Why Denshawai Should Be Remembered


There are often many signs that foretell the coming of a revolution; sometimes these signs are more obvious like a pivotal demonstration from the public, and sometimes they are more subversive like the strengthening of rules or military laws. Many foresaw the 1919 Egyptian revolution, as it came after a string of heated incidents and tragic events. In my opinion, the most critical event to look at is the Denshawai Incident of 1906. Because this tragic incident left Egypt in a state of turmoil causing a chain reaction that could not be stopped, many scholars site it as a vital turning point. In addition, it is in comparison to this event that many have tried to predict national Egyptian turmoil, looking back at the trends of the past to help determine what could unfold in the future.

Before looking at the significance of the Denshawai movement it is important to look at the details of the tragedy itself. It began when five British officers traveled into Denshawai in order to hunt pigeons for sport. However, the villagers had raised the pigeons for food, and so understandably tried to make the officers leave the area to stop killing their food source. As George Bernard Shaw, a British anti-imperialist says, “Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party ofChinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys…asserting that they were wild birds…and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place! Well, that is the British equivalent of what happened at Denshawai (Dunn, p. 1).” As the officers were leaving, a fire started in the village, and still under the influence of the anger caused by the shooting of their livestock, the villagers began to attack the officers. In the confusion, one of the officers opened fire, shooting the wife of a local religious leader. In addition, one of the officers collapsed and died while running for backup, though the cause was never entirely deduced. Unfortunately, when help arrived, they found a local villager trying to help the fallen officer, whom they assumed he had killed and beat the villager to death (Dunn, p. 1). The quick escalation of events proved to be too much to handle, and the situation was handled in a way that would cause even greater grief.

Though perhaps the Egyptians would have achieved the national reaction they needed to begin the revolution, the main reason that this event became so transformative for Egypt was the reaction from abroad. After 52 of the villagers were arrested and either sentenced to death, public floggings, or years in prison, a group of Egyptian students at Oxford wrote a telegram of grievances to the British Foreign Office calling for humanity and justice, the two themes that Britain often used to retain control of the Egyptians. “What Dinshawai revealed in painful detail was how colonial rule depended by its very nature on a systematic elaboration of exceptions to this ideal of universal justice. And whereas decades of legal reform had dramatically curtailed the range of sentences Egypt’s ordinary courts could mete out, such special courts were, by law, unlimited in the range of punishments they might inflict (Jakes, p. 1).” The hypocrisy exposed caused even many British (like Shaw) to pick up the call for justice in Egypt, even when Lord Cromer tried to justify the villagers’ sentences in the name of public security. Instead of discontinuing the calls for justice, powerful British men started a media campaign that eventually got all of the 52 prisoners released (Al-Effendi, p. 1).  A movement this big does not seem possible to quell, and eventually the unrest evolved into the revolution that led to Egypt’s independence.

In my opinion, the achievements of the revolution owe much to the Denshawai movement, which seems to be the pivotal point in the British imperialism, and many Egyptians study it as a proud battle of strengths. Anwar el-Sadat speaks in his autobiography of a song about the villager Zahran, one of the prisoners sentenced to death: “Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them. I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep… I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran (Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography I 1977, pp.5-6).”


Dunn, Michael C. “MEI Editor’s Blog: The Denshawai “Incident” 107 Years Later:

A Symbol of Colonial Arrogance Unforgotten in Egypt.”MEI Editor’s Blog: The Denshawai “Incident” 107 Years Later: A Symbol of Colonial Arrogance Unforgotten in Egypt. Middle East Institute, 13 June 2013. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.

Jakes, Aaron. “Why Remember Dinshawai?” Egypt Independent. N.p., 13 June 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.

Sadat, Anwar. In Search of Identity: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. Print.

Wahab Al-Effendi, Abdul. “Egypt’s Bout of Mad Judiciary Disease.” Middle

East Monitor. The Middle East Monitor, 30 Nov. 2013. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.