The pigeons of Denshawai have come home to roost.
—Mohamed Hassanein Heikal on the Suez Crisis of 1956, 50 years after Denshawai.
|One of the prisoners ascends the scaffold, June 1906|
Certainly it was not forgotten by Anwar Sadat, who was raised close by:
But the ballad which affected me most deeply was probanly that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. I recall my mother reciting it to me as I lay stretched out on top of our huge rustic oven, half-asleep while my younger brothers (and our rabbits) had all fallen asleep. It appealed to me afresh every time I listened to it. Denshway was only three miles away and the ballad dealt with a real incident . . . Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged.The ballad dwells on Zahran's courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them.
I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep, which perhaps made the story sink into my subconscious. My imagination roamed free. I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran.(Three miles? Google maps says it's 15 km from Sadat's home village of Mit Abu'l Kom by road to Denshawai, but as the crow flies it's closer I'm sure, maybe four or five miles?) Nor was it forgotten by a very different type of Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri:
—Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography I (1977), pp.5-6
On 16 November 2005 Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, expressed his satisfaction at the 7 July bombings in London. He announced that Britain was one of Islam’s worst enemies; it had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims across the ages, from Palestine to Afghanistan, Delhi to Denshawai. This reference to a small town in Egypt may have perplexed the western audience, but Denshawai meant more to millions of others. Gamal Abdel Nasser mentioned it on 26 July 1956 in his historic announcement of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company.Denshawai was one of many small cruelties of colonialism, but the arrogance of the British response gave a new impetus to Egyptian nationalism. One can trace a direct line from the scaffold at Denshawai to the 1919 revolution, to the nationalization of the Suez canal (see Heikal above) and much of the history of modern Egyptian nationalism.
—Alain Gresh in Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition, October 2007, "Denshawai 1906"
|Pigeon raising in the Delta in the era|
Major Pine-Coffin (1866-1919), a Boer War veteran from an old Devon family whose son would later serve in the Normandy invasion, had reportedly hunted at Denshawai before. When Mahfuz and other villagers again resisted, the British shooting party agreed to retreat a few hundred yards from the village. The exact distance they moved back is disputed. As they started shooting birds, a threshing floor in the village caught fire. The villagers, already infuriated by the pigeon shooters, attacked the soldiers with stones and sticks. Somehow in the confusion the wife of the prayer leader of the local mosque was shot. In the fight that ensued one British officer, a Captain Bull, was injured. He and another officer escaped, and Bull, running for help, collapsed and died of apparent heatstroke, combined perhaps with a concussion from the fight or a heart attack.
British troops arriving on the scene found a local peasant who had sought to help Bull, saw that Bull was dead, assumed the peasant had killed him, and beat the fellah to death.
Meanwhile the village elders had calmed things down, and the other officers escaped. The only dead British officer had died of mostly natural causes, but when the British Army arrived in force the next day, they arrested 52 villagers.
The British then proceeded to take a tragic case of poor communication and cultural myopia and turn it into a scandal that echoes more than a century later. Lord Cromer, the de facto if unofficial British viceroy of Egypt, saw it as a sign of fanatical hostility to be put down with force. The natives were restless and had to be shown due respect for their colonial masters.
|Painting of the Tribunal, Denshawai Museum|
|The accused at the tribunal|
Lord Cromer was en route to London when the verdicts came down. He supposedly told Sir Edward Grey that he was shocked, but both men agreed it would be a sign of weakness to overrule the verdicts.
Egyptian nationalism, which had been struggling, received a new invigoration. British Anti-imperialists like Wilfred Scawen Blunt were outraged, but the strongest and most endurng outburst came from George Bernard Shaw. In the "Preface to Politicians" that introduces his 1911 John Bull's Other Island (available free online at Google Books), following a lengthy defense of Irish Home Rule, he moves on to what he calls "The Denshawai Horror":
Denshawai is a little Egyptian village in the Nile delta. Besides the dilapidated huts among the reeds by the roadside, and the palm trees, there are towers of unbaked brick, as unaccountable to an English villager as a Kentish oast-house to an Egyptian These towers are pigeon houses; for the villagers keep pigeons just as an English farmer keeps poultry. Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place! Well, that is the British equivalent of what happened at Denshawai ...Shaw is at his acerbic best in describing the day of the public hangings and floggings:
Ages of the four hanged men respectively, 60, 50, 22 and 20. Hanging, however, is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts. So, as they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure work and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging ("slowly turning round and round on himself," as the local papers described it), thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each: eleven more than the utmost permitted by the law of Moses in times which our Army of Occupation no doubt considers barbarous. But then Moses conceived his law as being what he called the law of God, and not simply an instrument for the gratification of his own cruelty and terror. It is unspeakably reassuring to learn from the British official reports laid before parliament that "due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions," that "all possible humanity was shown in carrying them out," and that " the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned." As this last testimonial apparently does not refer to the victims, they are evidently officially considered not to have been concerned in the proceedings at all. Finally, Lord Cromer certifies that the Englishman in charge of the proceedings is "a singularly humane man, and is very popular amongst the natives of Egypt by reason of the great sympathy he has always shown for them."
|Troopers at the Gallows|
The repercussions of Denshawai continue, as the quotes at the beginning show, to this day. That the Suez crisis came exactly 50 years after Denshawai was evoked by both Nasser and Heikal.
But there was a more immediate repercussion as well. Two years later, in 1908, Boutros Ghali became Prime Minister of Egypt. His role on the Denshawai tribunal was exacerbated by the fact that he was a Copt, and in a predominantly Muslim country many prominent Copts were accused of being instruments of the (Christian) British. The British did little to alter this perception, often favoring Copts and other minorities. On February 20, 1910, less than four years after his role on the Denshawai Tribunal, Prime Minister Ghali was shot while leaving the Foreign Ministry by Ibrahim Nassif al-Wardani, a nationalist. He was neither the first nor, arguably, the last, victim of Denshawai, but was surely the highest-ranking.
|The dying Boutros Ghali, 1910|