Monday 11 July 2016

Having bottle

Anyone who 'did' British history at school knows about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 where British insensitivity to religious and cultural difference ended in a widespread break-down of discipline and a revolt by the common soldiery. That Mutiny was ruthlessly crushed but it brought to an end the East India Company which had been running the sub-continent as a profit making gravy-train.  The British government took on the business of running that part of the Empire directly rather than sub-contracting it to a bunch of capitalists.

Last Sunday 10th July was the 210th anniversary of an earlier Mutiny brought on by a similar insensitivity and the imposition of European cultural values on the soldiers of The Company.  Just after midnight the sepoys shot dead the British sentries in Vellore 140 km West of Madras [Chennai nowadays] and took control of the fort and slaughtered much of the British garrison as they slept. One British officer escaped and rode 24km to the next garrison at Arcot to raise the alarm. It was not a good time to piffle about and an officer of the 19th Light Dragoons, called Sir Rollo Gillespie, up early for a ride he scrabbled together a relief force in 15 minutes of frenetic activity and galloped back to Vellore to sort things out. Further troops, including some horse-artillery followed as quickly as they could muster their arms.  Gillespie's ride is commemorated in a truly terrible Victorian poem:
Without a word, without a groan, 
Sudden and swift Gillespie turned, 
The blood roared in his ears like fire, 
Like fire the road beneath him burned.  
etc etc
By all accounts, if Gillespie had arrived 5 minutes later, all would have been lost as the few surviving Brits were surrounded and out of ammunition. As it was, the mutiny was nipped in the bud and far greater slaughter, on both sides, was averted. Because of Gillespie's prompt action, hardly anybody has heard of the mutiny of 1806.

Having read about this in the morning I was off to Sunday lunch with Pat the Salt [bloboprev], my aged father-in-law, his daughter and her aunt Margot. The aunt, like her sister Souad [prevoblob] was born and raised in the city of Kano in Northern Nigeria. Nigeria, like India, is a multi-cultural melting pot supporting several different religions and more than 500 different languages. Like India, there were/are periodical pogroms against racial/cultural groups that were/are locally in the minority. One Sunday, when this aunt was about 15, the family left home to go to the races in the next town. Margot felt crook so she stayed behind. While the family were away, the local Hausa men [Muslims] decided to murder any Igbo people [Christians] they could lay hands upon. This was done, in contrast to the dormitory slaughter in Vellore in 1806, with great gusto and much noise. The thing about a close-knit multicultural society is that you know where the other half lives.

Margot's family employed an Igbo steward called William and shortly after things kicked off, a mob appeared in the family compound demanding that William be released into their custody. 15 seconds of frenetic activity had Margot standing at the top of the veranda stairs, with her father's shot-gun and a box of cartridges, haranguing the crowd in Hausa and inviting the first of them to start up the steps to get William. The thing about a close-knit multicultural society is that you know who is as good as their word and none of the men believed that Margot wouldn't shoot and so they slunk off. Courage is doing the right thing without over-thinking it: some people have it in their backbone.

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