15 January 1886
On 15 January 1886, Colonel Willoughby Hooper, the Provost Marshal at Mandalay in Burma, ordered the extrajudicial execution of five suspect rebels. According to a E.K. Moylan, The Times Mandalay correspondent, the Colonel then used their killing and other similar shootings to practice his photography skills.
‘The Provost Marshal,’ the correspondent explained, ‘is an ardent amateur photographer (who) is desirous of obtaining views of the persons executed at the precise moment when they are struck by the bullets. To secure this result, after the orders “Ready,” “Present,” have been given to the firing party, the Provost Marshal fixes his camera on the prisoners, who at times are kept waiting for some minutes in that position. The officer commanding the firing party is then directed by the Provost Marshal to give the order to fire the moment when he exposes his plate. So far no satisfactory negative has been obtained, and the experiments are likely to be continued.’1
On the day of the executions, Colonel Hooper threatened a sixth prisoner with execution unless he provided evidence about an anti-British insurgency. The man was spared at the last moment after he made accusations against two Burmese Ministers. The Globe newspaper explained that ‘at first it was (claimed)… that the prisoner was condemned to death, and the proceedings amounted to an offer of life to him if he would become Queen’s evidence. This defence was only abandoned when Colonel Sladen pointed out to him that no death sentence could be passed without his signature as Chief Civil Officer, and denied that he had signed any order in Wooquet’s case.’2
A day later, according to The Times, the naked corpses of the other executed prisoners were carried through the streets witnessed by hundreds, including many women and children. In gruesome detail it described how ‘the entrails were protruding from one body through the wounds made by the bullets.’3 However, anxiety in the British press focused almost exclusively on the ethics of the photography, which the Colonel tried to justify by pointing out the unusual circumstances. ‘No previous attempt,’ he explained, ‘had ever been made to secure the picture of an execution’ and he insisted that ‘the words of command were in no way timed to suit the exposure of the plate, which was instantaneous.’4 At least one witness contradicted this statement, but the Colonel was never convicted of any offence and even though he was persuaded to retire, it was on a full pension.5
A few years later, historian Grattan Greary advanced a sharp observation on the double standards of the British press in his book Burma After the Conquest. He agreed that the graphic photography had ‘created a bad impression from which from which Colonel Hooper must be prepared to suffer in public opinion. But,’ he added, ‘it is open to doubt whether there is not something pharasaical in the spirit which revolts at the operation of photographing a batch of men at the moment of their execution, when their execution in batches is accepted as an ordinary incident in the subjugation of a conquered people.’6
- ‘Burmah’, The Times, 21 January 1886, p. 5 Issue 31662 accessed online at The Times Digital Archive on 1 November 2018.
- ‘The Allegations against the Provost Marshal,’ The Globe, 29 January 1886, p. 6 and ‘Burmah’, The Times, 22 January 1886, p. 5 Issue 31663 accessed online at The Times Digital Archives on 1 November 2018.
- ‘Burmah”, The Times, 29 January p. 5 Issue 31669 accessed online at The Times Digital Archive on 1 November 2018.
- ‘Burmah’ The Times, Mar 04, 1886; p, 5; Issue 31698 accessed online at The Times Digital Archive on 1 November 2018.
- Rodney Atwood, The Life of Field Marshal Roberts, Bloomsbury, London, 2015, p. 141.
- Grattan Greary cited in Terence R. Blackburn, Executions by the Half Dozen: The Pacification of Burma, APH Publishing, New Delhi, 2008, p. 39.
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