A Passage to India – with David Cameron and Boris Johnson

Well, it seems good Queen Bess is not going to give the Koh-i Noor diamond back to India – in case anyone had seriously expected she would. It will remain there, sparkling in the crown worn by queens of Great Britain, as it has since 1901 when it was set there for Alexandra, Consort of King Edward VII, and placed on her royal head at their coronation.
Now I understand it’s not a popular decision in India, so Elizabeth R is probably secretly pleased she didn’t have to deliver the bad news herself. One of the advantages of constitutional monarchy is being able to delegate such responsibilities to your Prime Minister, or ‘First Lord of the Treasury’, as I learnt he or she is still quaintly known in official circles. As a result, it was David Cameron who was given the task of informing the government and people of the Republic of India that the legendary jewel, expropriated by the British East India Company in 1850, would stay where it was, or is. News coverage quoted Cameron as comparing the diamond to the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’, formerly decorating the Parthenon in Athens, and on display, since 1816, in the British Museum in London – which the Brits also have no intention of returning. So, I guess Cameron managed to upset the Greeks and the Indians with one impolitic word.
Nevertheless, the news wasn’t all bad for India. PM Cameron apparently took the opportunity, while visiting the country recently, to stop by the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and ‘pay his respects’ at the memorial to the hundreds of unarmed Indian civilians who were massacred by soldiers of the British Raj on 13 April 1919 – the first British Prime Minister to do so, so credit where credit’s due. While accepting that the massacre was a ‘deeply shameful event’, Cameron stopped short of offering an apology, saying, I dont think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.’
Well and good, if acknowledging, recalling and understanding what happened is what you actually do. On the other hand, there are knowledgeable people in India today with the feeling that what contemporary British governments prefer to do is sweep past events under the carpet, take a selective view of history and tippex out the parts that don’t fit with the national view of Britishness as characterized by honesty and fair play.
That diamond, for example, was added to Queen Victoria’s jewellery collection by a certain Lord Dalhousie at the conclusion of the Second Sikh War in 1850. If you want to know why the British were fighting wars in India (and Afghanistan) at that time, you’d better look it up elsewhere – it’s a fascinating story. Suffice it to say here that the Sikhs were defeated, their territory, the Punjab, was incorporated into British India, and the Koh-i Noor diamond passed, along with other spoils of war, into British hands.
I don’t know what else they acquired at the time, but the diamond itself was quite a prize. According to Wikipedia, one of Nādir Shāh [an 18thcentury Shah of Iran]‘s consorts supposedly said, “If a strong man should take five stones, and throw one north, one south, one east, and one west, and the last straight up into the air, and the space between filled with gold and gems, that would equal the value of the Koh-i Noor.”’ Still, when you read what happened after the gem got back to England, you can’t help thinking there must have been some guilty consciences. Queen Vickie’s beloved husband Albert apparently had the jewel significantly cut from 186 to 105 carats because he didn’t like the look of it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to tell us, ‘It is believed that the Koh-i Noor carries with it a curse which affects men who wear it, but not women.’ Subsequently the crown in which it is set has only been worn by female British royalty. Well, we’re not scared of that heathen mumbo jumbo, but why take unnecessary risks?
Some seven years after the Sikhs had been subdued, more violence broke out in an event generally referred to in British history as the Indian Mutiny. Indians tend to prefer calling it a nationalist uprising, but Brits justify their position by pointing out that many of the participants were employed as soldiers in the Queen’s regiments. Interestingly, this time, defeat of the rebels was aided by the Sikhs, a proud warrior race. Apparently they chose to support the British because of their hatred and contempt for the Hindu sepoys who had helped to defeat them in the previous decade. Sixty years later, they were perhaps wishing they had taken a longer term view.
The British Empire was starting to creak a little by the early 20thcentury, and the movement seeking Indian independence was growing stronger. Nevertheless, nationalists refrained from taking advantage of Britain’s difficulties in the First World War, even contributing militarily to the imperial cause and taking heavy casualties. When hostilities ended, however, there was a natural desire to get back to business as usual, which meant, among other things, that India would resume its place as literal and figurative jewel in the crown of empire. Nationalist meetings were discouraged and in 1919 large public gatherings were banned.
The crowd that assembled in Amritsar on 13 April was entirely peaceful, with a religious rather than a political purpose. The city is the site of the Sikh Golden Temple, a place of pilgrimage. The crowd assembled in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden), estimated at between twenty and thirty thousand, included unarmed men, women and children of all ages. The official inquiry after the event heard that General Reginald Dyer, wishing to teach a lesson of unquestioning obedience to the Indian people, ordered his troops to fire on the assembled multitude, who had no way to escape from the enclosed space. Firing continued for ten minutes, during which 1,650 rounds of .303 Lee Enfield ammunition were expended. British and Indian sources dispute the number of dead, but indisputable is the fact that these were trained soldiers firing with lethal intent at defenseless civilians from close range. Does the word ‘shameful’ do justice to that, I wonder?
Admittedly, Winston Churchill did, at the time, use the word ‘monstrous’ to describe the atrocity – but generally he seems to have been unsympathetic to, even contemptuous of the Indian people. There was a feeling among the British ruling elite at the time that General Dyer had done the right thing, and certainly India remained subjugated. There also seem to have been attempts made to keep the event a secret, but, As Kurt Vonnegut said later of the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, ‘I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid . . . who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. I was answered by a man who, like[1] myself, was in public relations. He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.
I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, “Secret? My God—from whom?”’
Getting back to the business of acknowledging, recalling and understanding events of the past, I am currently reading an interesting book, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The author, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has chosen his one hundred objects from that institution’s stupendous collection. One chapter describes a 2000 year-old Native American carved stone pipe found at Mound City, Ohio. Discussing the use of tobacco, MacGregor mentions that it came late to Europe, and that ‘Bremen and Bristol, Glasgow and Dieppe all grew rich on American tobacco’. I can’t speak for the other three cities, but it is well known that the wealth of Bristol (and Liverpool) derived from what is euphemistically referred to as the Triangular Trade, which involved shipping manufactured goods to West Africa, exchanging them for local natives who were then transported to the Americas and sold as slaves to work on the plantations. The produce of these plantations, part of which was certainly tobacco, was then brought back for sale in Britain, but the whole truth seems to be missing from Mr MacGregor’s glib statement.
Another book I read recently, ‘Colossus’by Niall Ferguson[2], discusses the question of whether the modern-day US is an empire – and there does seem to be reluctance among the rich and powerful to accept that their behaviour is not much different from that of other historical elites. Chapter 35 in ‘100 Objects’ quotes Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and an Oxford classics graduate, as saying, ‘If you think about the tsars [of Russia], the Kaiser, the tsars of Bulgaria, Mussolini, Hitler and Napoleon, all of them have tried to imitate that Roman iconography, that Roman approach, a great part of which began with Augustus’. If you think about Mayor Boris’s list, you might suspect there is at least one major omission.
3rd Century BCE Hellenistic coin
with image of war goddess Athena
An earlier chapter in MacGregor’s book describes a coin with the head of Alexander, dating from around 300 BCE. The obverse of the coin depicts ‘the goddess Athena Nikephoros, bringer of victory, carrying her spear and shield. She is the divine patroness of Greeks and goddess of war.’ When I was a lad in New Zealand in pre-decimal currency days, there were still to be found old bronze pennies from the reign of Queen Victoria bearing the inscription: VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP, which says, in abbreviated form, in the Latin of Imperial Rome, ‘Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of Britain, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India’. The obverse of those pennies bore an updated version of that same goddess Athena. OK, if you want to quibble, a mixture of Hellenistic and Roman iconography, but still . . .
19th century Victorian coin
with image of . . .
As an interesting little sideline, while checking out Mayor Boris, I turned up the intriguing fact that his paternal great grandfather was a Turkish gentleman by the name of Ali Kemal Bey, one of the last interior ministers of the Ottoman Empire, assassinated during the Turkish War of Independence. The grandfather, born in England in 1909, went by the hybrid handle of Osman Wilfrid Kemal. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s parents seem to have preferred their aristocratic German connection in naming their boy child. Make what you will of that!
Anyway, let’s get back to the British Museum. No. 39 of the 100 historical objects is a Chinese painting known as the ‘Admonitions Scroll’, dated somewhere between 500 and 800 CE. MacGregor notes that this scroll had been the prized possession of many Chinese emperors. The Wikipediaentry informs us that its last Chinese location was the Summer Palace near Beijing whence it was uplifted by a Captain Clarence A. K. Johnson of the 1st Bengal Lancers in the aftermath of the so-called Boxer rebellion. This event, in 1899, involved an uprising by Chinese nationalists opposing foreign imperialism and the intrusion of Christianity. The uprising was forcefully put down by a group of like-minded states known as the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), after which there was ‘uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside . . . along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers’.
Thereafter, with the assistance of Captain Johnson, the priceless scroll found its way to the British Museum. None of this will you find, however, in the above book or on the Museum website, the latter merely stating laconically: ‘Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands.’
Apart from admiring their table-tennis players, I confess I have never taken a lot of interest in the Chinese or their history and politics. However, I am currently feeling more sympathy, since reading about the Scroll, the Boxers, and the earlier Opium Wars (1839-1860) where the British Government used its military might to assert the right of its citizens to import and sell opium in China against the expressed wishes of the country’s rulers.
I am fully aware that, as usual, I have gone on too long, roaming far and wide over large swathes of the globe. I would like to leave you with one final example that may usefully be acknowledged, recalled and understood. After the suppression of that Indian Rebellion or Mutiny of 1857, severe reprisals were taken against those who had participated. One exemplary form of execution employed by the British victors was tying the victims over the mouths of cannons and blowing them into pieces difficult for relatives to reassemble and bury. A Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin, painted a recreation of the scene in 1884. There are many reproductions but the original seems no longer to exist. The Wikipedia entry says it ‘was in the United States. According to legend, [it was] bought and then destroyed by the British’.
In spite of the foregoing, I have some sympathy for David Cameron’s position. Most of us, nations, families and individuals have skeletons in our closets. Disinterring long-buried bones for the sole purpose of ascribing blame is unlikely to achieve positive results. On the other hand, true understanding will not come from selective recollection. Lasting peace can never be attained so long as powerful states continue to interfere in, and try to manipulate the internal affairs of others. Nor can it by calling other nations to account for past sins while conveniently ignoring one’s own. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, four centuries ago, ‘God’s bodykins . . . Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?’


[1] ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, Neil MacGregor (Penguin, 2012)
[2] Colossus – The Rise and fall of the American Empire’, Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2005)

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