The General, The Schoolgirl, And The Famous One-Word Despatch

General Sir Charles Napier as seen in 1849 by the photographer William Edward Kilburn
General Sir Charles Napier as seen in 1849 by the photographer William Edward Kilburn

by Ray Setterfield

February 17, 1843Charles Napier, one of the bravest soldiers in the days of the British Empire, was left for dead on one battlefield and had his horse shot from under him – on two occasions – in other conflicts.

And on this day he wrote in his diary: “It is my first battle as a commander: it may be my last. At sixty, that makes little difference but my feelings are, it shall be do or die.”

He then led his force of 2,600 men to a stunning victory over 30,000 Balochis at the Battle of Miani in Sindh Province (now in Pakistan). Napier fought hand-to-hand in the battle and finally led the cavalry charge that ended the conflict.

Though a man of tremendous courage, Napier was not a typical officer of the Empire, frequently clashing with his superiors. It was this streak of rebelliousness and difference of opinion that brought him under criticism.

“Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties, was money,” he once wrote. “Every shilling of this has been picked out of blood, wiped and put into the murderer’s pocket. . . We shall yet suffer for the crime as sure as there is a God in Heaven.”

Napier was born in 1782 at London’s Whitehall Palace. He was the eldest son of Colonel George Napier and his wife, Lady Sarah Lennox, who was the great-granddaughter of King Charles II. At the age of 12 the boy decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a career soldier. He joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the British Army in 1794.

He went on to command the 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War in Iberia against Napoleon Bonaparte and it was at the Battle of Corunna in 1809 that he was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield.

Barely alive, Napier was taken prisoner by a French soldier but when his wounds healed he managed to return to the British Army and fought with distinction in later battles.

In 1842, at the age of 60 and with the rank of Major-General, he was sent to Sindh Province to quell what was seen as the insurrection of Muslim rulers who had remained hostile to the British since the first Anglo-Afghan war broke out in 1839.

Sindh was a wealthy province ruled by a federation of chieftains. Napier took the view that while Britain’s presence in the subcontinent was a crime, British rule was better than that of feudal oppressors.

His conquest of Sindh was the stuff of imperial legend, involving a string of victories against massive odds, but his orders had been only to put down the “rebels”. Instead, after the Battle of Miani, he went on to fight and win the Battle of Hyderabad, leading to subjugation of the entire Sindh Province.

Napier had gone on record saying: “The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed.”

When a journalist wrote that Napier’s conquest of Sindh had been a “harsh and barbarous aggression”, he sued for libel. But The Times newspaper  said that he was being oversensitive to criticism, since “the united voice of his countrymen acclaim him as the greatest military genius now in the Army List”.

Napier was to become the Governor of Sindh, and Commander-in-Chief in India. During this time Hindu priests complained about the prohibition of Sati by the British. This was the custom of burning a widow alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. According to Napier’s brother, William, he told them:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. However, my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is expended. Let every one of us act as indicated by national traditions.”

Fine words. But Napier is most famous for a single word issued after the fall of Sindh. Under the title ‘Foreign Affairs' Punch magazine reported in May, 1844:

“It is a common idea that the most laconic military despatch ever issued was that sent by Caesar to the Horse-Guards at Rome, containing the three memorable words ‘Veni, vidi, vici,’ [I came, I saw, I conquered] and, perhaps, until our own day, no like instance of brevity has been found.

"The despatch of Sir Charles Napier, after the capture of Sindh, both for brevity and truth, is, however, far beyond it. The despatch consisted of one emphatic [Latin] word – ‘Peccavi,’ ‘I have Sindh,’ (sinned).”

Brilliant! – but, unfortunately, not true. After reading about Napier’s exploits a schoolgirl, Catherine Winkworth, said to her teacher that his despatch after capturing Sindh should have been ‘Peccavi’ (Latin for 'I have sinned'). Catherine was so pleased with her pun that she sent it to the new humorous magazine, Punch. Inexplicably, the editor printed it as a factual report.

General Sir Charles James Napier died in 1853 from complications after catching a cold while serving as a pallbearer at the Duke of Wellington's funeral. He was 71.

Published: February 6, 2021

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