Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Were They Thinking: The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857

This is actually a photo of a sepoy
from the Madras Presidency, which was not involved in any
of the uprisings mentioned in my post, but it's
a great picture, no? (Watercolor by Alex Hunter)
By Supriya Savkoor

It’s 1857, and the British East India Company is at the height of its powers. Back in England, a gun manufacturer comes out with a striking new innovation: the Enfield Pattern 1853 (or the Enfield P53) rifle-musket.

For a decade and a half, right into the U.S. Civil War, this innovative new rifle allowed cartridges made of gun powder to propel metallic balls through the barrel, or the body of the weapon, through threaded grooves rather than smooth ones. This process instilled confidence in front-line soldiers because the rifle’s manufacturers had sold them on the fact that second-line soldiers literally had their backs. That is, it was believed the soldiers in the back could aim better at their targets with more assurance that they wouldn't hurt their fellow soldiers right in front of them. Plus the tips of the rifles were equipped with bayonets, so it also helped protect the soldiers if they ran out of cartridges and had to come face to face with an opponent. And in fact, just two years earlier, the Enfield P53 saw significant action in the Crimean War.

A sepoy from Awan in north India (Painting by
Major A.C. Lovett, circa the early 20th century)
The British East India Company’s administrators led the Indian soldiers, known as sepoys, mostly through the local Indian kings who reported up the chain of command back to the company itself. The company, you see, played the maharajas off each other, leading the sepoys into skirmishes against one another, and the sepoys had no option but to obey their kings.

Nice little scheme the Brits had going there, no? So how could they possibly screw it up?

Try the most reckless and downright arrogant way possible. Get this.

One feature of the Enfield P53 is that you could reload it as rapidly as you could load bullets into the muzzle (or the front of the weapon). The bullets, however, had to be greased before loading. The way it worked at the time is that the soldiers had to tear open a cartridge, typically using their mouth since they held the rifles in their arms, then pour gunpowder down the barrel and remove the ram-rod before firing the weapon. Further, If the cartridges weren’t greased, you could moisten them using saliva. But whether they were greased or not, the fastest way to load them was to hold as many as you could in your mouth and transfer them quickly into the muzzle.

Makes sense, but no sooner than the Enfield P53 had been introduced into the Indian military, a rumor started going around that the cartridges had been greased with pork and beef lard, a practice that would obviously offend the sensibilities (and religious traditions) of the mostly Muslim and Hindu forces. 
Such an interesting illustration! The Indians appear to have all the control here,
with their rather malevolent expressions, while the Brits look sort of blank, as
though they are not only just defending themselves, but have really no emotion at
all about what's happening to them here. ("Attack of the Mutineers on the Redan
Battery at Lucknow, July 30th, 1857," a steel engraving, c.1860,
source/photographer Charles Ball)

When confronted with questions about this practice, the commanders wouldn’t admit any wrongdoing but instead responded that the sepoys were welcome to prepare their own cartridges using whatever oil, butter, or whatever lubricant of their choice. But the overwhelming indifference of the Brits who had grossly insulted the men they commanded led to one of the most brutal of all uprisings. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, as it came to be known, started in the town of Meerut in the state of Uttar Pradesh in May 1857 and, over the next two years, dominoed into other mutinies in Delhi, Kanpur (then called Cawnpore), Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, and other princely states. 

From all accounts, the British doled out brutal executions post
mutiny, such as these, death by cannon. {{PD-1923}}
The British East India Company dissolved in 1858, when the British government reorganized the Indian army and took over the government administration, including finances, of India. As the new ruler, the crown governed what came to be known as the British Raj. The change led to the collapse of the Mughal Empire as well as the once-powerful Maratha Empire. I don't know the particulars, but I'm told one of the commanders leading the Brits during the mutiny was asked to help quell the Confederates during the U.S. Civil War. 

While the British government ruled India for close to a century, the sepoy mutiny gave rise to the first wave of freedom fighters and began India’s nationalist movement that juggernauted over the next few generations until the country finally won its independence in 1947. You could say it all started with a little animal fat….

Friday, September 28, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Chobe, the Greatest River I Know

Yolanda L. Comedy is a world traveler and an independent consultant who works on science and technology policy issues while chipping away at the possibility of a novel writing career. Somewhere along the way, she has learned that she has so much to say that can’t be captured in her technical papers and policy speak. However, she has had a wonderful career with opportunities that include: a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Political Science and Public Policy; an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellowship; and working at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and at IBM, and starting her own consulting business. 

I stretched my feet out, lying on my side with book in hand. So beautiful, so relaxing, and just what I needed after three months leading a group of students working in Botswana in the Kalahari desert. We were with Operation Crossroads Africa, a precursor to the Peace Corps, designed to give students the opportunity to visit African countries while working on development projects. We made bricks to build a new school, helped build latrines and, in turn, caught a glimpse at a life very different from our own. Now I wonder what ever happened to those students in my group?

But at that moment, all I knew was that I had a corner of peace and quiet. Everyone was “off doing their own thing” and I was finally alone. “This is so beautiful,” I thought looking out over the Chobe River, a nature preserve in Botswana. I tried to read my book, but my mind was elsewhere, dizzy with the memories of the few days we had been staying in a camp on the banks of the Chobe. I tried to return to the words on the pages of my book. Success, two more paragraphs read. Then suddenly I jumped to my feet, my heart pounding as the memories of my journey while still in Chobe came rushing back.
Gnus and zebras at Chobe National Park in Botswana
“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself, not knowing how to react to my stupidity as I backed away from the bank of the river. Botswana’s Chobe River is spectacular. In all my years of travel, all of the places I have seen and experienced, Chobe, Botswana’s first national park, is among the top on my list of favorites. It will always be printed indelibly on my brain. Chobe is the place where I learned never to forget that humans share this planet with other forms of life that are as much a part of Earth as we are. I saw first hand some of the living diversity of our planet and was humbled before it. That’s why it was so amazing that I thought that I could sit and read a book on the banks of the Chobe River when just hours before, I had witnessed crocodiles swimming lazily along its shores. Humbled by the many species I had seen, but not wanting to be dinner for any of them, I decided to enjoy the scenery from a few feet back. I put my book down and thought about my wonderful experiences over the past couple of days.

My group and I arrived in the village of Kasane by bus. We had no hotel reservations, no idea what we were going to do or where we were gong to stay. Somehow it worked out beautifully.  We found a camp that we could afford—a grouping of traditional-style houses, with several latrines and an outside shower. We were as happy as could be. (After all, we had spent the last three months in a makeshift concrete building in the middle of the Kalahari desert where the temperature dropped to freezing at night, scorpions didn’t hesitate to join our campfires, and shooting stars simultaneously thrilled us and scared us to death.) 

Tourists arriving at Chobe River
Upon arrival at our campsite, we met a group of white South African hunters. Their race was very significant because apartheid had not yet ended in South Africa and, since we were a multiracial group, we were not quite comfortable with their friendly overtures. They, on the other hand, seemed thrilled to meet a group from the United States and offered to take us on a non-hunting safari. So many mixed feelings invaded our group, and we went off to have a major discussion about their offer. We had little travel money and going on safari was not on our list of possibilities. Some did not hesitate to admit that they wanted to go, others wanted to protest apartheid by saying “no,” and others could not decide what to do.  After a long discussion and a vote, most decided to go.

I will never forget that safari. Since then, I’ve been on many safaris, but my first cannot be surpassed. We went out early the next morning; the sun had barely risen in the sky. The smells reminded us of the diversity of life all around. We went on safari in jeeps, with the hunters carrying guns, to be used for protection if needed. They treated us to a day of adventure and beauty that surpassed my wildest expectations. For hours and hours, we drove, quiet, waiting for animals as we marveled at the beauty of the land, the peace of being in the middle of the bush, and the anticipation of what we would see. And see we did! Out guides expertly followed tracks, sounds, and movements, revealing to us the elephants, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, Cape Buffalo, snakes and more, in all of their splendor. It was extraordinary. I quickly learned that people go on safari because there is no feeling like it. Communing with nature feeds one’s soul in ways I do not have words to describe.

After the heat, the dust and the beauty, we went to the Chobe Game Lodge, where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had once honeymooned. We sat on the veranda and had cool drinks, recent memories crowding our brains. We marveled at our day, the experience of joining such stately and wonderful birds and animals in their own habitats. We were happy that our hosts had never needed to use their guns, and that they had so skillfully guided us into a beautiful world none of us had experienced before. 

That night, I slept, exhausted but happy, only to be awoken by elephants rambling through our camp! The next day, just when I didn’t think life could get any better, our group went on a cruise down the Chobe River at dusk and watched the animals partaking of their evening drinks of water. So different from the day before, when our guides had to work so hard to provide us with a view of animals, this day we saw so many elephants (my favorite), zebra, hippos, crocs and birds, that it was nearly unbelievable. The entire journey will stay indelibly on my brain and in my heart. I had the opportunity to experience Chobe’s majesty, hidden and out in the open. Because of that, I have tried harder to be a better being on this earth that we all share.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How Rome Finally Fell

 This piece first appeared on Novel Adventures January 19, 2012.

Helmet of the Bersaglieri
On the morning of September 20, 1870, an elite military corps known as Bersaglieri broke through Rome’s famed Aurealian Wall at the Porta Pia for the final showdown between the Kingdom of Italy and the pope’s army. Clad in their signature feather-encrusted helmets, this crack team of marksmen defeated the papal army, despite losing 49 men to the pope’s 18.

Established in 1836, the Bersaglieri are known for being larger than life characters and exceptionally fit. They are outstanding marksmen (and, today, a few women). Intended originally to be a highly mobile unit that could get into and out of places quickly, they even carried folding bicycles as part of their gear during World War I.

World War I Bersaglieri with bicycles
Thus, the Bersaglieri were the natural military unit to breach the Porta Pia. Designed by Michelangelo, this gate on the north-eastern part of the city wall was commissioned by Pope Pius IV as part of his urban renewal project in the mid-1500s. Porta Pia opened onto a new street, Via Pia: both gate and street named for the pope himself. For centuries, the gate protected the city from unwanted entry.

It was another Pope Pius, the Ninth, who headed the Holy See when the Bersaglieri broke through the wall. The struggle for unification had been waging for about fifty years at that point. Most of the peninsula had been unified as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, with Victor Emanuel II as the king. A parliament had met that year in Turin, declaring Rome as the capitol of the new kingdom. But because Rome was under papal control, the government couldn’t enter the new capitol.

The pope had been able to retain power in large part because French troops protected Rome. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, however, Napoleon III recalled those troops to France in August 1870, leaving the pope vulnerable.

Hoping to finally capture Rome without bloodshed, King Victor Emanuel sent an envoy to the Holy See on September 10 with a letter offering protection to the pope and outlining political solutions to a variety of sticky issues.The pope was enraged. He scared off the envoy, declaring, “You will never enter Rome.”

Porta PIa with Bersaglieri Monmument
The next day, on September 11, the Italian army entered papal lands and began its march toward Rome. It moved slowly in hopes that a peaceful solution could be found. On September 19, the army numbering 50,000 reached the Porta Pia. Inside, 13,000 Swiss Guards and volunteers waited for the attack.

The next morning, the attack began, and after three hours, the Italian troops broke through the wall. The Bersaglieri entered the city and overpowered the papal army. On September 21, all of the papal lands were firmly in the hands of the Italians.

The Via Pia was rechristened Via XX Settembre in honor of the anniversary, and throughout Italy, cities and towns have established their own Via XX Settembre. Today, the Porta Pia houses a museum honoring the Bersaglieri.

The Bersaglieri have continued to distinguish themselves since their establishment, in World Wars I and II and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the breach of Porta Pia remains their finest hour. In parades they don’t march they jog. Even the band, the black feathers on their helmets floating in the breeze.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Truth Wilder Than Fiction

By Alli Sinclair

When I first lived in Peru, I knew a little about the history but I was by no means an expert. As part of my work as a tour guide I had to study up, and I did so with glee. I find it disconcerting these events actually happened and the suffering that ensued is horrible but it’s hard not to read about the events in the Incan Empire in the 1500s and not think of it as an over-blown version of Dallas. Or perhaps I just watch too much television…

In 1532 a civil war broke out between Incan half-brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar. Unable to rule the Incan Empire together, Atahualpa took control of northern region and Huáscar the south, which included the political capital of Cuzco. Not content with his lot, Huáscar ordered his men to take Atahualpa prisoner but he escaped and in retaliation amassed 30,000 troops to attack Huáscar. Atahualpa declared war and as he advanced close to Cuzco, Huáscar’s inexperienced men were defeated. The day Atahualpa received news of his victory, Francisco Pizzaro, a Spanish conquistador descended into the northern Incan town of Cajamarca. He only had 180 men and 30 horses with him.

Pizarro’s perfect timing meant he could take advantage of the division within the Incan Empire and set about achieving his own goals for the Spanish. After securing an audience with Atahualpa, Pizarro demanded that Atahualpa and his people cast aside their religious beliefs and agree to a treaty with Spain. Of course, Atahualpa refused and the canons and highly-trained Spaniards overpowered the slings, stone axes, and cotton-padded armour of the Incas. The bloody battle killed close to 6,000 Incas but only five Spaniards.

Pizarro’s men captured Atahualpa who offered to fill a large room with treasure to secure his release. Pizarro accepted and received delivery of 24 tonnes of gold taken from various regions of the Incan Empire. Even though Atahualpa paid handsomely for his release, Pizarro put him on trial for arranging the murder of Huascar (so he didn’t pay Pizarro with more Incan riches to ensure Atahualpa stayed imprisoned), and for plotting to overthrow the Incan Empire. The Spanish tribunal found Atahualpa guilty and he was given the choice of being burned alive or the quicker option of hanging if he converted to Christianity. Atahualpa chose the latter so his body could be preserved for Incan mummification.

After his death, the new Incan Emperor and Huascar’s brother, Manco Capac, bowed to Pizarro and his men, allowing them to establish Lima in 1535. This city became the launching pad for another conquistador, Diego Almagro, to attack Chile and allowed Pizarro to communicate better with his leaders in Panama.

A year later, Capac led an uprising but failed. This defeat marked the end of the Inca’s resistance to Spanish rule and the end of an empire.

An empty-handed Almagro returned from Chile, having discovered the poor state of the region. Disheartened, he demanded a share of the riches from Pizarro, who refused, and another civil war broke out, but this time between the Spanish. Almagro seized the Incan capital, Cuzco, in 1538 but Pizarro teamed up with his half-brother, Hernando, to defeat and kill Almagro. But, and this is where it becomes more like a soapie than a history book, Almagro’s son, Diego el Monzo, attacked Pizzaro’s palace in Lima and had him killed. Monzo became Governor of Peru but the Spanish crown didn’t acknowledge his role and in 1542 Monzo was captured and executed by the Spanish. The Spanish Empire remained in a state of turmoil until the 1550s when Viceroy Andres Hurtado de Mendoza finally established a sense of order.

That’s quite a lot of events packed into a short period of history, isn’t it? So next time you watch a TV show about family rivalry and vicious take-overs, you might be prompted to remember the Spanish and the Incas and how truth can be wilder than fiction.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Genghis Khan and the Trail of Terror

Photo by Riddleone
By Heidi Noroozy

If you want to strike fear into the heart of any Iranian, just mention the name, Genghis Khan. This 13th-century Mongol conqueror is known throughout the world for his ruthlessness and brutality, leading a destructive force that cut a swath of devastation across a vast empire. He may have embarked on his trail of terror through China, Central Asia, and Persia more than 800 years ago, but memories are long in that part of the world.

Over the years, my husband and Iranian friends have related blood-chilling stories like this: When Genghis Khan invaded Iran, he killed more than 100,000 men, ripped out their eyes, cut off their sightless heads, and mounted them atop bloody spikes on the outskirts of town as a warning to the local populace.

When the Mongols invaded Kashan, according to another tale, the men all fled to the rocky shelter of the Suleiman Spring, where they hid until the danger had passed. When I heard this story, my first thought was: So they left the women and children alone and unprotected? Well, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way.

It’s not easy to separate the historical facts from the legend surrounding this Mongol emperor, whose given name was Temujin. Genghis Khan was his title, and it meant “universal ruler.” His reputation for brutality may have been accurate, but you don’t build and conquer empires without having some sense of military strategy. So accounts of his ruthlessness and cruelty likely grew more horrific over the centuries.

However exaggerated the reports may be, historians agree that the Mongol conquest of Persia was not a campaign planned carefully in advance. Instead, it came about as an act of retribution (one that apparently got way out of hand.)

In 1218, after Genghis had conquered northern China, he sent a trade envoy to the Turkic-Persian ruler of the Khwarezmid Dynasty, Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, whose territory covered an area now occupied by Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The shah, however, suspected the envoys of being spies, so he killed their leader and shaved the beards of the other merchants before sending them back to the Mongols.

The Khan responded by attacking Persia with an enormous army (some say it was as large as 200,000 men). His strategy was to offer a choice to the leaders of each town he approached: If they surrendered to him, he’d spare their lives. If they didn’t, he’d slaughter every man, woman, and child. Despite the fact that he made good on his word, only two Persian towns surrendered—Yazd and Shiraz—and they were indeed spared the usual bloodbath.

The caliph of Baghdad, who was hostile to the Persian shah sought an alliance with the Mongols by sending them a regiment of Christian prisoners he’d captured during a Crusade. But Genghis had a huge army already and no use for possibly disloyal Christians, so he freed them and sent them back to Europe. It took less than two years to destroy the Khwarezmid Dynasty, after which the Mongol forces pushed west into Georgia, the Crimea, Bulgaria and east to India and China. Eventually, his empire stretched from China to the Black Sea.

The Mongol conqueror likely earned his reputation not just from his military campaigns but from what happened to the countryside in the aftermath. The invaders laid waste to Persia’s sophisticated system of qanats, underground aqueducts that made it possible to grow crops in the desert. This destruction, combined with the decimation of Iran’s population, led to labor shortages and famines throughout the rest of the 13th century.

Genghis Khan died less than a decade after his destructive conquest of Persia—under mysterious circumstances. The accounts vary, with some saying he fell off his horse after a battle, weakened by injury and fatigue. Another story has him felled by pneumonia. The most dramatic tale is this: A captured Chinese princess castrated him with a small dagger she’d managed to conceal in her clothing. An inglorious death for a warrior—and perhaps a bit of poetic justice.