Tuesday, February 13, 2007

February 13

On this date in 1692, Scottish forces acting on the authority of the English King William slaughtered nearly 40 Highlanders from the MacDonald clan in Glencoe. The massacre was a consequence of the clan’s delayed pledge of allegiance to William, who had taken the throne in 1688 when the Scottish King James VII (James II of England) was ousted from power. William had offered a pardon to Highland clans who took the oath before January 1, 1692, but the Glencoe chief, Alistair Maclain, was several days late in delivering his oath. Nevertheless, he believed he had fulfilled the spirit of the ultimatum and returned to Glencoe with no apprehension of the horrors to come.

A month later, 120 men from the Earl of Argyll’s foot regiment arrived in Glencoe, ostensibly to collect a routine household tax. The troops were commanded by a man named Robert Campbell, whose property and livestock had been looted several years before by a company of men from Glencoe returning from a failed military campaign on behalf of the recently deposed Scottish King. Campbell and his men were nevertheless treated with customary hospitality, and they never disclosed the true nature of their mission. On February 12 word arrived from Campbell’s superior officer that the punishment of the MacDonald clan was to commence the next morning. The orders read:
You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial care, that the Old Fox and his Sons do upon no account escape your Hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the King’s Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch.
Early on the morning of February 13, Campbell’s men -- true to their orders -- fell upon Glencoe with the intention of killing several hundred people. Although most of the glen’s inhabitants were able to flee to the hills, Campbell’s troops managed to kill 38 people initially, including the chief and his wife, whose rings were bitten from her hand. When bad weather delayed the arrival of the promised reinforcements, the soldiers burned Glencoe and absconded with the livestock. When a snowstorm beset the region, another 40 of the MacDonald clan -- mostly women and children -- died of exposure.

An official inquiry into the Glencoe massacre resulted in a whitewash; with higher officials, including King William himself, exonerated, the massacre was widely and erroneously interpreted as a mere instance of clan rivalry rather than a deliberate act of state policy. Hard feelings about the events of 1692 survive to this day.

Over 400 years before the slaughter at Glencoe, an even larger massacre took place thousands of miles to the southeast in a city called Baghdad. There, on 13 February 1258, hundreds of thousands of warriors under the leadership of Hulagu Khan -- Ghengis Khan’s grandson -- rampaged through the city as the Mongol armies swept westward from Persia toward Egypt. The caliph al-Musta’sim, who had surrendered the city three days before after boasting that the Mongols would not stand a chance, was forced to watch Baghdad’s ruin before he was rolled up into a carpet and trampled by horses. Estimates of the final body count range from less than 100,000 to nearly a million. Much of the city was put to the torch, including the Grand Library; so many books clotted the Tigris, it was later claimed, a horse could have crossed with little difficulty.

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