1826: Seventy-two Janissaries

Add comment October 21st, 2018 Headsman

We credit the London Times of November 27, 1826 for this tidbit on the Ottoman Empire’s mop-up of the Janissaries, the truculent infantry elites who had been shattered earlier that same year during the “Auspicious Incident”.

The news from Constantinople extends to the 25th ult. It is stated that on the 18th a plot was discovered which had for its object to kill MEHEMED PACHA, who commands in Asia, the SERASKIER-PACHA, and the TOPCHI-BACHI [chief of the cannoneers -ed.]. The ex-Janissaries who are incorporated with the new troops were the authors of this project. They had agreed to come to a review, which was to take place on the 19th, provided with ball-cartridges, and on the order to fire, had resolved to discharge their muskets on these Pachas and their Staff-officers. The conspiracy was revealed to MEHEMED PACHA by a Captain and four Topchis, whom the conspirators had endeavoured to gain over to their cause. The information was immediately conveyed to the SULTAN and the Government, who took prompt and decisive measures to punish the guilty and intimidate the disaffected. They despatched 1,500 of the most suspected towards Nicomedia, under the pretext of suppressing a revolt, but with the real design of getting rid of obnoxious and dangerous defenders. It is supposed that when this detachment arrives at the Dardanelles it will be sent to Chios. On the 20th ult. the GRAND VIZIER ordered the execution of eight Mussulmans, and the SERASKIER commanded six to be strangled, on a charge of corresponding with the disaffected. On the 21st, the latter officer is said to have executed in secret, and without trial, 72 more, among whom were four captains. The Government banishes all the unmarried Janissaries, even though they exercise trades and are entirely unconnected with the soldiers of that suppressed corps. The Mussulman population, it is said, are to be disarmed, as well as those whom they call “Christian dogs.”

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1826: Janissaries during the Auspicious Incident

2 comments June 16th, 2011 Headsman

We have received from Constantinople the following further particulars of the revolt of the Janissaries: —

“June 16, 3 o’clock p.m.

“The Sultan was at his summer palace of Bschektash. The Aga Pacha, and the Pacha commanding on the Asiatic bank of the Bosphorus, repaired to Constantinople with their troops: 8,000 topschis, or artillery, also went thither. At length, his Sublimity being resolved to quell the rebellion, caused the standard of the Prophet to be displayed, and proclamations to be made in all the quarters of the city, that all men of honour — that is to say, true believers — had immediately to rally round this standard. The Ulemas met in the Seraglio. The appearance of the Snadgiak Sherif caused some hesitation among the rebels; their numbers were reduced by desertion, while, on the other hand, all the people hastened to assemble round the sacred standard. The energy of the Aga Pacha did the rest; he has crushed the rebles with grape-shot, burnt their barracks in the Ahnudan, and pursued them without mercy.

“The Grand Vizier is in the Court of the Mosque of Sultan Achmet, in the Hippodrome, with the Sandgiak Sherif still displayed; the chiefs of the corps of the Ulemas are met there in council; the Sultan is at the Seraglio, with the great men of the empire. Every moment persons are brought into the Hippodrome, and executed on the spot. Above 100 Oustas have already suffered this fate. This morning all the gates of Constantinople, except one, are shut or guarded by topschis and citizens. The remainder of the rebels have taken refuge in some khans built of stone, where they are invested, and where, to all appearance, famine will soon deliver them to the mercy of the Aga Pacha.

London Times, July 15, 1826 (translating July 11 reports published in the French papers)

This date in 1826 finds Constantinople in the midst of what history will remember as the Auspicious Incident — an attempted revolt by the Ottoman Empire’s elite Janissary corps that was not at all auspicious for the Janissaries.

This centuries-old slave infantry,* a sort of Ottoman Praetorian Guard as well as the sultan’s elite military presence in the empire’s hinterlands, had evolved by this stage of decadence into a vampire squid on the face of the Porte.**

Jealous of their material privileges and political prerogatives even as the dawn of industry and conscript armies undermined their combat utility, the Janissaries had become much more trouble than they were worth.†

They had “begun to present a serious threat to the Empire,” wrote Lord Kinross in Ottoman Centuries. “On the battlefield they were gaining a reputation among the modern foreign armies for ineptitude and even cowardice under arms … In the capital … they came to be a dominant power and a focus of sedition.”

Kinross wrote that about the Janissaries of the early 17th century, in the reign of Osman II. (Osman tried to curtail the troop’s power, and was executed by his bodyguards for his trouble.)

A couple of centuries on from that moment, and the Janissaries are still skulking about the Seraglio, still keeping their supposed masters in mortal terror, still arbitrating the succession.

The current ruler, Mahmud II, had been fortunate in his own youth to survive the Janissaries’ political intrusion and reach the throne.

For a generation, Mahmud had waited and readied himself for the opportunity to sweep this piece off the chessboard. This would be a most Auspicious Incident indeed.

Kinross and many other historians suspect that Mahmud intentionally baited the Janissaries to revolt in 1826, but whether or not that is so, they did revolt — in response to a decree reorganizing the corps.

Mahmud was ready for them. He repelled the Janissary mutiny on June 15, and as described by our third-hand correspondent above, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy: under artillery barrage in the barracks they retreated to, or by the summary execution of all who surrendered — not just on this date, but throughout the Incident and extending to the further reaches of the empire where Mahmud’s agents carried his decree abolishing the Janissaries forever.

* Culled from children taken from non-Muslim families and raised as Islamic converts.

** Not unlike the actual Praetorian Guard.

† There’s a competing historiography contending (pdf) that, contrary to the corrupt-backwards-military-caste story, it was the Janissaries’ economic and social links that brought on their destruction: they became the entity representing the autonomous Ottoman classes, such as artisans and guilds, who had the most to lose from the elites’ state modernization project.

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825”

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

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1826: Matthew Brady, gentleman bushranger

4 comments May 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1826, “gentleman bushranger” Matthew Brady was hanged in the Hobart jail for one Australia’s most colorful outlaw careers.

Shipped from England on penal transportation, Matthew Brady was repeatedly flogged for escape attempts before he successfully busted out of Macquarie Harbour prison in 1824.

He made for the bush and began an 18-month spell as an outlaw, self-consciously constructing the persona of the gentleman outlaw — polite to his victims, never violent towards women, that sort of thing.

Among Brady’s best-known exploits: after the colonial governor George Arthur posted a reward for his capture, Brady posted a public counter-offer:

It has caused Matthew Brady much concern that such a person known as Sir George Arthur is at large.
Twenty gallons of rum will be given to any person that can deliver his person to me.

The authorities hunted him doggedly, and he was at last captured by settler John Batman, later famous for his founding role in the history of Melbourne.

The love letters and gifts that filled his cell attested his place in the folklore, but his fate was never in question. Ever the gentleman, Brady’s main protest was sharing his scaffold with (among several other bushrangers) the murderous cannibal Mark Jefferies.

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