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  • Justice in an Unjust World

    Justice in an Unjust World

    Melissa Milewski

    The untold story of African-Americans’ civil cases in the segregated South.
    John Leonard, a white saloon-owner, came to the house of Lurena Roebuck on a May morning in 1906 while her husband was at work. Realising that the ownership of 20 acres of her land in rural Alabama was in dispute, Leonard offered to buy the contested property. Roebuck initially refused: ‘I told him … that I did not want to sell it’, the young African American woman recalled: ‘And he said that makes no difference, he wanted to buy it.’ Eventually, Leonard pressured Roebuck into taking $35. He presented her with a legal document to sign. She did so, despite being barely literate. Shortly afterwards, Roebuck discovered that the documents she had signed granted Leonard all 80 acres of her land, property she later testified was worth $2,400. Upon learning this, Roebuck confronted Leonard at his saloon and offered him $35 to return her land. If he refused, she told him: ‘I would try the law about it.’ In reply, Leonard told her ‘to tell [your] lawyer to pop his whip’. ‘I told him all right’, Roebuck said, and ‘then I left.’Although she was a black woman in the segregated South, Lurena Roebuck clearly saw the courts as a viable option. Yet it has long been seen as largely impossible for African Americans to have successfully taken on whites in courts in the US South between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the mid-20th century. During much of this time, black southerners experienced intense segregation, the frequent threat or experience of racially motivated violence and increasing disenfranchisement. Assuming that such cases did not exist, almost no historians have bothered to look for them.At first glance, the courts seem an unlikely avenue of success for African Americans seeking to resolve disputes with whites in the post-Civil War US South. At a time when most white southerners believed they were racially superior to African Americans, the gatekeepers of the justice system – those making legal decisions – were usually white. Juries were also largely white until the 1890s and almost entirely white throughout the first decades of the 20th century. The judges who oversaw proceedings and decided other cases were even more likely to be white. The justice system also worked to reinforce injustice. From the moment the Civil War ended, former slaveholders’ desire to maintain power, state and local officials’ quest for profits and white southerners’ fear and racism yielded a criminal justice system that handed down vastly unequal sentences for people of colour and incarcerated millions of black southerners. In the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, decisions of southern state courts and the United States Supreme Court also enabled large-scale segregation and disenfranchisement to move forward. Finally, as a result of their disenfranchisement, black southerners were, by the end of the 19th century, almost completely shut out of participating in other institutions of government.Black and white southernersYet Lurena Roebuck was far from alone in turning to the courts. Across eight southern states from 1865 to 1950, almost 1,000 civil cases took place in which black litigants opposed local whites. All these cases eventually reached the highest court of their state; undoubtedly many more occurred that never got beyond local courts. Often, these cases were intensely personal. During the three and a half decades after the end of the Civil War, one third of them took place between former slaves and their former masters or the heirs of former slaves and former masters. As men and women who had been enslaved faced off against the people who had enslaved them, they brought their long histories into the courtroom. When Abner Lattimore took his former master Thomas Dixon to court in 1868 over the issue of trading as a slave before the Civil War, for instance, Lattimore and Dixon’s interactions in the years before the conflict played just as important a part in the case as their dispute after the war. In other cases, black and white neighbours took disputes to court, sharecroppers participated in suits against white landowners, black employees challenged their employers and black men and women initiated litigation against their city authorities. In a world dominated by white men, black women made up 41 per cent of litigants.Black litigants not only found ways to negotiate the legal system in a society in which they faced enormous constraints, but, remarkably, also won the majority of their cases: 59 per cent of the suits against whites in the highest courts of eight southern states between 1865 and 1950. In a significant number of these cases, the litigants also won their suits in local county courts. So how did black litigants in a highly racist society succeed in cases against whites?Common lawThe answer lies partly in the structure of the US legal system and the kinds of cases that black southerners litigated. The US legal system is a common law system in which precedent plays a powerful role. Most of the civil cases in which black litigants took on whites contested such prosaic matters as issues of property, wills and trusts, contracts, transactions and personal injury. They were often the same types of cases that whites brought against each other and there were frequently powerful precedents that influenced the decisions of judge and jury. But this is only part of the story. There were also precedents governing how criminal cases should be decided; but again and again, judges and juries gave black defendants in criminal cases vastly different sentences than white ones.Another factor was whites’ perception of the danger of these cases. The disenfranchisement of black men in the South took place in large part because of the threat that the black vote posed to many white southerners. However, the kinds of civil cases successfully litigated by black southerners seemed, on the whole, relatively harmless to the white authorities. Unlike voting – in which individuals directly influenced electoral outcomes – the legal system was mediated through a series of mainly white gatekeepers (lawyers, judges and jury members), who many white southerners assumed would make decisions that would benefit other whites. Moreover, in the cases that reached the highest courts, black litigants and their lawyers often framed their cases as impacting only on individuals rather than African Americans as a whole. Lurena Roebuck’s suit would only affect whether or not she kept her own land. Abner Lattimore’s suit involved only the ownership of approximately $1,000 in promissory notes. Only a few white individuals – the litigants in the case – would be inconvenienced or lose money or property if a black person won the case.White interestsWhites perceived civil cases as different from criminal ones. In criminal cases it seemed to many white southerners that it was in their interest to let unequal justice reign. White southerners had long thought of African Americans as inclined naturally towards crime and saw criminal law as one of the few tools they had to control such tendencies. The criminal justice system also played a major role in regulating the southern labour market and black convicts made huge sums of money for southern states and local law enforcement. In civil cases, however, the interests of whites were more complicated. There seemed to be benefits to whites in letting civil cases go forward. The dependence on precedents and formal procedures, which allowed black litigants to sometimes prevail in civil suits, gave the courts a misleading guise of impartiality. If ordinary citizens believed they were able to gain justice in the courts, they might be reluctant to take part in social unrest. In other cases – such as when black southerners brought civil suits about dangerous conditions on public transportation or in their workplaces – favourable judgments for the injured party benefited white citizens as well. Such cases could even reinforce white supremacy. In order to win them, black litigants sometimes played into white stereotypes, presenting themselves as less educated or more trusting of whites than they actually were. In one Kentucky case from 1881, an elderly black litigant, Minta Simmons, testified that she remained with her former master ‘from the time she was freed to his death and performed her duties faithfully’. Because these civil cases made up only a small proportion of overall suits, the benefits of allowing black litigants to gain favourable decisions at times outweighed any losses to individual whites.High stakesWhereas whites generally saw these cases as relatively harmless, or even as reinforcing white supremacy to their benefit, black southerners realised the enormous financial repercussions they might have on their lives. A case could determine whether or not they would be able to hold on to their land, receive a year’s wages, obtain funds after being injured on the job or receive a bequest in a will. As a result, in the civil cases that reached the highest courts, black litigants did everything in their power to win their suits. Despite usually having no legal background and limited education (a number of litigants signed their names with an ‘X’), they worked alongside their lawyers to adapt and at times make a biased system work for them.The first step was to find a white lawyer to represent them. During this period, only a tiny percentage of lawyers in the southern states was black. In criminal cases in local courts, black litigants sometimes used black lawyers, but in the civil cases against whites that succeeded in reaching the southern states’ highest courts, black litigants almost always chose to go with white lawyers. They seem to have believed – correctly – that their civil suits would have a greater chance of success with a white lawyer. In contrast to criminal suits, white lawyers were far more willing to represent them in civil suits. Lurena Roebuck, for one, consulted a local white lawyer, 36-year-old William K. Terry, shortly after her sale of land to John Leonard. Terry had worked as a general practice lawyer in the Birmingham area of Alabama for 16 years. Roebuck’s uncle had contacted him on her behalf several years before. Upon hearing her problem, Terry examined the deed and confirmed to Roebuck that the documents she had signed granted Leonard all 80 acres of her land. Terry then set the legal challenge in motion, filing a suit to set the deed aside.[[{"fid":"41271","view_mode":"standard","fields":{"format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"A case file from Kentucky, 1927.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"A case file from Kentucky, 1927.","external_url":""},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"A case file from Kentucky, 1927.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"A case file from Kentucky, 1927.","external_url":""}},"attributes":{"alt":"A case file from Kentucky, 1927.","title":"A case file from Kentucky, 1927.","class":"media-element file-standard","data-delta":"1"}}]]White lawyers such as Terry did not usually take on these cases because they believed in African-American rights; indeed, in the decades after the Civil War, many white lawyers were practising who had served as officers in the Confederate army. Yet in the kinds of civil cases that reached these courts, there seems to have been little stigma attached to white lawyers who represented black clients. If anything, taking on black clients in civil cases seemed a paternal endeavour, demonstrating a willingness to help the less educated and privileged. Most importantly, civil cases against often wealthy opponents held the promise of financial rewards for lawyers, who would frequently be paid a portion of the overall award if their client won. William Walker’s 1880 Georgia case over his former master’s will, for example, contested the ownership of almost $40,000, while Mary Ray’s 1892 North Carolina suit laid claim to ownership of the land on which both the county courthouse and jail were situated. If Walker or Ray won, their lawyers would obtain a portion of these funds or the value of the land.While employing white lawyers increased a client’s chance of success, their involvement limited the content and arguments of the suits. Black litigants tended to pursue only those cases in which white lawyers were willing to represent them – and which they believed they could win.Masters and slaves In addition to using white lawyers, black litigants often attempted to draw on connections with local whites to strengthen their case. Some based their suits around white testators’ wills, thus aligning their own claims with the right of a white person to leave their property to whomever they desired.Additionally, white witnesses often testified for black litigants in cases that reached the highest courts. At times, these witnesses had long-term connections with the black litigants, which may have played a part in their decision to testify. For example, in the 1879 and 1880 cases of Victoria Monroe, the daughter of a white master and his slave, her white half-brother testified on her behalf. Other white witnesses had had business transactions with the black litigants, had lived next to them for years or had served as their doctors or employers. However, as the South became more and more segregated, fewer white witnesses would know the black litigant. In Lurena Roebuck’s case, Jack Brown, the deputy sheriff, does not seem to have known Roebuck when he testified on her behalf that the land in question was worth $20 per acre. In other cases, whites who testified for black litigants had economic motivations for doing so. One of Roebuck’s white neighbours, Mrs A.J. Wideman, bolstered her black neighbour’s case by testifying that the land was worth far more than Leonard had paid for it. Wideman, however, was disputing the ownership of a portion of Roebuck’s land herself and seems to have testified to defend her own claim.Negotiating the systemAfrican Americans often had little formal knowledge of the legal system, but during the 19th and early 20th centuries black southerners lived in communities saturated with law. Community members frequently took each other to court, talked about local and national cases and read accounts in newspapers, and elsewhere, of trials. Case files hint, too, that black litigants gained some knowledge of the law from coaching and conversations with lawyers. Additionally, some black litigants entered additional legal contests armed with knowledge they had gained in their past experiences with the law. Clearly, not all black litigants had even an informal knowledge of the law. But most black southerners did have a keen understanding of southern race relations. They spent their lives negotiating the careful balance of race relations in the South and understood what whites deciding their cases wanted to hear.As black litigants negotiated the southern legal system and, in many cases, testified in the courtroom, they put their knowledge of the law and southern race relations to work. In a number of suits, African-American litigants shaped their testimony to help strengthen the legal claims set out by their lawyers. They provided evidence to strengthen claims to bequests, worked to show that cases met the terms of a personal injury suit and framed testimony around contracts to reinforce suits. After being injured by a train, for instance, Elizabeth Franklin initiated a personal injury suit against the railroad company. Realising that her legal claims would be stronger if she showed that she was unable to work despite attempts to do so, Franklin testified: ‘I remember once that I went out and tried to wash the dishes and standing on my feet I suppose hurt me … My left ovary was bad and hurt so I had to go home and lie down.’Difficult terrainAt the same time, black litigants navigated the difficult racial terrain as it changed over time. During the three decades after Reconstruction, black litigants were often able to assert their rights in bold terms and litigated a variety of different civil suits against whites. In 1870, for instance, the white owner of the land farmed by a Georgia sharecropper Moses Summerlin tried to pay only half the amount he owed and threatened to kill Summerlin if he pressed the matter. Summerlin initiated a civil case against the landowner and testified to the court about the white man’s threat of violence. As disenfranchisement and formalised segregation set in around the South at the end of the 19th century, however, the kinds of civil suits that black southerners were able to litigate against whites narrowed and black litigants increasingly worked to appeal to the racial ideologies of white southerners in their suits and testimony. Even as they did so, the cases became an implicit assertion of their rights, which were extended over time. In 1926, for example, a group of black barbers challenged an ordinance passed by the city of Atlanta limiting the hours that black-owned barbershops could operate and whose hair they could cut.Roebuck’s case took place in the first decade of the 20th century – a time when the constraints on African-American civil litigants were at their greatest. Following her lawyer’s lead, Roebuck sought to strengthen the legal claims of her fraud case and appeal to white jury members. A legal claim of fraud was stronger if the two parties had been manifestly unequal in their ability to enter into the transaction. Thus, characterising her reading and writing abilities as ‘not much’, she told the court: ‘I have never had any experience in business affairs … This is the only transaction of land I have ever had.’ In addition to strengthening her case’s basis in the law, such testimony emphasised the differences in her own understanding and that of the white man who had defrauded her at a time when African Americans had just been disenfranchised and segregated. However, her testimony revealed an understanding of how to win a fraud case against a white southerner. Moreover, even as Roebuck’s words said one thing, her actions said another. By standing up to a white southerner and taking him to court over fraud, Roebuck asserted her right to fair economic dealings as well as her right to participate in legal action.Limits and significanceIn the end, the strategy employed by Roebuck and her lawyer proved successful. In the case’s initial trial, the county court judge ruled in favour of Roebuck and cancelled the deed. When Leonard appealed, the Alabama Supreme Court also sided with Roebuck. She regained her land and would continue to live in the home for which she had fought for at least another 13 years. The appeal court’s opinion helps to reveal why the court sided with an African-American woman over a white man. The court ruling sets out the disparities between the two litigants: ‘We have, then, an unlettered, ignorant woman, 22 years old, who owned 80 acres of land, who was sought out by a man experienced in affairs, and a real estate dealer.’ Roebuck and her lawyer, William Terry, had sold their story well. As it ruled in her favour, however, the court used Roebuck’s version of events to emphasise the inequality between the two parties of different races. In a number of other civil cases between 1865 and 1950, black litigants were able to boldly assert their equality and still won their suits more often than not. Even in these other cases, though, black litigants encountered some limitations in the courts.In the end, to operate within the southern court system between 1865 and 1950, black litigants generally had to work within white rules, draw on white witnesses and make their arguments through white lawyers. At times, black litigants had to portray themselves in certain ways to win whites’ sympathy. For the most part they won cases when they could persuade whites that a case would not have a wider effect on society or that it was in whites’ broader interest to rule in their favour. Moreover, even when white juries and judges ruled in favour of individual African Americans, their cases did not stem the violence, segregation and disfranchisement that took place throughout the South.Successful outcomesDespite these limitations, the civil suits litigated by black southerners are more radical – and more important – than they might at first appear. At a time of racial terror and segregation, some individual black southerners defended their rights against the actions of white members of their communities. The successful outcomes of many of the cases had important economic effects on the lives of individual African Americans. Even when black litigants lost their suits, they had still gained legal knowledge and exercised the rights of citizens. Just as importantly, after having been excluded by Jim Crow laws from many other government institutions, some black southerners were able to negotiate – and were able to win cases within – the last remaining southern political institution that they had access to. By continuing to litigate these cases, African Americans in the South maintained some of their legal rights even after they had lost many others. Through this litigation, too, they learned how to work within white-dominated institutions in ways that they would continue to exploit during the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Finally, these cases illuminate a history in which black southerners continuously exercised their rights as US citizens through some of the most difficult years of southern history by pragmatically shaping and shifting their cases as American society changed. They show the ways in which everyday individuals could take on a biased system – and, at times, win.Melissa Milewski is a lecturer in History and American Studies at the University of Sussex and the author of Litigating Across the Color Line: Civil Cases Between Black and White Southerners from the End of Slavery to Civil Rights (Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Explorers and Orientalists

    Explorers and Orientalists

    Zareer Masani

    Cultural curiosity inspired generations of British imperialists to unearth India’s past.
    For a generation brought up on Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism, it may come as a surprise that it was British Orientalists who rediscovered India’s history and artistic heritage and made it accessible to all. The Palestinian-American Said knew little about India or else he might have recognised the cultural curiosity that inspired thousands of Britons to explore India’s past.The ‘colonial gaze’, which Said’s followers dismiss as colonial appropriation, took the form of paintings and engravings by artists such as Thomas Daniel and William Hodges, long before Britain acquired any imperial ambitions in India.Then there was Sir William Jones, the polymath who contributed more than any other individual to India’s national renaissance. Alongside his day job as a judge in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the East India Company’s capital, Jones studied and mastered Sanskrit, translated its classic texts and used the language to unlock the glories of India’s long-forgotten Hindu and Buddhist past.Jones found Sanskrit ‘more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either. I am in love with the gopis, charmed with Krishna and an enthusiastic admirer of Rama. Arjun, Bhima and the warriors of the Mahabharata appear greater in my eyes than Ajax or Achilles appeared when I first read the Iliad’.Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, India’s classical past had left behind no written histories, so it had to be reconstructed from lost pavilions and buried treasure. In 1784, with the active patronage of the first British Governor-General, Warren Hastings, Jones founded the Asiatic Society to take on this giant task. It became the beacon for a huge volunteer army of amateur antiquarians across the subcontinent, enthusiastic British civil and military officers, who scoured the mofussil (those regions beyond the East India Company’s control) for ruins and artefacts, wrote learned articles about them and sent their findings to be collated and studied in the Presidency cities: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai).When Jones returned to England a decade later, his health broken by overwork, the Asiatic was taken over by his protégé, James Prinsep, another polymath, who worked at the East India Company’s mint in Benares (Varanasi, in Uttar Pradhesh). Prinsep’s labours produced the biggest breakthrough in Indian historiography, the deciphering of the long-forgotten Brahmi script and, through it, the discovery of the Mauryan empire, which had united the subcontinent in the third century BC.Prinsep and pin-menThe task began with the mystery of enormous, polished granite pillars, the heaviest weighing as much as 40 tons, which had been popping up all over northern India, inscribed with what looked like pin-men. The most notable is a pillar unearthed in Bihar in north-east India, with its triple-lion capital, now the emblem of the government of India.Prinsep, aided by Britons based in places as diverse as Nepal, Punjab, Rajasthan and Bihar, spent many years painstakingly transcribing hundreds of coins and inscriptions and collating them with those on the pillars, before he finally broke the code with the Sanskrit word danam (which roughly translates as ‘gift’ or ‘offering’) and discovered the Brahmi script, from which Devanagari had evolved.The pin-men were found to be the edicts of the Emperor Ashoka, now identified as the grandson of the same Chandragupta Maurya, whom Jones had discovered and dated. Prinsep announced his discoveries in a paper to the Asiatic, then suffered a physical and mental breakdown brought on by overwork. He had to be shipped home to England in 1838, where he died soon after.The Ashokan edicts announced the emperor’s conversion to Buddhism; but little was yet known about the religion and the man who had founded it. There were rumours that he had been Egyptian, or perhaps even Ethiopian. The discovery of the Buddha’s Indian origins was also made by British explorers. In the late 1790s a British naturalist studying Buddhism in Burma heard reports that the Buddha was a Bihari, from north-east India. He explored Bihar a decade later and discovered the Bodh Gaya Buddhist ruins. He found Hindu Brahmins using the former Buddhist temple; but they told stories of being visited by strange-looking pilgrims from faraway lands, who turned out to be Burmese Buddhists.In the decades that followed, the Buddha’s Indian roots were confirmed by the excavation of a series of stupas, Buddhist mound-like structures that housed relics. First came the discovery in 1819 of the stupas at Sanchi by Captain Fell. Bemused by their dome-like shapes, he wrote in a Calcutta journal that he felt unable to give ‘even a very faint idea of the magnificence of such stupendous structures and exquisitely finished sculpture’.ExcavationsSanchi had long lain buried in forests, thus escaping destruction by either the Brahmanical Hindu revival that wiped out Indian Buddhism or by the Muslim invasions that shattered so many Indian temples. The stupas became the focus for further excavations by the man regarded as the father of Indian archaeology, Lieutenant Alexander Cunningham. He arrived in India in 1833, served with the Royal Engineers in various military campaigns, including the Sikh Wars, and collected antiques in remote places, such as Kashmir and Ladakh.[[{"fid":"41211","view_mode":"standard","fields":{"alt":"The great stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. (Bridgeman Images)","title":"The great stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. 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(Bridgeman Images)","class":"media-element file-standard","data-delta":"1"}}]]In 1834 Cunningham used his engineering skills to drill deep down into the main stupa at Sanchi, where he discovered evidence that Buddhism had been widespread for several centuries, from the Mauryan period down to the Gupta empire of the fourth century ad. He went on to excavate a large collection of Buddhist sculptures at Sarnath, the finest of which he shipped off to Calcutta. On a later visit, Cunningham was dismayed to find that many of the sculptures he had left behind were being used to dam a nearby river. It was typical of the constant battle British Orientalists fought to keep their finds from the Indian practice of using old stones for new buildings. Forty years later, when Cunningham discovered the 2,000-year-old Indus Valley ruins at Harappa, he found bricks from the site being used to lay the nearby Lahore-Multan railway line.Having reached the rank of general, Cunningham retired from the army and spent the rest of his long life leading the newly established Archaeological Survey of India, which still administers the country’s artistic heritage. His last major discovery was the Bharhut stupa, full of Mauryan Buddhist treasures, which he sent off to Calcutta Museum, to be restored by the enthusiastic antiquarian Viceroy, Lord Curzon.Cunningham was struck by the fact that the large crowds of locals who watched his excavation at Bharhut were disappointed that he unearthed no buried treasure. He grumbled in his diary that ‘few natives of India have any belief in disinterested excavations for the discovery of ancient buildings … their only idea of such excavations is that they are really intended as a search for hidden treasure, and... I have no doubt that I was regarded as an arch deceiver who was studiously concealing the revelations made by the inscriptions as to the position of the buried treasures’. As at Sarnath, when he returned three years later, every remaining stone of the Bharhut stupa had been removed by locals to build their own dwellings.Indian disregard for antiquity extended not just to the distant classical past, but also to far more recent Mughal and Rajput monuments. Even a building as recent as Aurangzeb’s Moti Masjid in the Red Fort at Delhi, built under Mughal rule, was found dilapidated with foliage growing through it in the early 1800s. It was restored by the British Resident, as was Humayun’s crumbling tomb and the imperial Jama Masjid. British visitors to the later Mughals at the Red Fort found both the Diwan-e-Am and Diwan-e-Khas turned into slums, their semi-precious, inlaid stones stolen from their marble friezes.Romantic gardensThe Taj Mahal at Agra, described by Kipling as ‘the ivory gate through which all dreams pass’, was the Mughal monument most beloved of the British, who restored it from the 1780s onwards. Curzon oversaw the restoration of its gateway, gardens and surrounding buildings and declared: ‘If I have never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy.’ Curzon is now best remembered – and reviled – for his partition of Bengal. He had a passion for Mughal gardens and restored them at the Agra and Delhi forts and at Humayun’s and Akbar’s tombs. He brought a British romantic sensibility for wild gardens to the more formal Mughal layout, which can still be seen today.Cunningham’s Buddhist excavations coincided with various British discoveries of important Hindu temple ruins, ranging from Mahabalipuram in the south to the Elephanta and Kanheri caves near Bombay and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, with their then shocking eroticism. The most influential discovery was Ajanta, with its frescoes dating back to the first century BC.It was a British cavalry officer who stumbled on Ajanta during a hunting expedition in the wilds of Berar. He braved fierce tigers and even fiercer Bhil tribespeople, then the main occupants, to explore the caves. In 1836 the Asiatic Society published his report on Ajanta’s classical wonders and it provoked much debate as to whether the frescoes were Hindu or Buddhist and why sites like this had been abandoned. Some even wondered if they were the work of Greek settlers left behind from Alexander’s invasion.As the frescoes were deteriorating, it was decided to copy as well as conserve them. An artistic soldier, Major Robert Gill, arrived at Ajanta and spent the next 27 years copying the paintings. His collection was sent to be exhibited in London, but was destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire of 1866. Gill returned to Ajanta undeterred and started all over again, but died a year later, an unsung hero of art conservation. His work was continued for the next 13 years by John Griffiths of Bombay’s J.J. School of Art. The results were displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and, in an extraordinary run of bad luck, were also destroyed by fire. Luckily, this time they had been photographed and could be published in 1897. The frescoes were popular in London, with photo features in the Burlington Magazine and Illustrated London News and an Ajanta-style ballet at Covent Garden performed by the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova.As important as any archaeological finds was the discovery of an entirely new approach to Indian art, giving it equal status with its Western counterparts. The pioneer of this was the art historian Ernest Havell, who came to India in 1890 as principal of the Madras School of Art and left 20 years later as head of the Calcutta School of Art. ‘No European’, he declared, ‘can understand or appreciate Indian art who does not divest himself of his Western preconceptions, endeavour to understand Indian thought, and place himself at the Indian point of view.’ He considered the Indian aesthetic as conceptual, rather than representational, its images stylised rather than naturalistic as in Greco-Roman art. It emphasised anonymous spirituality rather than the individuality of its subject or the identity of the artist.Culture clashesIn 1910, at a stormy meeting of the Royal Society of Art in London, Havell clashed with his opponents, who maintained that India only excelled at decorative rather than fine art. He argued that multi-limbed and many-headed Hindu deities, so alien to the western eye, were allegorical representations of divine attributes and no more physiologically impossible than Christian angels. He emphasised the continuity from ancient Ajanta down to recent Mughal miniatures of a distinctively Indian aesthetic, crediting the Indian artist with the ability ‘to see with the mind, not merely with the eye, to bring out an essential quality, not just the common appearance of things; to give movement and character in a figure, not only the bone and muscle; to reveal some precious quality or effect in a landscape, not merely physiographical or botanical facts; and above all to identify himself with the inner consciousness of the nature he portrays’.In recent times, the artistic discoveries of the Raj have raised questions of cultural ownership, with some Indians demanding the return of artefacts in British museums. The Indian equivalent of the Elgin Marbles are the so-called Elliot Marbles, also housed in the British Museum. The ‘marbles’ are actually limestone friezes from the Mauryan stupa at Amaravati in Andhra Pradhesh, intricately carved with scenes from the life of the Buddha. A Scottish surveyor turned antiquarian, Colin Mackenzie, first stumbled on it in 1798. Half a century later, another Scotsman, Sir Walter Elliot, returned to excavate the site, stopped it from being pillaged by locals and carted off some of the finest sculptures to the Madras Museum, some of which later found their way to the British Museum. Elliot’s career was typical of Orientalists. While serving for 40 years as a revenue official in Madras, he was also a linguist, naturalist, ethnologist and numismatist and wrote books on everything from cobras and exotic birds to rare coins.Today, Elliot’s Marbles are displayed in a climate-controlled gallery specially created for them at the British Museum, as part of a Japanese-financed centre for the study of global Buddhism. In India, the stupa at Amaravati is neglected, while the Madras Museum’s collection of sculptures is one of its least visited rooms. That has not stopped the Archaeological Survey of India from requesting the return of the British Museum’s collection, a request declined in 2010. It is hard to imagine that they would really be better appreciated or conserved in the land of their birth. The cultural treasures the British took home with them are, after all, only a tiny fraction of what they salvaged, protected and left behind for the world to appreciate.Zareer Masani is the author of Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (The Bodley Head, 2013).
  • Robin Hood: Outlaw in a Lawless World

    Robin Hood: Outlaw in a Lawless World

    Ian R. Storer

    When the justice system of medieval England was found to be too corrupt, Robin Hood and the outlaws of fact and fiction created their own system beyond the law.
    In his earliest incarnations, Robin Hood has his base in Yorkshire, not Sherwood, never explicitly robs the rich to feed the poor and does not associate with Maid Marian. Yet, from the early ballads onwards – most notably A Gest of Robyn Hode, which dates possibly from the mid-15th century – it is clear that he stood for something and represented certain admirable qualities: namely, opposition to the endemic judicial and administrative malpractice that was rife in late medieval society.Such qualities are common among the folk heroes that populate medieval outlaw ballads. In 1432 a clerk recording the parliamentary returns for Wiltshire added a number of fictitious names to the list of sureties:Adam, Belle, Clyme, Ocluw, Willyam, Cloudesle, Robyn, hode, Inne, Grenewode, Stode, Godeman, Was, hee, Joon, Muchette, Millersson, Scathelock, Reynoldyn. This piece of administrative embellishment is a roll call of prominent fictional outlaws – Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, William of Cloudesley, Robin Hood, Little John, Much the Miller’s Son and Will Scarlet, as well as Reynold Greenleaf, an alias of Robin Hood. It also contains the most enduring phrase of the Robin Hood ballads: ‘Robin Hood in Bransdale stood, a good yeoman was he.’ This is not only the earliest reference to Robin Hood as a ‘good man’, but also links two well-known outlaw bands of ballad from very distant regions: Adam Bell of Cumbria, whose exploits are preserved in a ballad of around 1560, and Robin Hood of Yorkshire, whose earliest ballad dates from perhaps 1450.Evidently such tales had spread far and were popular nationally long before the surviving ballads were written. And, though such ballads can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon period – for example the exploits of Hereward the Wake, the genesis of the most notable non-courtly stories – it is unsurprising that they proliferated during the 14th century, a period noted for its civil disorder.The violent stories of this unpoliced age contain many shared features and show signs of much borrowing, yet they all hinge upon the righting of injustices inflicted on martially capable middling men. Adam Bell and his comrades, for example, appear as yeoman outlaws living off the king’s deer in Inglewood, forced to rescue a comrade when he is betrayed in Carlisle. Battles, archery competitions and retribution follow, ending with the outlaw’s eventual pardon and employment by the king as ‘chefe rydere’ of all the north country. Robin Hood, when he first appears in print, is likewise so well known as to need no explanation. Robin and his men are pitted against the evil abbot of St Mary’s York and then their (now traditional) nemesis the Sheriff of Nottingham, as they turn the accepted social order on its head, with outlawed criminals outwitting the corrupt forces of government before eventual pardon by the ‘comely king Edward’.Certainly many medieval commentators felt the first half of the 14th century was an especially crime-ridden age, with numerous commissions launched against misdoers, who ‘Wander in diverse counties with a multitude of malefactors, beating, wounding, and maiming men in … public and private’. Modern historians have been tempted to agree, noting the prevalence of armed criminal bands, such as the well-documented Folvilles of Ashby-Folville (Leicestershire) and the Coterels of Derbyshire, who regularly appear in the court rolls and petitions of the day. Fact and fiction therefore stand some comparison, combining to give us an insight into medieval attitudes towards authority, disorder and justice – albeit through a distorted lens.There is no denying that contemporaries were quick to link the deeds of fictitious outlaws with the criminals of their age. A parliamentary petition of 1439, for example, noted that Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a criminal complicit in rescuing a prisoner en route to Tutbury Castle, had gathered a large band of men, ‘beyng of his clothinge and in manere of insurrection wente into the wodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee’. Conversely, fact could also inform fiction: an outlawed criminal by the name of Robert Stafford, a chaplain of Lindfield in Sussex, seemed to have adopted the alias ‘Frere Tuk’ in 1417, heading a band of robbers until he was pardoned in November 1429. It is not inconceivable that this renegade churchman gave rise to the warlike outlaw friar who next appears in the earliest known Robin Hood play, from the 1470s. Yet, beyond the search for historical figures among the ballads, several interesting parallels emerge.The greenwood setting is one of them. When men were outlawed for failing to appear before a local court and fled justice, their only recourse was to escape – either to supporters who would hide them, or to the wilds to lay low. Though by the 14th century the arcadia of the merry greenwood ‘where the jay flies free’ had largely been replaced by a patchwork of privately owned parks and royal game reserves, there was still enough dense woodland to hide large numbers of men – when they were not being sheltered by their maintainers in churches and manors.Merry menThe outlaw Robert Godbeard in Sherwood is a prime example and his reputation may have helped place the Robin Hood legends in their most familiar setting. A supporter of the rebel Simon de Montfort, Godbeard surrendered and obtained pardon from Henry III in 1265. Despite this, he appears to have continued his guerrilla-like existence, possibly because of an unacceptable land settlement. By 1267 the band he had gathered was clearly a serious menace and the lieutenant of Reginald de Grey (constable of Nottingham Castle) fought two heavy engagements with them – one in the heart of Sherwood Forest. Such outlaw bands could present a serious threat. William Beckwith of Yorkshire disturbed the district of Knaresborough between 1387 and 1392. Deprived of the hereditary office of the forestership and chase of Knaresborough, he attracted a band of men alleged to be 500-strong at its height and conducted a virtual war against the Duchy of Lancaster, targeting the steward and constable of Knaresborough, Sir Robert Rokeley. His actions clearly divided the countryside and, like Robin Hood, Beckwith attracted many local sympathisers.Highway robbery was similarly no literary fantasy. Just as the fictional Little John set an ambush near Sayles on Watling Street, so too did Sir Robert de Vere set an ambush for – and assaulted – the Abbot of Pipewell in the early 1330s. Yet de Vere was no woodland footpad: being both the keeper of Rockingham Forest and the constable of Rockingham Castle, he was in an unassailable position to dominate the highways of the area. Indicted as an accessory to the ransoming of Justice Willoughby, who was abducted by a consortium of criminal cartels headed by the Folville family while on commission to investigate such criminals, de Vere was evidently deeply involved in the feuding that dominated the Midlands. Just as Robin’s men took refuge in the castle of Sir Richard at Lee in the Gest, Rockingham formed a well-placed refuge for fugitives, situated on the border of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Rutland. ‘Sometimes twenty armed men … sometimes thirty’, would come to the castle at dusk and leave at dawn through a side entrance.Cruel worldDe Vere’s career highlights another feature shared by the ballads and medieval reality: violence. Meeting the investigating commissioner William le Zouche on the road at Beanfield Lawns with a gang of armed men, de Vere addressed the lawman with these words: ‘You wish to destroy me … but before I am destroyed I shall destroy all those who intend to destroy me, whatever their rank or estate may be.’Medieval society was informally run and highly militarised; violence was a social norm for its elite. The Statute of Winchester of 1285 required every able-bodied man between 16 and 60 to train regularly for war. Coupled with the fact that local governance and justice were left in the hands of gentry families, it is unsurprising that violence was a tool of lawmen and outlaws alike. The followers of the Cumbrian outlaw Adam Bell, for example, are depicted as brutal, wringing the porter of Carlisle Castle’s neck then throwing him in a ‘depe dungeon’, before escaping with their master. In Robin Hood and the Monk, a quarrel between John and Robin leads to Robin’s capture in Nottingham and eventual rescue by the former. Little John decapitates the clergyman taking news of Robin’s capture to the king, then murders his page boy ‘for fear that he might tell’. Grislier still is the treatment of Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, a strange tale in which Robin confronts a mysterious yeoman he has seen in a dream, who is revealed as a bounty hunter out to collect a price on Robin’s head. After bettering Guy in combat, Robin places Gisborne’s severed head on the end of his bow and proceeds to mutilate his features.Echoes of such violence can readily be found in the petitions and court records of the period. In 1276 a band of armed men released two poachers being held by the steward of Sherwood from the house where they were detained, beating up the guards before smashing the windows of the steward’s home and shouting insults at him. In 1392 the kin of William Beckwith lured his betrayer, Thomas Blande, to a meeting and killed him in cold blood; the Folvilles met their sworn enemy Sir Roger Bellers on the road near Melton Mowbray and killed him with a long knife thrust down through his collarbone to the heart. These were men with multiple homicides to their name, experts in violence and intimidation, yet the fact they were fed and sheltered in the homes and houses of local lords across the Midlands suggests that some at least viewed their actions as acceptable.Crime – and punishment?The angry tone of Gamelyn, a story set during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), perhaps provides the fullest expression of support for violent retribution against unpopular justice. Gamelyn, youngest son of the dying Sir Johan Boundys, is left in the care of his evil elder brother, who despoils the lands held for him until he comes of age. Through many violent twists, in which the bellicose hero supports the honest against the corrupt, Gamelyn is ultimately outlawed and returns to save his honourable middle brother Sir Ote, who has been condemned to hang in his place by a rigged jury at the yearly assize. Entering the justice hall, Gamelyn releases Sir Ote before the stunned assembly and cleves the King’s Justice’s cheek to the bone. Gamelyn deals out retributive punishment to knights, abbots and sheriffs, the untouchable forces of the day. As the hero enters a court with his men to punish the corrupt judge set to hang his middle brother, the poet draws out the gory details:Gamelyn took him in the arm, and no more spake,But threw him over the barre, his arm to-brak [break].Then, most tellingly, he replaces the bribed jury with 12 of his own outlaws and, taking the justice seat, delivers his own sentence, hanging the sheriff, justice and jury. This is visceral retribution, but not entirely far-fetched. In 1326, Sir Roger Swynnerton and his armed kin barred the doors of the justice hall at Stafford, threatening Hugh de Croft and Sir William Stafford unless the trial was stopped.There is certainly no shortage of corrupt justice in the sources, with poems like the 12th-century Song against the Sheriffs demonstrating the bad reputation such untouchable royal appointees had. As an unsalaried role, the office was open to abuse and men like John de Skipwith, Sheriff of Lincoln, were able to misuse their powers to imprison opponents and conduct private feuds with impunity. In 1397 Skipwith broke into the house of Adam Wyot with 48 men-at-arms and archers ‘arrayed as if to make war’, seizing his goods and chattels until he paid a fine of 19 and a half marks. More notorious was Sir John Molyns of Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, who was able to extort, threaten, imprison and murder unchecked, thanks to his connections in government. Molyns had freely misused his connections, murdered his wife’s uncle to gain his manor and manipulated numerous special commissions. This might all have been overlooked had it not been for the failure of Edward III’s wool tax and the purge of corrupt officials that followed. In 1340, when Molyns stole wool sacks from Edward’s tax collectors, he was finally tried and punished.The outrages perpetrated were often more subtle, however. Sir Robert Ingram, who served as both mayor and sheriff of Nottingham, was a consistent harbourer and informant of the Coterel gang, passing them information whenever the forces of law and order were closing in. Such outrages were clearly accepted as a fact of life. For the government, the smooth running of the shires included local power struggles, in which ‘justice’ was in the eye of the beholder – or at least in the hands of the mighty.Nothing sacredThe clergy were also heavily involved in the documented history of 14th-century crime – seen in the ballads in the form of avaricious abbots, who became targets of Gamelyn and Robin in the Gest. Richard de Folville, one of the five brothers involved in terrorising the Midlands in this period, was rector of the parish of Teigh in Rutland for over 20 years, despite his life as a habitual criminal. He was finally dragged from his own church and beheaded by Sir Robert de Colville, a keeper of the peace, following a fight which had killed one of the lawmen and wounded others.More common, however, was the hiring of criminal bands by the church itself. The Coterel gang first come to light having been hired by Master Robert Bernard, a registrar of Lichfield Cathedral, to attack Walter Can, the vicar of Bakewell. In 1304 the notorious gang leader Malcolm Mussard of Worcestershire was hired to attack a rectory with a band of archers at the behest of the disgruntled former incumbent. The Folvilles were likewise hired, for £20, by two churchmen – a canon of Sempringham Priory and the cellarer of Haverholm Abbey – to burn down a rival’s water mill in 1331. It would seem that the former, Alan of Baston, had befriended the Folville brothers when harbouring them in the priory.Each of these cases shows the inability of churchmen to act against their opponents without what we might term ‘professional muscle’ to defend their rights and dues. Is there, perhaps, some parallel in the Coterels’ support of the canons of Lichfield against the encroachment upon their rights by Lenton Abbey with Robin’s upholding of needy causes? At the very least, the ballads preserve the context of the righting of perceived local injustices by immediate means, opposing abuses by the powerful land-owning monasteries, like St Mary’s York in the Gest.The background of the protagonists in the ballads also fits well with the social context of documented crime. Gamelyn is ‘born of a lady and gotten of a knight’; both Adam Bell and Robin Hood are ‘good yeomen’, who appeal to ‘gentlemen who are of freeborn blood’. In the Gest, Robin helps a knight, his supporters are yeomen – not poor peasants – and invariably his opponents are corrupt clergy and lawmen. This is the same world of bastard feudalism, within which the Coterels and Folvilles moved, where the control of confederacies and maintained retinues was replacing traditional feudal bonds.By royal decreeIn 1332, an outcry against disorder by Chief Justice le Scrope resulted in the Trailbaston commission, which found that criminals were virtually waging war against the king and writing letters to their opponents ‘in a style which was almost royal’. They were forging royal writs – in the ballads, Adam Bell does this to enter Carlisle castle. William de Cotes feigned a royal commission in order to seize livestock, 50 quarts of beans and goods worth £20 from the village of Stainsby.Most interesting of all, however, is a letter addressed to Richard de Snaweshill, parson of Huntington, from Lionel ‘king of the rout of raveners’, calling him a ‘false servant’ and demanding he remove the incumbent of Burton Agnes and replace him with an appointee chosen by the abbot of St Mary’s. He was threatened with the fate of Bishop Stapledon (murdered in 1326) and warned: ‘We will hunt you down, even if we have to come to Coney Street in York to do it.’ It is not just the regal overtones that make this letter interesting, nor the fact that it purports to come from a rival justice system ‘at our castle of the North Wind … in the first year of our reign’, but that it implies Snaweshill is breaking the law of both God and acting contrary to the true justice of the land – justice the king (and not his corrupt ministers) would uphold. This is a point of interest that runs through both the ballads and the records. Although Robin opposes the corrupt sheriffs and abbots (‘Ye shall them bete and bynde’), he is ultimately loyal to, and enters the service of, Edward, as does Adam Bell, when justice is served.The most notorious criminals of the age fared much the same, for it would appear that useful employ and lucrative reward were the most successful way of harnessing the criminal gentry’s martial skills. Nicholas Coterel, for example, was appointed Queen Phillippa’s Bailiff of the High Peak, while another gang member, Sir William Aune, was commissioned to survey the decaying castles of Wales. Sir William Chetulton and Sir John Legh, notable gangsters, lead troops to Berwick in 1336.If the medieval outlaw embodied an alternative justice system, he certainly had no interest in overthrowing the existing one. The king relied upon the might of such men to fight his wars and keep peace in his shires. It was only when their depredations caused public outcry that serious action was taken.What links these cases and the legends, therefore, is a hunger for justice, prompted by the endemic corruption of local governance in the later Middle Ages. Robin is a model of self-made good lordship, a sharp contrast to the corrupt landowners who subverted the law unchecked.For many in the 14th century, justice was hard to find in a world of officially sanctioned corruption, sheriffs who passed information to criminal gangs and churchmen who employed bandits. It is no surprise that the legend of Robin Hood and his fictional contemporaries became nationally popular.Ian R. Storer taught at the universities of Leicester and Nottingham, researches medieval gentry criminality and writes historical fiction as Ian Roberts.
  • Postwar Germany and the legacy of Nazism

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  • The Ottoman Empire: Succession, Deposition and Fratricide

    The Ottoman Empire: Succession, Deposition and Fratricide

    Gemma Masson

    Getting and keeping the throne in the Ottoman Empire was no easy task. For a new sultan, the most foolproof method of securing power was to kill all other claimants.
    A bey or chieftain of one of the numerous Central Asian nomadic tribes died in 1280, leaving his son, Osman, to take his place. Osman – known as Osman Gazi, meaning great warrior – would go on to found a dynasty known as the Ottomans (from the Turkish Osmanlı, literally ‘of Osman’) and an empire spanning Europe, Asia and North Africa. But the ruling dynasty of the Ottoman Empire is rare in that the House of Osman managed to maintain an unbroken line of succession from its founding in the 13th century through to the family members who are still alive today.The Ottoman foundation myth alleges that Osman I had a dream in which he saw a tree grow from his navel to cast a wide shadow across the world. Anyone living within this shadow lived prosperously. This story provided the Ottomans with an explanation for the success of their expansion – and also suggested that they were chosen and favoured by Allah. Yet maintaining a smooth transition of power within the family across hundreds of years was not easy; the system of succession in the Ottoman Empire was a deadly one.As with any ruling dynasty, the requirement that the reigning sultan produce an heir was central to succession. In traditional Islamic fashion, heirs could be produced through a combination of legal marriage and slave concubinage. Indeed, after the first two rulers of the dynasty, Osman and his son and heir Orhan, almost all sultanic offspring were born from concubine mothers. Questions of marriage and reproduction did not simply revolve around love. Marriages were political. Most of those contracted in the 14th century were with Christian women; in the 15th century, sultans began to choose more Muslim women as brides for their sons. While this change reflected a shift in geopolitics, it was also a result of a more widespread end to inter-dynastic marriages around the early 15th century. The marriage in 1435 of Murad II, father of Mehmed the Conqueror, to Mara, the daughter of the Serbian ruler George Brankovich, was reputedly the last one. In the centuries that followed, brides and concubines came from as far afield as Crimea, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia and Albania.[[{"fid":"41101","view_mode":"standard","fields":{"alt":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","title":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"2","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript. (Bridgeman Images)","external_url":""},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"alt":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","title":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"2","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript. (Bridgeman Images)","external_url":""}},"attributes":{"alt":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","title":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript. (Bridgeman Images)","class":"media-element file-standard","data-delta":"2"}}]]These women lived in the imperial harem. Those who were fortunate enough to bear the sultan’s sons might attain the powerful role of Valide Sultan (‘mother sultan’), the title given to the mother of the reigning sultan. If a mother died before her son attained the throne, she was not awarded this title, although in special circumstances it could be bestowed upon grandmothers or even stepmothers. The title was first used in the 16th century, when it was given to Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Süleyman the Magnificent. Previously the title had been ‘cradle of the great’.The role of Valide Sultan came with a great deal of power and influence in the Ottoman Empire, both within the harem and without. As part of the duty of securing succession, she would oversee the education and grooming of young women who might attract her son. She also had a great deal of power over which of the harem women were sent to his bedchamber.Yet securing the role of Valide Sultan was not easy. A woman first had to catch the eye of the sultan, then bear him at least one son, then keep both herself and her son alive and in favour until his father died. This was easier said than done after the Ottoman tradition of fratricide was codified into law by an imperial edict of Mehmed the Conqueror.Legalised practiceAfter the death of his father Murad II in 1451, Mehmed visited the women of the harem and, while hearing their condolences, sent one of his men to strangle his infant half-brother in his bath. He validated this action with appropriate citations from the Quran, such as: ‘The execution of a prince is preferable to the loss of a province.’ In his edict legalising the practice he stated:Whichever of my sons inherits the sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly.While this was not completely new to the Ottoman Empire, judicial royal fratricide became an accepted method of securing the Ottoman throne until its abolition in the 17th century by Ahmed I. That is not to say that it was practised consistently. There are numerous cases where fratricide did not occur until well after the question of succession was settled, indicating that the Ottomans were, in this, as in many matters, flexible and willing to adapt to whatever action was deemed most appropriate to the current situation. The eventual abolition of fratricide came about following widespread public disapproval over the accession of Mehmed III to the throne. He was notorious for having 19 of his brothers and half-brothers strangled in order to secure the throne for himself.Behind every weak sultanThis series of fratricides took place during a period in Ottoman history known as the Sultanate of Women, a 130-year period spanning the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period women of the imperial harem held considerable power and influence over affairs of state. Sometimes this was due to the Valide Sultan acting as regent for a son who, while on the throne, was still a minor. The adult wives of minor sultans (Haseki Sultan, ‘chief consort’) could also fulfil this role. The Sultanate of Women began with Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, and her daughter Mihrimah Sultan, who became the wife of Rüstem Paşa, one of Süleyman’s grand viziers.[[{"fid":"41091","view_mode":"standard","fields":{"alt":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","title":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","class":"media-element file-float-right","data-delta":"1","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School. (Bridgeman Images)","external_url":""},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"alt":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","title":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","class":"media-element file-float-right","data-delta":"1","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School. (Bridgeman Images)","external_url":""}},"attributes":{"alt":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","title":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School. (Bridgeman Images)","class":"media-element file-standard","data-delta":"1"}}]]Traditionally, this period has been viewed as a time of weak sultans, either because they were minors, or because they were insufficient in some other way: drunk, lazy, mentally unstable or not intelligent enough for the role. For these reasons, women and advisers were able to gain power and manipulate the sultans for their own gain.Though it was a period of unprecedented power for royal Ottoman women, many of them faced stiff opposition, which often came from the viziers close to them. In 1583, the Venetian ambassador Paolo Contarini observed that Sultan Murad III based all his actions on the advice of his mother, Nurbanu, and that women were the real holders of power in the Ottoman Empire. Another Venetian diplomat, Alvise Contarini, recalled in 1640 how he had passed letters to the grand vizier, Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, for delivery to Kösem Sultan, the then Valide Sultan. The vizier gave the cutting response that the mothers of sultans were, like all other women in the imperial house, slaves of the sultan and held no real power of their own. This was revealing of Kara Mustafa’s rivalry with Kösem for the ear and favour of the new sultan, Ibrahim.The end of the Sultanate of Women brought with it the demise of the practice of fratricide and the beginnings of its alternative, the kafes, or ‘gilded cage’, a system which advocated the virtual house arrest of any male family member who might threaten the reign of the ruling sultan. Ahmed I was enthroned in 1603 and, in preference to fratricide, permitted his 12-year-old brother Mustafa to live. It is thought that, as well as reacting to the public condemnation of royal fratricide, Ahmed I was motivated by a desire to safeguard the future of the Ottoman dynasty.The case for fratricideAhmed came to the throne aged 13 and had not yet demonstrated his ability to produce sons. Should something have happened to him before he had fathered a male heir, Mustafa would have been the only other legal candidate for the throne. Ahmed I did go on to produce sons, but, at his death in 1617, his eldest was only 13 years old. This prompted the imperial council to allow Mustafa, then aged 25, to ascend the throne as Mustafa I, although he would be deposed and re-enthroned several times throughout his life.This exposed a drawback to the abolition of fratricide. The introduction of the ‘cage’ and the survival of a number of other viable candidates for the throne meant the sultan faced a greater danger of depositions and coups by interested individuals or parties seeking to wield power. It also very often produced men unprepared for rule. It was common to imprison uncles, brothers and cousins in the cage as soon as they left the harem apartments upon reaching puberty. This marked the end of their education, meaning that when one of them was ‘released’ to take the throne they were often uninformed or unprepared for the tasks ahead of them.In previous centuries, it had been common to send princes out into the Empire to serve as rulers in the provinces so that they gained life experience and a practical education before returning to vie with their brothers for the throne. While the cage was more humane, it did not help those imprisoned – or the Empire. From the 17th and 18th centuries, therefore, we begin to see a change in the role of the Ottoman sultan and how much power the office and the individuals in the office actually held. Sultans began to rely increasingly on their viziers and advisers to counsel them and to understand what to do, leading to a reduction in the power they held.Death of a sultanIt is a truth universally acknowledged that royal depositions must, sooner or later, be in want of a regicide. The first in the history of the Ottoman Empire occurred on Friday 20 May 1622, with the death of Osman II, son of Ahmed I. Known as Osman the Young, he had ascended the throne in 1618 at the age of 14, following the coup that deposed Mustafa I, his uncle, for the first time. In 1622, aged 17, he had still not succeeded in legitimising himself as a conqueror of territory and so sought to cultivate the role of a pious sultan instead. He announced his intention to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, something no Ottoman sultan had done before. Previous rulers, while acknowledging and respecting the importance of the pilgrimage, had heeded the advice of jurists, who argued that their most sacred duty lay in staying in their capital and tending to their subjects. That Osman II announced his intention to undertake the pilgrimage immediately after returning to Istanbul from Edirne provoked fears that he might become an absentee monarch, who might be seeking to return the capital to its original site – Edirne.Other reasons given for his death include an attempt to abolish absolutist rule and fears on the part of the army that his pilgrimage was really a decoy, with the young sultan intending to recruit a mercenary army to challenge the power of Ottoman military groups. Osman II had not endeared himself to the military by closing the coffee houses owned by many of their members, as they were suspected to be places where seditious groups met to plot rebellion. On 18 May 1622, members of the military demanded the execution of some high-ranking administrators, claiming that they were leading the sultan away from his true duties and purpose. Later that day they found the young sultan and, being displeased with the answers he gave them, deposed him and re-enthroned Mustafa I.Two days later Osman II was killed by strangulation at Yedikule Fortress in Istanbul. The impact of this regicide was allegedly minimal, causing little to no distress in the city. It has, however, been accorded a great deal of importance by historians, who view it as a key turning point in the power structures of the Ottoman Empire.Pomp, ceremony and bribesSuffice to say that attaining and, more importantly, keeping power in the Ottoman Empire was a complex business. There were, however, a wide range of legitimising tactics that sultans could turn to in order to make their rule agreeable to all concerned. The accession of a new sultan, as with most key events in the Empire, was surrounded by ritual and ceremony, from girding with the sword of Osman I (a tradition which began when the Empire’s founder was himself girded with the sword of Islam) within two weeks of a sultan taking the throne, to the payment of a sum of money to the military. An important ceremony designed to assure a mutual loyalty and respect between the sultans and their army included the gifting of boiled sweets to the sultan by the soldiers when they received their wages. Another was the annual Ramadan baklava event, whereby the sultan would give many trays of this traditional sweet to the military, assuring their loyalty and reminding them and those who watched that the military was (theoretically) dependent upon the sultan for all things – from their position, to the food on their table and the clothes on their backs.The dynasty continued with variable succession methods until the end of the sultanate, with Mehmed VI, who ruled from 1918 until 1922. Following the official declaration and recognition of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Mehmed VI went into exile. Upon his death in 1926, the title of caliph was bestowed upon Abdülmejid II, who would be the last Ottoman Caliph. Descendants of the Ottoman line continue to use the family name Osmanoğlu (‘the sons of Osman’) and the title of Head of the House of Osman is still passed down and used today.Gemma Masson is completing a PhD on the urban janissary in 18th-century Istanbul at the University of Birmingham and is a Reviews Editor at H-Empire.

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