A mass hanging in India carried out by his (and David Cameron’s) ancestor shocks Ferdinand Mount.
WHEN Ferdinand Mount opened The Sunday Times on August 1, 2010, he was faced with a shocking revelation worthy of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Malcolm Low, his great-grand-father (and David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather), had “participated in a mass hanging of civilians” during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Low’s brother Robert, the article stated, had also committed atrocities.
“I found the report startling and disorienting. It upset my long-established view of things in general,” writes Mount, a baronet and former adviser to Margaret Thatcher. “I had not thought of any of them [the Lows] as mass murderers.”
But Mount had only to reach for a book written by his great-aunt Ursie, Malcolm Low’s daughter, to corroborate the gruesome details. The volume, Fifty Years with John Company, had sat unopened on his bookshelves for four decades. This was not an oversight: “The truth is that for my parents’ generation, and for mine, too…the subject of the British Empire in India was unmentionable. The memory of it was a huge embarrassment.”
The Tears of the Rajas, Mount’s exploration of his Scottish ancestors’ century-long entanglement with India, might easily have proven an exercise in exoneration. Equally, Mount could have been snared by Raj nostalgia, for which the British seem to have an insatiable appetite. But in this epic and remarkable family saga, set in the half century leading up to the catastrophic events of 1857, Mount doesn’t shirk from describing the murderous acts perpetrated by his ancestors; acts that, he acknowledges, “would have attracted the attention of any war-crimes tribunal today”.
The mass hanging that made news in The Sunday Times (courtesy of a visit by Cameron to India, 153 years after the event) was fully attested to by Malcolm Low himself. An East India Company civil servant, it was his job to collect taxes, a task that “had been ticklish enough in peacetime”. When he found himself in the middle of a full-scale uprising with bandits roaming the countryside and “fanatic mussulmans [Muslims]” spoiling for a fight, he took up arms. Facing resistance from a “ferocious old leper” bandit called Khairati Khan, Low and his loyal Punjabi cavalrymen charged the village of Jaula in today’s Uttar Pradesh state. The rebels were cut down and then: “All the great men of the town were captured and hung…Altogether it was a fearful lesson…and most beneficial in its results.”
John Low, in 1804 (The British Library)
In the aftermath of the Mutiny, another Mount ancestor, Theo Metcalfe, built a gallows of timbers retrieved from his burnt-out home in Delhi and “strung up any Indian he suspected of having taken part” in the slaughter of the British. Mount also records the involvement of one of Malcolm Low’s brothers, Robert, in the earlier Santal rebellion of 1855. The Santals, a tribal people of eastern India, had no written script, guns or currency. Forced by the British to pay rent for living on their own land and cheated by unscrupulous Bengali moneylenders, they revolted with just their bows and arrows. The result was slaughter, “a hideous turkey shoot” — and promotion for Robert.
The central character of the book and a far more edifying one, however, is Robert and Malcolm’s father, John Low. Like so many lowland Scots for whom soldiering was the logical choice given the tenor of the times, he sailed for India in 1804 aged 15, to “shake the pagoda tree” (pagodas being then the currency of south India). Wounded in the madcap 1811 invasion of Java, his fate remained bound to that of the East India Company for an unprecedented 53 years. Fluent in Persian and Hindustani, John accompanied the Maratha king into exile. He went on to serve as the company’s man at the court of several proxy rulers, yet, once mired in the murky world of politics, grew disillusioned with what the British were trying to achieve in India.
Mount perceives John as one of a breed of men who “prided themselves on an unblinking realism and an undeceived understanding of the limits of imperial pretension”. Yet the book features few other examples; indeed the remaining British, even at their bravest, come off as a decidedly unscrupulous lot. General Charles Napier, who subjugated Sind, was “a stunted, villainous-looking paranoiac”; William Sleeman, who extinguished the Thug cult, was a “patsy”; and Governor-General Lord Dalhousie was one of many “ignorant and impatient aristocrats”. Perhaps most damning of all, the Honourable East India Company’s men were consistently and ignobly devious — no more so than in their coining of the title Resident. “It seemed,” writes Mount, “to have a harmless neighbourly sound. Yet this purportedly unassuming foreign ‘Friend at Court’ quickly became…the instrument of inexorable British Imperial expansion.”
Malcolm Low, in 1872 (The British Library)
Little wonder that the Indians developed “a natural hatred of us”, in John Low’s words. That hatred was to intensify as the company’s overlords schemed to “annex every state”. Thus the kingdoms of Sind and Gwalior were appropriated for their poppy harvest, Britain being “the world’s largest organised supplier of narcotics” at the time; and the Nizam of Hyderabad was shamelessly relieved of his best cotton-producing land. Finally, in 1856, Dalhousie orchestrated the arrogation of Oudh, with its capital of Lucknow, and John Low, under protest and against his natural instincts, did his master’s bidding.
Mount is at his most erudite when discussing the causes of the mutiny that followed. Excessive taxation and the demobbing of 200,000 troops in central India feature high as causes. The uprising was not, he argues, a spontaneous event; the threat felt by Indians to the “core of their social being” by the conquest of their lands by Christian invaders has thus far been overlooked by historians with a “secular bent”. Nevertheless, Mount chooses not to reflect upon his own journey in studying his ancestors’ past, though it is not clear why. Any sense of guilt would surely be misplaced, however.
What he provides instead is of far greater value: a perceptive antidote to nationalistic prejudicial thinking, and an opportunity for a greater understanding of the aftereffects of British imperialism in some of the world’s most troubled regions.
It would be lamentable if such a thought-provoking history sat on the bookshelves ignored for another 40 years.
Tarquin Hall is the author of Salaam Brick Lane and the Vish Puri mysteries
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