Basic Human Decency and Death by Hanging in Britain’s Colonies

Every once in awhile, I’ll revisit George Orwell. Last week it was for “Shooting an Elephant,” when I lectured here in Thailand about the nature of ethics and state/political power. The essay is great for teaching about the nature of state power, in this case using 1920s Burma where Orwell himself served as a British colonial police officer for several years.

But shooting rogue elephants peacefully eating by the side of the road was not the only thing that Orwell wrote about, or was called to do. British colonial power required the regular use of hanging of criminals to maintain order. As I wrote in an earlier post about hanging in British Tanganyika here ate Ethnograpy.com, the British memos were meticulous about ensuring that the process was dignified, humane, and especially did not unnecessarily upset the officers and warders carrying out the sentence ordered by the judge. The Acting Superintendent in Tanganyika wrote the following in 1921,

In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.

 

The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.

 

At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.

 

Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.

 

Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.

 

I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

In other words, the effective administrator of hangings pays attention to details, and makes sure that the neck is snapped in a humane fashion, that the doctor is not revolted by the need to haul the corpse up by the neck to see if there is still a heartbeat, and certainly a blow from an iron bar as the man drops through the trap door is out.

In other words, the effective administrator of hangings pays attention to details, and makes sure that the neck is snapped in a humane fashion, that the doctor is not revolted by the need to haul the corpse up by the neck to see if there is still a heartbeat, and certainly a blow from an iron bar as the man drops through the trap door is a suggestion of inhumanity.

I’ve read the memos colonial Tanganyika a number of times, and often wondered, who were these men that the British bureaucracy snapped the neck of? What did they do, what did they think, where were they from, where were they buried? When I had a chance, I looked through the British colonial archives, but never could find documentation. At least not until re-reading Orwell’s essay about Hanging in colonial Burma.

At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path…. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man…. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned-reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone

Did the prisoners in Tanganyika avoid the puddles as they walked to the gallows,  too? Did they take a little dance to the left during their final 40 steps so that there feet would not be muddied?

And what did the guards and hangmen think? Literature by the likes of Orwell helps us imagine what the agents of the colonial state thought, and how they imagined their place in the grand scheme of the execution:

Francis was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. ‘Well, sir, all hass passed off with the utmost satisfactoriness. It wass all finished – flick! like that. It iss not always so – oah, no! I have known cases where the doctor wass obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!’

…..We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. ‘Pulling at his legs!’ exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis’s anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. …

Participation in such an execution ritual even had the salubrious effect of bringing a few of the colonized closer to the colonizer:

We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.

And as for the other prisoners in the prisons—the ones not scheduled for the execution, the day was also a downer, because they would not get breakfast until the execution was completed:

‘Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.’

 

References

George Orwell “The Hanging” see http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/888/

Tony Waters, http://www.ethnography.com/2015/01/gallows-tale-i-the-hanging-file-of-tanganyika-territory-1922-1928/