Military History and Colonialism: The Pigeons of Denshawai

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The Denshawai Incident is the name given to a dispute which occurred in 1906 between British Military officers and the locals villagers of Denshawai, Egypt. Denshawai was one of many small cruelties of colonialism, but the arrogance of the British response gave a new impetus to the growing sense of Egyptian nationalism. 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.

Like many villagers in the Delta, the villagers of Denshawai raised pigeons in conical pigeon-cotes, primarily for food. A year before, in 1905, British officers had come to the village shooting pigeons, A local man named Hasan Mahfuz had resisted them, and the British Army banned further hunting there. On 13 June 1906  a party of five British officers, with an Egyptian policeman and interpreter,  returned to Denshawai.  The ranking officer in the group was Major John Edward Pine-Coffin, a Boer War veteran and whose son would later serve with the Airborne forces during the Normandy invasion had reportedly hunted at Denshawai before.

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Major John Edward Pine-Coffin (1866 – 1919)

When Mahfuz and other villagers again resisted, the British shooting party agreed to retreat a few hundred yards from the village. The exact distance they moved back is disputed. As they started shooting birds, a threshing floor in the village caught fire. The villagers, already infuriated by the pigeon shooters, attacked the soldiers with stones and sticks. Somehow in the confusion the wife of the prayer leader of the local mosque was shot. In the fight that ensued one British officer, a Captain Bull, was injured. He and another officer escaped, and Bull, running for help, collapsed and died. British troops arriving on the scene found a local peasant who had sought to help Bull, saw that Bull was dead,  quickly assumed the peasant had killed him, and beat the fellah to death.

Concerned about growing Egyptian nationalism, officials responded swiftly and harshly 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. 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. Giving evidence in court 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.”

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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 criticised in Britain as biased and inflammatory:

“Instead of showing understanding for the peasants’ self-defence 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.”

In the long run, this incident, and the resulting rise in nationalism, led to an anti-colonial struggle in Egypt during the Great War. During the war, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (E.E.F) was stationed in Egypt. Its presence resulted in the major expenditure of food and resources to fight Turkish forces. 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 and food shortages which led to cases of starvation within Egypt’s borders. By 1919, Egypt was ripe for revolt and the drive for change was gathering pace. 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 attend the conference at Versailles. Among other things, the Wafd wanted a greater share in the Sudan,  Egypt’s joint colony with Britain. The Versailles refusal led to most of the Egyptian government resigning, and resulted in mass demonstrations leading 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.

 

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