In the early hours of Wednesday morning, eight prisoners were taken to a forest on a prison island and each tied to a stake. As they in unison sang ‘Amazing Grace’, a firing squad executed them for crimes the authorities had judged so heinous that the only appropriate punishment could be for them to pay with their lives. Their violent end would, it was argued, act as a shocking deterrent to anyone thinking of committing the same crimes. The account of their executions was immediately relayed to audiences around the world eager for details of their gruesome end.
As a historian of capital punishment in early modern Europe, I am struck by how much of the story of the executions on Indonesia’s Nusa Kambangan prison island resemble those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are, to be sure, small differences: the crime here was drug smuggling rather than heresy or treason; the condemned were killed with sophisticated guns, a weapon not yet in widespread use four hundred years ago; and the news of the deaths was known instantly around the globe thanks to social media, a speed of news travel unthinkable in the period of handwritten newsletters that could take weeks to travel from one end of Europe to the other.
But so little about executions has changed. Tied to a stake and singing hymns while awaiting their violent deaths, the eight prisoners killed on Wednesday remind me of the ‘Lyon Five’, five young Calvinist students burned at the stake for heresy in Lyon in 1553, who went to their deaths singing psalms in French to steady themselves in their final moments. This in itself was shocking: singing the words of the Bible in the vernacular rather than Latin was an activity that marked them as reformers who threatened the Roman Catholic orthodoxy and thus the security of the French state. Some might argue that it is unseemly to compare religious martyrs to drug smugglers, but in the end, the authorities viewed the crimes from the same perspective: the activities of the condemned presented a danger to social order, and the executions had to be violent in order to act as a deterrent to others.
The broadcasting of information about the executions also throws up interesting points of similarities between our modern era and the past. Although I live in the UK rather than Australia I am nevertheless aware of the saturation of the news media there by the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the duo already notorious for their involvement in the Bali Nine case that has long gripped the Australian imagination. The media coverage here is, naturally, somewhat more balanced – greater attention has been paid to the story of Mary Jane Veloso, another prisoner sentenced to die whose apparent innocence and exploitation at the hands of traffickers profiting from the precarious nature of Filipino overseas workers caused international outcry. The videos and photos of the distressed relatives of the condemned, including the heartbreaking video plea by the young sons of Veloso, have saturated the media, including – importantly – the Twittersphere, where the hashtag #savemaryjane gave the campaign for her reprieve a worldwide impact. While the 24-hour news cycle now allows us instant access to developments in these events, the emotional effects of capital punishment have always been a key part of the way in which they are reported.
In the early modern period, a time in which the majority of Europe was illiterate, news was often transmitted via the means of song, and ballads about crimes and executions were so popular that they form their own sub-genre of news-song. Full of sensationalist language, ballads about the condemned were often written in the first-person voice of the criminal, allowing the singer to momentarily embody the role of someone about to meet a grisly end. Like Alice Davis, burned at the stake in London in July 1628 for stabbing her husband to death, who sings in her ballad ‘A Warning for all desperate Women’,
God and the world forgive my sinnes,
which are so vile and foule,
Sweete Jesus now I come to thee,
O Lord receive my Soule.
Who could fail to be convinced of the need to avoid sin upon hearing poor Alice sing her song of remorse in her final moments? Songs like these were designed to cause the maximum amount of emotional response – executions were meant to be horrific, terrifying, and painful. Those who think that the early modern period was a time so violent that its people were inured to grisly sights of dismemberment and death are missing the point: it was precisely the horror of witnessing a prisoner have his limbs severed that was supposed to frighten citizens into leading an orderly life. The greater the publicity of these gruesome events the more people would get the message.
In fact, the reporting of the executions of convicts has always been central to the entire project of the execution itself. How the state chooses to publicise its ability and determination to execute its citizens is at the core of both its rationale for execution and, interestingly, its specific methods for doing so.
So China – believed by Amnesty International to execute more people every year by far than any other country – treats its executions as a state secret because its condemned are usually political prisoners. Rather than publicise its actions, the Chinese government would simplify prefer to pretend that these troublesome comrades are merely ‘gone away’.
The US, which executed 35 people last year but which had 3,035 people on death row as of October 2014, still has retribution as its motivation for execution. Statistics have repeatedly proven that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime, so it cannot claim – as Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has – that executing people reduces crime rates. Rather, execution is punishment born out of revenge, not an emotion that the US authorities would like to be known for. Therefore the convicted must have their life removed in an environment supposedly devoid of emotion: death should be painless, private, rational, and so lethal injection in front of a small group of selected witnesses is the method of choice.
By contrast, Iran (which, at over 289 officially reported executions in 2014, comes #2 on Amnesty International’s list of top executing countries) sometimes chooses to execute its criminals by hanging them from cranes in public places – the higher the hanging the more people can see. The execution in Syria in February this year of a man convicted of homosexuality who was thrown from a high-rise building offered the same extreme level of public visibility.
Similarly, the recent beheadings of prisoners by ISIS were all documented on professionally filmed videos that were addressed to Western leaders and broadcast around the world. These are authorities, whether politically recognised or not, who want to ensure that the execution sends a very specific message of deterrence to a chosen audience – who watches the execution is as important as who is executed. In this way, they profoundly resemble early modern states who used the capital punishment of criminals as a moment not only to exact revenge on the perpetrator of a crime and offer a visual and terrifying deterrent for the spectators, but also to demonstrate their own power over their own citizens. The crimes committed, such an authority argues, are not crimes against individuals but crimes against the entire society, and therefore all of society must be a part of their expiation.
In the end, therefore, for President Widodo the result of this mass execution could not have resulted in a better outcome: eight of the nine prisoners, all of whom were believed to have been guilty of drug smuggling, were violently killed, sending a message to the world that Indonesia will be tough on those smuggling drugs into the country, while the one prisoner believed to have been duped, wrongly accused and then convicted, was reprieved, demonstrating – as he would see it – Widodo’s openness to due process and his merciful compassion. Whether the weeping families of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan, Rodrigo Gularte, Jamiu Owolabi Abashin, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Martin Anderson, Zainal Abidin and Okwuduli Oyatanze would see it that way is another matter.
By Dr. Una McIlvenna, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature, Queen Mary University of London, Honorary Research Fellow, CHE
For more on her research with CHE, see Singing the News of Death: Song in Early Modern European Execution (1500-1900)
or follow her on twitter at @UnaMcIlvenna