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The Denshawai Incident is the name given to a dispute which occurred in 1906 between British military officers and locals in Egypt. It is considered by some historians such as Peter Mansfield, who wrote The British in Egypt (1971), to mark a turning point in the British presence in that country. Though the incident itself was fairly small in terms of the number of casualties and injuries, the British officers' response to the incident and its grave consequences were what led to its lasting impact. The incident was commemorated by the establishment of the Denshway Museum.
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There were many tensions that led up to the Denshawai Incident. The Egyptian peoples had a rising sense of nationalism long before the British occupation of the country in 1882. The occupation was touched off by the mutiny of Ahmed Orabi. This mutiny was started by the idea of revolution and liberation of the Egyptian people from their Turkish overlords. The British occupation brought commerce and related development to Egypt. The Egyptian government was taken and directed by Lord Cromer. He was in charge of economic reforms and trying to eliminate the debt caused by the khedival regime. These reforms, and their successes, were mainly enjoyed by the upper and middle classes. The refusal of these to introduce British-style political reforms led to their passing restrictive laws leaving the poor even poorer.
Since the khedival regime and the upper class enjoyed the British occupation and its abundant success, the middle class was left to the resistance of the British occupation. In the late 1890s and early 20th century, there were many newspapers that, instead of protesting the restrictive laws of the government, tried to raise nationalist hatred for foreigners. They attacked the British for not interfering with the khedival governmental corruption. The positions in the Egyptian government were filled by the British officers. The writers for the newspapers were claiming that those positions could have been as easily filled by capable, educated Egyptians, but that the racism of the British stopped it.
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On 13 June 1906 five officers of the occupying British army, with their interpreter and a police official, visited Denshawai (AR: دنشواي) to go pigeon shooting. They accidentally shot pigeons belonging to villagers who kept them as domestic animals, angering the owners. The pigeons were also a source of food for the poor villagers which further enraged the villagers because the British officers were shooting them for fun. However, the major catalyst was the accidental shooting of the wife of the prayer leader at the local mosque. Enraged, the Egyptians mobbed the British officers and camp. The British officers, alarmed, opened fire on the mob, wounding five, and set fire to the grain of Abd-el-Nebi.
Abd-el-Nebi, whose wife had been seriously injured, struck one of the officers with a stick. He was joined by the elderly Hassan Mahfouz, whose pigeons had been killed. Other villagers threw stones at them. The officers, two Irishmen and three Englishmen, surrendered their weapons, along with their watches and money, but this failed to appease the angry villagers.
Two officers escaped, one of whom managed to contact the British Army, but the other died of heatstroke some distance from the village. An Egyptian peasant who tried to help the sick man was killed by British soldiers who came across them, and wrongly assumed that the peasant had murdered the soldier. Meanwhile, in the village the elders had intervened, dispersing the mob and aiding the remaining soldiers and allowing them to return to their base.
George Bernard Shaw gave an assessment much criticized in Britain as biased and inflammatory; "Instead of showing understanding for the peasants' self-defense against the officer's tactless blundering, the colonial administrators viewed the natives' actions as a dangerous popular insurgency that had to be dealt with harshly."
Concerned about growing xenophobic nationalism, Egyptian officials decided to respond to the Denshawai Incident. The next day, the British army arrived, arresting fifty-two men in the village identified as members of the mob, including Abd-el-Nebi, Hassan Mahfouz, a man called Darweesh and Zahran. At a summary trial (where the judges were Egyptian and British) it was determined who was responsible. Hassan, Darweesh, Zahran and one other man were convicted of murdering the officer who had died of sunstroke as their actions had put him in that deadly position, and were sentenced to death. One of the judges was Boutros Ghali. Abd-el-Nebi and another villager were given a life sentence of penal servitude and twenty-six villagers were given various terms of hard labour and ordered to be flogged. The officers stated that they had been "guests" of the villagers and had done nothing wrong deliberately.
Hassan was hanged in front of his own house which was uncharacteristic of usual protocol in a hanging case. This action by the British officials was portrayed by the nationalist press as especially cruel and an outright show of dominance over the Egyptians.
Darweesh said from the gallows:
- “May God compensate us well for this world of meanness, for this world of injustice, for this world of cruelty.”
The Egyptian police official accompanying the soldiers to the village did not confirm their story. He testified in court that after Abd-el’s wife had been shot, the alarmed officers had fired twice more on the surging mob. For his testimony, he was stood down, and a court of discipline sentenced him to two years imprisonment and fifty lashes.
Concerned with growing Egyptian nationalism, British officials thought it best to show their strength and make an example of the mob leaders involved. Many were arrested, and four charged with murder. This decision inflamed Egyptian nationalist sentiment. Some Egyptian leaders later affirmed that the incident and the British response led them to suppose that co-operation with the British empire was "totally unacceptable" and impossible. This belief was a direct cause for the Egyptian leaders to push harder for the removal of British forces in Egypt, as well as their concern about British pressure to widen the franchise in Egypt.
Rightly or wrongly, in the long run, this incident and its rising nationalism gave way to an anti-colonial struggle in Egypt during World War I. During the war, large companies of Entente powers were gathered in Egypt which led to a major use of food and resources to fight the Turkish Empire (ironically a long time goal of Egyptian nationalists). As the war continued, the unrest sparked by the Denshawai Incident was further instigated by inflation as well as by the food shortages and even starvation. By 1919, Egypt was ripe for revolt. While the Allies were attempting to reach a post-war agreement, the Egyptian leaders, known as the Wafd, which later gave its name to the major political party, were denied entrance into France to meet with the Versailles peacemakers. Among other things, they wanted a greater share in Egypt's joint colony with Britain, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This led to most of the Egyptian government resigning, and then a mass demonstration of riots. These riots, and the grievances that went along with them, provided the nationalists with both a focus for unified action and a base of support that was less narrow than any they had attracted in the prewar decades.
This decision was used by national and anti-foreign elements to inflame public opinion in Egypt. Those few in Britain who called the tribunal and its legality into question were accused of being unpatriotic and supporting the “venal agitators” in Egypt.
Guy Aldred, who in 1907 compared the execution of Madan Lal Dhingra with the immunity given to the British officers in this incident, was sentenced to twelve months hard labour for publishing The Indian Sociologist.
George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play John Bull's Other Island, gave the public more of his view of the incident. In a passage more noted for its picturesque description than its literal accuracy, he stated "they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure [he was dead] and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging, thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each." He then went on in the same vein:
If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 – and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats – then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters…—George Bernard Shaw
Fifty years later, the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal said "the pigeons of Denshawai have come home to roost", to describe the eventual defeat of the Anglo-French strikes in Egypt in 1956.
"27 June 1906, 2:00 pm" is a related also poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, that starts up as follows : When the Christians took and hanged/ the innocent boy of seventeen/ his mother who there beside the scaffold/ had dragged herself...
- "Saint Joan before the Cannibals": George Bernard Shaw in the Third Reich, Glenn R. Cuomo,German Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Oct. 1993), p. 448, Published by: German Studies Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1432140
- Islam in History, by Bernard Lewis, Open Court Publishing, 1993, p.384
- Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 92.
- Adas, Michael, Peter N. Stearns, and Stuart B. Schwartz. Turbulent Passage: A Global History of the Twentieth Century. Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. 130. Print.
- Adas, Michael, Peter N. Stearns, and Stuart B. Schwartz. Turbulent Passage: A Global History of the Twentieth Century. Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. 132–133. Print.
- "Why Haditha Reminds This Historian of an Awful Chapter in British History". History News Network. Retrieved 6 September 2006. By Keith David Watenpaugh
- Fahmy, Ziad. Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.ISBN 0804772126