June 5, 1899 J’Accuse

At best, the passionate denunciation of anti-Semitism left in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, “l’Affaire”, would ennoble and elevate French politics.  At worst, the episode revealed and hardened divisions within the French state which would weaken the nation into 1914, and beyond.

alfred-dreyfus-trial-affair-france-001.jpgIn the late 19th century, Europe was embarked on yet another of its depressingly regular paroxysms of anti-Semitism, when a French Captain of Jewish Alsatian extraction by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was arrested, for selling state secrets to Imperial Germany.

At this time the only Jewish member of the French Army General Staff, the “evidence” against Dreyfus was flimsy, limited to an on-the-spot handwriting analysis of a tissue paper missive written to the German Embassy.

“Expert” testimony came from Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the crackpot theory of Anthropometry, the “measurement of the human individual”.

No handwriting expert, Bertillon opined nevertheless, that Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the sample, articulating a cockamamie theory he called “autoforgery” to explain the differences.

Dreyfus-Affair-Postcard (1)Chief Inspector Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam, himself no handwriting expert, agreed with Bertillon. With no file to go on and despite the feebleness of the evidence, de Clam summoned Dreyfus for interrogation on October 13, 1894.

Dreyfus maintained his innocence during the interview, with his interrogator going so far as to slide a revolver across the table, silently suggesting how Dreyfus might put an end to his ordeal.

Du Paty arrested Dreyfus two days later, informing the captain that he was to be brought before a court martial.

Despite the paucity of evidence, the young artillery officer was convicted of handing over State Secrets in November 1894, and sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he spent nearly five years.

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Dreyfus stands before his court-martial, 1894. H/T Britannica.com for this image

A simple miscarriage of justice elevated into a national scandal two years later, when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart found evidence that French Army major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as involved in espionage, and it was his handwriting on the letter which was used against Dreyfus.

Esterhazy was brought to trial in 1896.  Picquart’s discovery being inconvenient for his superiors, the Lt. Col. was sacked, and later arrested.  Then-Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, he who discovered the letter in the first place, suppressed some pieces of evidence, and invented others.

Esterhazy was acquitted on the second day of trial. The military dug in, accusing Dreyfus of additional crimes based on false documents, as indignation at the obvious frame-up, began to spread.

j'accuseMost of the political and military establishment lined up against Dreyfus. The public outcry became furious in January 1898 when author Émile Zola published a bitter denunciation in an open letter to the Paris press, entitled “J’accuse” (I Blame).

Zola’s accusations against the Ministry of War would earn the writer a trial and conviction for libel, resulting in a year in prison and a fine of 3,000 francs.

Liberal and academic activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case. On June 5, 1899, Alfred Dreyfus learned of the Cour de cassation, (French Supreme Court’s) decision to revisit the judgment of 1894, and to return him to France for a new trial.

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Lieutenant Colonel Henry at Emile Zola’s trial for libel

What followed nearly tore the nation apart. “Dreyfusards”, those seeking Dreyfus’exoneration such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, pitted against authoritarian anti-Dreyfusard characters such as Édouard Drumont, publisher of the virulently Jew-Hating newspaper La Libre Parole.

By New Year’s eve 1898, Hubert-Joseph Henry had become ‘Faux Henry”, his forgeries discovered.   Halfway to the bottom of a bottle of rum, Henry took out a pen and wrote “I am like a madman”.  He then took out a shaving razor, and slit his throat.

For Dreyfus, the new trial was a circus.   The political and military establishments stonewalled.  One of two attorneys for the defense was shot in the back, on the way to court. The judge dismissed Esterhazy’s testimony, even though the man had by now confessed to the crime. The new trial resulted in yet another conviction.  Dreyfus was sentenced to another ten years in the Guiana penal colony.

This time, Dreyfus was set free with a Presidential pardon. A good thing it was, too. The man would not have survived another ten years in that place.

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80,000 men were sent to the “Bagne de Cayenne”, the French penal colony at Devil’s Island, during the 100 years in which the place operated as a penal colony. Only one in four, ever made it out.

Alfred Dreyfus accepted the act of clemency, but reserved the right to do everything he could, to prove his innocence.  Final exoneration came in July 1906, when a civilian court of appeals reversed all previous convictions.  Dreyfus was reinstated to the rank of Major in the French Army, where he served with honor for the duration of WWI, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The chasm remaining between left-wing anti-militarists and right-wing nationalists would haunt French life, for years.  At best, the passionate denunciation of anti-Semitism left in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, “l’Affaire“, would ennoble and elevate French politics.  At worst, the episode revealed and hardened divisions within the French state which would weaken the nation into 1914, and beyond.

 

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June 4, 1629 A Real-Life ‘Lord of the Flies’

Rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

VOC Logo
VOC Logo

During the colonial period, joint-stock companies were established by European powers to carry out foreign trade and exploration, to colonize distant lands and conduct military operations against foreign adversaries.

Such organizations may have been chartered for a single voyage or for an extended period of time, and were much more than what we currently associate with the word “company”. In their day these organizations could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrong doers, and largely functioned outside the control of the governments which formed them.

The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), better known as the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, was the world’s first formally listed public company, an early multi-national corporation paving the way to the corporate-led globalization of the early modern period.

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Batavia Replica

On October 27, 1628, a Dutch East India Co. merchant fleet departed the Dutch West Indies bound for the south Pacific Moluccan Islands to trade for spices. Among these vessels was the 650-ton ship Batavia, embarked on her maiden voyage.

On board were enormous stockpiles of gold and silver coinage and a complement of 341 passengers and crew, including men, women and children.

Among ship’s officers were the bankrupt pharmacist Onderkoopman (junior merchant) Jeronimus Cornelisz, in flight from the Netherlands due to his heretical religous beliefs, and skipper Ariaen Jacobsz. While underway, the two conceived a plan to mutiny, and start a new life somewhere else. All that specie in the hold would have given the pair a very nice start.

A small group of men were recruited and a plot was hatched to molest a ranking female member of the passenger list. The plotters hoped to provoke a harsh act of discipline against the crew, which could then be used to recruit more men to the mutineers. Lucretia Jans was assaulted as planned but, for whatever reason, Opperkoopman (senior merchant) Francisco Pelsaert never made any arrests.

bat7Perhaps the man was ill at the time but, be that as it may, the die was cast. The conspirators now needed only the right set of circumstances, to put their plans in motion.

Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course and away from the rest of the fleet. He got his ‘right set of circumstances’ on the morning of June 4, 1629, when Batavia struck a reef off the west coast of Australia.

Forty people drowned before the rest could be gotten safely to shore, swimming or transferred to nearby islands in the ship’s longboat and yawl.

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Statue of Wiebbe Hayes at Geraldton, Western Australia.

With no source of fresh drinking water, the situation was dire. A group comprising Captain Jacobsz, Francisco Pelsaert, several senior officers and crew members plus a few passengers set out in a 30-foot longboat.  The group performed one of the great feats of open boat navigation in all history, arriving after 33 days at the port of Batavia in modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia.

Boatswain Jan Evertsz was arrested and executed for negligence in the wreck of the Batavia, his role in the conspiracy never suspected.

Pelsaert was immediately given command of the Sardam by Batavia’s Governor General, Jan Coen.

Pelsaert’s rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

Left alone in charge of the survivors, Cornelisz and several co-conspirators took control of all the weapons and food supplies, then carried out plans to eliminate potential opposition.

A group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes was tricked into being moved to West Wallabi Island, under the false pretense of looking for water. Convinced there was none, Cornelisz abandoned the group on the island to die.  The psychopath and his dedicated band of followers,  was now free to murder the rest at their leisure .

Author Mike Dash writes in Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny: “With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children”.

Like some prototype Charles Manson, Cornelisz left the actual killing to others, though he did attempt to poison one infant who was later strangled.  No fewer than 110 men, women and children were murdered during this period.  Those women left alive were confined to ‘rape tents’.

Meanwhile, Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers found water and, unaware of the butchery taking place on Beacon island, began to send smoke signals, according to a prearranged plan.  The group would only learn of the ongoing massacre from survivors, who escaped to swim for their lives.

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Makeshift ‘fort’ built by Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers, on West Wallabi Island

With their own supplies dwindling, Cornelisz & Co. assaulted the soldiers on West Wallabi Island, now in possession of crude handmade weapons and manning makeshift fortifications. Pitched battles ensued, pitting muskets against sticks and spears. The bad guys almost won too, but the better trained and (by this time) better fed soldiers, prevailed.

Pelsaert’s arrival triggered a furious race between Cornelisz’s men and the soldiers. Fortunately for all, Hayes won the race. A brief but furious battle ensued before Cornelisz and his company were captured. After a brief trial, Cornelisz and the worst of the conspirators were brought to Seal Island, their hands chopped off, and hanged.

Two judged only to be minor players were brought to the Australian mainland and marooned, never to be seen again.

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The hangings on Long Island as illustrated in the Lucas de Vries 1649 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie.

The remaining conspirators were brought back to Batavia and tried. Five of them were hanged. Jacop Pietersz, second-in-command, was broken on the wheel, a hideous remnant of medieval justice and the worst form of execution available, at that time. Captain Jacobsz resisted days of torture and never did confess. What became of him is unknown.

Francisco Pelsaert was judged partly responsible for the disaster, due to his failure to exercise command. Senior Merchant Pelsaert’s assets were confiscated.  He would die penniless in less than a year, a broken man.

The exact number of those buried in mass graves on Beacon Island, is unknown.  Of the 341 who departed the West Indies that day in 1628, 68 lived to tell the tale.  Archaeologists labor an land and at sea but, three centuries later, the Wallabi Islands are jealous of their secrets

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“Archaeologists recovering Batavia timbers from the wreck site”.  H/T, HuffPo for this image
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.