July 22nd, 2011
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.”
Also on this date
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
Tags: 1630s, 1635, cold war, domingos fernandes calabar, imperialism, july 22, palmares, porto calvo
June 28th, 2011
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.
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.
Also on this date
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
Tags: 1890s, 1899, art, benin bronzes, benin city, human sacrifice, imperialism, juju, june 28, ologbosere, ologbosheri