Tag Archives: History

Company Men

In Calcutta a statue was erected to Lord Bentinck, Governor-General of India. Its inscription bears citing at length as it is testament to the moral zeitgeist with which the British believed their empire to be infused:

[To] William Cavendish Bentinck, who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence; who, placed at the head of a great Empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen; who infused into Oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of Government is the happiness of the governed; who abolished cruel rites; who effaced humiliating distinctions; who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion; whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nation committed to his charge, [This Monument] Was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish with equal veneration and gratitude the memory of his wise, reforming, and paternal administration.

‘Veneration and gratitude’, the rulers of empire believed, was owed to a new and truly British form of patriotism; the championing of liberty at home and creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas. Viscount Bolingbroke spoke for this new breed of patriot:

The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves.

The rulers of this new Empire would not succumb to the hubris of Rome, where addiction to territorial gain had resulted in despotism at the center of over-extended frontiers. Their liberty would be founded on religious freedom, or as they would define it freedom from the ‘slavery’ of Roman Catholicism; no taxation without the consent of parliament; habeas corpus and regular elections with ever increasing suffrage. Above all liberty to the British meant the guarantee of the rights enshrined in Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and for the nation builders of the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, their most recent and therefore most hallowed 1689 Bill of Rights. These liberties were to be exported over the waters to create an ‘empire of liberty’. The builders of this mercantile blue-water empire were to immunize their endeavors by preferring business opportunities over territorial conquest; commercial and military ventures should be mutually exclusive.

By the end of the eighteenth century this idyllic vision of an empire of farmers & traders, inhabiting lightly garrisoned outposts, sending the fruits of their labor back to ‘Old Blighty’ had transformed into a military empire with nearly a million slaves in the Caribbean; the 50 million inhabitants of the sub-continent had transitioned from suppliers and consumers into subjects of the Raj:

Stupendous fortunes had been made, not by making men free but by making them servile; not by probity but by corruption; not by a benign and responsible diffusion of that wealth to the natives but by the most shameless coercion and extortion.

‘So just how had Britain ended up with the wrong empire?’

From its beginning the British Empire founded its success on addiction. A smoke, a cup of tea, a sweet treat, and later, a pipe of opium. To foster this addiction it was necessary to turn what at first had been exotic delicacies into daily needs. In search of these products, and the wealth which flowed from them, the most successful company in the British Empire was established. Granted its charter by Queen Elizabeth I, the Honorable East India Company would amass sales which amounted to almost one fifth of Britain’s annual imports. Profitability was increased, and secured, as the Company carved out an ‘empire within an empire’, annexing territory to ensure the smooth running of business. Sir John Kaye noted that when local rulers were ‘deprived of their rights and revenues, they were held to be not territorial, but titular sovereigns’. What this ‘sovereignty was to be, without territorial rights or territorial revenues, it is not easy to see.’

Diminution of authority was to be the fate of the King of Oudh in 1856, when the Company set its sights on his lands to become ‘a component part of the empire’. The King would not yield, forcing the company into a more aggressive stance; annexing Oudh and declaring it part of British India. Acts such as this provided the first vital ingredient for the dish of vengeance that Indians would serve to the British in 1857. A native ruling class dispossessed of their power & prestige.

Edmund Burke, who had largely written the regulatory act which was designed to contain and reverse the personal empires within empire, created under the spurious pretext of securing liberty and fair trade in the far flung corners of the globe, raged that the English had not compensated for the power they held by supplying good works:

Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ourang-utang or the tiger.

To correct these errors it was not necessary to examine the propositions of liberty. Instead the right men and the right measures needed to be found. Such men and measures would be found in the person of Thomas Clarkson, one of the leading anti-slavery campaigners of his day, who traversed the land in an attempt to extirpate ‘this evil’. But this blight on the vine of liberty would not be easily dispelled and its abolition proved to be ‘more than ordinarily great’ for the ‘evil in question began in avarice’:

‘For these reasons the Slave-trade may be considered, like the fabulous hydra, to have had a hundreds heads, every one of which it was necessary to cut off before it could be subdued.’

But subdued it was; slavery being abolished in British colonies in 1833. Yet such reforms also brought with them proselytizing zeal. Britons hoped oriental eyes would open to the indisputable wisdom of Europe (which is to say Britain), laying aside their disgusting practices; perhaps even abandoning their gods and accept the promise of Christ. As William Wilberforce wrote: ‘Our religion is sublime, pure and beneficent. Theirs is mean, licentious and cruel’.

If native inhabitants of distant lands would not willingly lay aside their rites & customs, officials showed a capacity to resort to more direct methods. In 1829 Bentinck outlawed the custom of satí; after consultation with Hindu sacred writings he found it to have no sound theological basis. Although the practice was not wide spread and even abhorred by some Indians, it still represented the first direct attack on traditional belief. Such direct attacks engendered fears in the native population. Ram Mohun Roy, although an advocate of the abolition of satí, believed that the removal of the superstitions and corruptions which had been engrafted on the Hindu religion should be accomplished quietly and unobservedly. Ram Mohan Roy feared that the British reforms would not stop at curtailing the more egregious beliefs and customs of Hinduism:

While the English were contending for power they deemed it politic to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion, but having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation of their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon us their own religion.

Fear that British administration stood for the introduction of Christianity created an environment that instigators of the 1857 mutiny would exploit to devastating results. The coming mutiny now had a disaffected ruling class and a population fearful that their religion, and their souls, were in peril.

Nemesis walked alongside the British in India, seeming at times like an old friend. In the bazaars and cantonments future foes greeted each other as though they were family. They lived, as Cicero wrote, in the most illusionary tense of all, the present; like small children not knowing from whence they came nor wither they go. As with old friends, relations between the British and Indians, which had once been worked on with vigor and care, fell by the wayside. People and institutions took each other for granted. Respect, even deference, was replaced with an attitude which shouted ‘go to hell – don’t bother me!’. The men-on-the-spot did little to allay concerns or revert attitudes to the more conciliatory tones which had marked the Company’s first endeavors in India; succumbing to the pressures of an Evangelical lobby that gained increasing momentum.

To remove the financial obstacles to conversion, the Company amended the law which had previously forfeited the inheritance of any Hindu who renounced their faith. Hindus declared that such acts afforded:

Strong cause and suspicion that such an innovation is only a prelude to others, that the security in person, property and religion, hitherto ensured to the native subjects, is in danger of being taken from them.

By the late 1850’s Anglo-Indian relations resembled a piñata. The Company had transitioned from trading partner to Imperial ruler. Maharajas, Badshahs, Nawabs & Wālis had been dispossessed of their authority and taxes, forcing from work hundreds of thousands of their dependants. Missionaries were traveling the highways and byways in search of new converts, striking at the heart & soul of India; yet British possessions in India seemed secure. Despite what had happened the native levies remained predominately loyal, ensuring the security of British rule; so long as they followed their British counterparts and held the thin red line. They would following their British counterparts, right up to the matter of equipment.

‘The English who conquered Persia and defeated the Czar of Russia have been overthrown in India by a simple cartridge,’ whooped the octogenarian King of Dehli at the height of the 1857 Mutiny; more specifically it was the grease rather than the cartridge, though the later would also become a source of controversy. The storm began to brew in January 1857 when detachments from the Bengal native infantry were sent to Dum-Dum, near Calcutta, for training on the handling & care of their new rifles.

The controversy centered around the belief that the grease used in the production of the cartridges was of a material that would be offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. Discontent among sepoys was nothing new, but when combined with the distribution of chapattis the situation takes on the look of an omen.

A stranger would enter a village and seek out the chowkidar (watchman) and present him with four chapattis. The chowkidar would then be instructed to bake four more and then deliver them to a neighboring village. While the British attached no importance to the act, Indians interpreted these phenomena as a sign that the Company would end all distinctions of caste and religion with everyone sharing a common diet.

These events showed the extent to which the Raj had lost credibility with its subjects and defenders; sepoys and the native population were prepared to believe the worst about their officers and Company administration. Increasing numbers of European women traveling to India, the enlargement of Christian missions and an officer class which was loosing touch with its native troops, pushed tensions to breaking point. Sadly British officers made the fatal decision of retreating behind a barrier of prejudices which weakened their position. ‘How can you expect devotion on the field when you are a stranger to your men in cantonment?’

Divisions between native troops and British commanders became increasingly strained as the authorities began breaking up regiments which showed signs of sullenness and intractability. The hope was that their fate would harden the discipline of their comrades. The psychological effect proved to work in reverse, pushing sepoys, already hosts to terrifying phantoms, into making the first move; lest they be the target of British musketry and grape shot.

As pockets of resistance to British discipline spread, authorities increased the crack downs. News of this action traveled like wildfire, often ‘maliciously propagated by active emissaries of evil’ who attempted to suborn troops. Into this military friction the civilian population was soon drawn, though ‘the love of liberty had far less prompted this outbreak than a lust for plunder.’ Tax assessment was heavy, grain shortages were pushing up food prices and impoverished villagers were eager to take advantage of the situation in an attempt to relieve their poverty. The state of affairs now spiraled out of control as insurrection became a civil war.

Caught off balance, with its military resources stretched to breaking, the British rejoinder was slow. Operations were holding exercises designed to protect what they could while more men and equipment was marshaled. Public sentiment played a vital role in this regard, but it to would take time to mobilize. Indifference to the happenings in India vanished in the Summer of 1857 as editors printed the most harrowing details of the insurrection which gripped the subcontinent. By the Autumn rage abounded in the columns of the British press as news of the wholesale defection of sepoys and the massacres of women and children at Meerut, Delhi, Jhansi and Cawnpore poured into the living rooms of the British Empire. The mood was captured by Charles Dickens who wrote:

I wish I were commander-in-chief in India. I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.

‘The lion hearts of our soldiers yearned for revenge upon these blood-thirsty villains’ and the British public demanded payment in blood from the native ‘villains’ and retribution on a Government, more specifically the Company, which it felt had caused the disaffection of the native peoples and mutiny of the sepoy troops. The Tory opposition, led by Disraeli, launched an attack on the government’s policy which it claimed had abandoned principles and beckoned in the disaster:

In olden days, and for a considerable time – indeed, until, I would say the last ten years – the principle of our government of India, if I may venture to describe it in a sentence, was to respect Nationality.

In the abandonment of this principle the Company had forfeited its right to rule India, or so Disraeli argued. Its place should be taken by the Queen whose government would publicly pledge to safeguard property and uphold native traditions. In short the ‘empire of liberty’ would return under the aegis’ of the British government and the religious zeal of the Company whose centralizing policies had stripped the Indians of their inheritance would be abolished. The new order would minister to its peoples with greater sensitivity, promising that all its subjects would be treated equally, their rights would be upheld and their religions respected.

From this proclamation sprang a two headed mythology of the mutiny. Indian nationalists grasped the straw of widespread rejection of the Raj, transforming it into an affirmation of a national will. The British saw the events as a moral struggle between good and evil sustained by the courage of the Christian faith. For them it was a dire warning that if British rule should end in India, millions of people would be abandoned ‘to the most cruel of fates – the anarchy, the rapine, and the bloodshed of their contending chiefs and tyrants’.

This later British memory also carried with it the specter of racism. Prevailing British opinion now saw a native population which had turned against its saviors. Through revolt they had not just rebuffed a corrupt government, they were rejecting everything that Victorian morality cherished. But the work of civilizing had to go on; the manner of which assumed two alternatives. The first was for the British to rule their Indian subjects as their natural superiors. The second was to prepare the population for self governance, once they had been tutored in how a country ought to be run. Any excesses which had been perpetrated in subduing the mutiny were necessary, or so the British believed, to prevent the nation of India from sliding into the mire of barbarism and chaos.

Such a patronizing general consensus ignored the key lesson of the mutiny; that a people who had ruled a continent for over three thousand years would not subject itself to permanent degradation.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

First, let me thank you for the wonderful comments I have received, asking how I have been and why I have not written something for what seems like a long while…

It has been an unpardonably long silence since I last wrote an article for this blog, but it has been writing, I am very happy to say, which has kept me from this labor of love.

University is back in full swing and I have worked on nothing else, in the lamentably few moments of time away from the coal face I can claim each week. This semester is a look into the middle ages. My first short essay was written on Papal involvement in the Crusades.

So, while I appreciate I may sound like a crashing bore and the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, alienating the few readers I have, here is that essay. And I do promise to write something else soon.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

Since its instigation by Pope Urban II in 1095, crusading had become the sword with which the Christian church would smite its adversaries and maintain the sacred boundaries of Christendom; enlarging them when the ‘salvation’ of infidels was necessary. Being penitential in nature, the crusades differed from other acts of war. Knights could now achieve both secular and spiritual booty in the crucible of battle. A contemporary observer, Gilbert of Nogent wrote:

In our time God instituted holy warfare, so that the arms-bearers and the wandering populace… should find a new way of attaining salvation; so that they might not be obliged to abandon the world completely, as used to the be case, by adopting the monastic way of life… but might obtains God’s grace to some extent while enjoying their accustomed freedom and dress, and in a way consistent with their own station.

That the crowds attendant in 1095 shouted ‘deus le volt!’ (God wills it!), at Pope Urban’s call for the first crusade, presages this outlook. Tens of thousands thronged to the appeal, allowing a great army to march on the Holy Land; to reclaim ‘the venerable places which the Savior had deigned to sanctify and make glorious with His bodily presence.’

Into this context crashed the Fourth Crusade. In an age of violence this shocked an unshockable world. One eye-witness wrote of these crusaders:

Madmen raging against the sacred… these forerunners of the Antichrist, chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens;… Christ was now disrobed and mocked… although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.

The Fourth Crusade is an exemplification of violence in the name of God, swinging, as a pendulum do, from piety to the most egregious acts of barbarism and cruelty.

The judgment of history on this most vicious crusade has indeed been harsh. Edward Gibbon, in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, mourned that crusading had ‘checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’. Steven Runciman went further in decrying that ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’. Runciman went on to write that ‘the harm done by the crusades to Islam was small in comparison with that done by them to Eastern Christendom’.

The Fourth Crusade made flesh all that was, and is, wrong with the crusading spirit. Far from uniting Christendom, it rent the church into schisms, destroyed the last vestiges of the Eastern Roman Empire and reinforced an adversarial status quo between the Christian West and Islam which continues unto the present day. All this is scarcely conceivable, but for the role of the Papacy.

The First Crusade had been largely unchallenged and met with great success; mostly because the various Muslim potentates were too distracted by internecine strife to make a concerted effort at combating this new-found wave of religious colonization. Subsequent crusades would not receive the same reception. Fighting back through the means of jihad, Muslim leaders frustrated Christian goals. Christendom responded by forming more crusader armies, many of which petered out as their leaders quarreled or died of natural causes. Into this atmosphere was elected Pope Innocent III, a man who would become the greatest Pope of the medieval period.

In the midst of [all his] affairs, he [Innocent III] quiet fervently longed for the relief and recovery of the Holy Land and anxiously mulled over how he could achieve this more effectively.

Since Pope Urban II invocation in 1095, crusading had been both a spiritual and secular struggle. Under the pontificate of Innocent III this took on a more muscular and intensely personal meaning for both the Pope and the leaders of Christendom. The Vicar of Christ saw a definitive link between a successful crusade to the Holy Land and the moral reformation of what he believed to be a degenerate society. Success in the Levant represented the imprimatur of God on the spiritual restoration of His people. Innocent’s interest in a Holy War is embodied in his call for the Fourth Crusade, a call that reverberated with ardent puritanical zeal.

Following the pitiable collapse of the territory of Jerusalem, following the lamentable massacre of the Christian people… it cried out and wailed to such a degree that due to incessant crying out, its throat was made horse, and from incessant weeping, its eyes almost failed… still the Apostolic See cries out, and like a trumpet it raises its voice, eager to arouse the Christian peoples to fight Christ’s battle and to avenge the injury done to the Crucified One…

Firebrand rhetoric of this nature hit its mark, in an age when honor and oath were life and death. Having suitably motivated the spiritual, Innocent turned his astonishing administrative abilities to the secular. ‘All towns, as well as counts and barons, should provide crusaders for two years at their own expense’. The omission of Kings from this list cuts to the heart of Papal involvement in the Fourth Crusade. Innocent III, ‘acutely conscious of his responsibility as the head of Christendom, intended to reassume papal leadership of the holy war.’ But pragmatic reasons played their measure in this decision. The two leading regal lights of Europe, Richard I of England and Phillip II of France, were locked in mortal combat. Their pride and enmity had caused the Third Crusade to fail and more recent events would deprive the Pope of their swords. Richard succumbed to a crossbow bolt and Phillip’s licentious nature meant he would not, and could not, take the cross again and lead a crusade.

Deeply aware that many in Western Europe had criticized the church for not providing sufficient financial support in previous crusades, Innocent issued an edict that the clergy should outfit and finance the expedition as well as preach its importance. This was accomplished through an unprecedented papal tax; the Pope and cardinals would pay one tenth of their incomes while other clergy would pay one fortieth. In this way the Pope hoped to forge the course of events through both his words and his purse.

It should not be thought that spiritual conscious was the soul, let alone sole, motivator for the pontiff. Ecclesiastical support was a necessary response, primed to motivate a recalcitrant laity. It was also the only means by which a moratorium on knightly debts and the protection of estates at home for landed crusaders aboard could be achieved.

Regardless of these protections and the money raised by the Church, crusading remained a dangerous and costly business; even before the sword had left its sheath.

I am quite anxious about my lands and my loans because, if I return (God willing), I will return burdened with many debts, and it is in my interest that they will be paid off from my lands.

It has been estimated that it cost a knight four times his annual income to fund a crusade, forcing men to mortgage or sell their lands and property rights. In such cases they usually turned to the church, the only institution with the resources to buy deeds and lend money. Yet such backing was still not enough and in many cases knights were forced to turn to wealthy nobles for patronage or live off the spoils of war to survive in the East. Without these supports destitution loomed and many magnates were broken on the wheel of crusade.

With the possible destruction of a family dynasty in the offing, it is not surprising that many were slow to set out for the Holy Land. Yet set out they did. A noble’s position in society and chivalric code urged him to the crusade. If this were not enough, it was certain that no measure of success in the lists could win the same level of admiration as that of taking the cross. There was also the sheer joy of battle and the chance of winning lands and enhanced political power. So a rich and complex mix of motives drove men to the hurl their resources and physical power into a violent struggle in a distant land.

Once unleashed, such a multifaceted combination of power, personalities and beliefs proved an unwieldy leviathan. The Fourth Crusade veered from its original aim, the reconquest Jerusalem, and ended in the sack of Constantinople; earning for itself the ignominious title of the crusade against fellow-Christians. Having lost control of the situation, Innocent III was forced to admit:

Oh, the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge! How incomprehensible are His judgments and beyond understanding His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?

An admission, if ever there was, that even the Pope does not have a direct line to God.