1825: Joaquim do Amor Divino Rabelo, Frei Caneca

Add comment January 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1825, Portuguese divine Joaquim do Amor Divino Rabelo e Caneca — more popularly and succinctly known as “Frei Caneca” — was executed along with seven others in Recife, Brazil for a short-lived revolt against the newly independent state.

This revolt unfolded against the backdrop of Brazil’s successful war of independence against Portugal.

You’re heard “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”?

It was literally true in this case.

The heir to the Portuguese crown,* Pedro I, made the unusual career choice of declaring Brazil’s independence from his own dad, costing the House of Braganza a good deal more than is usual for family therapy.

And of course one so often grows up into a belated appreciation of one’s parents’ formerly objectionable characteristics.

For Pedro’s new South American polity, there ensued the age-old conflict between federalism and centralization: having promised the one when in need of popular support for his revolution, Pedro delivered the other when securely lodged on the Brazilian throne.

And this triggered the short-lived breakaway attempt of the so-called Confederation of the Equator, centered in Pernambuco, an ornery northeastern province that had likewise abortively rebelled against Portuguese colonial administration in 1817.**

Liberal Carmelite intellectual Frei Caneca — “Father Mug”; here‘s his Portuguese Wikipedia page — had done four years in the clink for his support of that earlier revolt, but he did not hesitate to throw in with Manuel de Carvalho (Portuguese again) when the latter proclaimed independence from Brazil.

Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, found this sort of behavior much less appealing done to him than by him.

What are the demands of the insults from Pernambuco? Certainly a punishment, and such a punishment that it will serve as an example for the future.

Having a lopsided advantage in the balance-of-force department, Pedro soon got the opportunity to set that example. (Though not on Carvalho, who escaped the roundup and long outlived his king.)

The story goes that Frei Caneca was doomed to hanging — the fate suffered by his fellow-martyrs this day — but so beloved was he that nary a Pernambucano could be found willing to stretch the friar’s neck. It’s a nice 19th century liberal-man-of-the-cloth twist on that ancient hagiographic trope, the “holy man (or woman) who defeats the execution device”.

Unfortunately for Father Mug, that’s usually only a one-device-per-execution deal. In this case, Brazil did locate personnel willing enough for a firing squad’s worth of guys to shoot Caneca dead.

This lyrical end was set to verse in “Auto do Frade” by Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto.

* Pedro would inherit the Portuguese throne in 1826 on his father’s death, briefly and theoretically uniting the realms, but power players in the motherland gave him the boot within weeks.

** The flag of the 1817 Pernambucan Revolution is Pernambuca’s state flag today.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Artists,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Treason

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1759: The Tavora family

18 comments January 13th, 2009 Headsman

Two and a half centuries ago today, Portugal’s noble Tavora family was extirpated in Belem.

[A] scaffold eighteen feet in height was erected in the market-place of Lisbon, during the night of the 13th, round which was drawn up a cordon of military. Precisely at 7 o’clock in the morning, the old Marchioness of Tavora, as the most guilty, was brought upon the scene, her hands bound, and a rope round her neck. She was placed on a chair, and her eyes being bound, the executioner struck her head off without the previous utterance by her of any complaint. After her came the twenty-one-year-old son, Joseph Maria de Tavora. They bound him on a cross raised aloft, broke his arms and legs with iron clubs, and then strangled him with a rope. The same fate befell [Tavora son-in-law] Jeronimo de Ataide, Count of Atouguia, the young Marquis Luiz Bernard de Tavora, colonel of cavalry, his servant Blasius Joseph Romeiro, Corporal Emanuel Alvarez Fereira, valet of the Duke of Aveira, and the body-page, John Michael. Their corpses were all flattened upon wheels, which were placed on poles, and this proceeding took up so much time that fully half an hour elapsed before another execution could be proceeded with.


Other outstandingly gory images of this day’s business are here.

After the page Miguel or Michael, the executioner took the old Francis d’Assis de Tavora, bound him on a St. Andrew’s cross, gave him three blows on the chest with an iron rod that resounded to a distance, shattered his arms and legs, and then gave him his coup de grace through the heart. The executioner’s men then, amidst wild shrieks, shattered the arms, legs, and thighs of the ninth victim, the old Duke of Aveiro, while still alive, then killed him by a blow on the chest, and threw him into the blazing fire. Finally, the tenth delinquent, the valet Anton Alvarez Fereira, brother of the above-mentioned Emanuel, was conducted before the corpses of the nine who had been previously executed, each one being shown to him; he was then bound to a stake, round which was placed a heap of wood, and this being set fire to, was raked together until he was completely consumed* … When the execution was over, the scaffold, together with all the dead bodies, was set on fire and burnt to ashes, which were thrown into the Tagus.

Oh, and one last thing:

[T]he palaces of the high nobility who had been executed were pulled to pieces and levelled to the ground, and salt strewed on the places where they had stood, as a sign that they should never be built up again.

Yikes.


This stone marker was placed on the site of the razed palace of Jose Mascarenhas, the Duke of Aveiro. “On this infamous land,” it announces, “nothing may be built for all time.” Copyrighted image courtesy of Ludgero Paninho.

Seems someone got the idea that the Tavoras tried to kill (and more problematically, failed to kill) Portuguese king Joseph I.

Circumstantial, torture-adduced evidence put the scheming Marchioness Eleonora de Tavora and clan behind an apparent assassination attempt, wherein a couple of assailants had shot at the king’s unmarked carriage as it returned on a little-used road from a rendezvous with his mistress. (One of the circumstances was that the mistress was a Tavora, which put the accused in a position to know the king’s secret travel plans. Others argue the gunmen might have just been common highwaymen who had no idea they were setting upon the royal person.)

Whatever the facts of the matter, obscure behind a quarter-millennium, its attribution to the Tavoras and the spectacular revenge thereupon visited was effected by the king’s competent and ruthless minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the future Marquis de Pombal.


A monumental plinth surmounted by Pombal dominates the present-day Lisbon plaza named for him.

His able handling of the recent Lisbon earthquake had cemented his position as the throne’s right-hand man in a trend of centralizing absolutism not much appreciated by the old aristocracy (nor by the hidebound clerical orders, which explains why the aforesaid gory account of the execution ground comes from a German anti-Jesuit polemic).

And he would not miss the opportunity an attack on the king’s person gave him to sweep away his opponents.

The peers of the realm were summoned to witness their fellow blue-bloods so nauseatingly dispatched, and the Jesuits — “reported to have inflamed the Tavora family to their [the Jesuits’] desired pitch … in revenge for what had justly been done to them in South America”** — were forthwith suppressed.

(Functionally a progressive secular dictator — or an enlightened despot, to use a more 18th-century description — Pombal would eventually push political conflict with Rome so near the brink of outright schism that the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Melo characterizes it as “a sort of disguised Anglicanism,” adding that “many of the evils from which the Church now suffers are a legacy from him.” His ascendancy is the “Pombaline Terror” in Catholic annals.)

Melo/Pombal exercised the power of the state for the rest of Joseph’s life, but the king’s daughter and successor Maria I dismissed him — though she did not take punitive action against Pombal for his persecutions, as his enemies demanded.

* Also doomed to burning alive was one Joseph Policarpo, who was able to escape the mass arrest a few weeks before and fled the kingdom. He was executed by effigy.

** This comment is from the letters of Christopher Hervey, an Englishman abroad in Portugal at the time of the execution whose 100+ pages’ worth of correspondence include live-at-the-scene reporting and English translations of the public pronouncements against the supposed culprits. As to the South American roots of Pombal’s conflict with the Jesuits, the order had resisted Pombal’s early schemes to reorganize and rationalize Portugal’s New World holdings in order to make the country a more competitive colonial power. Jesuit resistance to giving up the order’s control of education, and its humanitarian efforts to protect Indians, had been seen as contributing to an Indian rebellion that broke out in Jesuit-controlled territory — even to the point that Jesuits themselves were suspected of arming Indians in an effort to carve out church-controlled states. Hervey’s version has the Jesuits behind the plot in order to eliminate Pombal’s threat to their power. Others share this opinion … and Pombal, obviously, was keen to have his rivals inculpated for lese majeste in the public mind.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Portugal,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1871: Kawakami Gensai

11 comments January 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the shadowy but legendary swordsman Kawakami Gensai was beheaded on a pretext — his use to the Meiji government at an end.

The Hitokiri — “mankiller” — Gensai came to manhood during the confusing death throes of the shogunate leading into the Meiji Restoration.

That Japan’s feudal stagnation would give way to the Meiji era’s centralization and modernization may well be accounted an inevitability of history. The particular form of its birth superimposed upon the epochal conflict a bitter internal division over openness to foreigners vis-a-vis the centuries-old isolation.

The Tokugawa Shogunate had been forced to accept trading pacts dictated by better-armed western nations, and the resulting cultural and economic shockwaves carried many to the camp of a long-slumbering imperial house ready to assert its authority. Power in Japan was a prize worth killing for.

Gensai did so. Physically small and even effeminate, he was justly among the most feared warriors of his day. He became an elite imperial assassin renowned for the speed of his blade; he was famous for murdering pro-western shogunate politician Sakuma Shozan in broad daylight in 1864 — only one of scores of Tokugawa retainers assassinated during the period, although the only one that can be definitively attributed to Gensai.

It was not for any of this that Gensai was put to death, for his side won the war.

But the legendary killer was really in it for the immigration policy — “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” — and the Meiji government sensibly dropped the second plank of that platform as soon as it was in the saddle. That volte-face didn’t push Gensai into anything so drastic as revolt, but with modern police forces elbowing aside old-school samurai and outward-facing engagement still the political order of the day, the true believer had become a liability.

The character Himura Kenshin from the Japanese manga and anime series Samurai X is loosely based on Gensai. He’s the one helpfully marked with an “X” on his cheek:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers

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