1856: Auguste Chapdelaine, saintly casus belli

1 comment February 29th, 2012 Headsman

On February 29, 1856, local Chinese officials in Guangxi beheaded French missionary priest Auguste Chapdelaine — and handed his countrymen a pretext for war.

Chapdelaine (English Wikipedia page | French) had gone illegally to the Chinese interior to proselytize Christianity.

The local mandarin Zhang Mingfeng was no doubt disposed to take such an harsh line against this provocation by virtue of the ongoing, Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion, which had originated right there in Guangxi and was in the process of engulfing all of southern China in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts.

So Chapdelaine and his associates were snapped up, put to a few days’ dreadful torture, and on this date a Chinese convert and Chapdelaine were both summarily beheaded. (A female convert, Agnes Tsaou-Kong, expired under torture around the same time.)

Pietistic accounts of believers’ last extremes are here and here.


(Images from this French page.)

It took months for word of this martyrdom to reach French consular officials, and many months more for the gears of international diplomacy to turn — but when they did so, France pressed a demand for reparations.

Since pere Chapdelaine had been acting illegally in the first place, the Qing’s obdurate Viceroy Ye(h) adamantly refused to offer Paris satisfaction.

By 1858, this intransigence sufficed to license French entry (alongside Britain) into the Second Opium War, from which the Europeans won by force of arms a noxious treaty guaranteeing their right to push Christianity in China, extracting a couple million silver taels in damages, and (of course) assuring their right to traffic opium into China.

It would be rather ungenerous to hold all the ugly imperial consequences personally against our day’s martyr. August Chapdelaine was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000 as one of 120 Martyrs of China.

China was not impressed by this celebration of a onetime colonial catspaw, and met the Vatican’s “anti-China” celestial promotion announcement with one of its own — charging that Chapdelaine “collaborated with corrupt local officials, raped women and was notorious in those areas [where he preached].”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Torture

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1864: Hong Tianguifu, in the Taiping Rebellion

8 comments November 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the sins of the father were visited upon the son when the Qing Dynasty dealt a coup de grace in what is perhaps history’s bloodiest civil war, executing the luckless teenager to whom leadership of the Taiping Rebellion had fallen.

Strangely little-known, the Taiping Rebellion shook the weakened Chinese state through the middle of the 19th century, nearly to its very foundations.

From 1851 until the 1864 death of its queer leader figure, prophetic Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, it maintained its own state in southern China, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Also of interest: Google freebies from the 19th century. Ti-ping tien-kwoh: the history of the Ti-ping revolution and History of the insurrection in China: with notices of the Christianity, creed, and proclamations of the insurgents.

China’s defeat in the First Opium War in the 1840’s set the stage for Hong Xiuquan’s movement, and not only geopolitically: western powers had pried open the Orient to proselytizers as well as poppies, and though Christianity would find a rough go of it in China, it did win over Hong.

Fired by his supposed divine vision, Hong’s Heavenly Kingdom conquered the Yangtze Valley and much of the south, with an outlook radically progressive as against the hidebound Qing: egalitarian land distribution and gender equity (the Kingdom’s administrative acumen is less generously accounted). Naturally, the “real” Christian missionaries abhorred it, which sincere theology happily comported with the policy of their national statesmen who abhorred the Taiping’s encumbrance upon the opium trade.

This illustrated podcast does creditable coverage of the Qing’s twilight century; from about 14:17, it covers Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion specifically.

The rebellion waxed while the Qing lost a second Opium War to the west, but a Taiping bid to capture Shanghai fell short in 1860. By this time, westerners had the Qing by the short-and-curlies and were not eager to see the client dynasty they had so painstakingly browbeaten supplanted by a bunch of millenarian Levellers without the common courtesy to promulgate smack; accordingly, China’s recent Opium War antagonists now helped China field the forces necessary to suppress the rebellion.

Charles George Gordon, a British evangelical Christian himself destined for eventual beheading, even led the pacification force swaggeringly branded the “Ever Victorious Army“.

We’ve reached the end here and only just met our day’s principal, the son and heir who at 15 was handed the helm of the collapsing state by his visionary father. (Hong Xiuquan conveniently proceeded to kick the bucket just before the Qing finished off the rebellion.)

Officially the second (and obviously the last) ruler of the Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Tianguifu had no juice with his military or administration, and no time to enjoy the more prosaic perquisites of regal authority, but was available as the object of official vengeance. (Thanks, dad.)


Less exalted Taiping Rebellion prisoners, from here (click through the pages for a detailed history of the rebellion).

The Taiping Rebellion features in the 2007 Chinese flick Tau ming chong (The Warlods), which represents a Qing-Taiping battle in the fine cinematic bloodbath below. Some 20 to 30 million people are thought to have perished in this civil war, which was also one of the last significant conflicts fought primarily with blades rather than bullets.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Royalty,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1839: An opium merchant

7 comments February 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1839, the Chinese government provocatively beheaded an opium merchant before the European consulates in Canton.

Opium exports from India into China were a lucrative trade for the British Empire* — for those watching the macroeconomic books, it balanced Britain’s costly importation of Chinese tea — but the consequences for China were wealth hemorrhaging overseas and a growing population of addicts.

Qing decrees against the opium trade dated to decades earlier, but the English had simply smuggled the stuff in. Finally, in the late 1830’s, China began to move to enforce its prohibition.

The trading port of Canton — the English name for Guangzhou — under the administration of upright Confucian governor Lin Zexu (alternately transliterated Lin Tse-hsu) would become the tinder box for open war, by which Britain ultimately compelled China by force of arms to accept its unwanted product.

This day’s execution was one small escalation in that conflict.


Lin Zexu supervises the destruction of opium.

Late in 1838, Chinese police initiated drug busts and expelled at least one opium-trading British merchant. The beheading this date was of a Chinese dealer, but unmistakably directed at westerners given its placement before the foreign missions. The consular officials pulled down their flags in protest of the affront.**

But greater provocations were to follow anon, and by year’s end open hostilities were afoot.

The humiliating British victory that ensued forced China to accept Her Majesty’s drug-running … and helped seed domestic agitation that would ultimately undermine China’s decrepit Imperial rule.

* The United States also trafficked opium — primarily lower-quality opium imported from Smyrna, Turkey — into China during this time, on a much smaller scale than Britain. (Source)

** This period would also mark Canton/Guangzhou’s eclipse as a trading port. Britain seized Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and relocated its foreign offices. Most European powers followed suit, making that city the far eastern entrepôt of choice.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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