1892: Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne, Congo Free State hostages

Add comment December 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1892,* Belgian colonial agents Jozef Lippens and Henri De Bruyne were executed by the rebelling native king who had taken them hostage.

The gentlemen were a lieutenant (Lippens) and sergeant (De Bruyne) of the Force Publique colonial deployment in Belgian Congo.

Their misfortune was proximity when in 1892, rivalry over control of the eastern Congo ivory trade brought the European power into war with its erstwhile Zanzibar “Arab”** allies. (The Arabs were slave-traders, affording a classic humanitarian intervention pretext … which obviously is pretty rich coming from Belgium.)

The Congo-Arab War — which in practice was fought on both sides mostly by black Congolese troops — saw in its opening months the defection of one of the Arabs’ best commanders, Gongo Lutete,† a manumitted former slave who had risen to leadership of the Batetela and Bakussu tribes. In revenge when he switched sides to join the Europeans, the Arab leader Sefu bin Hamid seized Lippens, Belgium’s representative Resident at Kasongo, and De Bruyne, Lippens’s aide — demanding the return of his disloyal general and a settlement of hostilities as the price for these European envoys’ lives.

In fact, it was De Bruyne himself who had the honor of delivering the demand. Escorted by his captors to the eastern bank of the Lomami River on November 15, the emaciated De Bruyne shouted across to Belgian officers on the western side the terms of his captivity. The Belgians, who had the river covered by gunners, urged their countryman to leap into the water and swim for it; De Bruyne declined to abandon his comrade. “By this act of self-abnegation he was to go down in the Belgian folklore as a national hero.” (European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath)

His flight would have meant certain death for Lippens; instead, both paid the forfeit together after the Belgian commander Francis Dhanis repelled Sefu bin Hamid’s attack and smashed across the Lomani. According to the account of the war by Sidney Langford Hinde, one of many British officers employed by the Force Publique,

News also reached us here of the murder of Lippens and Debruyne, two officers representing the Free State Government, resident at Sefu’s court in Kasongo. We found out later that, after the defeat of Sefu on the Lomami (which resulted in the death of his cousin and several other noted chiefs), an advance party of the retreating Arabs arrived at Kasongo, and, by way of individual revenge, murdered the two Residents. It is probable, since we have no actual proof to the contrary, that this was done without Sefu’s orders. Twelve of these people, armed with knives hidden in their clothing, made some trivial pretext for visiting Lippens at the Residency, who, however, refused to come out and interview them. They then said that news of a big battle had come to them from Sefu; on hearing which Lippens came out, and, while talking in the verandah, was promptly and silently stabbed. Some of the murderers entering the adjoining room, found Debruyne writing, and killed him before he had learned the fate of his chief. When Sefu returned to Kasongo, a day or two afterwards, he gave orders that the pieces of Debruyne’s body should be collected and buried with Lippens, whose body, with the exception of the hands (which had been sent to Sefu and Mohara of Nyangwe as tokens), was otherwise unmutilated. The strong innate respect for a chief had protected Lippens’ body, while that of his subordinate had been hacked to pieces.

A curious fatality followed these twelve murderers. The chief of the band, Kabwarri by name, was killed by us in the battle of the 26th of February with Lippens’ Martini express in his hand. Of the others — all of whom were the sons of chiefs, and some of them important men on their own account — four died of smallpox, one was killed at Nyangwe, one in the storming of Kasongo, and the remaining six we took prisoners at Kasongo. During the trial they one day, though in a chained gang, succeeded in overpowering the sentry, and thus escaped. One was drowned in crossing a river; three more were killed, either fighting or by accident, within a month or two of their escape; and the two remaining we retook and hanged; — which brings to me a curious point. Of the many men I have seen hanged nearly all died by strangulation, and not by having the neck broken. As compared with shooting, hanging seems to me the less painful death; the wretched being becomes insensible in a very few seconds, whereas a man shot will often require a coup de grace, no matter how carefully the firing party is placed.


Monument to De Bruyne and Lippens in Blankenberge. (cc) image from Zeisterre.

* December 1 is the commonly attributed date for the hostages’ butchery but it can’t be documented with certainty.

** As we’ve noted elsewhere, the term “Arabs” as used for eastern Congo by European sources in this period denotes Muslim bantus. We’re following the prevailing term here, whatever its imprecision.

† As a reward for his services, Gongo Lutete was spuriously accused of treason by a Belgian officer in September 1893 and speedily executed without any form of superior approval.

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1883: Mampuru, Sekukuni rival

Add comment November 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1883, the Boer South African Republic hanged Bapedi chief Mampuru.

Sekukuni

Mampuru is notable as the half-brother and rival — eventually murderous rival — of Sekukuni (also rendered Sekhukhune), the chief of the Pedi or Bapedi people. Their backstory is significant: Mampuru had been the intended heir of their shared father, King Sekwati, but the warlike Sekukuni had seized rulership instead when Sekwati died in 1861.

While Mampuru skulked in exile with the neighboring Swazi, it was Sekukuni who led his people’s resistance to the incursions of the Dutch Boers settling the Transvaal.

In 1876, he successfully fought off the Boer Transvaal Republic — which contributed to it becoming in 1877 the British Transvaal instead, at least according to the British.

Less successful was Sekukuni in the war soon prosecuted against him by the British. Extensively narrated here (also see part 1 of this same article sequence here), the upshot was that the British eventually trapped Sekukuni’s last defenders in a rocky hill remembered as the “Fighting Koppie” and captured him. The Swazi, with that displaced rival Mampuru, fought in this war with the British.

Sekukuni and his surviving family would be marched to Pretoria and imprisoned there until 1881.

In the intervening years, power was rebalanced all around among the players. Mampuru had been able to re-establish himself among the Bapedi with no small help from his British allies — but those British allies had been defeated by a Boer rebellion in the First Boer War.* One article in the settlement ending the Boer-British conflict permitted Sekukuni’s release.

As might be expected the ex-chief’s return to his homeland was scarcely welcomed by his brother. After some months of political acrimony, Mampuru settled the feud by having a team of assassins stab Sekukuni to death in his sleep, on the night of August 13, 1882.

For Mampuru, the sibling rivalry win was as Pyrrhic as it surely was satisfying, for he was immediately branded an outlaw by the Boer Transvaal and himself obliged to flee from the countrymen whom he meant to rule. When the Boers captured him, they had him condemned a murderer and hanged him stark naked for an audience of 200-plus white men in Pretoria. As an added indignity, they botched the hanging and dropped Mampuru to the ground on their first go, when the noose snapped. (In 2013, the jail where he hanged was renamed for Mampuru.)

Cowardly murderer or anti-colonial resistance martyr? That’s still up for debate.

* A result to be avenged/reversed 20 years on.

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1635: The village of Mattau

Add comment November 22nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Dutch soldiers occupying Formosa (Taiwan) massacred 26 people of the holdout aboriginal village of Mattau.

The Dutch had established themselves in southern Formosa from 1624 but their authority there was at first tenuous, and violently contested by some of the island’s natives. The Dutch spent the 1620s shoring up their Fort Zeelandia outpost and carefully noting the grudges to avenge.

Come 1635 the Europeans felt ready to deal out a little payback. First in line was a village some two or three thousand strong known as Mattau — today, the Madou District in the Tainan metropolis — whose people had bloodied the Dutch back in 1629 by repelling an expedition to the tune of 63 casualties.


Taiwanese aborigines, from Olfert Dapper, Gedenkwaerdig bedryf (1670)

The missionary Robert Junius left an account of how revenge was served:

It is well known to you all how some years ago the inhabitants of the village of Mattau most treacherously and shamefully killed sixty of your servants. On account of their great cunning they were most successful in their treachery, so that all of our people were killed without one of our enemies being even wounded. This was looked upon by them as a great unheard-of victory, and it filled them with pride. Not only Mattau but other villages, as Soulang and Bakloan, began to rebel against us, and matters took so serious a turn that we hardly ventured to set foot on Formosa. They even went so far as to hint that they would chase us from Tayouan. All this perplexed the Governor to such a degree that he scarcely ventured to leave the precincts of the Fort at night …

as long as Mattau remained unchastised the inhabitants showed a bold face, imagining that we had not the power, and did not dare to avenge the frightful crime that had been committed against us, by attacking their village. Consequently, we were regarded with very much contempt by all the people, especially by those of Mattau, who often showed how very little they were afraid of us, venturing not only to ill-treat the Chinese provided with our licences, but even tearing up Your Excellencies’ own passports and treating them with contempt. Governor Putmans, seeing how insolent these people had become, and that such conduct was no longer to be borne, very earnestly begged Governor-general Brouwer to send hither a sufficient military force to humble them and adequately defend the settlement. This enforcement of law and order was also very desirable on account of the Chinese residing here; because the security and prosperity of their sugar plantations required our protection against the natives, who were continually damaging them, as appeared from the many complaints that were made to us. Again, we who were occupied in the spiritual cultivation, with the conversion of these people of Sinkan — from time immemorial enemies of Mattau — foresaw that, if the people of Mattau were not humiliated, it was probable that one day this village would be fired by them and the inhabitants chased away; we then being left as shepherds without their flocks. In order that the foundation of our building might be rendered firmer in the future, the Governor-general was also requested by us to send a sufficient military force, and in the month of August 1635 the troops happily arrived.

After some deliberation about the place which should be first attacked, Governor Putmans decided to assault Mattau first and foremost; because the people there had done us most injury, and because victory could more easily be obtained by attacking a village in our neighbourhood than one village situated at a distance. Hence, on 22 November 1635 we received a communication from the Governor in which he desired us to meet him with some men of Sinkan. We resolved to do so next morning. We also told the Sinkandians what our plan was, and urged them to join us, so that the friendly relationship between us might thereby be rendered closer. To this they agreed.

We had not proceeded far on our march when the Sinkandians joined us, armed in their usual manner, thus proving their allegiance. They reported that one of the chief men of Mattau had been captured and put in irons in Sinkan. Soon after, we approached the village of Bakloan, very near which we had to pass. In order to prevent its inhabitants from taking flight, we endeavoured to calm their fears, assuring them that no harm would be done to them. Not far from Bakloan, we received tidings that the Sinkan men had already cut off a head, which they came to show while the blood was still flowing from it.

The sun was beginning to set when we reached the river near Mattau, and as the locality was quite unknown to us, many considered that it would be more prudent to pass the night on the bank of the river. But on His Honour receiving further information about the place, and hearing from the Sinkan men that the inhabitants of Mattau were preparing to flee, so as to leave us nothing but an empty village in the morning, he resolved to make victory all the greater by attacking Mattau that very night. Animated by the greatest courage, and heeding no obstacle whatever, we suddenly, to the great dismay of the inhabitants, appeared in the village, and the enemy did not venture to offer any resistance. Having passed along some of the streets, a rest was given to the men, a suitable place for passing the night was chosen, and the Sinkandians were securely placed in the midst of us. Next day the village was set on fire; and we found that in all twenty-six men of Mattau had been killed.

This demonstrative massacre, combined with the Lamey Island massacre a few months later, did vigorous work for the pacification campaign; not only the Mattau but other natives who heard news of the slaughter soon sued for peaceful submission to the Dutch hegemony — which in turn permitted the peaceable cultivation of Chinese sugar plantations most profitable to the Dutch East India Company.

That is, until a Chinese warlord chased the Dutch off Formosa in 1662.

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1821: Corporal Chaguinha, Brazil’s saint of freedom

1 comment September 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1821, Brazil’s saint of freedom was martyred by the Portuguese.

Francisco José das Chagas, fondly remembered as Corporal Chaguinha, led a mutiny in Santos of enlistees aggrieved by wages five years overdue, and the unequal treatment of Brazilian as compared to Portuguese soldiers.

It was a fraught and contradictory political moment; the Portuguese royal family had spent the past decade-plus in the quasi-exile of their New World colony after fleeing Napoleon. In the process they had (even formally) elevated Brazil from a mere dependency to a coequal in the empire, and attempts to reverse this promotion once the royals returned to Portugal in early 1821 found little welcome in Brazil.

Chaguinha was born to symbolize in his death his countrymen’s frustration.

To great popular indignation a customary pardon was not extended to the man, who was instead publicly hanged in a notorious botch. After the rope broke repeatedly — and again a public clamor for clemency was refused — they strangled him slowly with a leather strap. A Catholic priest named Diogo Antônio Feijó, who in time would rise to become the regent of independent Brazil, would describe seeing “with my own eyes” seeing the still-surviving Chaguinha being murdered lying under the gallows after his last noose failed to support him.

Brazil declared independence from Portugal one year later almost to the date (September 7, 1822), and won the war to clinch it. The martyred corporal was thereafter improved by veneration as a popular saint credited with miraculous intercessions for suitably patriotic Brazilians.

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1661: Antonius Hambroek, defying Koxinga

Add comment July 21st, 2018 Headsman

Missionary Antonius Hambroek was put to death on this date in 1661 as the warlord Koxinga wrested control of Formosa (Taiwan) from the Dutch.

In the 1620s, the running Dutch-Spanish war as projected into both countries’ colonial extrusions had resulted in the two dividing that South China island: the Dutch in the south, based at Fort Zeelandia, and Spain in the north. In 1641 the Dutch conquered Spanish Formosa to establish themselves as the apex predators on a rough and lawless island.


Fort Zeelandia.

But that’s before they ran into Koxinga.

Simultaneous with the Dutch advance on Formosa, China’s Ming dynasty was in the process of collapsing. From the 1640s, civil wars between the advancing Manchus (eventually victorious as the incoming Qing dynasty) and the remnants of the Ming would tear at the mainland.

Koxinga was the last great Ming commander. He’d been born on a Nagasaki beach to a Japanese mother. His family ran a commercial concern stretching across the South China Sea as far as Vietnam and the Philippines; its dubious legality confers the romantic sobriquet “pirate” upon Koxinga but think corporate raider here. “Some people call him a pirate, but he was a businessman,” said present-day Taiwan historian Chu Cheng-yi.

And in both commerce and war, Koxinga could flex.

The author of this book about Koxinga’s victory over Dutch Formosa describes his book in this video.

Paradoxically the Ming’s collapse launched Koxinga; his very name as history knows it derives from a title (“Lord of the Imperial Surname”) conferred by the executed Longwu Emperor in gratitude for staying loyal when even Koxinga’s own dad had gone over to the Qing. In one cinematic moment, with the Ming looking toast, Koxinga torched the scholarly robes he had earned studying for a respectable court career and swore he would don nothing but armor until he’d expelled the Manchus from China.

This “Badass of the Week” post chronicles his scintillating military career; in the twilight of the Ming, Koxinga’s victories gave the foundering dynasty its last legitimate cause for hope and in the course of the 1650s his sword-arm established a Qing-defying state in the southerly province of Fujian. From this base in 1659 he launched a proposed history-altering attack on Nanjing that only narrowly failed.

Win or lose on terra firma, the pirate was nails on the waves. “Never before nor since was a more powerful and mighty fleet seen in the waters than that of Koxinga, numbering more than 3,000 junks,” Jesuit missionary Vittorio Ricci wrote of the armada he had once assembled to attack Xiamen. (Source) “The sight of them inspired one with awe. This squadron did not include the various fleets he had, scattered along neighboring coasts.”

In his reduced circumstances post-Nanjing, Koxinga managed “only” 400 ships to launch from Fujian with 25,000 souls … to arrive at Formosa and set up shop there. “Hitherto this island had always belonged to China, and the Dutch had doubtless been permitted to live there, seeing that the Chinese did not require it for themselves,” he remarked. “But requiring it now, it was only fair that Dutch strangers, who came from far regions, should give way to the masters of the island.”

To make the argument persuasive, Koxinga delivered his ultimatum via this post’s principle, Antonius Hambroek (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), a missionary whom Koxinga cautioned not to return with a displeasing answer at the risk of his life.

On May 25, 1661, Koxinga sent Hambroek to Fort Zeelandia with one of the Chinese leader’s letters demanding surrender. Hambroek had to leave his wife and children behind as hostages to assure his return. When Coyett refused to surrender, Hambroek was urged to stay at the fort as he and his family were bound to be killed because of the failure of his mission. The emotional pull to remain was intensified by the discovery that two of his daughters from whom the family had been separated during the chaos of the invasion were among the refugees in the fort. But Hambroek decided his duty was with his wife and other children. The two daughters, says, the fort daybook, “hung about his neck, overwhelmed with grief and tears to see their father ready to go where he knew he must be sacrificed by the merciless enemy.” The fate of Hambroek is recorded by Caeuw, the commander of the relief fleet. Two native boys got into the fort in October and said they had seen Koxinga fly into a rage the previous month and order the decapitation of all the Dutch male prisoners, Hambroek among them. The wives were given to Koxinga’s captains as concubines and the small children were sent to China. Koxinga himself took one of Hambroek’s teenage daughters — “a very sweet and pleasing maiden” according to Caeuw — as one of his concubines. In August there was also a killing of captive Dutch from the hinterland and Fort Provintia [a lesser outpost opposite Fort Zeelandia -ed.]; Koxinga believed they had been inciting the aborigines against the Chinese. The Dutch reports say five hundred men were either beheaded or “killed in a more barbarous manner.” Many women and children were killed too, but others were “preserved for the use of the commanders, and then sold to the common soldiers. Happy was she that fell to the lot of an unmarried man, being thereby freed from vexations by the Chinese women, who are very jealous of their husbands,” says the fort’s daily journal.

The results of these incidents are still evident in some parts of southern Taiwan. There are areas where the people have decidedly European features and even occasionally the red or auburn hair common among seventeenth century Dutch.

-Jonathan Manthorpe, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan

Koxinga’s siege delivered him Fort Zeelandia by February of the following year.


Antonius Hambroek taking leave of his daughters, by Jan Willem Pieneman (1810)

The fate of Hambroek, Zeelandia, the women, and all the rest make for literary pathos in Joannes Nomsz’s Anthonius Hambroek (1775). Koxinga lives on as an iconic hero celebrated in China and Taiwan and Japan, which is a complicated trick indeed. (A refugee prince from the ancien regime setting up a holdout state on Taiwan made him an obvious propaganda reference for Chiang Kai-shek.) For all his legend, his life remains a bit of a what-might-have-been: a few months after taking Fort Zeelandia, Koxinga died suddenly, perhaps of malaria, still well shy of his fortieth year. His son Zheng Jing, whom the violent-tempered Koxinga had nearly executed in his last hours, maintained an independent Formosa-Fujian kingdom that held out against the Qing until 1683.


Statue of Koxinga at the present-day remains of Fort Zeelandia.

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1947: Rawagede Massacre

Add comment December 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Dutch troops fighting (vainly) to keep Indonesia under colonial sway perpetrated one of the most notorious massacres of the Indonesian War of Independence.

During a Dutch offensive, Royal Netherlands Army forces fell on the West Java town of Rawagede (today, Balongsari) on December 9, 1947 and demanded to know the whereabouts of an Indonesian rebel they were hunting.

The villagers didn’t know, but the Dutch were convinced that they did — and so they began marching men and boys as young as 13 years old to nearby fields. Squatting and kneeling row upon row, the men were shot one by one. The Rawagede Massacre claimed 431 victims, according to the villagers.

In 2011, the victim’s survivors — and there’s a stunning picture of a 93-year-old Javanese widow of the massacre in this NPR story — won a legal judgment against the Netherlands. In the ensuing settlement, the Dutch paid €20,000 apiece to plaintiffs and issued a formal apology.

“Today, Dec. 9,” the Dutch ambassador said in a ceremony at the village six years ago today, “we remember the members of your families and those of your fellow villagers who died 64 years ago through the actions of the Dutch military.

“On behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for the tragedy that took place.”

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1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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1521: Xicotencatl Axayacatl, Cortes fighter

Add comment May 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Tlaxcallan warrior Xicotencatl Axayacatl (or Xicotencatl the Younger) was hanged by Hernan Cortes on the eve of his conquest of Tenochtitlan.

In an alternate history of Spain’s New World encounter it is Xicotencatl who has the glory of putting Cortes and his adventure to execution: the Tlaxcallans mounted a ferocious resistance when the conquistadors penetrated their territory, with Xicotencatl’s huge armies placing the Spanish in mortal peril despite the latter’s advantages of firearms and cavalry. Spanish soldier and diarist Bernal Diaz del Castillo would record of one engagement in September 1519

a battle of as fearful and dubious an issue as well could be. In an instant we were surrounded on all sides by such vast numbers of Indians, that the plain, here six miles in breadth, seemed as if it contained but one vast body of the enemy, in the midst of which stood our small army of 400 men, the greater part wounded and knocked up with fatigue. We were also aware that the enemy had marched out to battle with the determination to spare none of us, excepting those who were to be sacrificed to their idols.

When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected. They fell upon us like the very furies themselves, with the most horrible yells; we employed, however, our heavy guns, muskets, and crossbows, with so much effect, and received those who pressed eagerly upon us with such well-directed blows and thrusts, that considerable destruction was made among their ranks, nor did they allow us to approach so near to them as in the previous battle: our cavalry, in particular, showed great skill and bravery, so that they, next to the Almighty, were the principal means of saving us.

Indeed our line was already half broken; all the commands of Cortes and our other officers to restore order and form again were fruitless, the Indians continually rushing upon us in such vast crowds that we could only make place with sword in hand to save our line from being broken. …

Cortes (and the Almighty) made it out of that scrap but their small force was severely taxed by repeated engagements, including a destructive nighttime raid launched by Xicotencatl. The Spanish never conquered the Tlaxcallans — turning instead to diplomacy to attract them as allies against their rivals, the Aztecs.

So far was the victorious Xicotencatl from embracing this decision that he repeatedly ignored Tlaxcallan chiefs’ orders to stop fighting. His refusal to accommodate has inevitably been read retrospectively in view of indigenous anti-colonialism, but in the moment it was probably had a more prosaic cause: had he been suffered to complete Cortes’s destruction, he would have figured to gain a whip hand in domestic Tlaxcallan politics.

Still, the Indians were taking fearsome casualties from the Spanish and this combined with the prospect of turning Cortes’s invaders against their own enemies carried the decision. For many generations this timely alliance privileged the Tlaxcala nation, whose peoples ranked higher than other natives long into the Spanish sovereignty.

But it seems to have been intolerable for Xicotencatl Axayacatl.


The Last Days of Tenochtitlan — Conquest of Mexico by Cortez, by William de Leftwich Dodge (1899).

Cortes and his Tlaxcallan and other allies launched the final march that would conquer Tenochtitlan on May 22, 1521, but the day before setting out it was discovered that Xicotencatl had abandoned the camp. Diaz, again:

After considerable inquiries, it was found that he had secretly returned to Tlascalla on the previous night to take forcible possession of the caziquedom and territory of Chichimeclatecl. It appears, according to the accounts of the Tlascallans, that he wished to avail himself of this favorable opportunity of raising himself to supreme power in his own country, which the absence of Chichimeclatecl offered to him, who, in his opinion, was the only person that stood in his way since the death [by smallpox -ed.] of Maxixcatzin, as he did not fear any opposition from his old blind father. This Xicotencatl, the Tlascallans further added, had never felt any real inclination to join us in the war against Mexico, but had frequently assured them it would terminate in the destruction of us all.

When Chichimeclatecl received information of this, he instantly returned to Tezcuco in order to apprize Cortes of it. Our general, on hearing this, despatched five distinguished personages of Tezcuco, and two Tlascallans, who were his particular friends, after Xicotencatl, to request his immediate return to his troops, in Cortes’ name. They were to remind him that his father Lorenzo de Vargas would certainly have marched out against Mexico in person, if blindness and old age had not prevented him; that the whole population of Tlascalla continued loyal to his majesty, and that the revolt he wished to excite would throw dishonour on his own country. These representations Cortes desired should be accompanied by large promises, to induce him to return to obedience. Xicotencatl, however, haughtily replied, that he was determined to abide by his resolve, and our dominion in this country would not have continued thus long if his father and Maxixcatzin had followed his advice.

Upon this our general ordered an alguacil to repair in all haste with four of our horse and five distinguished men of Tezcuco to Xicotencatl’s abode, to take him prisoner, and hang him without any further ceremony. “All kindness,” added Cortes, “is thrown away upon this cazique. His whole time is spent in devising plots and creating mischief. I cannot suffer this to continue any longer; the matter has now come to a crisis.”

As soon as [conquistador Pedro de] Alvarado received information of these commands, he urgently begged of Cortes to pardon Xicotencatl. Our general replied that he would consider about it, though he secretly gave the alguacil peremptory orders to put him to death, which was accordingly done. Xicotencatl was hung in a town subject to Tezcuco, and thus an end was put to all his plottings. Many Tlascallans assured us that the elder Xicotencatl himself had cautioned Cortes against his son, and had advised him to put him to death.

This, at least, is the story. We lack Xicotencatl’s own voice here, and we must guess at the forces at work via the few and partisan narratives of the conquistadors. Anthropologist Ross Hassig speculates here that the “desertion” accusation — given that other similar “desertions” occur with unpunished regularity among both Spanish and natives — might have been merely pretextual on the part of Cortes, to eliminate a man he still considered a dangerous foe.

Either way, with the passage of years Xicotencatl has become a Mesoamerican symbol of indigenous valor and imperial resistance. His martial statue graces Plaza Xicohtencatl in the present-day city of Tlaxcala.

* Diaz’s narrative dates the Spanish departure from Tezcuco to May 13, instead of May 22 but he is extremely slipshod with chronology. Diaz is also a key primary source for the most lurid accounts of Aztec human sacrifice, and his reliability in that quarter has been challenged, too.

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1891: Bir Tikendrajit, Patriots’ Day martyr

Add comment August 13th, 2016 Headsman

August 13 is marked as Patriots’ Day in the Indian state of Manipur for the execution on that date in 1891 of Prince Bir Tikendrajit.

The Kingdom of Manipur numbered among scores of “princely states” — nominally independent tributaries of the British Raj.

Part of the deal for these princely states was that the British guaranteed the throne and the succession of the cooperating ruler, but these were pragmatists. When the warrior chief Tikendrajit deposed Manipur’s raja in the fall of 1890, the British waffled and for several months the revolution appeared to be a fait accompli.

Eventually, Lord Lansdowne decided to let stand the resulting transfer of power to the ex-raja’s brother, but do right by their “guarantee” by marching 400-500 Gurkhas into Manipur to demand surrender of Tikendrajit for punishment.

This intention met unexpectedly fierce resistance, and Manipuri soldiers eventually overwhelmed the British, slaughtering most of the soldiers as well as the expedition’s leader, J.W. Quinton, High Commissioner for neighboring Assam.

Tikendrajit had the honor of commanding Manipuri’s forces in the brief ensuing conflict: the Anglo-Manipur War. It lasted only a few weeks, as the British scaled their punitive deployments up from “token” to “overwhelming” and by the end of April hoisted the Union Jack over Kangla Palace.

Tikendrajit was hanged on the evening of August 13, 1891, along with an aged general named Thangal, on the polo grounds of Imphal. Today that place is known as Bir Tikendrajit Park, in honor of a man remembered as a patriotic hero.

Three other Manipuri leaders were hanged for the rebellion, and 22 suffered penal transportation.

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1889: Abushiri, German East Africa rebel

Add comment December 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.

European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.

Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.

But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.

Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.

One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.

The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.

Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.

Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.

This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.


(Via)
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.

They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.

And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.

The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.

-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†

This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**

Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.

But that isn’t what happened.

The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.

Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.

* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)

The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.

** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.

† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)

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