1896: Chief Chingaira Makoni, Rhodesian rebel

23 comments September 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1897, the British captured, then summarily tried and shot, one of the most persistent native rebels of the Second Matabele War — or (since that’s the colonial British designation), the Chimurenga, or revolutionary struggle of what would become present-day Zimbabwe.

At this point, it was “Rhodesia”, named for imperialist wizard Cecil Rhodes. It was his British South Africa Company, relentlessly pursuing mineral exploitation,* that had pushed the Union Jack into this land.

For natives, of course, that meant dispossession by white settlers, with all the attendant conflicts.

Chief Chingaira of the Makoni district was one of these: “what annoyed him most was the pegging-out of the whole of his territory for farms or gold claims.”

That’s the sort of thing to annoy a man right into outright hostility — resource conflicts, after all, would soon put British and Dutch settlers into their own war, with memorable results for death penalty history.

Not the less affronted, Makoni rose in the Ndebele-Shona chimurenga of 1896-97.** Though the revolt was defeated, its progress ultimately would claim the lives of 372 settlers — one-tenth of Rhodesia’s white settler population.

Chingaira Makoni and a few dozen of his supporters were besieged from the end of August 1896 in a cave, and forced out after several days by dynamite and pledges of safe conduct. Makoni emerged into capture in the dark of night September 3-4, but as described in this public-domain history of Rhodesia, initial plans for some regular trial were hastily discarded upon the escape of some of his fellows.

… [after capture] it was feared that if Makoni should escape … the whole district would be in a blaze, and that the safety of Umtali itself might be endangered. A court-martial was therefore convened to try him, one of the native commissioners being appointed to act as interpreter, and as his defender. In spite of his assertion that he was innocent, he was found guilty of being a rebel, and of having caused the murder of the three traders; he was therefore sentenced to be shot, and the sentence was carried out at once. He was placed with his back to a corn-bin, on the edge of the precipice on which his kraal stood, and died with a courage and dignity that extorted an unwilling admiration from all who were present. One of the best known men in Salisbury, when talking to me about it, said, “I know of nothing grander than Makoni’s death, than the quiet way in which he spoke to his people, and told them to abstain from further resistance; for himself he only begged that he might be buried decently. ‘And now,’ he said, ‘you shall see how a Makoni can die.'”

As with so many entrants in these dolorous pages, the end of the vital signs were not the end of the story. In consequence of Makoni’s martyrdom:

  • The officer who ordered his drumhead trial and execution was himself court-martialed — but acquitted

  • Makoni’s head was allegedly (pdf) hewed off as a trophy (legend has it being sent to Cecil Rhodes† himself)
  • Chingaira Makoni was elevated into the national mythology of (eventually) Zimbabwe

Though it does not deal in any great detail with our day’s principal, this narrative of the campaign by one of the white soldiers involved makes topical reading.

* Rhodes also founded the De Beers diamond mining colossus.

** Actually (and this is a scholarly pdf),

Academic historians have debated whether or not Chingaira Makoni was really a resister, or whether he did not merely stumble into confrontation with the whites, or whether, indeed, he did nothing at all and was merely a victim of white paranoia. These revisionist debates are very remote from the terms of the Chingaira myth in Makoni in the 1970s. In the myth Chingaira was unequivocally the embodiment of resistance; the hero ambiguously slain; buried, no-one was quite sure where; maybe to come again.

The source cited for this entry’s description of Makoni’s death actually upholds the “he didn’t actually rebel at all” position in its chapter on Makoni.

† Rhodes’s disastrous Jameson Raid on the neighboring Transvaal Republic had itself set the stage for the second Matabele Rebellion by depleting Rhodesian troop strength. It also got brother Frank Rhodes sentenced to death — a sentence later commuted.

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Feast Day of the Holy Maccabees

1 comment August 1st, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast date, in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, of the Woman with Seven Sons — each of whom is supposed to have been put to death for refusing to break the Mosaic law by eating pork.

Although they are Jewish martyrs more than a century before Christ, they are revered most especially by the Christian faith that elbowed Judaism aside. Their story comes from 2 Maccabees, a “deuterocanonical” text that is part of the Old Testament but not part of the Hebrew Bible — for reasons having to do with the contingent process of formulating the canon.* (Short explanation | Long explanation)

Whether sent from the Lord or not, this story features the righteous resistance of the faithful family against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, which was one of the successor Hellenistic states to Alexander the Great’s conquests.

In 2 Maccabees (and also in 1 Maccabees, which covers the same period, though not this specific martyrdom), Antiochus IV is making an unwelcome pro-heathen intervention in a Jewish civil war on the side of the hellenizers as against the hidebound traditionalists. This comes to attempting “to compel the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, and not to live after the laws of God: And to pollute also the temple in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius.” (2 Maccabees 6:1-2; this chapter features a Whitman’s sampler of other faithful traditionalists slaughtered for various forms of adherence to the Law.)

Same deal with the dietary laws, whose countermanding edict Antiochus (being a wicked heathen king) is pleased to enforce by the most ghastly tortures.

Here’s the description of the martyrdom from 2 Maccabees chapter 7:

Das Martyrium der sieben Makkabaer, by Antonio Ciseri, in an aptly classical setting.

1: It came to pass also, that seven brethren with their mother were taken, and compelled by the king against the law to taste swine’s flesh, and were tormented with scourges and whips.
2: But one of them that spake first said thus, What wouldest thou ask or learn of us? we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.
3: Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and caldrons to be made hot:
4: Which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that spake first, and to cut off the utmost parts of his body, the rest of his brethren and his mother looking on.
5: Now when he was thus maimed in all his members, he commanded him being yet alive to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the pan: and as the vapour of the pan was for a good space dispersed, they exhorted one another with the mother to die manfully, saying thus,
6: The Lord God looketh upon us, and in truth hath comfort in us, as Moses in his song, which witnessed to their faces, declared, saying, And he shall be comforted in his servants.
7: So when the first was dead after this number, they brought the second to make him a mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him, Wilt thou eat, before thou be punished throughout every member of thy body?
8: But he answered in his own language, and said, No. Wherefore he also received the next torment in order, as the former did.
9: And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
10: After him was the third made a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully.
11: And said courageously, These I had from heaven; and for his laws I despise them; and from him I hope to receive them again.
12: Insomuch that the king, and they that were with him, marvelled at the young man’s courage, for that he nothing regarded the pains.
13: Now when this man was dead also, they tormented and mangled the fourth in like manner.
14: So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life.
15: Afterward they brought the fifth also, and mangled him.
16: Then looked he unto the king, and said, Thou hast power over men, thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt; yet think not that our nation is forsaken of God;
17: But abide a while, and behold his great power, how he will torment thee and thy seed.
18: After him also they brought the sixth, who being ready to die said, Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God: therefore marvellous things are done unto us.
19: But think not thou, that takest in hand to strive against God, that thou shalt escape unpunished.
20: But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord.
21: Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them,
22: I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you;
23: But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.
24: Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and suspecting it to be a reproachful speech, whilst the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with oaths, that he would make him both a rich and a happy man, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers; and that also he would take him for his friend, and trust him with affairs.
25: But when the young man would in no case hearken unto him, the king called his mother, and exhorted her that she would counsel the young man to save his life.
26: And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son.
27: But she bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant to scorn, spake in her country language on this manner; O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee such three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education.
28: I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.
29: Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren.
30: Whiles she was yet speaking these words, the young man said, Whom wait ye for? I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses.
31: And thou, that hast been the author of all mischief against the Hebrews, shalt not escape the hands of God.
32: For we suffer because of our sins.
33: And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again with his servants.
34: But thou, O godless man, and of all other most wicked, be not lifted up without a cause, nor puffed up with uncertain hopes, lifting up thy hand against the servants of God:
35: For thou hast not yet escaped the judgment of Almighty God, who seeth all things.
36: For our brethren, who now have suffered a short pain, are dead under God’s covenant of everlasting life: but thou, through the judgment of God, shalt receive just punishment for thy pride.
37: But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life for the laws of our fathers, beseeching God that he would speedily be merciful unto our nation; and that thou by torments and plagues mayest confess, that he alone is God;
38: And that in me and my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which is justly brought upon our nation, may cease.
39: Than the king’ being in a rage, handed him worse than all the rest, and took it grievously that he was mocked.
40: So this man died undefiled, and put his whole trust in the Lord.
41: Last of all after the sons the mother died.
42: Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures.

The upshot of the Maccabees texts is the revolt of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucids, the episode that gives us Hanukkah, when that “temple of Jupiter Olympius” was rededicated back to YHWH.

And though not specifically because of the Holy Maccabees, the start of that revolt is the very next thing to occur in the text,** at the start of chapter 8:

1: Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men.
2: And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men.
3: And that he would have compassion upon the city, sore defaced, and ready to be made even with the ground; and hear the blood that cried unto him,
4: And remember the wicked slaughter of harmless infants, and the blasphemies committed against his name; and that he would shew his hatred against the wicked.

And then, of course, it’s the good guys’ turn to start killing.

* It is worth noting that deuterocanonical books aren’t part of the Old Testament for most Protestants; Martin Luther declared himself “so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”

** The book’s chronology is scarcely rigorous, but if the episode is considered historical, it would have occurred in 167 B.C.E. (the year the Maccabean revolt began) or the few years before, reaching back to Antiochus’s anti-Mosaic injunctions c. 175 B.C.E.

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1936: Aboune Petros, Ethiopian bishop

Add comment July 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Italian forces occupying Ethiopia executed anti-occupation cleric Aboune Petros.

War on Ethiopia had been Benito Mussolini‘s monument to muscular Italian nationalism.

By May of 1936, it had forced Haile Selassie into exile and established control of the country. Mission accomplished!

At last Italy has her empire.

-Mussolini

As is often the case, the war of conquest instead transmogrified into a war against continuing resistance to foreign military occupation, and the colony of Italian East Africa was a short-lived and bloody affair.

The Duce will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians.

-Italian Gen. Rodolfo Graziani

(Though the progressive counterpart to Italy’s iron-fisted approach to troublemakers was monumental construction, and 1930s-era fascist architecture is still to be seen in Addis Ababa today.)

Ethiopian Orthodox patriarch Aboune — it’s a title that can also be rendered Abuna or Abune — Petros cut a public profile a little too sympathetic to the native subversives. When the Italians demanded that he tone it down, he replied (according to a hagiography that appears several places online),

The cry of my countrymen who died due to your nerve-gas and terror machinery will never allow my conscious to accept your ultimatum. How can I see my God if I give a blind eye to such a crime?

On July 28, Italians repelled a large* Abyssinian insurgent attack by the sons of Ras Kassa between Addis Ababa and Petros’s stomping-grounds of Dessie; the next day, Petros was escorted to an abrupt martyrdom to the mirroring causes of national self-determination and anti-insurgency realpolitik.

His sacrifice is commemorated in statuary as well as a couple of notable theatrical pieces, Yedam Dems (The Voice of Blood) by Makonnen Endalkachew** and Petros Yachin Saat (Petros At That Hour) by Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin.

* On the scale of thousands. It “showed a certain tenacity,” according to the London Times‘ droll Rome correspondent in a July 30 story.

** Not the same guy as the post-colonial Prime Minister who was executed in a 1974 purge.

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1847: The San Patricios

8 comments September 13th, 2009 Headsman

At 9:30 a.m. this day, as the American army raised the Stars & Stripes over Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War, it simultaneously carried out a mass hanging of 30 Irish deserters who had gone over to Santa Anna — the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, or the San Patricios.

Irish had been migrating to the United States en masse even well before the Great Famine got rolling in 1845.

And for those of that great migration wave who wound up in the service fighting the Mexican-American War, there was a hint of deja vu — an Anglo and Protestant imperial power seizing land from a “black”* and Catholic neighbor?

Some of the Irish decided they were fighting for the bad guys, and switched sides.**

These were the plurality (though not necessarily the majority) of the couple hundred soldiers who comprised the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. German immigrants and other nationalities, along with American-born deserters (desertion during the Mexican-American War seems to have been rife), made up the balance.

Knowing full well the fate that would await them upon capture, the San Patricios were renowned for their ferocity in battle; at the hopeless Battle of Churubusco, they reputedly forced down a white flag that Mexican comrades were trying to hoist on three separate occasions.

Eventually, the ammunition ran out, and with it, the San Patricios’ luck.

Within days, courts-martial began handing out death sentences to almost the whole of the surviving unit. U.S. General Winfield Scott subsequently reduced a number of sentences, and those who had deserted before the war couldn’t legally be executed … but even the “lucky” ones suffered faint-inducing scourgings and branding on the cheeks with the letter “D”.

And 50 men more were still bound for the gallows.

Twenty hung in the days prior to this at two separate sites, but the Yanks’ piece de resistance was an orchestrated scene on the second day of the Battle of Chapultepec.

On September 13, 1847, at dawn, Harney ordered the thirty remaining prisoners to be brought forward. They stood on wagons with nooses placed around their necks. This included one man who had lost both legs and was unable to walk to his own execution. The site of these executions was within viewing distance of the site where the final battle — the outcome of which could not have been in doubt — was to be fought. There the sentenced soldiers watched until finally, at 9:30, the US victors raised the American flag atop Chapultepec Castle.† At that point the order was given, the wagons were pulled away and the men were all hanged.

It must be remembered that the San Patricios had been standing, bound hand and foot, each with his head in a noose, for nearly four hours in the burning Mexican sun. When Harney finally gave the order for the hangings to proceed, such was the relief that their sufferings were finally at an end that “some of the men actually cheered as the nooses tightened and the wagons pulled away.”

The cruelty of the punishments led a Mexican paper to spit,

these are the men that call us barbarians and tell us that they have come to civilize us … May they be damned by all Christians, as they are by God.

The San Patricios are still honored as heroes in Mexico.

They brand with hot irons the faces of the Irish deserters and then hang them from the gallows. The Saint Patrick Irish Battalion arrived with the invaders, but fought alongside the invaded.

From the north to Molino del Rey, the Irish made theirs the fate, ill fate, of the Mexicans. Many died defending the Churubusco monastery without ammunition. The prisoners, their faces burned, rock to and fro on the gallows. -Eduardo Galeano, Masks and Faces

* The “blackness” of the Irish and the process of their “becoming white” later in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the more illustrative and well-documented case studies of race and racism as social rather than biological constructs.

** They weren’t alone in this opinion. Many hundreds of miles from the fighting, Henry David Thoreau famously landed in jail for tax resistance in 1846 largely because of his disgust with the war. From Civil Disobedience:

The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, excoriated President James K. Polk for lying the nation into war.

† The capture of Chapultepec Castle, forgotten north of the Rio Grande, is still commemorated in Mexico for the heroism of six teenage cadets who died in its defense. The last of their number, Juan Escutia, leapt from the castle walls wrapped in the Mexican standard to prevent its capture.

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1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople

5 comments June 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Ottoman Grand Vizier Çandarli Halil Pasha (or Chandarly) was put to death, the first time anyone holding that office had suffered such a fate.

In Istanbul, Halil Pasha tower — part of the siegeworks used to take Constantinople — overlooks Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named for the man who ordered Halil Pasha’s death.

It was a stunning fall for the man who had presented himself in the sultan’s council just six days before to argue for discontinuing the seven-week-old Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople.

This siege would succeed, on May 29, in conquering the second Rome, and it may have been Halil Pasha‘s longstanding opposition to this project so glorious for the rising Ottomans that cost him his life.

Or, something else; we are obliged to speculate. Other possible factors include:

  • Halil Pasha’s enormous personal wealth, which made his family both a potential rival and a source of confiscated revenues badly needed by the state.

  • Personal rivalry with the sultan now known as Mehmed the Conqueror, whom Halil Pasha had deposed in the former’s childhood in favor of his retired father when exigencies of state required a more experienced hand.
  • A generation gap with the sultan’s younger advisors. Both Ottoman and Christian sources recorded charges that he was in league with Byzantium’s defenders; even if not true in a literally treasonous sense, the veteran statesman had relationships with Christians through Constantinople and (as evidenced by his opposition to the siege) likely had more to lose than to gain from Mehmed’s aggressive foreign policy.

Especially in the last respect, Chandarly Halil Pasha’s death turned over a leaf in Europe’s complex relationship with the rising Turks. And among those inclined to view a clash of civilizations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the May 29, 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople rates as a day just as weighty for the fate of the world as for that of Halil Pasha himself.

A highly recommended digression: Lars Brownworth’s coverage in the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast of that empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI — who died with his boots on the day Constantinople fell, “the empire as his winding-cloth.”

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1814: Six slaves in Guyana

1 comment April 12th, 2009 Headsman

An alarming rumour, meanwhile, … spread throughout the Colonies; a rumour which, whatever of truth or fact, little or none, might be at the foundation, gathering, as it went, size and gloom, and dust of slander, was calculated to make them all feel very unhappy. The report was that a slave insurrection had been discovered, having its centre on the Berbice West Coast, but extending right and left so as to include all the shore from the Corentyne Coast to Mahaica, about eighty miles; that the negroes had chosen a governor and other officers; that it was their intention to murder all the white men, and take possession of all the rest; that some of the Demerara East Coast negroes were leaders in the rebellion, especially Philip, a member of the church on Le Resouvenir; and that instruction of the negroes was to blame.

the account which the negroes gave of the matter was, that there had been formed a society in imitation of the Freemasons, they wishing to have, as well as their buckras or masters, a society of that nature; and that the money collected was to support the poor and defray the expense of their dances, &c.; just as it had been formerly very common for them to assume the names of their masters, or of the Governor or Fiscal, and send invitations to friends to supper or a dance, and appoint a captain of their own as president of the feast; sometimes to put feathers in their hats at holiday time and parade the streets. “No one,” as far as Mr. Wray could learn, “had been injured by them, neither was any property destroyed,” yet on 12th April six of the unhappy people apprehended on the West Coast were executed in New Amsterdam as ringleaders, their heads cut off and fixed upon poles on the different estates to which they belonged; one of them white with age, whose master, Mr. Rader, told Mr. Wray that he denied to the last having any bad intentions. Several others were flogged under the gallows, and some were transported.

A proclamation was subsequently issued to the effect that as “the privilege allowed the slaves of the Colony, of publicly or privately dancing on estates and other places at stated periods, had been perverted by them to purposes of the most dangerous nature, all dancing was forbidden until next year, 1815, or the further pleasure of the Court;” … This was followed, late in the year, by another calling upon the colonists to pay their quota of the expenses incurred in crushing the plot and indemnifying the proprietors of the slaves capitally punished … Better still, the law concerning Sunday labour was amended in favour of the slave, forbidding field-work on that day, except in sudden emergencies; and further enactments were issued limiting and regulating the excessive use of the whip, and forbidding the burial of any slave dying suddenly or by suicide, or in consequence of punishment or hurt, without previously acquainting the authorities …

From The Life and Labours of John Wray, Pioneer Missionary in British Guiana.

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1968: Nguyen Van Lem

24 comments February 1st, 2009 Headsman

Around noon of February 1, 1968, in the opening days of the communist Tet Offensive, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon — and photographer Eddie Adams captured perhaps the war’s most unforgettable image.

An American cameraman also captured it in on celluloid. Caution: This clip shows … well, a man being shot in the head at point-blank range.

Though the image brought Adams the Pulitzer Prize, he would express discomfort with it later in life, and eulogized General Loan in Time magazine when he died in the U.S. in 1998.

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera … photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

For Adams, the lie was the omission of context — that the plainclothes Lem had allegedly just been caught having murdered not only South Vietnamese police but their civilian family members; that Loan was a good officer and not a cold-blooded killer.

Adams’ editor has said that many such summary executions were taking place during the Battle of Saigon — a broader context to the image no matter its specific fairness to the executioner.

But of course, the shot gained its deeper resonance from the growing disgust with the Vietnam War … and from its concise tableau of a century’s brutality. Here is a frozen image of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Like any great work of art, Adams’ serendipitous photograph took on a life of its own … and a tapestry of meanings richer than its creator could ever have intended.

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1961: Patrice Lumumba

3 comments January 17th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

No brutality, no torture has ever made me plead for mercy, because I prefer to die with my head up, with unshakable faith and deep confidence in the destiny of my country, rather than live in submission and spurning of scared principles.

-Patrice Lumumba’s last letter to his wife

One person’s “murdered under controversial circumstances” is another person’s “executed.” By most unbiased accounts, Patrice Lumumba was both.

A strident anti-colonialist caught in the most inflammatory of Cold War power struggles, Lumumba remains a controversial figure.

In 1956, Patrice Lumumba was a mail clerk in Belgian Congo recently out of prison for embezzlement of post office funds. Though previously involved with the Liberal Party of Belgium, a colonialist political party, after prison, he helped found the Mouvement National Congolais, a pro-independence national party (an important distinction at the time, as most pro-independence parties were at least partially tribal in nature).

Convicted in 1959 of inciting an anti-colonial riot and sentenced to 6 months in prison, Lumumba was released early as Congo won its independence and the MNC became an important political force. Just how important became apparent the following June, when the 35-year-old Lumumba was ratified as the newly independent Congo’s first prime minister.

From criminal to high statesman in just over a year, Lumumba took his new power in stride, and watched in disgust as the deposed King Baudouin of Belgium attended the new nation’s first Independence Day celebration, and before a fawning international media condescendingly congratulated Belgium’s colonial beneficence to its former slave plantation.

Struck from the day’s official celebrations in favor of the the lukewarm exhortations of the new President Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba found time on the day’s unofficial program. Strident, emotional, and unabashed in its anticolonialist, nationalist, and pan-Africanist bent, Lumumba’s famous speech was roundly criticized by the domestic and foreign press, but well-received by the crowd and ultimately delivered directly to history.

Lumumba’s tenure as prime minister was short-lived, however.

Mere weeks after independence, a mutiny on army bases broke out in reaction to Lumumba’s ill-fated decision to leave the military out of a government pay raise. The resulting anarchy quickly spread throughout the country, and the province of Katanga, with the support of King Baudouin and powerful mining companies, declared independence. As United Nations troops failed to quell the situation, Lumumba appealed to the Soviets, whose intervention succeeded only in causing Lumumba’s political support to crumble.

Kasa-Vuba dismissed Lumumba in September; in response, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vuba deposed — quite illegally, as it happens — and appealed to the Senate, from whom he managed to win a vote of confidence.

At this point, in the heat of the Cold War, things got interesting.

Deposed again, this time in a CIA-endorsed coup, Lumumba found himself under house arrest and under the protection of UN troops. Not certain whether to trust the rule of the various laws surrounding him, Lumumba slipped out under the cover of night and escaped to nearby Stanleyville (now Kisangani), where he believed he had enough supporters to set up his own government — and army, whom one supposes he had by then resolved to pay rather better.

Pursued by forces loyal to the new government, Lumumba was captured and arrested in early December 1960 and charged with “inciting the army to rebellion.” Devoid of his former UN protection, the man who would be the leader of a newly free nation watched as he became a pawn in a much larger struggle. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld appealed to the process of law –- whatever that was –- while the USSR jumped a step ahead, demanding that Lumumba be immediately released and reinstated as prime minister and all UN forces withdrawn.

So much for that. The UN Security Council convened, and, a week later, the USSR’s resolution was defeated. Another, Western-backed resolution that would have given the UN power to act as impartial arbitrator was vetoed by the USSR.

At this point, caught between hostility of Cold War politics and the ever-hazy idea of “international law,” Lumumba languished in the military barracks of an even more hostile government. Hearing of plans for his transfer to barracks at the now-subdued Katanga province, Lumumba was wild on the plane trip and was forcibly restrained after appealing to other passengers to intervene on his behalf. Late at night after his arrival at his new prison, Lumumba was driven to an isolated spot and executed by firing squad. News of his death was not released until three weeks later, when it sparked protests in several European cities over the role of the Belgian government, which denied any involvement.

The extent of US and Belgian involvement in Lumumba’s death remains the subject of ongoing speculation. So does the question of what might have been.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Congo (Kinshasa),Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Summary Executions

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1922: Robert Erskine Childers, for carrying the gun of Michael Collins

3 comments November 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Robert Erskine Childers was shot by the Irish Free State for carrying a gun its founding colossus had gifted him.

Many Irishmen were executed on either side in this terrible time, but Childers cuts a unique figure among them.

To begin with, he wasn’t all that Irish — “that damned Englishman,” fellow Republican turned Civil War enemy Arthur Griffith called him. The London-born son of a British scholar and an Irish mother, Childers was a lifelong Protestant, itself an anomaly since Irish nationalism mapped (and still maps) strongly to Catholicism.

You’d think he’d be a loyal man of the empire. Early on, that’s just what he was.

In his twenties, Childers volunteered for the Boer War, and he would later say the rank savagery and underlying injustice of England’s war “changed the whole current of my life and made me a Liberal and a Nationalist.” (Source.)

Laying down the sword, Childers took up the pen and wrote several books of military history. (Long since into the public domain, at least two can be read free online: War and the Arme Blanche, German Influence on British Cavalry.) He also wrote a novel, The Riddle of the Sands, that has a (debatable) claim as the first spy novel. Riddle has never gone out of print since it was published in 1903, though it is also available free online.

Both in fiction and nonfiction, Childers’ warnings against the German challenge to British hegemony were prophetic, but he was himself becoming a man divided. 1914 saw him running German guns to Irish nationalists aboard his yacht Asgard … and then signing up for the royal navy when World War I erupted.

The British crackdown on the Easter Rising during the war completed his radicalization; he moved to Dublin and turned his eloquence against the British.

Here, Childers was swept into the tragedy of the Irish War of Independence, and the civil war that followed it; though both were in the delegation that produced the contentious Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers broke with Michael Collins over it and backed the IRA nationalists who fought the Irish Free State.

After Collins’s assassination, emergency laws promulgated the death sentence for anyone caught armed without authorization. Childers was a writer, not a partisan, but he was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gift Michael Collins had given him, back when they were on the same side. It was a time of bloody justice, and they threw the book at him.

Childers knew as well as Collins had that the internecine conflict would have to end. He checked out with awe-inspiring forgiveness; summoning his 16-year-old son to prison the night before his execution, Childers extracted a promise that the boy would find everyone who signed his death warrant … and shake their hands. (Young Erskine Hamilton Childers eventually became President of Ireland.)

Childers himself likewise shook the hands of his own firing squad, one by one. His last words (reported in a number of slightly different variations) were lightheartedly addressed to them:

Take a step or two forwards, lads. It will be easier that way.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1937: Ikki Kita

2 comments August 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1937, intellectual Kita Ikki (Kita is the family name) was executed by the Japanese military government for inspiring a failed coup d’etat the previous year.

A onetime socialist turned radical nationalist, Kita — born Kita Terujiro — preached a doctrine of authoritarian national restoration around some socialist-sounding communitarian purpose, coupled with an unapologetic imperialism.

His Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan (the translation is from a reader, Sources of Japanese Tradition, partially excerpted here) argues that in the wake of Europe’s self-immolation in World War I, initiative lay with the Land of the Rising Sun — and that the country must adopt a muscular unity of purpose to grasp it.

The entire Japanese people, thinking calmly from this perspective which is the result of Heaven’s rewards and punishments, should, in planning how the great Japanese empire should be reorganized, petition for a manifestation of the imperial prerogative establishing “a national opinion in which no dissenting voice is heard, by the organization of a great union of the Japanese people.” Thus, by homage to the emperor, a basis for national reorganization can be set up.

Truly, our 700 million brothers in China and India have no path to independence other than that offered by our guidance and protection. And for our Japan, whose population has doubled in the past fifty years, great areas adequate to support a population of at least 240 million or 250 million will be absolutely necessary a hundred years from now. For a nation, one hundred years are like a hundred days for an individual. How can those who are anxious about the inevitable developments or who grieve over the desperate conditions of neighboring countries find their solace in the effeminate pacifism of doctrinal socialism? … At a time when the authorities in the European and American revolutionary creeds have found it completely impossible to arrive at an understanding of the “gospel of the sword” because of their superficial philosophy, the noble Greece of Asian culture [meaning Japan, of course] must complete its national reorganization on the basis of its own national polity. At the same time, let it lift the virtuous banner of an Asian league and take the leadership in the world federation that must come. In so doing let it proclaim to the world the Way of Heaven in which all are children of Buddha, and let it set an example that the world must follow.

One could quibble about particulars, but it’s essentially fascism — paralleling Mussolini in doctrine as well as ideological evolution. (According to W.G. Beasley Kita also co-founded a Gen. Jack Ripper-esque Society for the Preservation of the National Essence.)

A military coup was supposed to get the ball rolling, which made him a guru to an aggressive cadre of young officers who tried to seize the government in the February 26 Incident, named for the date in 1936 it took place.

Kita wasn’t himself involved in the coup, but his intellectual sponsorship was enough of a connection for the Kempeitai.* Modern Japanese Thought tartly observes that Kita’s vision for an imperial dictatorship didn’t turn on any misty-eyed allegiance to the emperor’s person.

When he was executed for his role in the mutiny of 1936, he was ordered to recant by saying “long live the emperor” as a final act of reverence and submission. He is reported to have refused by replying that he had vowed long ago never to joke about his own death.

In Fighting Elegy (or Elegy to Violence or Elegy to Fighting), Seijun Suzuki’s 1960’s skewering of militarist 1930’s Japan (review), Kita makes cameos to inspire the main male character to greater feats of violent sublimation of his repressed sexuality. (The following clip is merely the trailer.)

There’s also a 1973 biopic — the last film of Yoshishige Yoshida.

* I don’t have definite documentation on the method of execution; I’m supposing it was hanging, the standard method in Japan since the Meiji period.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Power,Treason

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