12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends

Khalid Elhassan - December 17, 2017

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Roman chariot racing. The Burn Pit

The Nika Riots

The Nika Riots of 532 AD were an urban rebellion in Constantinople, against Emperor Justinian. They began as sports riots by fans of competing chariot racing teams, but took on political overtones and became an outlet for expressing class and political resentments. By the time they were over, tens of thousands had been killed, and half of Constantinople had been burned to the ground.

Chariot racing was the biggest sporting spectacle in the Roman world, and in Constantinople, the biggest chariot racing teams were the Blues and the Greens. Rooting for a particular team often went beyond simple sporting preference, and became a stand in for expressing class and political identity. Emperor Justinian was a fan of the Blues, so opponents rooted for the Greens.

The teams had associations, or fan clubs, which often became vessels for airing political and social issues for which no other outlet existed. The fan clubs became a combination of sports hooligans, street gangs, and political parties. They frequently sought to influence policy by shouting their views during chariot races, letting the emperor know the popular mood.

In early 532, the Byzantine Empire was seething with resentment over high taxes. Amidst that tension, two members of the Blues and Greens, arrested for murders in a previous riot, escaped and sought sanctuary in a church, where they were protected by a mob. Seeking to diffuse the situation, Emperor Justinian commuted their sentences to imprisonment, but the restive mob demanded an outright pardon.

At the next races held in the 100,000 seat capacity Hippodrome, next to the imperial palace, the crowd began hurling insults at Justinian. Halfway through the race, their cheers changed from the competing “GREENS!“, or “BLUES!” to a unified “NIKA!” – Greek for “victory”, hence the uprising’s name. The crowd then broke out and attacked the imperial palace, besieging it for the next five days.

The rioters went on a rampage in which hundreds were killed, and started fires that grew out of control, and coalesced into a conflagration that burned half the city. Political elites opposed to the emperor steered the rioters into demanding an abdication. Amidst the anarchy, Emperor Justinian prepared to abdicate, but was shamed by his strong-willed wife, Theodora, into manning up, and a plan was hatched to restore the situation.

A eunuch employed by the emperor braved the crowds to enter the Hippodrome, epicenter of the uprising, with a bag of gold. There, he met the leaders of the Blues, reminded them that Justinian was a Blues fan, and bribed them. The Greens were soon stunned when, at a signal from their leaders, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome. Before the Greens realized what was happening, thousands of soldiers stormed into the Hippodrome, and began massacring its occupants. By the time they were done, over 30,000 had been killed, and the flames of riot were doused with a river of blood.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Battle of London Bridge, between Londoners and rebels. Once Upon a Time

The 1450 English Rebellion

In 1450, most people in England were fed up with extremely high taxes, and a recent huge hike in the cost of living. That came on the heels of a recent loss of most English territory in France, due to a disastrous royal marriage negotiation to wed England’s hapless king Henry VI to a French princess. The preceding, combined with widespread corruption and abuse of power by royal advisors and officials, brought things to a boil. Jack Cade, an Irishman residing in Kent, England, of unknown occupation or background, organized and led an uprising of peasants and small proprietors. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt that shook England and terrorized its government and aristocracy.

Cade had been living in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent. By June, he had emerged as the ringleader of an uprising. Calling himself John Mortimer, Cade aligned his rebellion and identified it with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family.

The rebels issued a manifesto listing their grievances, in which they demanded the removal of several royal ministers, and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he was a virtual exile. A royal army was dispatched to snuff out the uprising, but it was crushed by the rebels in Kent. After that victory, the rebels’ numbers ballooned, and their rapidly increasing host marched on London, which they captured on July 3rd, 1450. They also captured the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, whom the rebels blamed for most of their grievances. After a summary trial, he was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed.

Cade, however, failed to maintain discipline among his followers, and once they entered London, many rebels began looting. That lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, and after a battle at London Bridge on July 6th, expelled them from the city. To end the uprising, officials convinced most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. With his host melting away, Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later. After a brief skirmish with his pursuers, he was wounded and captured. He was to be taken to London, but died of his wounds en route, his death marking the end of the rebellion.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
‘Sicilian Vespers’, by Erulo Eroli. Wikimedia

The Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers, 1282, was a massacre of thousands of French in Sicily, which inaugurated a rebellion against French rule. It began in Palermo, and from there, spread like wildfire throughout the island. By the time it ended six weeks later, three thousand French men and women had been killed, and French control of Sicily had come to an end.

In 1266, Charles of Anjou, a member of the French royal family, invaded and conquered Sicily, and crowned himself its king. The new king brought to Sicily a vast retinue of French courtiers, bureaucrats, officials, and nobles, who treated the locals contemptuously. Sicily was taxed heavily to fund Charles’ endeavors elsewhere, while Sicilians nobles were shut out of any role in ruling their own island. The Sicilians, understandably, resented the exploitation and disrespect.

Things finally came to a head on Easter Monday, March 30th, 1282. Sicilians were celebrating outside a Palermo church, when they were joined by a group of drunk Frenchmen. One of them dragged a married woman from the crowd and crudely propositioned her, and ended up stabbed to death by her enraged husband. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon and killed them.

Just then, Palermo’s churches began ringing their bells for Vespers, and amidst their clanging, messengers raced throughout the city calling on the public to rise against the foreign oppressors. Soon, the streets were filled with angry Sicilian mobs crying “Death to the French!” They killed any French man, woman, or child, whom they came across, then began breaking into French houses and butchering the inhabitants.

They then broke into convents and monasteries to kill any French nuns or monks they could find. Those claiming not to be French were made to say “ciciri” – a word which French tongues had difficulty pronouncing. Those failing the test were put to death. By the following days, the rebels were in control of Palermo, and over two thousand French had been killed.

As word spread to the rest of Sicily, the rest of the island joined the revolt, and more massacres took place. The uprising swept away French control of the island within six weeks. As described by a Medieval author: “By the time the furious anger at [French] insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had surrendered to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches, but their lives as well “.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Map of the Chimei Rebellion and other major uprisings. Wikimedia

The Chimei Rebellion

The Chimei Rebellion was a 1st century AD major agrarian rebellion in China. It began after the Yellow River changed its course between 2 and 11 AD – a natural disaster whose consequences included floods, famines, and extensive dislocation and hardship. Amidst the turmoil, civil war broke out when an imperial government official, Wang Mang, overthrew the Han Dynasty which had reigned over China for two centuries. In its place, Wang Mang founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty in 8 AD.

The political instability, natural disasters, hunger and hardship, took place against a backdrop of agrarian unrest. China’s peasant population was angered by a rise in debt slavery, and a trend of steady consolidation of land into large tracts in the hands of powerful magnates. The small farmers who had once owned their own plots were turned into serfs, working what had once been their own land on behalf of others. Otherwise, they were evicted altogether and forced into a life of migrant laborers.

Secret societies began forming to protect the interests of the peasants. One of them, led by a mystic who spoke through mediums, organized armed bands known as the Chimei, or Red Eyebrows. They took their name from the red paint used by members to make their faces look like demons, and in 15 AD, they began armed resistance. The Chimei’s popularity grew, and by 17 AD, their insurrection had become a widespread popular uprising, led by a Fan Chong.

Back in the capital, Wang Man turned out to be inept and out of his depth. He responded to the Chimei rebellion and other popular revolts by hiking taxes. That provoked more rebellions, as the new tax burdens fueled the popular discontent. The various rebellions soon consolidated into a major uprising, as disparate rebel bands united under the banner of the Chimei and the leadership of Fan Chong.

The Chimei played a key role in defeating Wang Man and destroying his Xin Dynasty in 23 AD. Into the vacuum stepped Liu Xuan, a member of the Han royal family, who reestablished the Han Dynasty and declared himself emperor. The Chimei disliked his policies, however, so they overthrew him, and placed an imperial Han child descendant on the throne as a puppet emperor, and ruled China in his name.

The Chimei, however, turned out to be as bad at governance as they had been good at fighting, and their misrule soon led to widespread counter revolts. Their puppet emperor was overthrown and replaced by another Han descendant, who forced the surrender of the Chimei and ended their movement. He then went on to found the Later Han Dynasty, which ruled China for another two centuries.