The Dinshaway incident was a violent clash that occurred in June 1906 between Egyptian peasants in the village of Dinshaway and British soldiers who were pigeon hunting in the area. The British had occupied Egypt in 1882 at the request of the Ottoman viceroy, who used British soldiers to help to put down the Urabi Rebellion, an Egyptian constitutionalist movement. By 1906, inflation, financial corruption, and obvious contrasts between the living standards of the British and those of most native Egyptians combined to create resentment of the occupation.
On June 13, 1906, five British officers were hunting pigeons in Dinshaway, a village in the province of Minufiya in the Nile Delta. Egyptian peasants raised pigeons for eggs and considered the meat a delicacy that made men virile, so they did not approve of the British hunting the birds. For this reason, hunters had to get permission from the village headman. The five officers were granted permission by the headman and were provided with transportation. The headman, however, was not in the village upon their arrival.
The soldiers commenced hunting and, shortly thereafter, a village threshing floor caught fire. Angry peasants armed with nabouts, heavy wooden sticks tipped with lead, surrounded the officers, claiming their shots had started the fire. The officers later stated that they had willingly surrendered their weapons, but that one of the rifles had accidentally discharged twice. Curiously, the officers also claimed that these two shots were responsible for the injuries to four villagers, including the wife of the local imam. This enraged the villagers who then attacked the officers as they were trying to leave, taking the contents of their pockets and beating them with nabouts and bricks.
The beatings severely injured three officers: one had a broken arm, another a broken nose, and the other a head injury. One of the injured men attempted to run back to his camp for help, which was five miles away, but eventually collapsed. A medical exam later revealed that he had suffered a concussion during the fighting, which, in combination with sunstroke, killed him. Troops later discovered a peasant dead nearby from a blow to the head, along with another villager who had been shot in an unrelated incident. British officials believed the attack was premeditated and that the officers had been lured into a trap.
Shortly thereafter, the British had fifty-two villagers arrested for "crimes of violence against the officers and men of the army of occupation" (Parliamentary Papers 1906, pp. 1-2). Evelyn Baring (1841–1917), the first Lord Cromer and British Consul for Egypt, was in England at the time, but ordered that the villagers be tried according to an 1895 decree mandating special treatment for those who attacked British military personnel. Such crimes were to be considered by a special tribunal composed of both Egyptian and British officials that could administer swift justice and penalties of greater severity than were permitted by the Egyptian criminal code. Cromer intended the Dinshaway trial to serve as a warning to those who plotted violence against the British.
The trial was held June 27, 1906. The daughter of the villagers' attorney, Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid, claims that the fifty-two accused were questioned in thirty minutes by a tribunal of five men, only two of whom spoke sufficient Arabic to understand the defendants. All on the tribunal, it should be noted, knew Arabic. The officers identified twenty-one villagers as their attackers. The court was unanimous in judging these villagers guilty of premeditated murder and violent robbery. It sentenced four men to hang, nine to prison, five to public flogging, and three others to both prison and flogging. Some 500 Egyptians from the province, including the village inhabitants, watched the hangings and whippings carried out the next day.
The severity of the punishment was perhaps due to inflammatory rhetoric against the occupation in the Egyptian press that year, which had British officials anticipating resistance. Many Egyptians were intensely shocked by what they saw. The author Qasim Amin (1863–1908) reported a national sense of humiliated depression, writing that every Egyptian face evinced a "peculiar sort of sadness." He said of this sadness: "It was confused, distracted, and visibly subdued by superior force…. The spirits of the hanged men seemed to hover over every place in the city" (Ahmed 1960, p. 63).
Egyptian intellectuals seized upon this incident as an example of imperialist oppression. Arabic presses spread word of the trial and agony of the villagers, whom they characterized as martyrs of the occupation, and printed songs and poems of resistance. One song, reported by Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid, said: "They fell upon Dinshwai, and spared neither man nor his brother. Slowly they hanged the one and flogged the other" (1969, p. 173). Jamal Ahmed found similar sentiments expressed in poetry: "Man's life is as cheap as a beast's, and like to wild doves are we … we too have chains around our necks" (1960, p. 63). Intellectuals' arguments against the occupation now found a receptive audience among the peasants, and rural violence against British soldiers increased. The incident became legendary; it came to represent, for many, the true spirit of the British occupiers, and generated widespread support for the resistance movement.
Another effect of the Dinshaway incident was a worsening in relations between Christians and Muslims. The head of the special tribunal and acting Minister of Justice was Butrus Ghali—a Coptic Christian. He was assassinated in 1911.
The British House of Commons censured Cromer for his handling of the incident. Cromer's response was a lukewarm defense of flogging, which he had previously worked to eliminate, as occasionally necessary for maintaining public order. The deputy who had been in charge during Cromer's absence, Mansfeld Findlay, wrote that Egyptians, being fatalists, did not fear death, nor did imprisonment have an effect on them; thus flogging was appropriate. Many officials involved later decided that the punishment had not fit the crime. Ultimately the uproar contributed to Cromer's resignation in 1907. His successor, Sir John Eldon Gorst (1835–1916), had the imprisoned villagers released in 1910, but the British continued to rule Egypt formally until 1922.
see also Baring, Evelyn.
Lutfi al-Sayyid, Afaf. Egypt and Cromer: A Study in Anglo-Egyptian Relations. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.
Owen, Roger. "Things Fall Apart." In Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Parliamentary Papers, Egypt no. 3. "Correspondence respecting the attack on the British officers at Denshawai." London: Harrison and Sons, 1906.