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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 Denshawai, 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 people had a growing sense of nationalism long before the British occupation of Egypt 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; it led to the Anglo-Egyptian War. The British occupation brought commerce and related development to Egypt. The Egyptian government was taken over and directed by Lord Cromer. He was in charge of economic reforms and worked to eliminate the debt caused by the khedival regime. The success of these reforms was mainly enjoyed by the upper and middle classes. Their refusal to introduce British-style political reforms led to the passing of restrictive laws leaving the poor even poorer.
Since the khedival regime, the upper classes benefited from the British occupation and its abundant success. The middle class was left to resist the British occupation. They attacked the British for not dealing with the khedival governmental corruption. Positions in the Egyptian government were filled by the British officers. Newspaper writers claimed that, if not for British racism, those positions could have been easily filled by capable, educated Egyptians.
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On 13 June 1906, a group of British officers upset the residents of Dinshaway by hunting pigeons for sport. Since the pigeons that the officers were shooting were raised by the villagers and served as a local source of livelihood, the villagers sought to protect their property and attacked the soldiers. A scuffle broke out, and an officer’s gun was fired, he claimed unintentionally, wounding a female villager who was the wife of a Muslim prayer leader. This provoked further outrage from the villagers, who attacked the British officers. One of the officers managed to escape from the scene and fled back on foot towards the British camp in the intense noontime heat. He later collapsed outside the camp and died, probably of heatstroke. A villager who came upon him there tried to assist him but, when other soldiers from the camp discovered the villager alongside the body of the dead officer, they assumed or claimed that he had killed the soldier, and so they killed the villager.
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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, with both Egyptian and British judges, responsibility for the incident was determined. Hassan, Darweesh, Zahran, and one other man, were convicted of murdering the officer who had died of sunstroke, since their actions had put him in that deadly position. They were sentenced to death. One of the judges was Boutros Ghali. Abd-el-Nebi and another villager were given life sentences of penal servitude; 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 deliberately wrong.
Hassan was hanged in front of his own house, which was uncharacteristic of the usual protocol in capital punishment. This action by the Egyptian and British officials was portrayed by the nationalist press as especially cruel and an outright symbol 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 who had accompanied the soldiers to the village did not confirm their story. He testified in court that after Abd-el-Nebi’s wife had been shot, the alarmed officers had fired twice more on the surging mob. For his testimony, he was dismissed, and a court of discipline sentenced him to two years imprisonment and fifty lashes.
George Bernard Shaw gave an assessment of the incident 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 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 to it, led them to suppose that co-operation with the British empire was "totally unacceptable" and impossible. The belief that co-operation was impossible increased leaders' concerns about British pressure to widen the franchise in Egypt, and caused them to push harder for the removal of British forces from Egypt.
In the long run, this incident, and the resulting rise in nationalism, led to an anti-colonial struggle in Egypt during World War I. During the war, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was stationed in Egypt. Its presence resulted in the major expenditure of food and resources to fight the Turkish Empire. Ironically, this had been a long time goal of Egyptian nationalists. As the war continued, the unrest sparked by the Denshawai Incident was further aggravated by inflation, as well as food shortages, which led to cases of 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 to France to meet with the Versailles peacemakers. Among other things, the Wafd wanted a greater share in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Egypt's joint colony with Britain. The Versailles refusal led to most of the Egyptian government resigning, and resulted in mass demonstrations, which led to riots. These riots, and the grievances that triggered them, provided nationalists with both a focus for unified action, and a base of support that was wider 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:
[T]hey 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…
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 poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, that starts: "When the Christians took and hanged/ the innocent boy of seventeen/ his mother who there beside the scaffold/ had dragged herself..."
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