Before the Law

Chelsea Manning. SF Pride, 2014.

For certain crimes mankind has ordained penalties of exceptional severity, in order to emphasise a general abhorrence. In Rome, for example, a parricide, or the murderer of any near relation, was thrown into deep water, tied up in a sack together with a dog, a cock, a viper, and a monkey, which were probably symbols of his wickedness, and must have given him a lively time before death supervened. Similarly, the English law, always so careful of domestic sanctitude in women, provided that a wife who killed her husband should be dragged by a horse to the place of execution and burnt alive.

We need not recall the penalties considered most suitable for the crime of religious difference—the rack, the fire, the boiling oil, the tearing pincers, the embrace of the spiky virgin, the sharpened edge of stone on which the doubter sat, with increasing weights tied to his feet, until his opinions upon heavenly mysteries should improve under the stress of pain. When we come to rebellion, the ordinance of English law was more express.

In the case of a woman, the penalty was the same as for killing her husband—that crime being defined as “petty treason,” since the husband is to her the sacred emblem of God and King. So a woman rebel was burnt alive as she stood, head, quarters, and all. But male rebels were specially treated, as may be seen from the sentence passed upon them until the reign of George III.

These were the words that Judge Jeffreys and Scroggs, for instance, used to roll out with enjoyable eloquence upon the dazed agricultural labourer before them:

“The sentence of the Court now is that you be conveyed from hence to the place from where you came, and from there be drawn to the place of execution upon hurdles; that you be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down alive; that your bowels be taken out and burnt in your view; that your head be severed from your body; that your body be divided into four quarters, and your quarters be at the disposition of the King: and may the God of infinite mercy be merciful to your soul. Amen.”

Afghanistan hearts Bradley. Kabul, 2013.

“Why all this cookery?” once asked a Scottish rebel, quoted by Swift. But the sentence, with its confiding appeal to a higher Court than England’s, was literally carried out upon rebels in this country for at least four and a half centuries. Every detail of it (and one still more disgusting) is recorded in the execution of Sir William Wallace, the national hero of Scotland, more generally known to the English of the time as “the man of Belial,” who was executed at Tyburn in 1305. The rebels of 1745 were, apparently, the last upon whom the full ritual was performed, and Elizabeth Gaunt, burnt alive at Tyburn in 1685 for sheltering a conspirator in the Rye House Plot, was the last woman up to now intentionally put to death in this country for a purely political

The rebels of 1745 were, apparently, the last upon whom the full ritual was performed, and Elizabeth Gaunt, burnt alive at Tyburn in 1685 for sheltering a conspirator in the Rye House Plot, was the last woman up to now intentionally put to death in this country for a purely political offence. The long continuance of so savage a sentence is proof of the abhorrence in which the crime of rebellion has been held. And in many minds the abhorrence still subsists. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, for instance, one of our greatest authorities on criminal law, wrote in 1880:

“My opinion is that we have gone too far in laying capital punishment aside, and that it ought to be inflicted in many cases not at present capital. I think, for instance, that political offences should in some cases be punished with death. People should be made to understand that to attack the existing state of society is equivalent to risking their own lives.”

Among ourselves the opinion of this high authority has slowly declined. No one supposed that Doctor Lynch, for instance, would be executed as a rebel for commanding the Irish Brigade that fought for the Boers during the South African War, though he was condemned to death by the highest Court in the kingdom. No Irish rebel has been executed for about a century, unless his offence involved some one’s death.

On the other hand, during the Boer War, the devastation of the country and the destruction of the farms were frequently defended on the ground that, after the Queen’s proclamations annexing the two Republics, all the inhabitants were rebels; and some of the extreme newspapers even urged that for that reason no Boer with arms in his hand should be given quarter.

The Germans are predictable. Berlin, 2013.

On the strength of a passage in Scripture, Mr. Kipling, at the time, wrote a pamphlet identifying rebellion with witchcraft. A few Cape Boers who took up arms for the assistance of their race were shot without benefit of prisoners of war. And in India during 1907 and 1908 men of unblemished private character were spirited away to jail without charge or trial and kept there for months—a fate that could not have befallen any but political prisoners.

Outside our own Empire, I have myself witnessed the suppression of rebellions in Crete and Macedonia by the destruction of villages, the massacre of men, women, and children, and the violation of women and girls, many of whom disappeared into Turkish harems. And I have witnessed similar suppressions of rebellion by Russia in Moscow, in the Baltic Provinces, and the Caucasus, by the burning of villages, the slaughter of prisoners, and the violation of women.

All this has happened within the last sixteen years, the worst part within nine and a half. Indeed, in Russia, the punishments of exile, torture, and hanging have not ceased since 1905, though the death penalty has been long abolished there except for political offences. In the summer of 1909 I was also present during the suppression of the outbreak in Barcelona, which culminated in the execution of Señor Ferrer under a military Court.

From these recent events it is evident that Sir James Stephen’s attitude towards rebellion is shared by many civilised governments. Belligerents—that is to say, subjects of one State engaged in war with another State—have now nominally secured certain rights under International Law.

The first Hague Conference (1899) framed a “Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of Wars on Land” which forbade the torture or cruel treatment of prisoners, the refusal of quarter, the destruction of private property, unless such destruction were imperatively demanded by the necessities of war, the pillage of towns taken by assault, disrespect to religion and family honour (including, I suppose, the honour of women and girls), and the infliction of penalties on the population owing to the acts of individuals for which it could not be regarded as collectively responsible.

Trump has an idea.
Trump has an idea.

In actual war, this Convention is not invariably observed, as was seen at Tripoli in 1911, but in the case of rebellion there is no such Convention at all. I have known all those regulations broken with impunity, and in most cases without protest from the other Powers.

Just as, under the old law of England, the rebel was executed with circumstances of special atrocity, so at the present time, under the name of crushing rebellion, men are tortured and flogged, no quarter is given, they are executed without trial, their private property is pillaged, their towns and villages are destroyed, their women violated, their children killed, penalties are imposed on districts owing to acts for which the population is not collectively responsible—and nothing said.

That each power is allowed to deal with its own subjects in its own way is becoming an accepted rule of international amenity.

Adapted from Essays in Rebellion (1913), by Henry W. Nevinson. Photographs courtesy of torbakhobber, savebradley, Die Linke, and Gwydion M. Williams. Published under a Creative Commons license.