1795: Tula, Curacao’s Nat Turner

1 comment October 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the slave whose rebellion had shaken the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curaçao was publicly tortured to death with his chief confederates.

The Landhuis Knip commands the plantation where Tula’s revolt began — the dark history behind the Dutch Antilles’ charming facade.

On August 17, 1795 Tula (English Wikipedia page | Dutch) launched a well-planned insurrection on the island, one of the major transit points in the Atlantic slave trade.

Inspired by the Haitian Revolution — and reasoning that, since France occupied the Netherlands, that whole Declaration of the Rights of Man thing ought to be trickling down to Dutch colonies — the rebels freed slaves plantation to plantation and quickly swelled near 1,000.

Of course, Jean-Jacques Rousseau aside, the slaves were also irate that they were damn slaves.

Although the outside forces of international geopolitics played a role in inspiring the 1795 revolt, slaves could find sufficient justification for insurrection in the domestic policies that Dutch planters employed to keep their slaves laboring in Curacao. The planters maintained a harsh regime in which many privileges that had traditionally been bestowed upon slaves had been removed in order to heighten productivity and increase plantation profitability. By 1795, most slaves were being forced to work on Sundays, which had generally been a day of rest in the past, and many planters hired their slaves out to maximize profits by exploiting their labor. It had also become customary for all of the slaves on a plantation to be punished in response to the offense that an individual slave among them had committed. (Source)

A priest was sent as envoy from the worried white community to the rebel encampment, with an offer of amnesty for submission.

Tula (sometimes surnamed as Tula Rigaud) and fellow leaders Bastiaan Karpata (or Carpata), Pedro Wakao (or Wacao) and Louis Mercier received him politely, hosted him overnight, and told him to get lost. This is Tula:

Father, do not all the persons spring from Adam and Eve? Was I wrong in liberating twenty-two of my brothers who were unjustly imprisoned? Father, French liberty was a disaster for us. Each time one of us is punished, we are told: “Are you also looking for your freedom?” One day I was arrested, and I begged mercy for a poor slave; when I was liberated, my mouth was bleeding. I fell on my knees and I cried to God: “O Divine Majesty, O Most Pure Spirit, is it Your will that we are ill-treated? Father, they take better care of an animal.”

And subhuman was the torture Tula, Karpata and Wakao* bore for their insistence on freedom when a fellow slave finally — inevitably? — betrayed them.

At a spot now commemorated by a beachfront monument, the three had their bones systematically shattered with an iron rod, their heads lopped off, and their bodies tossed into the sea. (Despite the metadata on this post, it wasn’t precisely “breaking on the wheel” — but the bone-shattering was pretty much the same idea.)

Curacao remains today a Dutch possession; slavery was abolished there in 1863. August 17, the dawn of these Dutch slaves’ inspiring and fatal revolt for freedom, is now honored on the island — and off it.

* It’s unclear to me whether Mercier, who was captured earlier, was also executed with the others, or whether Mercier’s sentence had already been carried out by this time.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Netherlands Antilles,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Slaves,Soldiers

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1695: Zumbi dos Palmares

2 comments November 20th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1695, Zumbi dos Palmares, the last leader of Brazil’s most famous free colony of fugitive slaves, was captured by the Portuguese and summarily beheaded.

From the very beginning of European settlement in the New Wold, Maroon communities of escaped slaves, free-born blacks, Indians, poor whites, and mixed-race outcasts formed at the fringes of slave states.

Colonial power did not welcome their presence.

Consequently, the community of Palmares faced repeated harassment from the Portuguese and the Dutch West Indies Company from the time of its establishment around 1600 — even as it burgeoned into a kingdom of over 30,000 inhabitants.

Zumbi, a black free-born in Palmares, was kidnapped by such a sortie and raised with a missionary priest who taught him Portuguese and Latin. At 15, he escaped and returned to Palmares, quickly rising to prominence and in 1678 overthrowing his adoptive uncle King Ganga Zumba when the latter attempted to accept peace under Portuguese rule.

Zumbi’s skepticism was vindicated when the followers of Zumba who had defected to Portugal were re-enslaved, but free Palmares soon faced intensified Portuguese pressure. In 1694, artillery finally battered its largest settlement into submission — forcing its ruler into the bush, where he long eluded capture.

In Zumbi’s honor, November 20 is a Brazilian celebration of national pride and especially pride for those of African descent … while the king who would not be a slave has lent his name, somewhat paradoxically, to an international airport.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Brazil,Disfavored Minorities,Famous,Heads of State,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Portugal,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Royalty,Slaves,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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