Category Archives: South Asia

Charms of Exile in Dharamsala

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 242:

The exile community was headquartered three hundred miles north of New Delhi in the former British resort town of McLeod Ganj, a village in upper Dharamsala developed by the British military in the mid-nineteenth century as a cantonment for troops administering the region. The British had been drawing up plans to turn it into a summer capital, when, in 1905, an earthquake devastated the town and forced their retreat to lower, firmer ground. After India’s independence, the town was left with an inventory of empty real estate—quaint colonial buildings crumbling into the hillsides. When the Dalai Lama fled to India, a shrewd merchant who ran McLeod’s general store prodded the Indian government to offer him the village as his base. It suited the needs of the Indian government to accommodate the Dalai Lama in a place that befitted his status but was comfortably out of the way so as not to irritate the Chinese government too much.

Dharamsala appealed as well to the Tibetans, who appreciated its relatively cool temperatures, mountain air, and auspicious name—“dwelling place of the dharma” in Hindi. All slopes and switchbacks with barely a horizontal surface in sight, Dharamsala didn’t much resemble Tibet, but a snow-capped spur of the Himalayas was visible in the distance. Around the Dalai Lama sprung up an entire parallel universe of Tibet, hinting of home. The Central Tibetan Administration had its own ministers and parliament, schools, museum, library, and civil service employees—even a civil service exam. (“We don’t have a country but we have bureaucracy,” a spokesman told me, apologizing for the requirement that a press pass was needed to visit a school.) Empty storefronts filled up with hotels, cafés with multilingual menus and cuisine, English-language bookstores, yoga studios, and boutiques selling copper singing bowls and prayer beads.

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Origin of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

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Wardak No-Man’s-Land, 2009

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 235-236:

The summer of 2009 saw an increase in infighting among Wardak’s Taliban, and growing tensions with their co-insurgent allies in Hekmatyar’s faction. At the same time, because the Taliban leadership paid units a “bonus” for outstanding attacks, the number of fake assaults, staged for video, surged. Akbar Gul played the game as well as anyone, but as the days went on he slid into despair. He hated those men in Quetta, he hated the ISI, and, most of all, he hated Ghulam Ali and his success. But he kept it all to himself. It was a dangerous new world, and you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own allies.

Countrywide, his movement was losing steam. The Taliban were now responsible for more civilian deaths than were the Americans. In some communities, roadside bombs, assassinations, and summary executions had come to take their place alongside Guantanamo and the door-kicking night raids of US troops in the pantheon of fears that kept villagers awake at night. Meanwhile, the insurgency was spreading from marginalized, cut-off communities into those that had fared better in the post-2001 years, whether it was welcome there or not.

In Chak, many of the commanders Akbar Gul knew had been killed in night raids, leaving Ghulam Ali’s crew and a smattering of independents, most younger than he, with no memories of the old Taliban days. It became increasingly difficult to defend their actions—which included, in one case, beheading a schoolteacher—to the village elders. He turned inward, planning operations on his own, without other commanders, and keeping away from Pakistan. Then, one day, he received a surprising phone call. It was the government’s new chief of police for Chak, an old war buddy from his Hizb-i-Islami days. They had ended up on opposite sides through chance more than anything else. The man spoke of a government program that invited fighters to switch sides in return for money and a guaranteed job. Akbar Gul listened and wondered where such a program had been years earlier, when he would have given anything for a normal life. But things were different now, more complicated. He realized that it had been a long while since the Taliban meant anything to him. But he couldn’t imagine himself openly joining forces with the government either. In fact, he knew that friends who’d gone down that route were languishing in a dangerous political no-man’s-land: Karzai’s government had not fulfilled its promises, and for the Taliban they were now marked men.

“What are you fighting for? The Americans are going to leave anyway,” the police chief said. “We are building Afghanistan.” The Taliban, he added, were terrorists, enemies of the country, stooges of Pakistan.

Akbar Gul was unmoved. “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead,” he replied, reiterating one of his favorite Pashtun proverbs. This war had left no group, Afghan or foreign, with clean hands. You had to be careful to survive. Today, the government said the Taliban were terrorists—but what about tomorrow? Would the Taliban be venerated, as the mujahedeen were now venerated? Would the Americans change their allegiances, as it seemed they had done after the 1980s, and brand the Karzai government as their enemy? It was too much for Akbar Gul to grapple with just then. He knew only that to trust the categories put forth by the Americans or the government was to go down the road to ruin.

He told the police chief that he wasn’t interested. He said he was satisfied with his life as it was, thanked him for his call, and hung up.

The next morning, with new presidential elections looming, with American patrols crawling here and there, with Taliban groups erecting their usual checkpoints to hunt for spies and possible kidnap targets, he hopped on his motorcycle, headed for the low hills behind the village, and began another day of [resistance] work.

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Filed under Afghanistan, economics, migration, military, nationalism, Pakistan, religion, U.S., war

Early Origins of the Taliban in Kandahar

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 79-80:

Most writing on the Taliban assumes that they originated in extremist Pakistani madrassas in the 1980s. In fact, the group’s origins lie much deeper in the Afghan past. Visiting Paktika in 2010, I came upon a small hilltop village where locals had gathered around a silent, downcast man. Nearby, a young herder paced back and forth, watching him intently, and, off to a side, tribal graybeards stood conferring. One of them approached, pushing his way through the scrum, and announced a verdict: for killing Rahim Gul’s cow, Moheb Jan was to pay him two sheep and twenty days’ worth of labor. Afterward, I sat down with the elder, who explained that each transgression in his community carried a fixed fine. Break someone’s nose in a fight, and you gave him a chicken. Break a bone, and you surrendered a sheep or goat. Murder, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a piece of land, your house, or even one of your women, who would go to the victim’s family in marriage.

This was how the hillspeople had learned to live with each other in a world without a state or police or judicial system. Each tribe had its own set of intricate rules, decided by elders elected by the clan’s entire male population. The elders derived their status from experience and the respect traditionally accorded to the aged. No man, however, outranked another in rights, and it was rare for one family to possess significantly more than any other. For men, at least, a deep egalitarian ethos ran through the tribal system.

For a long time, most of the Pashtun belt had functioned this way. Eventually, however, when some tribes moved down from the mountains into agricultural settlements, certain enterprising individuals developed ties with distant state authorities, and soon hierarchies sprang up. In eighteenth-century Kandahar, for example, the Safavid Empire of Persia had established suzerainty, incorporating tribal figures of their liking into their military or using them as intermediaries in dealing with the native population. The egalitarian system of the mountains slowly gave way to one dominated by tribal strongmen, and decisions were increasingly made not through traditional tribal law but on the whims and biases of a small clique of notables. It was not long before Kandahari tribes were the most thoroughly hierarchical in the country.

As a consequence, a different form of justice grew in popularity as an alternative to the tribal system: religious law, or sharia. Like tribal law, religious law expressed itself in a detailed set of punishments and restitutions for particular crimes. Its main practitioners were mullahs, who led Friday sermons and could adjudicate disputes. To become a mullah, you studied for up to twelve years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philosophy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.

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Parade of Nations in Katakana Order

I don’t remember how Japan ordered the Parade of Nations when it hosted the Olympics in 1964 (when I was in high school there), but this year the nations were ordered according to how their Japanese names sounded in katakana, the Japanese syllabary used to render foreign names. A full list of the nations in Japanese order can be found in the NPR report about the parade.

Katakana order was used even when names contained kanji (Chinese characters). So Equatorial Guinea (赤道ギニア Sekidou Ginia, lit. ‘Redroad [=equator] Guinea’) appeared between Seychelles (セーシェル) and Senegal (セネガル) because they all start with the sound SE, written セ in katakana.

Similarly, Great Britain (英国 Eikoku, lit. ‘brave-country’) and the British Virgin Islands (英国ヴァージン諸島) appeared after Uruguay (ウルグァイ) and before Ecuador (エクアドル) because the katakana syllabary starts with the five vowels in the order A I U E O (アイウエオ), then proceeds to KA KI KU KE KO (カキクケコ). So the E+I of Eikoku precedes the E+KU of Ekuadoru. (In Chinese, where the name 英国 originated, the character 英 sounds much more like the first syllable of England.)

The last of the vowel-initial names are those that start with the sound O: Australia (オーストラリア Oosutoraria), Austria (オーストリア Oosutoria), Oman (オマーン Omaan), and the Netherlands (オランダ Oranda < Holland). I’ve transcribed the long vowels here as double vowels.

The order of the consonant-initial syllables is KA (カ), SA (サ), TA (タ), NA (ナ), HA (ハ), MA (マ), YA (ヤ), RA (ラ), WA (ワ), N (ン). Most, but not all, of these consonants occur with each vowel. The YA series has YA (ヤ), YU (ユ), and YO (ヨ), but YI and YE have been replaced by the vowels I and E. As a consequence, Yemen is written イェメン Iemen, and its team preceded Israel, Italy, Iraq, and Iran in the parade, while Jordan was relegated to near the end of the parade as the only name starting with Y, written ヨルダン Yorudan. The WA series only has WA (ワ) and WO (ヲ), with WI, WU, WE replaced by the vowels I, U, E. The final sound, N (ン) only occurs at the ends of syllables, as in Iemen and Yorudan.

In katakana, voiced consonants are distinguished from their voiced equivalents by a diacritic that looks a bit like a double quote mark: KA カ vs. GA ガ, TA タ vs. DA ダ, SA サ vs. ZA ザ. The consonants with and without diacritics are considered equivalent for ordering purposes. So Canada (Kanada), Gabon (Gabon), Cameroon (Kameruun), Gambia (Ganbia), Cambodia (Kanbojia) are in that order because of what follows their initial KA/GA syllables (-NA-, -BO-, -ME-, -NBI-, -NBO-, respectively). On the same principle, Zambia (Zanbia) precedes San Marino (Sanmarino) (-NBI- > -NMA-), while Singapore (Singaporu) precedes Zimbabwe (Zinbabue) (-NGA- > -NBA-) among the nations whose names start with S/Z.

The same principle applies to the three-way diacritical distinction between HA ハ, PA パ, and BA バ. So Bahrain (Baareen), Haiti (Haiti), and Pakistan (Pakisutan) begin the series of names beginning with HA ハ, which also include Vanuatu (Banuatu) because Japanese has no syllable VA. (However, the V can be represented by adding the voiced consonant diacritic ” to the vowel ウ U, as in ヴァージン Vuaajin for the Virgin Islands.)

Nor does Japanese have a syllable FA, but the syllable HU (フ) sounds close enough to FU to substitute for F in foreign words. So names beginning with F sounds fall into the same group as those beginning with H, P, and B. Thus, the next countries to enter after Fiji (フィジー Fuijii), Philippines (フィリピン Fuiripin), and Finland (フィンァンド Fuinrando) were Bhutan (ブータン Buutan) and Puerto Rico (プエルトリコ Pueruto Riko).

The TA/DA (タ/ダ) series is at least as complicated. When pronounced, the syllables TA TI TU TE TO (タチツテト) actually sound like Ta Chi Tsu Te To and are usually romanized that way in English, while DA DI DU DE DO (ダヂヅデド) sound like Da Ji Zu De Do. So nations whose names start with Ch or Ts sounds are ordered among those whose names start with T/D. So the teams for Chile (Chiri), Tuvalu (Tsubaru), Denmark (Denmaaku), and Germany (Doitsu < Deutsch) entered in katakana order チツテト (TI TU TE TO, which sound like Chi, Tsu, Te, To), keeping in mind that TE=DE and TO=DO for ordering purposes.

Just as the normally syllabic フ FU can be combined with イ I (in フィ) to represent the foreign syllable FI, normally syllabic チ TI/CHI can be combined into チャ (TI+ya=) CHA, チュ (TI+yu=) CHU, チェ (TI+e=) CHE, and チョ (TI+yo =) CHO to represent foreign syllables starting with those sounds, as in チャイナ Chaina (China) or チェコ Cheko (Czech). Foreign words starting with J- can be represented using similar combinations starting with ZI/JI. So ZI+ya = JA in ジャマイカ Jamaica and ZI+yo = JO in ジョージア Georgia, which are sandwiched between ジブチ Djibouti and シリア Syria in katakana order. (Jordan is written ヨルダン Yorudan.)

It’s interesting that the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the People’s Republic of China all appear among the nations whose names start with T/D, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would too, if it sent a team to this Olympics. The official name of South Korea in Chinese characters is 大韓民国 (Great Han Republic), which is pronounced in Japanese as Daikanminkoku. This name places South Korea immediately after Thailand (タイ Tai), which starts the T/D section of the parade of nations. Chinese Taipei (Chainiizu Taipei) and Tajikistan (Tajikisutan) immediately follow, so the former is ordered as if it were Taipei, not Chinese Taipei.

Tanzania, Czech (チェコ Cheko) Republic, Chad (チャド Chado), and the Central African Republic (中央アフリカ共和国 Chuuou Ahurika Kyouwakoku) precede China (中華人民共和国 Chuuka Jinmin Kyouwakoku ‘Chinese [‘Middle Splendor’] People’s Republic’) because the official names of both the CAR and PRC start with 中 ‘middle’, which in katakana is written チュウ Chuu. The official name of North Korea in Chinese characters is 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国, pronounced in Japanese as Chousen Minshuushugi Jinmin Kyouwakoku (‘Korean Democratic People’s Republic’). It would immediately follow Tunisia (Chunijia) because チュ Chu precedes チョ Cho in katakana order.

Finally, because Japanese R renders both R and L in foreign names, and katakana RA RI RU RE RO come near the end of the syllabary, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Libya, Liechtenstein, Liberia, Romania (Ruumania), Luxembourg, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Lebanon come after Jordan (Yorudan) at the tail end of the parade, just before the current and future Olympic host nations.

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World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

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Foreign Volunteers in the Boer War

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 433-435:

Stung by accusations that the war had been mismanaged, the British government ordered a change of command and appointed as commander-in-chief Field Marshal Frederick Roberts – ‘Lord Bobs’ – a diminutive, 67-year-old war hero, blind in one eye; but it was decided to leave Buller in charge of the Natal army. Two more divisions – the last readily available – were despatched from England. The government also realised that it had been trying to fight the wrong kind of war, relying too much on slow-moving infantry battalions to deal with mounted Boer riflemen using highly mobile tactics; British mobility needed to match Boer mobility. Britain called for civilian volunteers to join a new ‘Imperial Yeomanry’. Some 20,000 men from the ‘hunting and shooting’ fraternity signed up, including thirty-four members of parliament and peers. The City of London paid for one thousand volunteers. Further reinforcements came from other parts of the empire – from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By January 1900, the total number of troops Britain had shipped to South Africa had reached 110,000. Additional support was provided by uitlander refugees and colonial volunteers formed into two mounted corps of their own – the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse – financed in part by Wernher, Beit & Co.

Even members of the Indian community in Natal – originally immigrants employed as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations – volunteered to serve as stretcher-bearers. Their organiser was a 28-year-old lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived from India in 1893, spending a year in Pretoria before settling in Durban. Gandhi expressed sympathy for the Boer cause but considered he was bound by loyalty to Britain. ‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire.’ The Natal authorities at first turned down Gandhi’s offer. But after Black Week, their attitude changed. Gandhi’s ambulance corps of ‘free’ Indians and indentured labourers recruited 1,100 volunteers.

Just as the British won support from the empire, so Boer ranks were bolstered by foreign volunteers. Some 2,000 uitlanders – Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, Irish-Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, even some English – joined the Boer cause. Another 2,000 foreign volunteers arrived from abroad. A retired French army colonel, Count de Villebois-Mareuil, enlisted, hoping to capture Cecil Rhodes. ‘History will add a fresh flower to the glory of France,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘To take Kimberley and see the face of the Napoleon of the Cape.’ He rose to the rank of Vecht-generaal – combat general – but was killed in action in April 1900. In all, the Boer allies were able to raise armed forces totalling more than 70,000 men. In addition, about 10,000 Africans served as auxiliaries to Boer commandos – retainers, porters, gun-bearers and labourers – many of them conscripted under duress.

Yet early Boer advantages were soon frittered away by poor strategy. By committing such a large proportion of their forces to the siege of three towns, Boer generals lost the opportunity to drive deeper into Natal and the Cape Colony when both areas were highly vulnerable to mobile attack. As their forward thrusts began to ebb, they turned to a more defensive stance, preparing for a much tougher British assault. By December, the Boer offensive had reached its limits. Unlike 1881, there had been no crushing blow to induce the British to negotiate.

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A Tottering British Empire, 1780

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 303-304:

Elsewhere in the world, 1780 saw the British suffering other major reverses – and these were indeed followed through to their logical conclusion. In America, the Patriots had turned on the King, partly as a result of government’s attempts to sell the stockpiles of East India Company tea, onto which was slapped British taxes: the Boston Tea Party, an event that built support for what would become the American War of Independence by dumping 90,000 pounds of EIC tea, worth £9,659 (over £1 million today), in Boston harbour, was in part provoked by fears that the Company might now be let loose on the thirteen colonies, much as it had been in Bengal.

One Patriot writer, John Dickinson, feared that the EIC, having plundered India, was now ‘casting their eyes on America as a new theatre whereon to exercise their talents of rapine, oppression and cruelty …’ Dickinson described the tea as ‘accursed Trash’, and compared the prospect of oppression by the corrupt East India Company in America to being ‘devoured by Rats’. This ‘almost bankrupt Company’, he said, having been occupied in ‘corrupting their Country’, and wreaking ‘the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies’ in Bengal, now wished to do the same in America. ‘But thank GOD, we are not Sea Poys, nor Marattas.’ The American watchmen on their rounds, he said, should be instructed to ‘call out every night, past Twelve o’Clock, “Beware of the East India Company.”’

After a horrendous war, the Patriots managed to see off the government troops sent to impose the tea tax. Even as Haidar was pursuing a terrified Munro back to Madras, British forces in America were already on their way to the final defeat by Washington at Yorktown, and the subsequent final surrender of British forces in America in October the following year. There was a growing sensation that everywhere the British Empire was in the process of falling apart. In Parliament, a year later, one MP noted that ‘in Europe we have lost Minorca, in America 13 provinces, and the two Pensacolas; in the West Indies, Tobago; and some settlements in Africa’. ‘The British Empire,’ wrote Edmund Burke, ‘is tottering to its foundation.’

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The Francis v. Hastings Duel, 1780

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 293-296:

On 14 August, Hastings wrote a public minute in which he denounced Francis as a liar and braggard: … The following day, on 15 August 1780, Philip Francis challenged Warren Hastings to a duel.

The two duellists, accompanied by their seconds, met at 5.30 on the morning of 17 August at a clump of trees on the western edge of Belvedere, a former summer house of Mir Jafar, which had since been bought by Warren Hastings.

Hastings had hardly slept. He spent much of the night composing a farewell letter to his beloved wife Marian, to be delivered in the event of his death. … Hastings then slept fitfully on a couch until 4 a.m. when his second, Colonel Thomas Deane Pearse, came to collect him in his carriage. ‘We arrived at Belvedere exactly at the time proposed, at 5.30,’ wrote Hastings afterwards, ‘and found Mr F[rancis] and Col Watson walking in the road. Some time was consumed looking for a private place. Our seconds proposed we should stand at a measured distance which both (taking a recent example in England) fixed at 14 paces, and Col Watson paced and marked 7. I stood to the southwards. There was, as I recollect, no wind. Our seconds (Col Watson I think) proposed that no advantage should be taken, but each choose his own time to fire.’

It was at this point that it became clear, as Pearse noted, ‘that both gentlemen were unacquainted with the modes usually observed on these occasions’; indeed, neither of the two most powerful British intellectuals in Bengal seemed entirely clear how to operate their pistols. Francis said he had never fired one in his life, and Hastings said he could only remember doing so once. So both had to have their weapons loaded for them by their seconds who, being military men, knew how to operate firearms.

Hastings, ever the gentleman, decided to let Francis fire first. Francis took aim and squeezed the trigger. The hammer snapped, but the pistol misfired. Again, Francis’s second had to intervene, putting fresh priming in the pistol and chapping the flints. ‘We returned to our stations,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I still proposed to receive the first fire, but Mr F twice aimed, and twice withdrew his pistol.’ Finally, Francis again ‘drew his trigger,’ wrote Pearse, ‘but his powder being damp, the pistol again did not fire. Mr Hastings came down from his present, to give Mr Francis time to rectify his priming, and this was done out of a cartridge with which I supplied him finding they had no spare powder. Again the gentlemen took their stands and both presented together.’

‘I now judged that I might seriously take my aim at him,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I did so and when I thought I had fixed the true direction, I fired.’ His pistol went off at the same time, and so near the same instant that I am not certain which was first, but believe mine was, and that his followed in the instant. He staggered immediately, his face expressed a sensation of being struck, and his limbs shortly but gradually went under him, and he fell saying, but not loudly, ‘I am dead.’

I ran to him, shocked at the information, and I can safely say without any immediate sensation of joy for my own success. The Seconds also ran to his assistance. I saw his coat pierced on the right side, and feared the ball had passed through him; but he sat up without much difficulty several times and once attempted with our help to stand, but his limbs failed him, and he sank to the ground. …

But there was no need for Hastings to be arrested. The doctor later reported that Hastings’ musket ball ‘pierced the right side of Mr Francis, but was prevented by a rib, which turned the ball, from entering the thorax. It went obliquely upwards, passed the backbone without injuring it, and was extracted about an inch to the left side of it. The wound is of no consequence and he is in no danger.’

Francis later instigated the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the British Parliament, a huge media event with many false charges between 1788 and 1795. Hastings was eventually acquitted overwhelmingly.

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Black Hole of Calcutta Revisited

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 144-145:

That evening [20 June 1756], having ‘swept the town of Calcutta with the broom of plunder’, Siraj ud-Daula was brought in his litter to visit his new possession. He held a durbar in the centre of the Fort where he announced that Calcutta was to be renamed Alinagar, after Imam Ali – appropriately for a prominent city in a Shia-ruled province.

So far, the surrendered garrison had been treated unusually well by Mughal standards: there had been no immediate enslavement, no summary executions, no impaling, no beheading and no torture, all of which would have been, in the Mughal scheme of things, quite routine punishments for rebellious subjects. It was only after Siraj had left that things began to fall apart.

Many in the Company’s garrison were still blind drunk, and in the early evening one intoxicated soldier who was being stripped of his goods became incensed and promptly pulled out a pistol and shot his Mughal plunderer dead. Immediately the tone changed. All the survivors were herded into a tiny punishment cell, eighteen feet long by fourteen feet ten inches wide, with only one small window, little air and less water. The cell was known as the Black Hole. There, according to the Mughal chronicler Yusuf Ali Khan, the officers ‘confined nearly 100 Firangis who fell victim to the claws of fate on that day in a small room. As luck would have it, in the room where the Firangis were kept confined, all of them got suffocated and died.’

The numbers are unclear, and much debated: Holwell, who wrote a highly coloured account of the Black Hole in 1758, and began the mythologising of the event, wrote that one woman and 145 Company men were shoved inside, of whom 123 died. This was clearly an exaggeration. The most painstaking recent survey of the evidence concludes 64 people entered the Black Hole and that 21 survived. Among the young men who did not come out was the nineteen-year-old Stair Dalrymple from North Berwick, who only two years earlier had been complaining of Calcutta’s cost of living and dreaming of becoming Governor.

Whatever the accurate figures, the event generated howls of righteous indignation for several generations among the British in India and 150 years later was still being taught in British schools as demonstrative of the essential barbarity of Indians and illustrative of why British rule was supposedly both necessary and justified. But at the time, the Black Hole was barely remarked upon in contemporary sources, and several detailed accounts, including that of Ghulam Hussain Khan, do not mention it at all. The Company had just lost its most lucrative trading station, and that, rather than the fate of its feckless garrison, was what really worried the Company authorities.

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