Egypt 1906: Denshawai or the Peasants’ Forgotten Resistance

For today’s Egyptians, the incident that occurred at Denshawai in the British Egypt of 1906 is still a symbol of national resistance to colonial brutality. But the narrative of the event, constructed mainly by colonial and national elites, neglects the long history of Egyptian peasants’ struggles for autonomy.

One of the peasants convicted of the death of a British officer in Denshawai leaves the court after hearing his sentence
Illustration taken from an English newspaper at the time of the incident

More than a hundred years after it occurred, the Denshawai affair still resonates: al-Qaida mentioned it in two press releases: in 2005, to justify its attacks in London, then in 2009, to denounce President Barack Obama’s visit to Cairo. Most Westerners didn’t understand the reference. Yet it is a key element of popular Egyptian culture1. It is taught in schools, it has its own museum, and its story appears even on social media.

‘A head cut open like a melon’

The event took place on 13 June 1906, when five British officers showed up at the village of Denshawai in the Nile delta for a pigeon shoot. The village’s dovecotes were famous and the officers were there for the third year in a row. In Egypt, a British possession since 1882, foreign officers felt entitled to shoot birds reared for their sport at their leisure.

However, as soon as the first shot was fired, a village mob attacked the officers. The villagers immobilised three of the officers without too much violence, and waited for the authorities to arrive to hand them over. The two other officers escaped. The first reached his military camp a few kilometres away. From there, a mounted military patrol galloped towards Denshawai. On the road, they came across the second officer who was dying; an Egyptian peasant was standing by his side.

This peasant was later found dead with his head ‘literally cut open like a melon’. The authorities suspected the soldiers of revenge, believing the peasant to be their comrade’s assailant. Nonetheless, they were never investigated and the officer was taken back to his camp, where he died. According to a British military forensic doctor, his death was due less to the blows he received when trying to escape from Denshawai than to sunstroke from his miles-long run under the blazing sun.

A double consensus against the peasantry

Against all probability and after only a brief inquiry, some fifty villagers were accused of premeditating the attack on the officers and killing one of them, and brought before a ‘special tribunal’. This court, composed of five judges (two Egyptian and three British), had been created to sue ‘natives’ who attacked the occupation army’s soldiers. No penal laws limited the court’s decisions, which could not be appealed.

Until the verdict was announced, no voices were raised in Egypt in support of the peasants. Even the most radical nationalist, Mustafa Kamil Pasha, expressed his confidence in the special tribunal. Prominent members of the Egyptian elite, from the entire nationalist spectrum, took part in the trial either as prosecutors, judges or lawyers. The latter distinguished themselves in making defence speeches that were very similar to the indictment. A double – colonial and national – consensus for the repression of Egyptian peasants prevailed.

Twenty-one villagers were harshly condemned, four to death by hanging; the others’ sentences ranged from seven years’ prison to life, sometimes with hard labour and whipping. Both the punishments and hangings took place inside the village of Denshawai, in front of the victims’ close relations.

When ‘Le Figaro’ spoke out

The harshness and cruelty of the sentences led some Egyptian nationalists to denounce the British occupation. The press – which was free at this time in Egypt – played an important part in the mobilisation. Kamil Pasha’s Arabic-language newspaper Al-Liwaa (19 June 1906) naturally took the lead. English and French-speaking Egyptian newspapers also reported the incident, even if not all of them condemned the British. The affair escalated and its impact went far beyond Egypt’s borders.

In France, Kamil Pasha himself wrote on the front page of Le Figaro, contradicting colonial accusations of Egyptian backwardness and barbarism, and directing that same charge at the British. The former British diplomat and supporter of Egyptian nationalism, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, adopted this same position in the British press and then in Le Figaro. The echo of ‘the Denshawai business’ even reached the other side of the Atlantic with articles in the New York Times.

In the British parliament, an unofficial group of socialists, Irish nationalists and liberals opposed to British politics in Egypt challenged the government. They drew a parallel between abusive repression in the Denshawai case and British wrongdoings in Ireland and those committed in Congo by the Belgians. The incident, by now under the media spotlight, turned into an affair of state. The British de facto ruler of Egypt, Evelyn Baring (later the first Earl of Cromer) was the main target of members of parliament. Full of racist disdain and denial, Cromer’s replacement Sir Eldon Gorst answered that ‘the prisoners who were flogged cried out, as an Egyptian always does under the influence of physical pain’. Under intense political pressure, Cromer finally left Egypt in May 1907. In recognition of his ‘immense services’ and the so-called revival of justice in Egypt, the House of Commons granted Cromer an exceptional sum of some tens of thousands of pounds.

Cromer’s departure didn’t put a stop to the anti-British campaign. Some liberals, who could in no way be considered anti-imperialists, perceived the British treatment of the Denshawai incident as a betrayal of the liberal ideal their country was supposed to uphold. Fifty-six leading figures, who ‘can be seen as a who’s-who that included writers, scholars, politicians, and social reformers2’, signed a petition demanding the release of the villagers still in jail. Hoping to restore the Empire’s tarnished image, the British government acceded to the request in January 1908. A year and half after the event, the Denshawai incident was finally over.

Elitist interpretation

By then, a fear of global jihad, seen as either pan-Islamist or nationalist, had already set in among European rulers. Without any proof, the British colonisers thought that, at Denshawai, if the ‘fellaheen’ – that inferior and eternally submissive ‘race’, according to the anthropological science of the time – had dared to lay into British officers, it could only be down to an insurrection inspired by Islamic fanaticism. This political interpretation of the incident explains the unlikely charge of premeditated attack.

Contrary to the British version of events, Egyptian nationalists argued that it was a spontaneous, apolitical affray which came from the peasants’ backwardness. This reflected an elitist vision of the rural world shared by colonisers and nationalists. To refute the British charge of responsibility, Kamil Pasha went so far as to say that ‘the fellaheen are the people furthest removed from politics and their intelligence can’t reach it’, adding that ‘an affray with unfortunate consequences may take place between fellaheen after a disagreement over a metal ring, a pigeon or a chicken… So the question is not premeditated, rather it is the consequence of an occasional outburst in the fury of the moment.’

During the First World War and the 1919 Egyptian revolution for independence, the Denshawai affair was constantly referred to in order to show how barbarian the United Kingdom was. Just before the Second World War, Egypt’s almost official historian, Abd al-Rahman al-Rafai, wrote about Denshawai and the incident became part of Egyptian national myth. After the war, the Free Officers, who took power in 1952, introduced an agrarian reform, and the peasantry became the heart of independent Egypt’s politics. In this new context, the Denshawai incident took on a national dimension. Paradoxically, the British colonial and Egyptian national versions finally met: it was now a political attack on the occupation. Even today, this colonial-national narrative remains dominant. To go beyond this elitist version, the incident needs to be seen in its own context: rural Egypt’s fight against the European sport of hunting.

Rural Egypt’s fight against the European sport of hunting

From the second half of the 19th century, Egypt turned into a virtual game reserve for Europeans, especially for birds. Shooting became the pastime not just of the British army but also of tourists (already a widespread phenomenon), Europeans living in Egypt and ornithologists, all of whom invaded the Egyptian countryside.

Quail, cattle egrets and pigeons were their favourite game, though there was also some fox hunting. Pigeon shooting was seen, at the time, as a noble sport, and a way to uphold aristocratic values. Meanwhile, mistaken for ibis (sacred to the pharaohs), cattle egrets became the Europeans’ game of choice.

For Egyptians, hunting was a professional activity other than for aristocrats. Of the four species of game favoured by Europeans, only quail were of interest to Egyptian professional hunters. Foxes were not seen as pests as they helped to get rid of rodents, a real plague, especially in the Delta. Similarly, cattle egrets, voracious insectivores, were seen as of use to agriculture.

Last were pigeons: from time immemorial rural Egyptians had built dovecotes, sometimes monumental in size, in which the birds were free to come and go. Even if they damaged seeds and sprouts, pigeons’ guano was a free and abundant fertiliser, unrivalled for growing cucurbits, vegetables that were produced only for the village economy, for subsistence or sale of the surplus.

In Europe, hunting caused conflict between farmers and hunters; that was not the case in a colonial context. As one European hunter wrote, ‘it certainly adds considerably to the pleasure of the Nile trip always to feel oneself to be the lord of the manor, with perfect liberty to shoot what we please and walk where we like, regardless of crops or boundaries3.’

Cattle egrets in danger of extinction

Without restrictions on shooting, cattle egrets were now in danger of extinction. With the shooting of other small insectivore birds, the development of irrigation and the increase in the rate of crop rotation, the dramatic decrease in cattle egrets modified the Egyptian ecosystem. The country saw a proliferation of insects, especially a worm that spread across the cotton fields, to the point that the textile industry – so important to European capitalism – was now under threat. From 1895, Egyptian children were obliged to pick infected cotton leaves by hand.

Egyptian peasants resisted hunting for leisure. Countless disputes were documented during this period; the most significant was a circular from 1885, through which the Egyptian ministry of interior hoped to put an end to ‘fellaheen’s attacks’ on European hunters. Likewise, in the Giza Governorate – famous for its pyramids – a regulation designed to prevent hunting disputes was in force: in exchange for financial compensation, some landowners lost their right to prohibit, or even contest, quail shooting. In short, without the semi-accidental death of a British soldier, the Denshawai incident would have remained just an ordinary event.

The fellaheen’s point of view

Egyptian political order is distinguished by the autonomous organisation of its villages, put in place by local authorities and by agricultural practices and knowledge based on specific relationships to the environment and to certain animals. Yet, at the start of the 20th century, this old autonomy was about to die out as a result of the intensification of agriculture and land concentration, which had turned the peasantry into an agricultural proletariat. Hunting for sport confirmed the disappearance of village autonomy.

Unable to stop the disorders provoked by hunting parties, village authorities were losing their power. Fox hunting and quail shooting were devastating crops. And cattle egret and pigeon shooting made it necessary to replace animals by human labour, even unpaid or forced (the ‘corvée’), or by the use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides, which created, or increased, dependence on these products. In this context, the inability to put their own knowledge – of agriculture and animals – to use is another mark of disempowerment.

To save their autonomy, villagers asked the state for help. They hoped to hand European hunters over to justice, but none were prosecuted. But after the Denshawai incident, the state adopted reforms to put an end to hunting conflicts; a license was introduced, and landowners’ consent for a shoot to take place was now required. The shooting of pigeons and cattle egrets was strictly forbidden.

The ban on cattle egret shooting was helped by the fact that the birds were useful for agriculture. Protecting them meant protecting the cotton fields and the textile industry. But this was not the case for pigeons, useful only for village autonomy. Quail shooting and fox hunting remained legal. Yet, after Denshawai, a kind of peace prevailed in the Egyptian countryside. Europeans no longer behaved as lords of the manor. Only a year after the incident, a tourism guidebook stipulated that ‘a request to keep off any ground should instantly be complied with4’.

Struggling for village autonomy

Instead of seeing Denshawai only as an exceptional event marking the revival of Egypt’s national liberation struggle after the crushing 1882 defeat, one can also view it as the partly successful outcome of a half-century of rural struggle for the preservation of village autonomy.

When Denshawai villagers attacked the officers, it was not just to protect their pigeons. They were also mindful of the decrease in the number of cattle egrets which had reduced their children to unpaid forced labour. They had watched Europeans devastating their crops in pursuit of a fox or trampling the countryside on a quail shoot. Maybe they had heard it said that in Giza peasants were forced to sow their fields to attract the birds that served as game for European hunters.

Peasants struggled for their autonomy while colonial and national elites fought each other for state power. And as they had no interest in village autonomy, the rural, wildlife and ecological dimensions of the incident were silenced. Yet, even today, village autonomy, based on those same dimensions, still represents another way to post-colonial emancipation.

1The vast majority of the Denshawai incident’s archives can be consulted at The National Archive (TNA) in Kew (London) inside the Foreign Office collection (reference FO 371/66).

2Alana Kimberly Luke, ‘Peering through the lens of Dinshwai: British imperialism in Egypt 1882–1914’, Ph. D, The Florida State University, 2010 ; p. 95.

3George Ernest Shelley, Handboook to the Birds of Egypt, John Van Voorst, 1872; p. 22.

4Handbook for Egypt and the Sudan, Edward Stanford, London,1907; p. 56.