1826: Janissaries during the Auspicious Incident

2 comments June 16th, 2011 Headsman

We have received from Constantinople the following further particulars of the revolt of the Janissaries: —

“June 16, 3 o’clock p.m.

“The Sultan was at his summer palace of Bschektash. The Aga Pacha, and the Pacha commanding on the Asiatic bank of the Bosphorus, repaired to Constantinople with their troops: 8,000 topschis, or artillery, also went thither. At length, his Sublimity being resolved to quell the rebellion, caused the standard of the Prophet to be displayed, and proclamations to be made in all the quarters of the city, that all men of honour — that is to say, true believers — had immediately to rally round this standard. The Ulemas met in the Seraglio. The appearance of the Snadgiak Sherif caused some hesitation among the rebels; their numbers were reduced by desertion, while, on the other hand, all the people hastened to assemble round the sacred standard. The energy of the Aga Pacha did the rest; he has crushed the rebles with grape-shot, burnt their barracks in the Ahnudan, and pursued them without mercy.

“The Grand Vizier is in the Court of the Mosque of Sultan Achmet, in the Hippodrome, with the Sandgiak Sherif still displayed; the chiefs of the corps of the Ulemas are met there in council; the Sultan is at the Seraglio, with the great men of the empire. Every moment persons are brought into the Hippodrome, and executed on the spot. Above 100 Oustas have already suffered this fate. This morning all the gates of Constantinople, except one, are shut or guarded by topschis and citizens. The remainder of the rebels have taken refuge in some khans built of stone, where they are invested, and where, to all appearance, famine will soon deliver them to the mercy of the Aga Pacha.

London Times, July 15, 1826 (translating July 11 reports published in the French papers)

This date in 1826 finds Constantinople in the midst of what history will remember as the Auspicious Incident — an attempted revolt by the Ottoman Empire’s elite Janissary corps that was not at all auspicious for the Janissaries.

This centuries-old slave infantry,* a sort of Ottoman Praetorian Guard as well as the sultan’s elite military presence in the empire’s hinterlands, had evolved by this stage of decadence into a vampire squid on the face of the Porte.**

Jealous of their material privileges and political prerogatives even as the dawn of industry and conscript armies undermined their combat utility, the Janissaries had become much more trouble than they were worth.†

They had “begun to present a serious threat to the Empire,” wrote Lord Kinross in Ottoman Centuries. “On the battlefield they were gaining a reputation among the modern foreign armies for ineptitude and even cowardice under arms … In the capital … they came to be a dominant power and a focus of sedition.”

Kinross wrote that about the Janissaries of the early 17th century, in the reign of Osman II. (Osman tried to curtail the troop’s power, and was executed by his bodyguards for his trouble.)

A couple of centuries on from that moment, and the Janissaries are still skulking about the Seraglio, still keeping their supposed masters in mortal terror, still arbitrating the succession.

The current ruler, Mahmud II, had been fortunate in his own youth to survive the Janissaries’ political intrusion and reach the throne.

For a generation, Mahmud had waited and readied himself for the opportunity to sweep this piece off the chessboard. This would be a most Auspicious Incident indeed.

Kinross and many other historians suspect that Mahmud intentionally baited the Janissaries to revolt in 1826, but whether or not that is so, they did revolt — in response to a decree reorganizing the corps.

Mahmud was ready for them. He repelled the Janissary mutiny on June 15, and as described by our third-hand correspondent above, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy: under artillery barrage in the barracks they retreated to, or by the summary execution of all who surrendered — not just on this date, but throughout the Incident and extending to the further reaches of the empire where Mahmud’s agents carried his decree abolishing the Janissaries forever.

* Culled from children taken from non-Muslim families and raised as Islamic converts.

** Not unlike the actual Praetorian Guard.

† There’s a competing historiography contending (pdf) that, contrary to the corrupt-backwards-military-caste story, it was the Janissaries’ economic and social links that brought on their destruction: they became the entity representing the autonomous Ottoman classes, such as artisans and guilds, who had the most to lose from the elites’ state modernization project.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Ottoman Empire,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey

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1808: Sultan Mustafa IV, by his brother

Add comment November 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1808, the former, and now deposed, Ottoman Sultan Mustafa IV was strangled at the command of his successor and brother.

The Ottoman Empire, once the very terror of western Christendom, entered the 19th century in a stagnation that had it well on its way to its way to “sick man of Europe” status.

Its fate would be defined by the political — and sometimes literal — battle between its entrenched interests and forward-looking reformers who struggled to restructure the empire for the challenges that lay ahead.

And at this point, it wasn’t only the Ottoman polity that had to fret for its survival. Its very namesake dynasty was in danger of extinguishing itself. There hadn’t been a male born to the House of Osman in twenty years, and in the events herein narrated, internecine conflict would winnow the Osmans down to their very last man.

Aggressive Progressive

Reform was the project of our principal’s predecessor, Selim. In the years around the turn of the century, Selim endeavored to get Turkey out of its wasteful foreign conflicts to gain maneuvering room for more urgent domestic projects.*

Chief among the many oxes Selim proposed to gore were the Janissaries, the Ottomans’ powerful and increasingly archaic military elite, much given to destructive use of their martial prowess in various factional conflicts within the Empire.

Possessive Regressive

The Janissaries deposed Selim in 1807, elevating his cousin — our man, Mustafa, a mere handmaiden of the hidebound. (His contemporaries in Europe more commonly transliterated the name “Mustapha”)

They didn’t kill Selim … just left him alive within the palace where armed men could find him in a pinch.

That pinch arrived in June in the form of Mustafa Bayrakdar, a reformist official who marched on Istanbul to overthrow the reactionary elements. As Bayrakdar took the city in hand, Mustafa desperately ordered the executions of Selim and of Mustafa’s own brother, Mahmud.

Selim was disposed of. Mahmud got tipped off, and the servants — most famously, a Georgian harem girl named Cevri Kalfa — helped him escape to the roof. Mustafa Bayrakdar ousted the ousters before anyone who meant Mahmud ill could find him.

Impressive Successive

That left Mahmud the only choice for Sultan, and he followed his brother’s own questionable policy of consanguinary clemency. Mustafa’s demotion back to crown prince after having once ordered the now-sultan’s death must have made for some awkward chit-chat around the family table.

It didn’t last long. The London Times of January 16, 1809 reported** that

[o]n the 14th of November, at day-break, the Janissaries were seen assembling from all quarters, and being reinforced by those who were in the vicinity of Constantinople, they … massacred all the partisans of the Grand Vizier that came in their way. The contest spread to eveyr street in Constantinople … On the 15th, the Janissaries assaulted the high walls of the Seraglio; and it was at this moment that the Grand Vizier, after causing the unfortunate Mustapha IV, who was a prisoner there, to be strangled, blew himself up in his own Palace with gunpowder, of which he purposely provided a large quantity before-hand, to prevent his falling alive into the hands of his enemies.

Sauce for the goose was sauce for Mustafa, and on this same desperate day when he lost Bayrakdar to a vault of gunpowder, Mahmud had his brother put to death. This maneuver left Mahmud the last surviving male Osman.

Passive Aggressive?

The legacies of this date were varied and ambiguous.

Mahmud II remained on the Ottoman throne for the next three decades, ample time to secure the Osman line.

The Janissaries returned to their barracks, chastened; Mahmud would destroy them after an attempted revolt in 1826.

But Mahmud too was chastened by the experience — or else, too encumbered by the apparatus of the state, or too cautious of his legacy before that heir appeared (it took years), or simply too unskillful — and his reformist vision proceeded haltingly until the very end of his life, even as breakaway nations continued to erode the Porte’s influence.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Palmer says of Mahmud,

Over a century and a half after his death, Mahmud II remains the most puzzling of the thirty-six Ottoman Sultans … Was he a despot or a reformer, a capricious betrayer of trust or a dedicated ruler of a vision, a muddler who plunged into disastrous wars or a shrewd statesman who preserved his Empire from rapacious neighbors? Should we think of him as the ‘Infidel Sultan’ who imposed European ways on the Islamic faithful, or as Mahmud Adli (‘Mahmud the Just’), like Turks today? The contrasts seem endless. Mahmud is one of history’s most enigmatic figures …

* Selim was sucked back into armed conflict by the Napoleonic wars.

** Though two months after the fact, the report is in media res, since it was transcribing German papers from mail dispatched out of the Ottoman capital on Nov. 16 when “the utmost confusion still prevailed there.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey

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