1541: Cristóvão da Gama, Portuguese crusader in Ethiopia

Add comment August 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1541, Cristóvão da Gama — “the most chivalrous soldier of a chivalrous age” — was beheaded in Ethiopia.

This moment was the apex of Lisbon’s empire-building, most vividly symbolized by Cristovao’s famous dad, explorer Vasco de Gama. In the Age of Discovery, Caravels bore Portuguese colors from Brazil to Japan.

Alas, Portugal’s global maritime empire of coastal colonies and remote ports was immediately menaced by rival powers like the also at-its-apex Ottoman Empire.

Young Cristovao would be ground up in this conflict whose mixture of geopolitics and sectarianism overtly smacked of those old-time Crusades.

After a jaunt to India in the train of his older brother, appointed the Portuguese governor of India, Cristavao was sidetracked on a return voyage for an intervention on the Christian side in a raging local war. For Europeans who for generations had trafficked in the vague and fantastical rumors of mythical Abyssinian ruler “Prester John”, putting a thumb on the scale for Ethiopian Christians against the rampant Arabs must have been nigh irresistible.

Let’s listen in.

Joao III and his government, faced with mounting debts as the costs of military operations in the East steadily grew, were now forced to re-evaluate their global commitments … the new viceroy, Estevao da Gama, was ordered to destroy the Turkish fleet in Suez …

Estevao da Gama’s raid into the Red Sea became one of the best remembered episodes in the history of the Portuguese Estado da India. The fleet assembled at Massawa on the African shore and then proceeded to Suakin which was burnt and plundered. Part of the fleet then returned to Massawa while the rest sailed on to Suez where the Turkish ships proved to be securely based and inaccessible. On the shore of Sinai, as close to Jerusalem as the Portuguese were ever to come, Estevao da Gama enacted some of the rituals of crusading chivalary and made a number of knights before returning to Massawa. Meanwhile, Dom Joao de Castro, who accompanied the expedition, used the time to produce his famous guide to the Red Sea, the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, complete with the meticulous drawings of the ports and anchorages, a masterpiece of Portuguese Renaissance geography and science.


One of Joao de Castro’s drawings. (Source, a Portuguese pdf)

Meanwhile the Portuguese at Massawa had suffered extreme privations and a hundred of them had deserted, having been persuaded by [untrustworthy Potuguese-descended Ethiopian ambassador Joao] Bermudes of the richness and wealth of the interior. Their fate was to be captured and massacred by Ahmed Gran. Estevao da Gama now dispatched a force of four hundred soldiers under the command of his brother, Cristovao da Gama, into the interior to assist the Ethiopian king. Cristovao da Gama advanced from the coast with a force much the same size as that which Cortez had led into Mexico in 1519. He had with him horses, arquebuses and eight small cannon. His first objective was to link up with the fugitive Ethiopian king and his followers, but da Gama got separated from his supplies and was forced to fight a superior Somali force supported by Turkish mercenaries. The result was catastrophe. The small Portuguese army was badly mauled and da Gama himself fled wounded from the battlefield and was taken prisoner.

The capture of the viceroy’s brother, son of the great admiral, carried with it huge importance for the Turks. After being ritually humiliated (his beard being set on fire and his face buffeted with the shoes of his negro servant) Cristovao da Gama was beheaded.* For the Portuguese this was a disaster, the symbolic significance of which far transcended the military consequences of the defeat. However, the Christian church had long experience of turning catastrophe into triumph and, soon after the news of Cristovao da Gama’s death reached the outside world, rumours of miracles began to circulate.** Da Gama became one of the first martyrs of the new church overseas which in a hundred years of expansion had had all too few heroic deeds to celebrate.

After the death of their commander fewer than two hundred of the original army survived, but they were able to meet up with the Christian Ethiopian forces and, when the next campaigning season started in 1542, the combined army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Muslims, a defeat which took on a decisive complexion when it was realised that the leader of the jihad, Ahmed Gran, had been killed in the battle.

Da Gama’s expedition had been mounted from the resources of the official empire and had been commanded by one of the leading fidalgos of the Estado da India. However, few of da Gama’s soldiers returned to India Instead they settled in Ethiopia and married Ethiopian women, establishing a ‘Portuguese’ community that mirrored the ‘Portuguese’ communities in Aythia, Bengal, Kongo and elsewhere where soldiers had offered their military expertise to local rulers an had been content to settle and make their fortures far removed from the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Crown.

Although da Gama’s own end was unfortunate, his surviving force’s exploits on a side badly pressed could arguably be considered the decisive factor enabling Christianity to survive in Ethiopia’s highlands interior. Prester John would have been proud.

* “I write what I heard, it may well be that it was thus, for all that is barbarous and cruel about the Moorish king can be believed. The body, after death, was dismembered and sent to various places … because once when Granha was speaking with Dom Christovao, he asked him: ‘If you had me in your power, as I have you, what would you do to me?’ Dom Christovao, with great resolution and freedom replied, ‘If I had you in my power, I would have you killed, the head I would send to one place and the quarters I would distribute to other places’ (naming them, but I do not recall them). And Granha, they say that it was because he heard this, scattered the body to various places.”

** “Directly they cut off his head, God worked a great and manifest miracle through it, which was, that in the place where they slew him a fountain of running water gushed out, which had never been seen before: its water, through the goodness and power of God, gives sight to the blind, and cures those ill of other diseases. It appears that this miracle is like the one that God did in Rome for His Apostle St. Paul. The remains of the body of D. Christovao smell sweetly, giving forth so delightful an odour, that it seems rather of heaven than of earth.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Portugal,Power,Religious Figures,Soldiers,Somalia,Wartime Executions

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1538: Diego de Almagro, explorer of Chile

Add comment July 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1538, Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro was executed* at Cuzco by his vengeful rivals, the Pizarro brothers.

Conquistadoring with the rapacious Pizarros was a good way to get rich, get dead, or possibly both.

Almagro, a soldier, got to the New World in 1514 and soon fell in with alpha male Pizarro Francisco.** He’d become an adjunct to the latter’s conquest of the Incan Empire in the 1520s and 1530s; sent to capture the Incan city of Quito, Almagro found it razed by its defenders, and he sycophantically re-founded it as San Francisco de Quito.†

Things weren’t buddy-buddy for long.

The Iberian mothership divided Spain’s putative New World possessions north and south, putting Almagro in command of the southern cone. Great news … now all he had to do was actually take control of it.

Personally financing an expedition on the expectation of fabulous riches to be seized, Almagro instead foundered in Chile’s northern valleys in a frustrating environment of natives equally hostile and impecunious. After a couple years, he gave up and returned to Peru, angrier and poorer for his trouble — and there found that he could exploit the Spanish preoccupation with intransigent Incan chief Manco Inca to nick the capital city of Cuzco for himself.

Almagro actually had the lesser Pizarros — Gonzalo and Hernando — prisoner for a while, but he bartered them away to Francisco for a hill of beans (that is, a promise not to attack), and the Pizarros took their city back by routing Almagro at the Battle of Las Salinas.

The sentence of death against as august a personage as the appointed ruler of Nueva Toledo shocked many, and it was carried out against Almagro’s own entreaties for an appeal to the crown.


Detail view of a print of Almagro’s capture and execution. (Click for the full image.)

Francisco Pizarro would redeem his want of clemency towards his former partner in his own blood: in 1541, Almagro’s son, Diego de Almagro II or el Mozo, murdered Pizarro in an attempted coup d’etat. (Almagro the Younger, too, would be executed for his trouble.)

Although he was an important conquistador who spent most of his time at points further north, Almagro is best remembered today not in Peru but in Chile — for his abortive and disappointing expedition made him that land’s first European “discoverer”.

* Either beheaded or garroted.

** Almagro also rubbed shoulders with Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

† He pulled a similar trick with Trujillo, naming it after Francisco Pizarro’s birthplace.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Chile,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Garrote,History,Nobility,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,Strangled

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1618: Walter Raleigh, age of exploration adventurer

3 comments October 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1618, schemer, explorer, and lover Walter Raleigh fell permanently out of favor.

One of the biggest wheels of Elizabethan England, Raleigh (who also rendered his name Rawleigh, Rawley, and most commonly, Ralegh) charmed his way into the Queen’s inner circle, and possibly her pants, and was even thought to be a contender for her hand.

In between gorging on royal monopolies, scribbling poetry, popularizing tobacco, and introducing the potato to Ireland [allegedly], Raleigh got his New World on by attempting to colonize Virginia,* helping fund it with privateering operations against England’s rivals in the land-grab game. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina — present-day North Carolina was part of the Virginia Colony back in the day — is named for him.

Proud, powerful, and the queenie’s pet. Just the sort of courtier other noble suckups loved to hate.

When the palace fave secretly dallied with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, he went on the royal outs and got real familiar with the Tower of London. Though he managed to patch up with Elizabeth, things were never quite the same for Sir Walter. Elizabeth’s successor James I put him back in prison (suspending a death sentence) for supposedly participating in the Main Plot.

Raleigh passed the time under lock and key burnishing his Renaissance man rep by writing various poetry and treatises, including an account of his voyage to Guyana. Convinced the legendary city of El Dorado was in the vicinity, Raleigh eventually prevailed upon James to release him to make another run at it.

But a dust-up with a Spanish outpost in South America left his son dead, and the Spanish ambassador hopping mad. Raleigh was arrested upon his return, and the death sentence reinstated.

At 66 years of age or so, Walter Raleigh had had a pretty good run.

He took his punishment with equanimity, writing tenderly to his wife, and examining the blade that would take off his head on the scaffold with the observation,

“This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases.”

His wife creepily kept the severed head for the remaining 29 years of her life.

There’s a more detailed tour of Raleigh’s life here, and a site linking many works by and about Raleigh here.

* As Governor of Virginia, Raleigh forbade injuring Indians on pain of death, according to Giles Milton’s Big Chief Elizabeth. Raleigh’s “imperialism with a human face” policy had exchange programs of Indians visiting England, most notably Pocahontas.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Political Expedience,Politicians,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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