1860: John Moyse, the Private of the Buffs

5 comments August 14th, 2010 Headsman

“Our readers,” intoned the London Times on Nov. 5 of 1860, “will not have overlooked the behavior and fate of Private Moyse, of the Buffs, whose resolution, indeed, was not proof against the allurements of the grog-cart, but who actually faced death in cold blood rather than demean himself by prostration before ‘any Chinaman alive.'”

It was on this date that said Private Moyse, John to call him by his Christian name, died in captivity — allegedly because he refused to kowtow to a Chinese mandarin. “The Sikhs obeyed” this Asiatic command, goes the account. “But Moyse, the English soldier, declaring that he would not prostrate himself before any Chinaman alive, was immediately knocked upon the head and his body thrown on a dunghill.”

Kowtowing — Chinese insistence upon; British rejection of — was a touchy symbolic issue between the rising European hegemon and the ancient Chinese empire. It’s said (likely with more color than accuracy) that the British envoy Earl Macartney‘s 1790s trade mission to the east failed for want of a kowtow.

For the same reasons this legend became current, the Moyse tale made sensational propaganda during Britain’s Second Opium War intervention in China, valorized in this jingoistic tear-jerker.

The Private of the Buffs
by Sir Francis Doyle

Last night, among his fellow roughs,
He jested, quaffed and swore,
A drunken private of the Buffs,
Who never looked before.
Today, beneath the foeman’s frown
He stands in Elgin‘s place,
Ambassador from Britain’s Crown
And type of all her race.

Poor, reckless, rude, low-born, untaught,
Bewildered and alone.
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
He yet can call his own.
Aye, tear his body limb from limb,
Bring cord, or axe, or flame;
He only knows that not through him
Shall England come to shame.

Far Kentish hop fields round him seem’d
Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry blossom gleam’d,
One sheet of living snow;
The smoke above his father’s door
In grey soft eddyings hung.
Must he then watch it rise no more,
Doomed by himself so young?

Yes, honour calls! With strength like steel
He puts the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink
To his red grave he went.

Vain, mightiest fleets of iron framed;
Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untamed
The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through England ring –
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s King
Because his soul was great.

Moyse’s defiance and death make an appearance in this Flashman novel.

Aye, Moyse liked to get into the drink and had a discipline problem, but no matter. This fact was easily appropriated further to his bluff and earnest character in national martyrdom.

Getting a bit carried away with itself, the Times editorialized on Nov. 16,

We have no such visions of human perfectibility as to believe that all the young men of this country will be “respectable youth” looking for “honourable service.” … The English are a people endowed with superabundant energy, and energy must sometimes take an irregular and even a criminal form. The best use that can be made of a young man who will settle down to nothing is to get him to enlist as a soldier. He is kept under strict discipline at the same time that his love of activity and adventure is gratified. He becomes a first-rate fighting man, and fulfils splendidly the only duty which society can ever hope to obtain from him. There is no reason to wonder, with Colonel McMurdo, that acts of heroism have been performed by such men, for they have performed them in all ages and all countries. The “obstinate intemperate hero” is of all time, whether in the shape of Alexander or Lord Clive, or Private Moyse of the Buffs. There are two kinds of valour, belonging to two different classes of men, and a citizen-force may very usefully be employed side by side with the wildest lads who ever rioted in Tipperary or gambled in a London pothouse.

Basically forgotten now, this story can be fleetingly encountered among Anglophiles as an arcane indicator that the national character of Britain, or the West, or what have you, is not now what it once was, given all the kowtowing to mandarins going on in these debased times.

(Although this post amusingly juxtaposes the “commonsense prudence and practicality” of Wellington taking an expedient knee so that a military strategem would not be lost on account of bullheaded pride. Maybe it helped that Wellington was kneeling to a European.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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1860: General Jaime Ortega y Olleta, for a Carlist uprising

Add comment April 18th, 2010 Headsman

This date marks 150 years since the admittedly little distinguished execution of turncoat General Jaime Ortega y Olleta for attempting to aid a Carlist uprising in Spain.

Hoping to exploit the Spanish military’s preoccupation with a conflict in Morocco, the Carlist pretender Infante Carlos and his brother Don Fernando attempted to topple their cousin Queen Isabella II.

They landed at San Carlos de la Rapita (Spanish link) bound for death or glory … or maybe just an “absurd fiasco”.

Ortega (Spanish Wikipedia link), dignified in the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s estimation as a “featherheaded officer”, turned coat to support this ill-fated adventure. Alas for him, none of the men under his command did likewise, nor did the populace.

The rising (more Spanish) collapsed immediately; Ortega was captured, court-martialed on April 17, and shot the following morning. (The New York Times recounts the story of his last hours from the Barcelona papers here.)

General Featherhead was the only casualty.

The would-be monarchs for whom he threw away his life were spared at the price of renouncing their claims, which renunciation they then attempted to renounce once back in exile. For some reason, nobody took them seriously; they died under suspicious circumstances the following year. Their nephew would later lead the last (likewise unsuccessful, but at least less embarrassing) Carlist war in Spain.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain

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1860: (William) Walker, Nicaragua Ranger

14 comments September 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1860, a kid from Tennessee who had made himself President of Nicaragua got his grateful subjects’ comeuppance in the form of a fusillade.

It was westward the wagons that first bestirred the pioneering blood of William Walker, a scion of privilege with an Ivy League medical degree, who uprooted for San Francisco in 1849.

But the “grey-eyed man of destiny” had an altogether grander gold rush in mind, as he stared pensively into the middle distance.

The air was fervid with Manifest Destiny, and most Americans reckoned that the entire hemisphere was its rightful Manifestation. In a time when private settlers effected the statecraft of conquering the Great Plains, was it really any crazier for Walker to fancy privately conquering some distracted European power’s American colonies?

Walker was one of — soon to be the most famous of — a whole class of such characters: filibusters, a word etymologically rooted in piracy but now claimed by the bustling ranks of soldiers of fortune with private militias bent on detaching some parcel of land from south of the border, for money or glory or what have you.*

Oh, and “what have you”? That means slavery.

Nicely dovetailing the individual spur to derring-do, the South’s structural impulsion to expand slaveholding territories to maintain political parity encouraged — and often bankrolled — filibuster adventuring.

It is to these unwholesome fellows that the United States likely owes its sovereignty over Texas, which was pelted with Anglo filibustering expeditions in the early 19th century, helping set the table for the revolution that severed the Lone Star state from Mexico; arguably, the Texas Revolution itself was a (fantastically successful) filibuster.

So Walker had the glittering destinies manifest before his grey eyes when he put off the white collar career to play soldier. After an abortive 1853 attempt to set up his own country in Mexico’s Baja California — a jury instantly acquitted him of waging war on a neutral power; filibustering, and damn near anything that promised America more Manifestly Destined land, was as popular as it was illegal — Walker moved on war-torn Nicaragua under the guise of a “colony”. With a few hundred men, he was able to conquer the capital and set himself up as head of state.

Who knows whether he could have had a future if he’d done it differently. In the actual fact, he wasn’t as hot an administrator as his ego might then have been telling him. He revoked Nicaragua’s anti-slavery edicts, of course; though this sparked resistance, more damaging may have been revoking a Vanderbilt trade concession and bringing a tycoon into the private warfare game on the opposite team.

Cornelius Vanderbilt-backed opponents drove Walker out of Nicaragua in 1857. Not knowing when he was beat, the ex-Presidente kept knocking around stateside piecing together several expeditions, each sadder than the last … until in 1860, when a landing at Honduras collapsed, and he surrendered himself to a British (rather than American) officer. Europeans with colonies to exploit didn’t have much use for filibustering, and Walker had made everyone nervous by openly aspiring to conquer Nicaragua’s neighbors — including British assets. Rather than return him home where he could continue scheming to meddle in the future canal zone, the Brits handed him over to the Hondurans, who stood him in a court-martial, then stood him up against a wall.

Alex Cox (Repo Man) turned this bizarre biography into a film, back when Ronald Reagan’s filibusters narco-terrorists “moral equals of our founding fathers” were having their own unofficial way with the country Walker once governed:


visit videodetective.com for more info

And for a corner of Americana little-known to most in the U.S. — well, the colorful, nigh-unbelievable quality of the action has overridden its obscurity when it comes to the written word.

Various books about William Walker and Filibustering

* More familiar for most Americans is “filibuster” as a legislative maneuver — refusing to yield the floor during debate to forestall the passage of a bill. Not surprisingly, this usage came online at the same time mercenary filibusters were active, and proceeds from the word’s original sense of “piracy”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Heads of State,History,Honduras,Language,Mercenaries,Nicaragua,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Shot,Soldiers,USA

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