The English in Ireland and the Practice of Massacre (6)


In cities it might be impossible to distinguish male combatants from male non-combatants, and Vitoria drew the conclusion: "In reality all the adult men in an enemy city are to be thought of as enemies, since the innocent cannot be distinguished from the guilty, and therefore they may all be killed" (Vitoria p.317). There are detailed discussions of whether one may execute all the enemy combatants, and whether one may execute those who have surrendered or been taken prisoner. 

"In itself, there is no reason why prisoners taken in a just war or those who have surrendered, if they were combatants, should not be killed, as long as common equity is observed. But as many practices in war are based on the law of nations, it appears to be established that prisoners taken after a victory, when the danger is passed, should not be killed unless they turn out to be deserters and fugitives. This law of nations should be respected, as it is by all good men. As for those who surrender, however, I have neither read nor heard of such a custom of leniency ... 

"Indeed, when the citadels of cities are surrendered, those who yield themselves up take care to include their own lives and safety in the terms of submission. Clearly this implies that they are afraid that if they surrender without making such terms, they will be killed; and one hears that this has frequently been the case. Therefore it is not unjust, if a city is surrendered without such precautionary terms, for the prince or judge to order the most guilty of the enemy to be executed" (pp.321-2). 

Vitoria would therefore have agreed that the killing of the garrison at Smerwick could have been legitimate, but if and only if they had not been promised their lives. 

What interests me here, however, is the fact that this realistic, well-informed, unsentimental and not over-scrupulous jurist balked at the deliberate killing of women and children. 

"Even in wars against the Turks we may not kill children, who are obviously innocent, nor women, who are to be presumed innocent at least as far as the war is concerned (unless, that is, it can be proved of a particular woman that she was implicated in guilt) ... It is occasionally lawful to kill the innocent not by mistake, but with full knowledge of what one is doing, if this is an accidental effect: for example, during the justified storming of a fortress or city, where one knows there are many innocent people, but where it is impossible to fire artillery and other projectiles or set fire to buildings without crushing or burning the innocent along with the combatants ... Nevertheless, ... care must be taken to ensure that the evil effects of the war do not outweigh the possible benefits sought by waging it. If the storming of a fortress or town garrisoned by the enemy but full of innocent inhabitants is not of great importance for eventual victory in the war, it does not seem to me permissible to kill a large number of innocent people by indiscriminate bombardment... 

"One may ask whether it is lawful to kill people who are innocent, but may yet pose a threat in the future. For example, the sons of Saracens are harmless, but it is reasonable to fear that when they reach manhood they will fight against Christendom ... It is perhaps possible to make a defense of this kind for killing innocent people in such cases, but I nevertheless believe that it is utterly wrong ..." (pp.315-6). 

Vitoria considered the related question: 

"given that one may not lawfully kill children and innocent non-combatants, whether one may nevertheless enslave them. 

"One may lawfully enslave the innocent under just the same conditions as one may plunder them. Freedom and slavery are counted as goods of fortune; therefore, when the war is such that it is lawful to plunder all the enemy population indiscriminately and seize all their goods, it must also be lawful to enslave them all, guilty and innocent alike. Hence, since our war against the pagans is of this kind, being permanent because they can never sufficiently pay for the injuries and losses inflicted, it is not to be doubted that we may lawfully enslave the women and children of the Saracens. But since it seems to be accepted in the law of nations that Christians cannot enslave one another, it is not lawful to enslave Christians, at any rate during the course of the war. If necessary, when the war is over one may take prisoners, even innocent women and children, but not to enslave them, only to hold them to ransom; and this must not be allowed to go beyond the limits which the necessities of warfare demand, and the legitimate customs of war permit" (p.319). 

Vitoria can hardly be accused of squeamishness. However, he was making distinctions and setting limits. I think it was reasonable to expect that those limits would be acknowledged as realistic and reasonable and respected in practice by Spanish commanders. And, broadly speaking, I think that these limits actually were respected, even by the Duke of Alva, who gained a reputation as a monster for his campaign against the rebellious Dutch. 

Froude himself, despite his animus against the Irish, when considering men like Gilbert and Chichester, thought it proper to make this point: 

"The English nation was shuddering over the atrocities of the Duke of Alva. The children in the nurseries were being inflamed to patriotic rage and madness by tales of Spanish tyranny. Yet Alva's bloody sword never touched the young, the defenceless, or those whose sex even dogs can recognise and respect" (Cited, Sir Walter Raleigh In Ireland, pp.28-29). 

It might be argued that Froude is over-generous. Troops who were under Alva's overall command sacked a number of Dutch cities with great brutality. There are Dutch propagandist accounts which say that in one of these cases, Naarden, there was considerable slaughter of women and children, though this is disputed. But, whatever happened in Naarden and elsewhere, I think it is certain that the Spanish commanders did not order the killing of non-combatants and did not boast about it, or the fact would be paraded in books by the dozen. As it is, what is constantly quoted is the instruction Alva gave his son not to leave a man alive in Zutphen, and his subsequent boast to King Philip II that "not a man escaped". So it seems that Froude had grounds for his contrast. 

In the Irish case, what is striking is the cheerful openness, the good-humoured matter-of-factness with which the commanders report their practice of local or regional genocide. I don't believe one can find an equivalent in Europe, and I think it indicates something specific in the contemporary English culture. These aristocratic killers had an element in their make-up of what we would now call sadism. In particular cases it is more evident: when D.B. Quinn calls Humphrey Gilbert a bloodthirsty sadist, one can hardly disagree. But one must acknowledge that even Gilbert, Chichester etc. stopped killing when the rebellions ended. They were able to switch themselves on and off. Furthermore, they were all competent soldiers, and some of them were able statesmen. 

One could say, to borrow a phrase from Richard Tuck, that they took an "uninhibited and non-legalist approach" to war. They were some of the most gifted and resourceful practical men in an England where the vision of empire and potential for empire was maturing. One of the most clairvoyant was Walter Raleigh. 

"Successful action against Spain in Europe gave rise to the hope of supplanting it in the world as a whole, a hope articulated particularly well, for example, by Walter Raleigh, in his History Of The World (1614), with its suggestive account of the rise of great empires and their overthrow by small but valiant nations which went on to achieve new world hegemonies. But the English took a very different path from the French when it came to justifying the occupation of the lands of native peoples. It is, I think, safe to say that seventeenth century English writers took the most uninhibited and non-legalist approach to these matters of all contemporary theorists; and it may well be that the disconcerting but historic consequence of this was that in the end the English were the most successful of all these rival nations at constructing a world empire" (Tuck p.109).