In The Lost Sanjak, Saki Writes:

and, in the midst of a string of questions on indifferent topics, the examining counsel asked me with a diabolical suddenness if I could tell the Court the whereabouts of Novibazar. I felt the question to be a crucial one; something told me that the answer was St. Petersburg or Baker Street. I hesitated, looked helplessly round at the sea of tensely expectant faces, pulled myself together, and chose Baker Street. And then I knew that everything was lost. The prosecution had no difficulty in demonstrating that an individual, even moderately versed in the affairs of the Near East, could never have so unceremoniously dislocated Novibazar from its accustomed corner of the map. It was an answer which the Salvation Army captain might conceivably have made—and I had made it. The circumstantial evidence connecting the Salvationist with the crime was overwhelmingly convincing, and I had inextricably identified myself with the Salvationist. And thus it comes to pass that in ten minutes' time I shall be hanged by the neck until I am dead in expiation of the murder of myself, which murder never took place, and of which, in any case, I am necessarily innocent.

When the Chaplain returned to his quarters some fifteen minutes later, the black flag was floating over the prison tower. Breakfast was waiting for him in the dining-room, but he first passed into his library, and, taking up the Times Atlas, consulted a map of the Balkan Peninsula. "A thing like that," he observed, closing the volume with a snap, "might happen to any one."

My questions are:

(1) What is the significance of the raised black flag? Was this a regular practise at the time, of raising a black flag when an execution or killing occured?

(2) What is the meaning and implication of the Chaplains concluding remark, "A thing like that, might happen to any one."? Is he implying that Novibazar is so insignificant and that ignorance of its location is understandable, thus the court case may have been fixed?

1 Answer 1

  1. Under the provisions of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868, the Home Secretary (probably Henry Bruce) had issued the following rules for executions:

    1. A black flag to be hoisted at the moment of execution, upon a staff placed on an elevated and conspicuous part of the prison, and to remain displayed for one hour.

    2. The bell of the prison, or if arrangements can be made for that purpose, the bell of the parish or other neighbouring church, to be tolled for fifteen minutes before and fifteen minutes after the execution.

    Quoted in Robert Wilkinson (1878). The Law of Prisons in England and Wales, p. 228. London: Knight & Co.

    These rules remained in force until 1902, after which the black flag was no longer raised. This means that there is a mild anachronism in the Saki story as the tale post-dates the (First) Balkan Crisis of 1908.

  2. This is the punch-line of the joke! The point is that the story told by the prisoner is a wholly unbelievable farrago of improbabilities. The prisoner happened to have a plausible but unverifiable reason to change identity with the dead man! He happened to be carrying enough cash to support his new life! None of his friends or relations could identify him! A relative of the dead man wrongly identified the prisoner as her nephew! Such a series of catastrophes could not happen to anyone, and the prisoner’s story is clearly a bunch of lies. So when the chaplain concludes that anyone, even an expert on the Balkans, might have forgotten the location of the Sanjak of Novibazar, he is comically focussing on the least important point.

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