From Kanaky to Algeria, the Guillotine Is also a Colonial Weapon


Léopold Lambert – Paris on May 18, 2020
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Today, May 18, 2020, marks the 152nd anniversary of a traumatizing event in Kanaky (i.e. colonized New Caledonia). 15 years after the invasion of the Melanesian archipelago by the French colonial army, indigenous revolts remained strong against the massive colonial land looting — they later reached their peak in 1878 with the insurrection of the Komalé Great Chief Ataï. The French colonial administration wanted to crush the insurrectionist spirit and condemned to death ten Kanak accused of having ambushed the colonial army outside of the Tchambouène tribe near the village of Pouébo. They were then publicly executed by way of guillotine in front of the chiefs and population of the Mwelebeng clan in a place called Uvanu. Today, a memorial commemorates this massacre on the very space where it happened.

Memorial of Uvanu. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2019).

The guillotine has good press these days, in particular among North American leftist online circles, that use it as a humorous symbol of a pending class revolution. This image is, of course, justified by the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution, although one might not realize that it was used for the execution of over 13,000 people in the years that followed. As often in the history of “lesser evils,” this invention by Joseph Ignace Guillotin in 1789, which was meant to make the execution less painful and cruel, was used to industrialize death (for more on this, see this 2013 article on this blog). As such, there was no reason that it would not be imported around the French colonial empire and used against those whose death had been industrialized for years already.

Guillotine Constantine
Homage to the prisoners executed during the Algerian Revolution in Constantine. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

Similarly to many colonial strategies, Algeria was a privileged site of use of the guillotine, as early as 1843. During the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962), the self-attributed “Special Powers” to the French colonial government authorized a much greater latitude in the scope of actions that could be punishable by death to prevent the end of colonial rule. This is how 2,300 Algerians (and a few of the settler who also fought for the Revolution) were condemned to death between 1956 and 1962. Over 90% of them were never executed, but the remaining 10% were executed one by one in a intensive frequency (as the commemorating plate on the walls of the Constantine prison can attest). Although executions were supposed to be performed in secret, inside prisons, the numerous revolutionary detainees, in particular women, made sure to keep vigilant as to when an execution would happen in order to manifest a last form of support to their soon-to-be-executed friend and comrade, as well as to warn the surrounding neighborhood (in the case of the Barberousse prison, this neighborhood was Algiers Casbah itself) of the unfolding event inside the prison. When creating the canonical film The Battle of Algiers a couple of years after the end of the Revolution, Gilo Pontecorvo clearly saw the importance of these moments of great colonial violence as he chose to open the films with such a film.

For a doctor of the Barberousse prison, despite “being used to the worst,” executions “accompanied by the women’s screamings and chants” are “a true nightmare.” Women hold a particular role in these events […] as Djamila Amrane explains: “The female quarters are situated on the ground floor, at the same level than the courtyard and adjacent to the prison door. It happens often that female militants, who can’t sleep because of the anguish created by the potentiality of a new execution, hear the squeezing of the heavy gate that opens to give room to the truck” that would later transport the dismantled guillotine. These women thus alter the nearby Casbah — “and the whole prison was singing, Algier was shaking” describes Yves Jouffa. (Sylvie Thénault, Une drôle de justice: Les magistrats dans la guerre d’Algérie, La Découverte, 2001).

After the independence of the country in 1962, death penalty remained in Algeria but the guillotine was deemed as too linked to the 162 years of French colonialism. In France, the last person to be executed (death penalty was abolished in 1981) was, unsurprisingly, a former colonized subject, Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian person whose serious mental health issues had not prevented his sentence. His execution occurred on September 10, 1977, in the middle of the courtyard of the infamous Baumettes prison in Marseille.

This short text could not possibly have the ambition to properly unfold the important history that its title suggests. However, it seemed important to write it for two reasons: the first one was to pay homage to the ten Kanak guillotined in Uvanu 152 years ago today. We remember them and pay respect to their descendants who are still struggling against French colonialism over a century and a half later. The second was to state that when one uses the symbol of the guillotine lightly because their knowledge of this weapon’s history stops with the execution of King Louis XVI in the middle of Paris’ Place de la Concorde on January 21, 1793, many of us have much more recent and much less revolutionary examples in mind when we think of it.