A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Denshawai "Incident" 107 Years Later: A Symbol of Colonial Arrogance Unforgotten in Egypt

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
Denshawai (Dinshaway, Dinshwai, etc.: دنشواي) is hardly a household word among Westerners today. The "Denshawai Incident," as it is usually called (though George Bernard Shaw called it "The Denshawai Horror": see below) began 107 years ago today, on June 13, 1906 in a small Egyptian Delta village in Menufiyya Governorate. If it is forgotten elsewhere, it is hardly forgotten in Egypt. Yet in four years of blogging, though I've mentioned it in other contexts, I've never told the story in detail.

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. 
Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography I (1977), pp.5-6
(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:
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.
Alain Gresh in Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition, October 2007, "Denshawai 1906"
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.
Pigeon raising in the Delta in the era
Like many villagers in the Delta, the villagers of Denshawai raised pigeons in conical pigeon-cotes, primarily for food. A year before, in 1905, British officers had come to the village shooting pigeons, A local named Hasan Mahfuz had resisted them, and the British Army banned further hunting there. But 107 years ago today a party of five British officers, with an Egyptian policeman and interpreter,  returned to Denshawai. Given the fact that four Egyptians would soon be hanged, there is a particular irony in the name of the ranking officer in the group: Major John Edward Pine-Coffin. (Really.)

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.

Boutros Ghali
Under agreements signed between Britain and Egypt, the British set up a joint tribunal of two Egyptians and three British. The President was an Egyptian, a senior Cabinet figure, Boutros Ghali (grandfather of the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali), but the man who mattered was the British Vice President, Sir Walter Bond. (The other Egyptian was Fathi Zaghloul, brother of Saad Zaghloul, but no one remembers this. Neither Bond, who really ran the show, nor the other British judges understood much Arabic, if any.) Four of the accused, Hasan Mahfuz, Zahran (see Sadat quote above), a man named Darwish accused in the death of Captain Bull, and another man were sentenced to hang. Four more were sentenced to life in prison and more to terms of various years along with flogging; others received only the flogging, 50 lashes.
Painting of the Tribunal, Denshawai Museum

The accused at the tribunal
The British decided that the hangings, and floggings, would take place at Denshawai, on June 27 (only two weeks after the "Incident," no appeal being permitted), with the villagers forced to witness them.

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 anger of Shaw, Blunt, and other anti-Imperialists (to the credit of British popular opinion if not their rulers) eventually brought about the release of those imprisoned. The dead remained dead.

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


Anonymous said...

I have been studying the Denshawai incident for several years and enjoyed your blog. Could you tell me the sources of the photographs that you used? I had not seen some of them before.

Thank you!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Mostly from Google Images searches. The painting from the Denshawai Museum website. Have to find the link again.