India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

Imperial India

The suppression of the Mutiny was the last severe fighting on a large scale which we have had to do in India. Terrible as it was in its sacrifice of human lives, our nation has always been the better for the splendid and heroic example of its sons and daughters who passed through that fiery trial.

Since the Mutiny we have had smaller wars with Burmah, which we have brought into the empire, with Afghanistan, and with the fierce tribes upon our north-west frontier. But this is just the old history of India beginning all over again. For, as in ancient times, danger always came from the north, so we are now only feeling this as the Moghuls and others felt it before us.

So the only way to understand our wars with Afghanistan, the last made memorable by Lord Roberts's great march through the mountains to Kandahar, is by remembering that they were only part of the measures we had to take to secure India against the steady advance of Russia in Asia. The almost ceaseless warfare with the border clans, numbering about two hundred thousand fierce fighting men, armed to the teeth, is necessary in defence of our Indian subjects, who would otherwise be exposed, as in days gone by, to the constant inrush of these mountain hordes.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


No troops in the world are ready to move into action at so short a notice or to strike so swiftly as those who keep the peace on our Indian border-line. Nor are the soldiers of any nation called upon to undertake such difficult warfare as our men among the tremendous tangle of mountains and valleys, mighty gorges, ravines, and passes which darken our north-west frontier. And the warriors who lurk amidst these rocky fastnesses are fierce, blood-thirsty, untamable robber tribes, all of them splendid shots and loving nothing so much as a cunningly devised piece of black treachery, or a fight to the death against the soldiers of the British Sirkar.

Hill tribes fire on Brits


We have generally had quarrels and fighting with the tribes acting separately against us, but in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, for the first time in our frontier history all the most powerful of the mountain clans flew to arms against us. With extraordinary rapidity we assembled an army on the frontier. Our advance into the mountains, swarming with eager fighters, was like pushing our way into a huge wasps' nest. We lost many men and officers as we beat the enemy back from hill to hill or met their midnight charges of wild swordsmen. One or two of our hill forts fell before the attack of overwhelming numbers, and their little garrisons, fighting to the last man, were slain and cruelly mutilated. But in the end we taught them, in the midst of their own mountains, that although the patience of the British rule is as enduring as a summer day, yet its arm when put forth to strike is as long as a winter night.

This is the picturesque language of the Pathan tribesmen themselves. But the lesson has constantly to be retaught and relearnt, and even when the frontier is at peace parties of fierce raiders are continually bursting across it to rob and murder on our territory. So that our border soldiers are for ever on the watch, and many a desperate little fight occurs of which we at home hear nothing.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


But all this is a duty which we have to perform while we are the rulers of India. It is a duty which the peoples of India more than ever expect us to perform since that important ceremony on January 1, 1877, when at Delhi in open Durbar Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. And since then the feeling has been deepened by that greater and even grander ceremony upon the same historic ground when Edward VII was proclaimed Emperor in 1903. Two days before the great Durbar outside Delhi, there took place the state entry of the Viceroy into the ancient capital of the Moghuls. It was the most wonderful sight ever seen in India, because the long and glittering procession represented the whole of India united in one bond of fellowship. Fifty-five ruling princes, dressed in cloth of gold with chains of emeralds and pearls and diamonds, rode behind the Viceroy on immense elephants covered with trappings of gold and a blaze of brilliant colour. The elephants' necks were encircled with jingling silver bells, and their trunks painted with vermilion, blue, and yellow.

There were fierce-looking Afghan and Pathan chiefs from the northern mountains, and chiefs from Burmah and the south. From every part of India and from every race against whom we had fought in the past their great men had come to show their loyalty and respect for the Emperor, to whom all India looks for peace, for prosperity, and national progress.

A Rajah's elephant


Only our most jealous enemies will deny that India and its people have benefited by our rule. The greatest proof of this is that ever since the Mutiny was stamped out in 1858 there has been unbroken peace within India itself. No armies have met in the shock of battle, no foreign foe has set foot on Indian soil, and no native ruler has led his armies to the slaughter and plunder of his weaker neighbours. In all her history India has never known such a time of profound peace.

In addition to this, we have cleared the country of robber bands and the murderous Thugs who strangled and robbed many hundreds of victims each year. We have stopped the horrible custom of widow-burning and the murder of infant girls, and abolished those human sacrifices which were once the custom among the wild Khonds of Orissa. And we did it without using any force.

The Khonds, for instance, believed that a great annual sacrifice of human beings was necessary in order to win the favour of an evil goddess. A lot of poor wretches, therefore, were collected and put to death every year. At last a young officer, Captain Macpherson, who went amongst them as governor, got very friendly with the Khonds and persuaded them to try an experiment. The time for the great sacrifice was near, the victims were all in readiness, the special object of their death being to obtain from the evil spirit a good harvest.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


Captain Macpherson persuaded the Khonds to hand the victims over to him while they went and told their goddess that she would have no sacrifice that year, but that it was the fault of the British, who said she might do anything she liked to punish them for it. The Khonds were rather nervous, but, as it happened, the harvest turned out a very good one, and nothing happened to the captain. So the Khonds were convinced, and never bothered about human sacrifices again.

It would take me too long to tell all that we have done for India. We know that, in spite of this, there are many Indians still who dislike our rule. But their best men are grateful, and a patriotic and enlightened Indian, Sir Seid Ahmed, in an address to his fellow-countrymen has said: "Be not unjust to the British Government, to whom God has given the rule of India. Be not unjust to that nation which is ruling over you. And think also on this—how upright is her rule. Of such benevolence as the English Government shows to those under her there is no example in the history of the world."

A great Mohammedan prince of central Asia, returning through India from a visit to the holy cities of Arabia, described the English in the following words: "Black is their faith, but pure and blameless is their justice."

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


It is because we have brought this peace and justice into a land where all was cruelty and oppression that to-day the King-Emperor looks upon all India united under his sovereignty. The whole of Burmah has come under his sceptre. Baluchistan has been brought under his protection. Our railways run right up to the mountains of the north, and Afghanistan itself is encircled by a border-line which we have promised to help her to defend.

Such is our Indian Empire in 1911. In all the history of the world there is nothing more wonderful than the story of its growth from that first tiny trading settlement at Surat in 1612, in the days of Jehanjir and Nur Jehan, when the great empire of the Moghuls overshadowed the land.