1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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1906: Four Egyptians for the Denshawai Incident

Add comment June 28th, 2017 Headsman

If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 — and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats — then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters.

-George Bernard Shaw

On this date in 1906, four Egyptian villagers were hanged by the British after a UK soldier died in riot begun by a pigeon hunt.

The Denshawai Incident — which is still to this day commemorated by its own museum — as an isolated event was one of those little local indignities that comprise a foreign military occupation. By the intersection of highhandedness on the one side and accumulated anger on the other it would become what George Bernard Shaw dubbed “the Denshawai Horror.”

On June 13, a mere 15 days before the executions in this post, a gaggle of bored Tommies* set out hunting pigeons in the Nile Delta. This was for the locals an irksome pastime inasmuch as the villagers raised these tame birds in brick towers for agrarian use — as Shaw noted:

Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for the hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place!

On this occasion, protesting villagers dared a little more resistance than was usual and before long a gun had discharged in the struggle, injuring several and felling a local woman (she survived, though onlookers took her wound for a mortal one in the moment). As if by metaphor, somewhere in the mayhem, somebody’s wheat caught fire.

Having clumsily escalated the disturbance that their presence had provoked, the Brits at length had to flee a small riot: one of their number died in the flight, the cause never clearly ascertained but attributed by a doctor to “heat apoplexy caused or aggravated by concussion of the brain.”** Several others were collared by the villagers, who abused them but did not kill them.

As Shaw notes, in a domestic English context it might have been the gendarmes who were punished for mismanaging the situation to the detriment of the public peace.

But the English occupation of Egypt disdained the hearts-and-minds approach, preferring bile and spleen. Fifty-two(!) villagers came up on charges of murder(!!) for the heatstroked officer, and the punishments meted out by a British-controlled court† seemingly aimed to maximize rancor with the understanding that cruelty was the only language the native could comprehend.

The husband of the woman shot by the hunting party, Shaw fulminated in an incandescent essay against imperialism,

in consideration of the injury to his wife, was only sentenced to penalty servitude for life … No such sentimentality was shewn to Hassan Mahfouz. An Egyptian pigeon farmer who objects to British sport; threatens British officers and gentlemen when they shoot his pigeons; and actually hits those officers with a substantial stick, is clearly a ruffian to be made an example of.

Penal servitude was not enough for a man of 60 who looked 70, and might not have lived to suffer five years of it. So Hassan was hanged; but as a special mark of consideration for his family, he was hanged in full view of his own house, with his wives and children and grandchildren enjoying the spectacle from the roof. And lest this privilege should excite jealousy in other households, three other Denshavians were hanged with him … ages of the four hanged men respectively, 60, 50, 22 and 20.

Hanging, however, is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts. So, as they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure work and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging (“slowly turning round and round on himself,” as the local papers described it), thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each: eleven more than the utmost permitted by the law of Moses in times which our Army of Occupation no doubt considers barbarous. But they Moses conceived his law as being what he called the law of God, and not simply an instrument for the gratification of his own cruelty and terror.

It is unspeakably reassuring to learn from the British official reports laid before parliament that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions,” that “all possible humanity was shewn in carrying them out,” and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.” As this last testimonial apparently does not refer to the victims, they are evidently officially considered not to have been concerned in the proceedings at all. Finally, Lord Cromer certifies that the Englishman in charge of the proceedings is “a singularly humane man, and is very popular amongst the natives of Egypt by reason of the great sympathy he has always shewn for them.” It will be seen that Parliamentary Papers, Nos. 3 and 4., Egypt, 1906, are not lacking in unconscious humor. The official walrus pledges himself in every case for the kindliness of the official carpenter.


Edinburgh Evening News, June 29, 1906

Shaw’s determination to humanize the “natives” by analogy to English country squires unsurprisingly stands in stark contrast to the dominant thrust of domestic reportage — which consistently describes the affair as an unprovoked attack or (still better) an outrage. Shaw, however, was far from alone in his sentiment: many British elites were discomfited by the harsh and arbitrary treatment meted out in the imperial hinterlands. Another writer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, bemoaned the “abominable case” and took up an editorial pen in the Egyptians’ defense — albeit more in hope than expectation, for as he confided to his diary, “English feeling on these matters has become absolutely callous, and I believe if Cromer ordered a dozen of the villagers to be crucified or impaled, no serious objection would be made to it here.” And he was right to despair.

Still, gentlemen of a liberal conscience have the luxury down the decades of forgetting the individual atrocities of empire.‡

Few in the West recognized the allusion when, following 2005 bombings in London by Islamic terrorists, Ayman al-Zawahiri “announced that Britain was one of Islam’s worst enemies; it had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims across the ages, from Palestine to Afghanistan, Delhi to Denshawai.” (Source)

But it had by that time been long since that the chickens of Denshawai had come home to roost. In his autobiography, Egyptian nationalist president Anwar Sadat mused on the formative influence worked upon his childhood by the sacrifice of one of the Denshawai martyrs.

[T]he ballad which affected me most deeply was probably that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. I recall my mother reciting it to me as I lay stretched out on top of our huge rustic oven, half-asleep while my younger brothers (and our rabbits) had all fallen asleep. It appealed to me afresh every time I listened to it. Denshway was only three miles away and the ballad dealt with a real incident … Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them.

I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep, which perhaps made the story sink into my subconscious. My imagination roamed free. I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran.

His wish would come as near to fruition as wishes do. Sadat had the honor of announcing to the world the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 that would expel the British occupation … and thirty years later, of also giving his life for Egypt.

* Not Dickens nor Kubrick could not have bested the names of shooting party participants Captain Bull (the eventual fatality) or Brevet-Major Pine-Coffin.

** That is, running away from a bombardment of stones. It appears to be permanently obscure (and subject to partisan slanting) precisely how these factors weighed together at the moment of Bull’s death. The diagnosis is quoted in the London Times, June 25, 1906.

† The tribunal featured mixed Egyptian and British personnel, notably including Boutros Ghali, future Egyptian Prime Minister and grandfather of the eventual United Nations head Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

‡ At least, of their own empire. According to Aliens — Uneingeburgerte: German and Austrian Writers in Exile, the Third Reich produced a German-language play about the Denshawai incident by adapting Shaw’s account.

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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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1783: Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru, rebel heir

Add comment July 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1783, Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru — cousin and successor to the famed indigenous rebel Tupac Amaru II — was tortured to death in Cusco.

After Tupac Amaru’s execution in May 1781, the rebellion he had kindled fell south to present-day Bolivia and fought on furiously. Diego Cristobal succeeded his kinsman in authority, and with the (unrelated, but allied) Tupac Katari could briefly command vast territories that demanded bloody Spanish reconquest over hostile terrain. “Twenty years after these events,” one 19th century chronicle reports, “This writer saw the plains of Sicasica and Calamaca, for an extent of fourteen leagues, covered with heaps of unburied human human bones, lying in the places where the wretched Indians fell, to bleach in the tropical sun.”

By early 1782, Tupac Katari had followed Tupac Amaru to the Spanish scaffold and the indigenous resistance they had led was broken into so many bleaching bones. Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru availed himself of an amnesty promised by Viceroy Agustin de Jauregui to bring the rebellion to a formal close. Diego Cristobal even lived for some months thereafter in peace.

But if Spain’s viceregal authorities ever had the least intent of keeping that guarantee long term, they were set straight by the mother country once the treaty was circulated back home: “no faith is due to pledges made to traitors,” the crown directed. Surely in this perfidy there is also the implied regard of fear; had Cusco fallen to Tupac Amaru’s siege in 1781, the whole history of the New World could have changed. To leave unmolested the royal family of this martyred champion would have courted more danger than an empire ought.

So in March 1783, a Spanish sweep arrested not only Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru but around 100 other members of his family and their households, pre-emptively on allegations of a fresh conspiracy. Though it was left to Diego to suffer the most extreme bodily fate, extirpation of his line was the intent, and other Tupac Amaru kin were dispossessed of property, deported, and forbidden the use of their costumes and titles as their subjects — Spain’s subjects — were forbidden their arms.

A ghastly account of Diego Cristobal’s sentence and execution is available in Spanish here: “to be dragged through the streets to the place of execution and there his flesh torn with hot pincers and then hanged by the neck until dead; afterwards to be dismembered and his head carried to Tungasuca, his arms to Lauramarca and Carabaya, his legs to Paucartambo and Calca, and the rest of his corpse set up in a pillory on the Caja del Agua, forfeiting all his property to the confiscation of His Majesty.”

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1920: Gerald Smyth, Royal Irish Constabulary officer

Add comment July 17th, 2016 Headsman

Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.

A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).

The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.

The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.

Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …

Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.

The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”

Mee quit on the spot, and 13 of his comrades quit with him.

This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”

Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.

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1688: Constantine Gerachi, the Siamese Falcon

1 comment June 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1688, the astonishing Constantine Gerachi — the Greek cabin-boy turned virtual prince of Siam — plummeted to earth.

The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, Gerachi ran away to sea in 1660 and soon caught on with the English East India Company ships who plied the Mediterranean and all the Seven Seas. Though little-educated, Gerachi proved himself frightfully clever and picked up his crewmates’ English. In time he also mastered French, Portuguese, Malay, and of course Siamese.

The word gerachi is Greek for falcon, and no name was ever more aptly conferred. From the humblest beginnings, Constantine Phaulkon soared higher than all.

By the late 1670s, Constantine had segued from hauling East Indies cargo to trading it, and this brought him to the attention of the Siamese king Narai. For Siam, the growing influence of European traders, diplomats, and arms was the prevailing issue of the late 17th century; Narai engaged fully with those interlopers and most especially with the French, who provided architects, mathematicians,* missionaries, and military engineers to the Siamese kingdom and received lucrative commercial concessions in return.

The king appreciated our polyglot adventurer’s many talents and attracted him to the Siamese court, where the pro-French Constantine quickly rose to become Narai’s indispensable chief counselor — basically the equivalent of the Siamese Prime Minister, the power in the kingdom.

But Gerachi’s close association with Narai, and with a French relationship that Siamese grandees increasingly feared might convert insensibly into domination, finally felled the Falcon.

In 1688, the ailing king tried to arrange for the succession of his daughter. Instead, he triggered a revolt by his foster brother Phetracha, backed by a “broad coalition of anti-foreigners, including Buddhist monks, the nobility and low-ranking officers.”**

This Chief of the Royal Elephant Corps seized power, murdering a number of royal relatives (and possibly hastening along the dying Narai himself). Monsieur Constantine of such discreditable familiarity to the French naturally went in his own turn, unsuccessfully trying to rally the realm’s French garrisons to defense of the mutual benefits of the ancien regime.

Nor was this merely a palace coup: Petracha’s takeover became the Siamese Revolution of 1688, “one of the most famous events of our times, whether it is considered from the point of view of politics or religion” in the judgment of a European contemporary. Thais who had resented the growing prominence of the farang now expelled most Europeans, or worse: though not a Japan-like closure (Siam maintained active intercourse with its neighbors), the country would remain essentially dark to Europeans until the 19th century.

Historical Fiction Series by Axel Aylwen

* The relationship gave to European mathematics the “Siamese method”.

** Thanet Aphornsuvan, “The West and Siam’s quest for modernity: Siamese responses to nineteenth century American missionaries”, East Asia Research, vol. 17, no. 3. (Nov. 2009)

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1934: Augusto Cesar Sandino, national hero

1 comment February 21st, 2012 Headsman

“The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”

-Sandino

On this date in 1934, the first name in Nicaraguan anti-colonial resistance was abducted and summarily executed by the Nicaraguan National Guard.

From 1927 until his death, Sandino led an armed peasant insurgency from the Nicaraguan mountains against the Yankee imperialists and the domestic dictatorship they backed.

Washington had had its nose (and its marines) in Managua’s business for decades, continuously occupying the Central American country since 1912. The Marine Corps saw this country’s people as

Densely ignorant … little interested in principles … naturally brave and inured to hardships, of phlegmatic temperament, tough, capable of being aroused to acts of extreme violence, they have fought for one party or the other without considering causes since time immemorial … a state of war is to them a normal condition.*

All this was the time of Sandino’s own coming-of-age. The son of a wealthy landowner and his domestic servant, Sandino grew up with the unprivileged and the working classes, eventually asorbing an eclectic mix of that period’s revolutionary ideologies.

From 1927 he took to the Segovia and began writing the playbook for the 20th century guerrilla: mobile infantry irregulars, striking from familiar-to-them forest cover, melting away among sympathetic campesinos.

The “Colossus of the North” — Sandino made no bones about his foe; his personal seal showed an American marine being killed — invariably described him as a “bandit” because he also raided towns to commandeer food, clothing, and medicine.

“Washington is called the father of his country; the same may be said of Bolivar and Hidalgo; but I am only a bandit, according to the yardstick by which the strong and the weak are measured.”

-Sandino

The strong, in this case, found little public appetite for the steady attrition of servicemen, and the U.S. employed a familiar strategy of its own: “Nicaraguanizing” the conflict by building up a National Guard to do the dirty work domestically.

That Guard’s head was headed by Anastasio Somoza — the very son of a bitch of whom FDR said, “but he’s our son of a bitch.”

While it’s hardly the only country to have been favored with an American son of a bitch, you could say that Nicaragua has been the American empire’s very own heart of darkness. Washington’s initial interest in the place after the Spanish-American War concerned preventing a canal project to compete with Panama. It invented dive-bombing to hunt Sandino. And it ranged around the world and outside the law to battle Sandino’s successors under the aegis of a modern imperial presidency.

Small wonder that an official anthem of the movement denounces “The Yankee / The enemy of all humankind.”

In the immediate aftermath of the American departure in January 1933, Sandino began coming to terms with the the country’s new president: the Sandinistas disarmed in exchange for amnesty and land. But Somoza, who at this point was “only” the head of the National Guard, was building up his own power … and he meant to have done with this inconvenient insurgent.

After Sandino left a presidential meeting on this date, at which the erstwhile rebel negotiated for his continuing demand to disband Somoza’s Guardia, Sandino was stopped at the gates by Guardsmen. They took Sandino, his brother, and two of his generals and marched them off to be shot. Then the Guard forcibly broke up the Sandinista remnants. Somoza soon seized official power for himself; his family ruled, and plundered, Nicaragua until 1979. Washington never called them bandits.

While Sandino vanished (the whereabouts of his remains are unknown), his revolutionary vision and praxis also persist down to the present day.

Sandinismo (aging much better than Somocismo) would influence Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution.

And in 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front finally succeeded in overthrowing the last loathsome scion of the Somoza dictatorship.

The United States, of course, went right back to war against its long-dead “bandit” foe.

* From Julian C Smith’s officially commissioned History of the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (1933), as quoted in Michael J. Schroeder’s “Bandits and Blanket Thieves, Communists and Terrorists: The Politics of Naming Sandinistasin Nicaragua, 1927-36 and 1979-90,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005).

Schroeder runs the definitive English-language website on Sandino and the original Sandinistas, with a truly vast collection of documents and resources.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Nicaragua,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA

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1902: Gideon Scheepers, Boer guerrilla

6 comments January 18th, 2012 Headsman

Scheepers lives because they shot him.”

-Hermi Baartman, Graaf-Reinet Museum

On this date in 1902, Kommandant Gideon Jacobus Scheepers was shot by the British for his exploits in the Boer War.

The young Dutch-descended Scheepers (here’s his Afrikaans Wikipedia page) was a soldier from the still-independent Boer states which were being reduced in this war to British dependencies.

In 1901, late in the proceedings, Scheepers took a column of irregulars into the British Eastern Cape Province and wrought havoc behind the lines. Some exploits are the stuff of legend, like the time he rode into a town, released all the Boer prisoners, locked up the British magistrate, and hauled down the Union Jack — to the delight of the Boer locals.

He would spend that year giving the British much better than he got, but the war was also infamously dirty.

According to David Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa: South Africa in Perspective, “Scheeepers’ men also flogged and shot natives who helped the British, looted as well as burned farms, and executed Boer ‘traitors’.”

Was any of that criminal?

Since Scheepers was over enemy lines, the Boers who joined him could be held liable for treason … but that didn’t hold for Scheepers himself. His execution turned on holding these unsavory acts as war crimes: his 30-count charge sheet included seven arsons, seven murders, and various and sundry abuses of prisoners and blacks. Scheepers was really sore about the last; natives were supposed to be kept out of the fighting, but the prisoner very credibly insisted that the ones he “murdered” were under arms as scouts for the British.

“We Afrikaners will never find justice under the English,” Scheepers wrote as a prisoner. “Everything is for the kaffirs.”

(There’s a vociferous defense of Scheepers from a pro-Boer history here, and a more sober one by a London press correspondent here.)


Scheepers is read the death warrant on January 17, 1902 — before Graaf-Reinet townspeople assembled by British orders.

For non-Loyalist Boers and for many throughout the world — the U.S. House of Representatives even moved a resolution calling for Scheepers to be accorded POW status according to the Geneva Convention — it smacked of a setup.


Gideon Scheepers (mostly obscured by his guards) tied to a chair for execution.


Just shot, Gideon Scheepers slumps backward in his chair.

While martyrdom guaranteed Scheepers a lasting legacy, bizarre posthumous turns helped elevate it into legend. When the dead man’s family turned up after hostilities to retrieve his bones, the grave turned out empty, leading to a years-long saga with colorful frauds presenting bogus remains, a mentally ill man doing the Grand Duchess Anastasia act and claiming to be Scheepers, and the actual corpse remaining stubbornly elusive.

The bereaved mother’s ultimately fruitless search for her son’s final resting place inspired the poem “Gebed om die Gebeente”(“Prayer for the Bones”), by D.J. Opperman. (Here’s a translated version.) That verse was recently set to music as a cantata by composer Hendrik Hofmeyr.

Scheepers’ allies, however, had simply been beaten in the field. On May 31, 1902 they capitulated to the British.

If we are asked why in 1978 a memorial should be erected for a man who died in 1902, then the answer is simple. The life and work of this man was such that history placed him in the heroes’ gallery and nothing and no one can deprive him of that place.

-Nationalist Prime Minister John Vorster upon the unveiling of a Scheepers monument

This interesting “On the Trail of Gideon Scheepers” series has a detailed and richly illustrated narrative of the man’s final year.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1635: Domingos Fernandes Calabar, traitor?

Add comment July 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Domingos Fernandes Calabar was garroted at Porto Calvo.

A mulatto plantation owner, Calabar (Portuguese Wikipedia page) did his patriotic duty according to the dictates of Brazil’s Portuguese colonizers when an expansionist Netherlands showed up hungry for a bite of Brazil.

But after rounding up a volunteer militia and helping repel Dutch incursions in 1630 and 1632, Calabar switched sides and joined Holland.

Why he switched sides remains permanently obscure. Popular explanations include: the seductions of Netherlander lucre (Calabar’s detractors like this one); a politically mature calculation that the Dutch would make more progressive colonizers than the Portuguese (this was Calabar’s own defense: “I spilled my blood for … the slavery of my homeland … With its actions, the Dutch have proven better than the Portuguese and Spanish”);* or … somewhere in between

He was rewarded for his devotion [to the Portuguese] by the contempt of his countrymen, who were envious of his prowess. Wounded by this conduct, he left the Portuguese and joined the Dutch.

Whatever the reason(s) for it, Calabar’s switch was efficacious: he knew the lay of the land, and he was vigorous in helping the Dutch foothold of “New Holland” expand. The Dutch commissioned him a Major, and he gained a reputation for his ambushes.

I never met a man so well-adapted to our purposes … the greatest damage he could cause to his countrymen, was his greatest joy.

-English mercenary in the Dutch service

The Portuguese official Matias de Albuquerque eventually turned the tables and captured Calabar in a Portuguese ambush. He not only had the disloyal subject strangled, but quartered the body for public display.

This gruesome warning against collaboration did not prevent New Holland from growing to around half the Brazilian territory … but since Brazilians don’t speak Dutch today, you might have an idea how this is going to end.

After “New Holland” was re-conquered and re-re-conquered, the Dutch Republic under Johan de Witt — preferring a commercial empire to a territorial one — gave up its untenable position in exchange for 63 tons of gold.

As the (eventual) winners of this imperial affray, the Portuguese wrote a distinctly unflattering history of Domingos Fernandes Calabar, the disreputable traitor. He’s a sort of Benedict Arnold character synonymous with disloyalty for any Brazilian schoolchild.

But other interpretations are available.

During Brazil’s Cold War military dictatorship, when traitorousness might seem downright reputable after all, the “official version” was slyly subverted in several different stage productions, the best-known of which is a musical called Calabar: In Praise of Treason.**

Most of the information about Calabar online is in Portuguese; for instance, biographies here and here.

* Let it not be implied that the Dutch were out for anything other than the plunder of empire themselves: Calabar’s own home region of Pernambuco was desirable precisely because of its sugar cane cultivation.

Incidentally, the vicissitudes of war enabled many African slaves to escape to Maroon communities like Palmares — just a few miles away from Porto Calvo.

** See Severino Jaão Albuquerque, “In Praise of Treason: Three Contemporary Versions of Calabar,” Hispania, Sept. 1991. “Less interested in settling the issue of Calabar’s martyrdom than in provoking serious debate about the meaning of loyalty and national identity in times of political repression and in the context of a dependent culture, these plays … bring to the fore the manifold ambiguities the colonized face reacting to the hegemonic rule of the colonizer.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Garrote,History,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Portugal,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Strangled,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1899: Ologbosere, of the Benin Empire

17 comments June 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1899, British forces occupying Benin City hanged a local tribal leader for the massacre whose perpetration had justified London’s, er, “humanitarian” intervention.

The locale of today’s post is “Benin”, but it’s important to note that this is not the modern country of Benin but rather the land just to the east currently situated in southern Nigeria — which was then the Benin Empire, at the tail end of a very long run.

Ruled from Benin City (also presently in Nigeria), this great African state had been in direct contact with European countries since the 15th century.

By the 19th, of course, it had waned with colonial incursions — but Benin itself had sagely declined to extend “free trade” to the powers that meant to dominate it, nor to cede sovereignty by signing a “protectorate” arrangement.

It was only a matter of time before Britain (or someone else) made an offer Benin couldn’t refuse.

In January 1897, a British expedition attempting to enter Benin during a religious festival against the orders of its oba (king) was slaughtered by a Benin force led by the oba‘s son-in-law, Ologbosere (alternatively, Ologbosheri). Britain claimed it was a diplomatic mission; Benin apparently believed the deputation meant to attack.

Regardless, the tactical victory would prove a strategic debacle.


New York Times, Jan. 21, 1897. The last paragraph of this article innocently observes that “the country is said to be very rich, and it would not be surprising to find that one result of the punitive expedition would be the annexation of the whole territory to the British possessions in West Africa.”

The circumstances of this encounter remain murky and hotly disputed to this day. (Here’s a Benin-sympathetic take.) We at Executed Today are confident that a global superpower would never misrepresent its intentions nor engineer a provocation in order to unseat a resource-rich dictator.

As we learn from the London Times (June 12, 1897),

The object of the mission is described as peaceful, and one version even asserts that the party were unarmed … it was intended to send a party to Benin city to ask the King to remove the obstacles which he places in the way of trade …

The King and his capital have a bad reputation. He is a “Ju Ju” follower and addicted to human sacrifices, the gruesome remains of which are to be found in abundance in his capital. He is said recently to have threatened death to the next white man who attempted to visit him, and there is but too good reason to fear that he has kept his word. A military expedition against him probably would have been necessary in any event sooner or later.


Why, less than a teaspoon of Ju-Ju is enough to …

Dispatched within days, the retaliatory Benin punitive expedition sacked Benin City by the end of February, sending its reigning oba into exile. The Benin Empire had fallen; as the journalist had predicted, it was folded into Britain’s colonial administration.

Punitive force personnel reported a veritable bloodbath perpetrated within Benin City by its outgoing administration, including that trump taboo, human sacrifice.

Naval intelligence officer R.H. Bacon wrote,

The one lasting remembrance of Benin in my mind is its smells. Crucifixions, human sacrifices, and every horror the eye could get accustomed to, to a large extent, but the smells no white man’s internal economy could stand. …

Blood was everywhere; smeared over bronzes, ivory, and even the walls, and spoke the history of that awful city in a clearer way than writing ever could. And this had been going on for centuries! Not the lust of one king, not the climax of a bloody reign, but the religion (save the word!) of the race …

the atrocities of Benin, originating in blood lust and desire to terrorise the neighbouring states, the brutal love of mutilation and torture, and the wholesale manner in which the caprices of the King and Juju were satisfied, could only have been the result of stagnant brutality …

[I saw] a crucifixion tree with a double crucifixion on it, the two poor wretches stretched out facing the west, with their arms bound together in the middle. The construction of this tree was peculiar, being absolutely built for the purpose of crucifixion. At the base were skulls and bones, literally strewn about; the debris of former sacrifices … and down every main road were two or more human sacrifices.

The synoptic reports of two other officers are excerpted in this tome; e.g.,

Seven large sacrifice compounds were found inclosed by walls … [containing earthen] altars [that] were covered with streams of dried human blood … [and] open pits filled with human bodies giving forth the most trying odours.

Whilst Britain set about making Benin safe for the olfactory nerves of long-barred merchandisers, Ologbosere persisted in the bush for more than two years. He was finally snared with the connivance of some local tribal chiefs keen to do business with the new boss.


Ologbosere, captured.

Tried on June 27 — just one day before his actual execution; the verdict, of course, foreordained — Ologbosere was damned by those chiefs’ testimony that the strike force he had led back in 1897 to precipitate the intervention “was not sent to kill white men — and we therefore decide that according to native law his life is forfeited.”

Ologbosere said otherwise, to no avail.

The king told me that he had heard that the white men were coming to fight with him, and that I must get ready to go and fight the white men … when all the people called the mass meeting at Benin City and selected me to go and fight the white men, I went. I had no palaver with the white men before.

The day I was selected to go from Benin City to meet the white men all the chiefs here present were in the meeting, and now they want to put the whole thing on my shoulders.


Great Britain’s punitive expedition also resulted in the capture of many hundreds of metal objects scattered to European museums and collections — collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. (It’s a misnomer: they’re actually brass.)

Hocked to defray the expense of their plundering, their diffusion around the empires’ continent helped broaden European appreciation for African art, and influenced modernist art movements. (Notably (pdf) German expressionism: tons of the bronzes ended up in Germany, and many can still be seen at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.)

Nigeria, and the successor obas of Benin, have for decades besought their return in vain.


Cultural encounter: this Benin “bronze” shows the oba with two attendants, and the smaller floating heads of two European (Portuguese) traders.

More on this object, and its place in the story of Benin and Europe, in this episode of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects; or, at the “bronze’s” page at the British Museum website.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Benin,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Nigeria,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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