05 April, 2010

Burning alive

Burning alive.  I had mentioned in the post on the death penalty in Anguilla that there was no evidence that any one had ever been executed in the island.  Now, I have been sent documents that prove otherwise.  It would be as well to share them with you.  The first is a record of a trial by the Council of Anguilla in 1758 of two runaway slaves known only as Pero and George.  The record reads:
At a meeting of His Majesty’s Council, being present, The Honourable Benjamin Gumbs, Esquire; John Hughes, Benjamin Roberts, Joseph Burnett, Esquires, Members of Council.
Whereas two negro men, namely, Pero and George, belonging to this island have been lately taken on board a Schooner of War belonging to the subjects of the King of France who had in a felonious and treasonable manner fled from this island to the French in time of war between the Crowns of England and France; and likewise endeavouring to pilot and did aid and assist the said subjects of the Crown of France to land on the said island Anguilla to distress the said English inhabitants of said island.
It is hereby ordered and decreed by this Court that the negro man called George be put to death immediately by burning of his body until it be dead and that the negro man called Pero be immediately put to death by hanging by the neck until he be dead.
Signed by command, Joseph Burnett, Clerk to the Council.
It would appear from this record that, some time before their execution in 1758, George and Pero had fled from Anguilla and enlisted on a French privateer, probably from St Martin, and whose victims would have included Anguillian sloops and schooners.  More grievously, they had allegedly acted as guides for a French raid on Anguilla, though there is no confirmation of such a raid between 1756 and 1758 in the historical records.  This trial took place during the time of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between the British and the French.  As such, they had been found guilty of committing the very serious crime of treason. 
Pero must have been a slave of Sarah Hodge of Anguilla as there is also a copy of her letter to her son confirming that she consents to the execution.  The letter reads:
Tuesday night, 19th September 1758
Dear son,
I received your note which does not a little surprise me, to think that Pero has been taken on board a French Privateer, his behaviour has been so extraordinary, that I resign him to the Governor and Council, to do as they think proper. I hope this may in some wise deter the other negros from the like attempts.
I am dear son, your loving mother, Sarah Hodge.
Death by burning alive has a long history as a method of execution in crimes such as treason, heresy, and witchcraft.  In 1184, the Roman Catholic Synod of Verona legislated that burning was to be the official punishment for heresy, as Church policy was against the spilling of blood.  It was also believed that the condemned would have no body to be resurrected in the Afterlife.  The decree was later reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran.  Burning was also used by Protestants during the witch-hunts of EuropeEdward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton-on-Trent, was the last person to be burnt at the stake for heresy in England in the market square of Lichfield, Staffordshire, on 11 April 1612.
In the United Kingdom, the traditional punishment for women found guilty of treason was to be burnt at the stake, where they did not need to be publicly displayed naked.  Men were hanged, drawn and quartered.  The penalty of burning was introduced into the Colonies during the eighteenth century.  The most famous use in the New World occurred in the New York slave revolt conspiracy of 1741.  A large group of slaves were accused of plotting to escape and to destroy their masters at the instigation of white abolitionists.  Some 35 people, including 4 whites, were found guilty and executed.  Most of them were hanged, but 13 slaves were burned alive at the stake.  The plot allegedly included mass arson, which may have influenced this choice of punishment.
Burning at the stake fell out of favour among governments in the late 18th century when more 'humane' methods were introduced.  In 1789, Catherine Murphy, convicted of counterfeiting, was the last person to be burnt at the stake in England.  In 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett, who had been involved in her trial, introduced a bill into Parliament to end the practice.  The Treason Act of 1790 which resulted gave ladies equal access to the halter, and was duly given royal assent by King George III.
From this we can deduce that the sentence of death by burning imposed on George by the Anguilla Council was a lawful form of capital punishment in cases of treason, the crime for which he had been convicted.  The Anguilla Council of the time had no jurisdiction to convict or to execute a free person of treason or any other felony.  Anguilla never had a writ of assize issued to hold trials of felonies and misdemeanours until after she was joined to St Kitts in 1825.  A free person would have had to have been deported to Antigua, the seat of the Governor in Chief of the Leeward Islands, to be tried for treason and executed if convicted, as had been done with Captain Birmingham and the three French spies in 1711.  Slaves however were another matter.  They were not considered as persons but were the chattel property of their owners, and were not protected by law.  They could as easily be killed by their owners as executed by the Council.  The result is that Pero was hanged by the neck until he was dead, and George was burned at the stake in Crocus Bay
In practice, prisoners sentenced to be burned were usually strangled at the stake before the fire was set.  This was not to spare the victim the pain of burning, but to save his executioners the pain of seeing his suffering.  We can hope that this favour was shown to George, though he had clearly been sentenced to be burned alive until he be dead.  Both executions would have been carried out in public for the purpose of discouraging similar conduct by any discontented and rebellious slave in the future.


  1. There is also evidence of execution that survives in the oral tradition. I remember the old folks telling me of six people being hanged in Rey Hill back in the slave days.

  2. Quote: I remember the old folks telling ... back in the slave days.

    Did Don not say that there were no executions (except the two just reported) since the abolition of slavery? If my memory is correct, than the oral tradition does not contradict Don's reports.


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