10 Most Brutal Massacres in History
March 16, 1968 was the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam, where American soldiers brutally extinguished a Vietnamese village and contributed to the public turn against the war against communists in the former French colony. Five hundred people died. That’s brutal, but here are the 10 most brutal massacres in world history:
10. Chinese massacre of 1639. Chinese communities had existed all over southeast Asia for centuries, mostly as merchants, but sometimes as scholars too. This had both good and bad effects. One of the bad effects was that China’s merchant class tended to be wealthier than the locals they provided goods and services to, and every now and again Chinese communities were massacred by indigenous inhabitant. The 1639 massacre in the Philippines was especially brutal, as 17,000-22,000 people were slaughtered in a joint Filipino-Spanish venture.
9. Massacre of Praga (Nov. 4, 1794). Twenty thoursand people in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, were massacred by Russian troops after the latter conquered the city during the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794. For some reason I thought to compare this to the Boston massacre in 1770, where five died. There are not a lot of massacres in the Anglo-American world, at least not on the scale that we find elsewhere throughout history.
8. Cyprus massacre (June - September 1570). In June of 1570 the Ottoman Empire laid siege to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which was controlled politically by Venice, the wealthy city-state on the Italian peninsula (see RealClearHistory’s coverage of Venice here). The Christians on Cyprus held off the Ottomans for about four months, but sheer numbers, as well as disjointed politics in Europe, meant that the inhabitants of Cyprus would eventually be governed from Istanbul (not Constantinople). Cyprus, of course, continues to be split between a Greek (Christian) half and a Turkey (Muslim) half.
7. Chios massacre (March - July 1822). The Ottomans were bad people for a few centuries during the Middle Ages (RealClearHistory has more on the Ottomans here). In 1822, Istanbul massacred 52,000 Greeks on the island of Chios during the Greek War of Independence. The massacre was used deftly by imperial proponents in London, Paris, and Moscow, and further isolated the Ottomans from European diplomacy. As for the inhabitants of Chios, most were apathetic toward the rebellion until the massacre.
6. Massacre of the Rhineland Jews (1096). More of a series of massacres than a single, horrific occurrence, the massacres of the Rhineland Jews in 1096 are considered by some historians to be the first of many pogroms in Germany and France that eventually culminated in the Holocaust some 850 years later. The massacres began with the People’s Crusade of 1096, which was a Crusade considered to be unofficial because the Pope himself did not sanction it. It is estimated that 12,000 Jews died in the Massacre of the Rhineland Jews.
5. Massacre of the Latins (1182). In the 12th century, Roman Catholics in Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, were known as Latins and in 1182 they were slaughtered, driven out of the city, or sold into slavery. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died. The massacre occurred because the vast majority of non-Roman Catholic inhabitants were much poorer than the Latins of the city, due to the latter’s connections to the wealthy city-states on the Italian peninsula (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, etc.). The massacre also made it harder for the Pope to unify the Christian world, as the split between Catholic and Orthodox sects only became more hardened.
4. Asiatic Vespers (88 BC). One of the bloodier massacres in history, this one is also the most speculative on the list, if only because it took place so far back in time. The Asiatic Vespers was a coordinated attack throughout Anatolia (in modern-day Turkey) to slaughter all of the Romans living in Asia Minor. The massacres kicked off the first Mithridatic War between Rome and Pontus, a minor kingdom in Anatolia with hegemonic aspirations. All in all, 80,000-150,000 people are said to have been massacred by anti-Roman factions.
3. Hamidian massacres (1894-96). As many as 300,000 Armenian Christians are said to have been slaughtered in the Hamidian massacres. The Ottoman Empire was trying to hold its once-vast empire together and had to resort to violence in order to do so. This, of course, only hastened its demise. The Hamidian massacres are less well known than the Ottoman massacres of Armenians during World War I, probably because they were much less bloody. Armenians were not the only ones to be massacred, either. Christians in the Levant, known as Assyrians, were also slaughtered by the tens of thousands.
2. Yangzhou massacre (1645). The largest massacres in history are found in China, which is no surprise given the large, sedentary populations that arise there. The Yangzhou massacre was perpetrated by Prince Dodo of the Qing dynasty. It is said that the massacre of 800,000 people took place in just 10 days, and then the conquering Qing army burned what was left to the ground.
1. Sichuan massacre (1645-46). There is probably space for a “10 Most Brutal Massacres in Chinese History” here at RealClearHistory, given the scope of the massacres described in this article. From 1645-46, 1 million people are said to have been slaughtered in the Chinese city of Sichuan. Zhang Xianzhong led a peasant revolt that eventually, once Zhang’s peasant army conquered Sichuan, depopulated an entire region of China. Zhang’s massacres were brutal, but check out the “Seven Kill Stele” he is supposed to have left in one of the cities he conquered: “Heaven brings forth innumerable things to nurture man. Man has nothing good with which to recompense Heaven. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.”
These are just the recorded massacres in history. For example, the bloodshed that followed the Mongol conquests of peoples in Persia, China, and Mesopotamia are, as of today, incalculable. The Romans were brutal, too. Of course, the definition of “massacre” can be problematic. While this might seem like an academic point, it doesn’t hurt to ask: what’s the difference between the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and the Holodomor in Ukraine? What makes one a massacre and the other a genocide? The length of time that the murdering took place? The planning involved? Much more works needs to be done.
Put into historical perspective, the Mai Lai massacre is not that bloody, barely a blip on the radar of innocents throughout history. To put a spin on a dark chapter of humanity, to add a silver lining even, massacres have declined in number over the years and have become much less bloody. The Japanese occupation of the Philippines, or China, doesn’t even crack the top 10, and may not even crack the top 20. The removal of the Native Americans from their land in Canada and the United States were rife with massacres, but few were as bloody as those found in the top 10. In fact, they weren’t even close.
The decline in number of people massacred is something to celebrate, along with the decline in war generally and the decline in absolute poverty. The world is becoming a better place, slowly but surely.