Execution by Cannon in Nineteenth & Twentieth-century Afghanistan

N.R. Jenzen-Jones & Charles Randall

In much of southern and western Asia, the practice of ‘blowing from a gun’—by which the condemned was bound to the front of a cannon and quite literally blown to pieces using a blank charge—was once a feared tool in the arsenal of state executioners. The method was most infamously employed in British India and the Princely State, but the technique pre-dated British presence in India, and was practiced by rulers across the region. Blowing from the gun was considered especially useful in Afghanistan, where weak governance, rebellion, and rampant banditry all threatened the legitimacy of the nascent state in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the eventual geographic nexus of the macabre punishment, Afghan rulers enthusiastically wielded execution by cannon as the ultimate deterrent. In fact, Afghanistan was reluctant to abandon the practice, continuing to execute prisoners in this fashion well into the twentieth century.

Figure 1.1 A full-page illustration that appeared on the back page of the illustrated supplement to Le Petit Journal of 23 November 1913. The caption reads: “How political convicts are executed in Afghanistan”; “The perpetrators of a plot against the Emir are killed by cannon fire”. Emir Habibullah Khan is visible in the front row of the crowd, over the condemned man’s left shoulder (source: Le Petit Journal, 1913).

Afghanistan in the nineteenth century was well-placed to adopt the practice of execution by cannon on a widespread scale. It had once formed part of the Mughal Empire, where the practice was well-known, and was situated between British India and Persia—both adherents of the practice. The Afghan government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also held little power outside of the country’s major cities. As such, bandits—often affiliated with rival political factions—repeatedly threated the ruling dynasties. Along with bandits and thieves, political rivals and rebel leaders were also executed by cannon. In 1802, for example, Mahmud Shah Durrani had a Ghilzai rebel and his two sons blown from guns, and this practice continued through the reigns of his successors. In 1841, Afghan man was executed by cannon after murdering, apparently without cause, a European writer. Later that year, an Anglo–Durrani expedition under the command of General William Knott captured rebel leader Akram Khan, who was subsequently blown from a gun on the orders of Shah Shuja’s son. Whilst the practice appears to have varied in frequency over time, as different rulers came and went, blowing from the gun became an important tool in Emir Abdur Rahman Khan’s efforts to establish a stable Afghan state. During the Iron Emir’s 21-year reign, he claimed to have executed some 120,000 people. While Rahman reigned, everyone from petty criminals to anti-government insurgents could expect to be executed upon capture:

Those who were most likely to Incur the Amir’s wrath were, of course, those who rebelled against his authority, but even the most ordinary of criminal acts was viewed as treasonous and liable to exemplary, if not summary, justice.

Edwards, 1996

Execution by cannon was a “common form of execution” under Rahman. A contemporary newspaper notes that Rahman ordered 300 rebels to be transported to Kabul in 1889 for execution, 100 of whom were blown from guns. Frank Martin, who wrote extensively about his time with Rahman and his son, wrote that the punishment is typically reserved for “Men who rob or swindle Government funds…also highway robbers and spies…”. Rahman’s successful military campaigns and brutal domestic crack-downs—including the widespread use of cannon in executing prisoners—helped him achieve his broader political aims. Today, Rahman is widely credited with establishing the modern Afghan state. His son, Habibullah Khan, also enthusiastically adopted the practice. In 1905, a spy was blown from the noon-day gun at Sherpur Cantonment—a moment depicted by the Illustrated London News (see Figure 1.2). As depicted in Figure 1.1, Habibullah also had nine conspirators executed by cannon in 1913. Le Petit Journal wrote:

“Recently a plot against the Emir was discovered in Kabul. Nine of the leaders of the conspirators were taken, tried, and condemned to death. Nine cannons were brought in and loaded, after which a conspirator was tied to each cannon’s mouth; the nine shots fired at the same time, tearing the bodies of the nine condemned to pieces.”

Le Petit Journal, 1913

Figure 2 A spy being blown from the noon-day gun at Sherpur Cantonment, outside Kabul, in 1905 (source: The Illustrated London News, 1905).

Whilst British and Indian rulers largely used the practice as the ultimate military punishment (often executing mutineers in this fashion), Afghan and Persian rulers made widespread use of the punishment in the civilian context, often to punish banditry and other relatively common crimes. Executions typically took place in public areas so as to maximise the visibility of the punishment amongst the intended civilian audience. The practice was intended to instil terror and act as a deterrent against future crimes—but it also carried with it the threat of spiritual, as well as mortal, punishment. A witness to an execution in Afghanistan, described how a victim’s entrails were “in an instant devoured by the dogs that were loitering about the spot”. This appears to have been an intended consequence. Abdur Rahman Khan wrote that he sentenced a group of men to be executed by cannon “on market day, so that their flesh should be eaten by the dogs of the camp, and their bones remain lying about till the festival was over”. The prospects of having one’s body parts scattered, eaten by wild animals, and perhaps buried in shared graves had a religious and cultural impact on the peoples of Afghanistan beyond the physical threat of execution.

Execution by cannon was simply one of the many forms of public execution used in the Islamic world. Muslim rulers could (often selectively) draw on Islamic law that allowed for—or, in some cases, outright demanded—offenders be put to death for crimes such as banditry, terrorism, and rebellion. Whether for religious or practical reasons, the practice of execution by cannon endured in Afghanistan longer than any other country. In 1930, a mass execution by cannon—perhaps the last time this method was used in Afghanistan—was reported by The New York Times, which reported that eleven “followers of the dead usurper, Bacha Sakao, have been blown from guns at Kabul”. The order was given by Dost Mohammed Khan’s nephew, Mohammed Nadir Shah.

This article has been produced under the auspices of the Kabul Arsenal Project. The authors are grateful to their KARP colleagues, and to Darius Hoflack, for their inputs.


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