabello. The Hermione was then aptly renamed the Retaliation (and later, Retribution). Then, the British put the ominous word into action with a global manhunt for the mutineers.

Nearly thirty men ultimately hanged for the affair, though that meant that most of those involved escaped the noose.

And Executed Today never** deals with the lucky ones.

Mind if I do a Jay?

And so we come at last to our day’s protagonist, one of the Hermione mutineers who was at length recognized in the breakaway former British colonies now constituting themselves the United States of America.

Upon catching this intelligence, British envoys demanded the extradition of this character — who now claimed to be an American citizen by the name of “Jonathan Robbins” — under the terms of the recent and controversial Jay Treaty. After several months under lock and key without any American charge against him, Robbins/Nash eventually had a habeas corpus hearing before Judge Thomas Bee, who decided† that this “American citizen” was no such thing. With an okay from the Adams administration, Bee had the man delivered to the crown.

Nash was immediately shipped down to the British colony of Jamaica, put on trial on Aug. 15 (he had no defense), and hanged on Aug. 19.

Little could the Waterford-born seaman imagine the legacy he bequeathed his fake-adopted country.

I know my rights, man

The Nash extradition became a political firestorm in the U.S., with anti-British Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans decrying the Federalist administration’s handling of the case. For the infant republic, formulating juridical precedent on the fly, this played as a separation-of-powers issue: was it within the president’s power to fulfill the treaty unilaterally, absent executing legislation passed by Congress? Was it within a judge’s purview to approve an extradition request without the constitutionally assured right to trial by jury?

Sounding eerily contemporary, New York Rep. Robert Livingston denounced a system whereby “a citizen of the United States might be dragged from his country, his connections and his friends, and subjected to the judgment of an unrelenting military tribunal.” Less measured, a Philadelphia Aurora headline announced: “BRITISH INFLUENCE threatens destruction of these United States!” (Source of both quotes)

Though it was surely not decisive, this issue provided great fodder in the 1800 elections swept by the Democratic-Republicans and standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s home state of

Virginia, the stronghold of inimical feeling to Great Britain … passed a law forbidding under heavy punishment a magistrate to be instrumental in extraditing any person out of the state. Thus desertions from British ships in a Virginian port became a regular event. Captains of British vessels sailing to United States ports in no long time would meet their men strolling in the streets, furnished with naturalization papers, who set them at defiance, for their arrest was impossible.

“This passage of history,” the otherwise hostile-to-Nash source is obliged to concede, “tells unfavourably on the character of the treatment of British seamen … the Discipline was harsh and oppressive, one of pure repression. The consideration of others, enforced by benevolence and duty, was often regarded as weakness.”

Hard to imagine why anyone would want to mutiny! It calls to mind, at the end of this passion play as at its start, the words supposed to have been hurled at the Hermione‘s doomed Captain Pigot as he pled with his assailants for mercy: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none.”

A real reactionary

Despite the electoral slam dunk, the real last word on the case ultimately belonged to the administration’s defenders.

Among these rose in Congress a first-term — for he would only serve a single such term — member of the House of Representatives also from the Old Dominion, John Marshall.

Just months later, Marshall would be one of outgoing President Adams’s “midnight judges” appointed to the federal courts: in Marshall’s case, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his epochal 34-year term as Chief Justice would shape the future evolution of American jurisprudence.

Rising on March 7, 1800, in defense of President Adams’s conduct in the Nash case, Representative Marshall gave a preview of the strong federalist perspective that would define his time on the bench. (Read it in full here.)

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations … He possesses the whole Executive power. He holds and directs the force of the nation. Of consequence, any act to be performed by the force of the nation is to be performed through him.

This passage was exhumed from Congressional archives for citation in a 1936 Supreme Court case on federal supremacy, and has proceeded thence into a go-to bullet point for every latter-day defender of any arbitrary executive authority.

Of consequence (as Marshall might put it), Marshall’s speech about Nash gets an approving reference in Bush administration lawyer — and possible future extradition subject?John Yoo‘s September 25, 2001 memorandum on “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them”.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, too, quotes this phrase in his Hamdi v. Rumsfeld dissent, further to the doctrine that a man consigned to a presidential oubliette has no recourse to the courts; Justice John Harlan used it (with the rather grandiosely exaggerated qualifier that “from that time, shortly after the founding of the Nation, to this, there has been no substantial challenge to this description”) in his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case to claim that Richard Nixon could prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the embarrassing classified history of the Vietnam War.‡

So in this imperial age, Thomas Nash is more with us than ever he was. Who knows but what noxious monarchical theories are even now being buttressed with footnotes resolving to the vindictive execution of that obscure mariner two centuries past?

* The Surprise features prominently in novelist Patrick O’Brian‘s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventure novels, the most widely recognized of which is Master and Commander.

Given the vessel’s centrality in this popular series, there’s a book all about the colorful history of the Surprise. In reality, the Surprise — actually a captured French ship herself — was sold out of the service in 1802, prior to the notional 1805 setting of both the cinematic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the book in the series when Jack Aubrey first commands her.

** … hardly ever.

† Rightly, it’s generally presumed; “Robbins” is alleged (albeit by his self-interested executioners) to have confessed to being Nash before his execution. This entry garners the Wrongful Execution tag on the basis of its contested American jurisprudence.

‡ The limited aim of Marshall’s speech in context, and its subsequent (mis)appropriation, is the subject of an interesting and accessible-to-laypersons law review article here. (pdf) This tome gets a bit more into the weeds on the way the separation of powers operated practically as the Nash case unfolded in Judge Bee’s court.

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1799: The defenders of Jaffa, at Napoleon’s command

5 comments March 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte gave, and saw executed, the dreadful order to slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners from the Siege of Jaffa.

Having just conquered the city from the Ottomans, the Corsican faced the inconvenience of having a large number of POWs with no way to provision them. What to do?

His private secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne later remembered the scene.

The Arnauts and Albanians, of whom these refugees were almost entirely composed, cried from the windows that they were willing to surrender upon an assurance that they would be exempted from the massacre to which the town was doomed; if not, they threatened to fire on the ‘aides de camp’, and to defend themselves to the last extremity. The two officers thought that they ought to accede to the proposition, notwithstanding the decree of death which had been pronounced against the whole garrison, in consequence of the town being taken by storm. They brought them to our camp in two divisions, one consisting of about 2500 men, the other of about 1600.

I was walking with General Bonaparte, in front of his tent, when he beheld this mass of men approaching, and before he even saw his ‘aides de camp’ he said to me, in a tone of profound sorrow, “What do they wish me to do with these men? Have I food for them?–ships to convey them to Egypt or France? Why, in the devil’s name, have they served me thus?” After their arrival, and the explanations which the General-in-Chief demanded and listened to with anger, Eugene* and Croisier [the officers who accepted the Jaffa garrison’s surrender] received the most severe reprimand for their conduct. But the deed was done. Four thousand men were there. It was necessary to decide upon their fate. The two aides de camp observed that they had found themselves alone in the midst of numerous enemies, and that he had directed them to restrain the carnage. “Yes, doubtless,” replied the General-in-Chief, with great warmth, “as to women, children, and old men–all the peaceable inhabitants; but not with respect to armed soldiers. It was your duty to die rather than bring these unfortunate creatures to me. What do you want me to do with them?”

The third day arrived without its being possible, anxiously as it was desired, to come to any conclusion favourable to the preservation of these unfortunate men. The murmurs in the camp grew louder the evil went on increasing–remedy appeared impossible–the danger was real and imminent. The order for shooting the prisoners was given and executed on the 10th of March.

This atrocious scene, when I think of it, still makes me shudder, as it did on the day I beheld it; and I would wish it were possible for me to forget it, rather than be compelled to describe it. All the horrors imagination can conceive, relative to that day of blood, would fall short of the reality.**

… the situation of the army, the scarcity of food, our small numerical strength, in the midst of a country where every individual was an enemy, would have induced me to vote in the affirmative of the proposition which was carried into effect, if I had a vote to give. It was necessary to be on the spot in order to understand the horrible necessity which existed.

War, unfortunately, presents too many occasions on which a law, immutable in all ages, and common to all nations, requires that private interests should be sacrificed to a great general interest, and that even humanity should be forgotten. It is for posterity to judge whether this terrible situation was that in which Bonaparte was placed.† For my own part, I have a perfect conviction that he could not do otherwise than yield to the dire necessity of the case. It was the advice of the council, whose opinion was unanimous in favour of the execution, that governed him, Indeed I ought in truth to say, that he yielded only in the last extremity, and was one of those, perhaps, who beheld the massacre with the deepest pain.

As tends to happen, this sort of thing made future garrisons much less interested in surrender.

Walter Scott, in his biography of the Corsican, judged that the “bloody deed must always remain a deep stain on the character of Napoleon.”

[W]e do not view it as the indulgence of an innate love of cruelty; for nothing in Bonaparte’s history shows the existence of that vice, and there are many things which intimate his disposition to have been naturally humane. But he was ambitious, aimed at immense and gigantic undertakings, and easily learned to overlook the waste of human life, which the execution of his projjects necessarily invvolved … That sort of necessity, therefore, which men fancy to themselves when they are unwilling to forego a favourite object for the sake of obeying a moral precept — that necessity which might be more properly termed a temptation difficult to be resisted — that necessity which has been called the tyrant’s plea, was the cause of the massacre at Jaffa, and must remain its sole apology.

And, Scott adds, “it might almost seem that Heaven set its vindictive brand upon this deed of butchery.”

This city the French wanted so desperately as to “forget humanity” was beset with plague; Antoine-Jean Gros would depict Napoleon on canvas humanely visiting the stricken right around the time he ordered a couple thousand prisoners shot dead.


Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804).

Bourrienne recorded that

[a]fter the siege of Jaffe the plague began to exhibit itself with a little more virulence. We lost between seven and eight hundred, men by the contagion during the campaign of Syria.

* “Eugene” is Napoleon’s adopted son-in-law Eugene de Beauharnais, one of the commanders whose expedient clemency inconvenienced the marshal. Beauharnais’s father was executed himself, during the French Revolution.

** Bourrienne goes light on the atrocity details, and makes it sound like it’s all shootings; Muslim sources record bayonet work.

† [sic!] By “terrible situation … in which Bonaparte was placed,” he of course means the terrible situation in which Bonaparte placed himself by launching his Egyptian campaign.

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1799: Dun Mikiel Xerri, Maltese patriot

2 comments January 17th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

That Napoleon Bonaparte, he simply can’t leave well enough alone.

He already conquered Malta. Most of the Maltese were even okay with it. But then he started disassembling the Maltese nobility and restricting the church. This displeased Dun Mikiel Xerri, and it was on this date in 1799 that Xerri was shot dead for spearheading a Maltese revolt against the French.

Born on September 29, 1737 in Zebbug, Malta, Xerri studied as a young man at various universities throughout Europe. Learned, he becme a Roman Catholic priest and dabbled in both philosophy and mathematics, living warmly under the rule of The Knights of St. John. Then, Napoleon came.

It was 1798 and Napoleon’s fleet was traveling to Egypt on expedition. Napoleon asked for safe harbor on Malta to resupply his ships. The Maltese refused him water and so Napoleon ordered a division of troops up to Valletta, the Maltese capital city. Ferdinand von Hompesch au Bolheim, the 71st Grand Master of the Order of St. John, thought again on his stance on the water issue but Napoleon was already beginning to be entrenched in Maltese life, looting the Order’s assets and administering control. Not wanting to fight fellow Christians (the French), Hompesch did little to quell the influx of French soldiers. In fact, he quickly signed a treaty handing over sovereignty of the Island of Malta to the French Republic.

This initially pleased some Maltese, tired of Knight rule, but the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Xerri, and many others, believed a revolt was the only way to regain people’s rights due to the fact that the rights of Maltese nobility were figuratively stripped, and the treasures of the Maltese church literally so.

Outraged Maltese rose against the French garrison headquartered in Notabile. Outraged Maltese formed a National Assembly. Outraged Maltese raised open rebellion on the islands.

The French retreated to the fortified cities around the harbor where their ships were anchored. The Maltese, in arms, implored the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (run by King Ferdinand I) and Great Britain (then under the rule of King George III).

It was to no avail. During the blockades, hundreds of people, Maltese and French alike, died from starvation and deprivation. Desperate, within the fortress, Xerri the patriot and others decided to attack French forces in Valletta and Cottonera. The plot, however, was discovered by the French and before it could be executed, 49 people were arrested for the plotted insurrection, Xerri among them.

The archbishop of Malta, Vincenzo Labini, met with Xerri and Xerri’s companions the morning of January 17, 1799. Prayers were offered, quiet words of salvation exchanged. Xerri was taken from Fort Saint Elmo to the Palace Square. French troops awaited him. Xerri, moments from death, gave a silver watch to the official on duty. He asked to be shot through the heart. “May God have pity on us!” he shouted with the others. “Long live Malta!” He was then shot dead, taken away, and buried near the Church of Saint Publius in Floriana.

Malta did not gain its independence until September 21, 1964.

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1799: Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Neapolitan Jacobin

2 comments August 20th, 2009 Jeff Matthews

(Thanks to Jeff Matthews of the Around Naples Encyclopedia for allowing us to run this abridged version of a much more detailed entry in that encyclopedia that’s well worth the read. -ed.)

Failed revolutionaries usually wind up as footnotes in history books. Certainly, the period between 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) and 1805 (the year in which Napoleon crowned himself emperor) is one of such turmoil in Europe that it is easy not to see any but those who are larger than life.

Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel vaulted onto the Naples literary scene as a teenage pop princess with a hit poem for the nuptials of King Ferdinand and Maria Carolina (the latter was Marie Antoinette‘s sister).

Pimentel parlayed her puissant pen into a permanent position on the salon circuit, doing late-18th-century literary things like quoting classics and maintaining voluminous correspondences.

By the revolutionary 1790’s, she’d risen to become the aforementioned Queen Maria Carolina’s librarian, but was among those inspired by the liberta, egalita, fraternita of the French Revolution. When Napoleon tore through northern Italy and conquered as far as Rome, the monarchy rode out to reconquer the Eternal Cityget itself decimated, and Naples’ dreamers had their chance.

Pimentel turned her literary talents to the Republic’s service, including some outstandingly vituperative verse savaging the exiled Maria Caroline as a lesbian and threatening her with the guillotine.

-ed.

Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel is one such overlooked person. She was a major figure, but on a small stage, connected with the little known and failed Neapolitan revolution and subsequent short-lived Neapolitan republic of 1799. It was a sister of the French republic and one of many set up in the 1790s in Europe, all of which—the Neapolitan version included—have been relegated to the status of “also-rans” in history.

Eleonora was an unlikely revolutionary. She was born in Rome in 1751 of Portuguese nobility and would be hanged in Piazza Mercato in Naples in 1799 in a grotesque caricature of an execution. Her executioner, Maria Caroline of Hapsburg, Queen of Naples during the Neapolitan Revolution was also born in 1751. That was also the decade of the great Lisbon earthquake, about which an anonymous poet wrote lines as if describing the dramatic events that would soon shake Europe the way the earth had shaken Portugal:

With her last earthquake this round world shall rise,
The sun shall lose his fires in endless night,
And the moon turned to blood, glare horrid light,
When comets dire shall sweep athwart the sky,
And stars like leaves before the tempest fly.

Certainly, the last days of one of Portugal’s daughters, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, seem contained in that verse.

Stendahl, in Rome, Florence and Naples (1826) , reports at length a conversation about the Neapolitan Revolution and its grisly conclusion with a young man he identifies only as T***, an eye-witness to the events, themselves. Stendahl concludes: “I have been careful to suppress, during the course of this narrative, all the more gruesome details. Robespierre, whatever his faults, has this at least to be said in his favor: he did not count a majority of personal friends among the total number of his victims. Those whom he sacrificed, he sacrificed to a system, however ill-founded; not to his petty, personal spite.”

In Piazza Mercato, the fortunate among those sentenced to death* were beheaded swiftly. The less fortunate, among whom was Eleonora, were hanged. In her case, it was a ghoulish affair. Her body was left dangling from the gallows for a day, exposed to further jibes and humiliation, such as the popular verse making the rounds at the execution (cited in Albanese 1998):

A signora donna Lionora,
che cantava ncopp’ o triato,
mo abballa mmiezo ‘ o mercato,
viva viva ‘u papa santo,
c’ha mannato i cannuncini,
pe scaccià li giacubini!
Viva a’ forca ‘e Masto Donato
Sant’Antonio sta priato.

Roughly:

To lady Eleonora
who used to sing upon the stage
and now dances in market square,
long live the Holy Pope,
who sent us the guns
to chase away the Jacobins!
Long live the gallows and Master Donato [a traditional name for the hangman]
Praise be to Sant’Antonio.

Eleonora was calm at the gallows. She asked for some coffee, and—true to her intellect to the last—her last words were in Latin: “Forsan et haec olim meninisse juvabit,” a citation from Virgil—“Perhaps one day this will be worth remembering.”


Giuseppe Boschetto, La Pimentel Conducted to the Gallows, 1869

One of the most interesting memories of the Revolution is the Palazzo Serra di Cassano, on via Monte di Dio. It was the home of Giovanni Serra, Duke of Cassano, one of Eleonora’s closest friends. Looking down at the crowd as he was about to die, he said, “I have always wanted good for them and now they cheer at my death” [cited in Albanese 1998]. The next day, his father closed the portal of the building that opens onto the Royal Palace and said it would remain closed until the ideals his son had died for were realized. The door is still closed.

The greatest memorial in recent memory, however, was when Vanessa Redgrave, the English actress, stepped out on the stage of the San Carlo Theater on Friday, January 8, 1999, and recited, in magnificent Italian, the title role in Eleonora, a 3-hour oratorio, an absolute hymn of praise to Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. It was composed by Roberto de Simone, prominent Neapolitan composer and musicologist. The production had had a two-week run-up in the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino, replete with histories of the Neapolitan revolution, fragments of Eleonora’s poetry, long citations from historical heavyweights such as Benedetto Croce, and even the news that a descendant of Eleonora’s (through her brother’s line), another Fonseca Pimentel, would be at the premiere. The production, itself, was generally well received. The next day, the critic from il Mattino called it “an allegory of all the martyrs in history” (Gargano 1999). “Art is liberty,” he wrote, “and must free itself from the bonds of time like an ever-evolving presepio,” thus comparing the production to the traditional Neapolitan manger scene that celebrates the birth of the Savior. Heady praise, indeed.

Visit the Around Naples Encyclopedia for an expanded version of this post with much more about Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel’s biography, the unfolding of the Revolution, and its legacy.

Bibliography

Acton, Harold. The Bourbons of Naples. London: Prion Books, 1957.
Albanese, Camillo. Cronache di una Rivoluzione, Napoli 1799. Milan: Franco Angeli, 1998.
Bradford, Ernle. Nelson, The Essential Hero. London: MacMillan, 1977.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.” Monograph. Rome: Tipografia nazionale, 1887.
Croce, Benedetto , et al. La Rivoluzione Napoletana. 1999 reprint by Tullio Pironti, ed. Naples: Morano, 1899.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e il Monitore Napoletano” in La Rivoluzione Napoletana di 1799. Bari: Laterza, 1926.
Cuoco, Vincenzo. Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. Milano: 1806.
Diana, Rosario. Forward to Vincenzo Cuoco, Pl atone in Italia. Naples: Pagano, 2000.
Gargano, Pietro. “Quei martiri nostri fratelli.” Il Mattino, January 9, 1999.
Gurgo, Bice. Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. Napoli: Cooperativa Libreria, 1935.
Irace, Clorinda. E.F.P. Le tracce, i luoghi. Naples: Lions Club, 1977.
Macciocchi, Maria Antonietta. Cara Eleonora. Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1993.
Stendahl. Rome, Florence and Naples. 1826.(Richard N. Coe, trans.) London: John Calder, 1959.
Urgnani, Elena. La Vicenda Letteraria e Politica di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. Il Pensiero e la storia. Ed. Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici. Vol. 54. Naples: La Città del Sole, 1998.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Women

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1799: Judith van Dorth

1 comment November 22nd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Judith van Dorth was shot on the outskirts of Winterswijk for supporting an attempted restoration of the House of Orange to the Dutch throne against the Batavian Republic.

Although the Netherlands had been a Republic for two centuries, it was torn by revolutionary conflict from the mid-1780’s — predating the French Revolution, but finally coming to power in 1795 when its neighbor’s mass conscript armies drove William V of Orange to England.

The 52-year-old van Dorth, an impoverished noble of Orangist sympathies, recklessly tried to raise an internal revolt [linked page in Dutch] backing an English-Russian invasion to restore William in 1799.

The uprising came to nothing, and after the invasion — a footnote in the sweep of Revolutionary Wars — was repelled, van Dorth was condemned for treason by a military tribunal to set an example. [linked page in Dutch]

She was shot within 24 hours near Winterswijk’s Jewish cemetery, and apparently survived the barrage. One of the firing squad had to shoot again when he saw her move — legend has it that this occurred when she had already been packed into her coffin.

She remains the only woman in history executed by a Dutch military court. A biography of her life is available in Dutch.

The House of Orange, one of the most successful of European dynasties, regained power in the Netherlands following the Napoleonic Wars. William V’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter Queen Beatrix reigns there today.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Botched Executions,France,Milestones,Netherlands,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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