Hanging Matters. From Denshawai to Suez
GALLOWS GRIM, Glories of Empire.
Relatives watch hanging at Denshawai,
Egypt, 100 years ago under British protectorate.
WITH the 50th anniversary this year of both the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez war and the Russian suppression of the Hungarian people's revolt, there are various discussions, TV programmes and publications reviewing events. I've been reading "Suez 1956", by Barry Turner, published by Hodder and Stoughton.
It's a good read, both on the political background and how the military events unfolded. Drawing both on accounts by those involved and subsequent evaluation, Turner shows how leading figures were sometimes reluctant to admit the truth, even to themselves, and shows how the campaign was both a military failure and political disaster, achieving the opposite to the results intended.
I particularly liked his description of how that fine old statesman Sir Anthony Eden continued desperately denying there had been collusion in launching the attack between Britain, France and Israel. The official British government line was that British forces went in like policemen to separate Egyptians and Israelis. (and "If you can believe that, gentlemen, you will believe anything", as the Iron Duke once said).
"Two middle-ranking Foreign Office people were told to put together a file of all the sensitive papers on Suez and deliver it to Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary. The files were never seen again. At Chequers the last pointer to Eden's meeting with General Challe, when the Israeli plot was first mooted, was removed when someone scratched out Challe's name in the visitors' book, replacing it with the name of an offcial who would not normally have even signed in."
In Parliament, Eden declared "I want to say this ..and to say it quite bluntly to the House, that there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt - there was not."
I'll be having more to say on this collusion, and Tory hypocrisy.
But meanwhile I'd like to mention one cark with Barry Turner's book, though not directly related to his thesis. On page 80, dealing with Zionist terrorism in mandatory Palestine he mentions the Irgun Zvai Leumi's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then being used as headquarters by the British military, and civil administration. (This took place on July 22,1946, and the anniversary was marked this year by a public ceremony). He then goes on: "The shock was made yet more brutal by the murder of two British sergeants, their booby-trapped bodies left hanging in a eucalyptus grove near Nathanya".
This was indeed a barbarous act, made gratuitously so by the booby-trapping. So far as I know the two soldiers were guilty of no crime other than the uniform they were wearing. But what the author does not mention is that the unfortunate men were hanged after a warning, in retaliation for the British hanging of captured Irgun men. It seems to have had one salutary effect, as not until Adolf Eichman was anyone hanged in Israel/Palestine again.
Twenty years previously it had been Arab Palestine in revolt, against Zionist settlement and the British, and in suppressing that 1936 general strike and revolt the British forces killed thousands of Palestinians and demolished entire villagers, hanging villagers if they were so much as caught in possession of a firearm. In 1938 an officer called Bernard Montgomery took command. In 1939 alone they hanged 109 Palestinian prisoners. Next time you hear some lamebrain declaring that Israeli brutality towards the Palestinians is "as bad as, if not worse, than the Nazis", you can correct them, saying "No, but it is almost as bad as the British".
I am grateful to Barry Turner for bringing my attention to another hanging episode. This year 2006 is over-rich in anniversaries, and among those we missed was the centenary of the Denshawai incident. A hundred years ago, Egypt was one of those bits shaded pink on the map, more or less ruled as a British protectorate, after British and French forces had gone in to recover the debts its government had fallen into.
On 13 June, 1906, a party of British officers, apparently having nothing better to do, set off on a pigeon-shooting expedition to Denshawai, a Nile delta village. Perhaps they did not know, or did not care, that the birds they shot at were reared in towers above people's homes much as English villages once kept dovecotes. So as far as locals were concerned, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, it was like a bunch of foreigners coming round your green and bagging ducks and poultry.
To make matters worse, fire from one of the guns apparently set alight grain on a village threshing floor, and when the owner tried to seize the gun it was discharged, wounding his wife. Altogether five villagers were wounded, and locals chased the intruders off with stones. One of the officers was injured in the head, and later died from sunstroke.
The British insisted on vengeance. Fifty-two members of the village were put on trial before a special tribunal, presided over by a stooge called Boutros Ghali (now where did I hear that name?)for premeditated murder. Thirty-two were found guilty: eight to be flogged, others sentenced to penal servitude, and four male villagers to be hanged in public. The British governor Lord Cromer (of the banking family Barings) confirmed the sentences. Egypt's Khedive, or viceroy, who might have been more lenient, had been ignored and bypassed.
There were protests in Britain as well as in Egypt, where patriotic opposition to British rule now turned from intellectual idea to a mass popular movement. Cromer retired, though not apparently due to the Denshawai affair, and sentences were reduced and prisoners released, though that could not bring the four hanged men back, nor heal the scars left in people's minds after those on the backs of those flogged might have healed. Boutros Ghali, who had become prime minister, was assassinated after agreeing a forty year extension to the Suez canal company's territorial concession.
It would be half a century before Nasser told cheering crowds that Egypt was going to nationalise the canal, and British imperialists fumed at his audacity.
It's all a long time ago. Even Suez 50 years ago may seem remote and strange to a younger generation, though Barry Turner does not hesitate to link that supposedly last imperialist fling with current wars and occupations. I don't know whether British colonialists brought any new refined brutality to the Middle East with their use of floggings and hangings, as the Romans had done when they introduced crucifixion. But the foreign rulers did impress with their enthusiasm.
Today, when we are hearing about soldiers gouging old men's eyes after kicking them in the kidneys, there is a new fashion for historians to comfort us with revised versions of imperial history and the many civilising benefits it brought to those whose countries were benevolently looked after. Shame my Dad, who spent much of his younger life soldiering for the Empire because it had seemed the alternative to hunger on the dole, is not around to guffaw derision at this. He had a sharp eye for bullshit.
But now seems good a time as any for remembering what really happened.