Herbert Edwardes; Jewels in the Crown

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Herbert Edwardes; Jewels in the Crown, Jude Heaton
Published in Khyber.ORG on Sunday, December 12 2004 (http://www.khyber.org)

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Herbert Edwardes; Jewels in the Crown

Jude Heaton

Publishing Date: Sunday, December 12 2004

The task expected of many English officers in the nineteenth century subcontinent appears overwhelming when viewed through the lens of today. It is quite extraordinary to conceive of how they would venture into lands rarely or never before seen by Western eyes, to speak to people who were accustomed to war and knew little of peace, alone but for a potentially hostile local army, to collect taxes and dictate laws - imposing their interpretation of civilisation. What is perhaps even more striking than the ludicrous ambition of their endeavour, was its success. Herbert Benjamin Edwardes is one of the finest examples of this, and his excursion to Bannu is nothing short of astounding. Also astounding was his arrogance and righteous certainty - his utter contempt for locals who showed him so much respect.

Born in Shropshire on November 12, 1819, Edwardes went to India in 1840 with the East India Company's 1st Bengal Fusiliers. He was then sent to Punjab and became one of Henry Lawrence's loyal supporters. In the period between the two Sikh wars in the 1840s - when Lawrence was effectively in charge of the Punjab as Dalip Singh, the Sikh ruler, was too young to take power - the Sikhs' counsel of elders wanted to take a party to Bannu to collect taxes, drawing attention to the "outstanding revenue" owed there. Lawrence agreed, but on the condition that an English officer accompanied them and that the mission be performed peacefully. As the historian Philip Mason put it, "The Sikh elders must have smiled in their long grey beards. A political officer was welcome to try." The man chosen for the task was Herbert Edwardes, a lieutenant still in his twenties. In March 1847 he set off.

The Sikhs had never had much success collecting money from the wild Banucchis. A people who had no word to distinguish between a village and a fort, they would inflict heavy losses on the Sikhs, who in turn would burn their fields, and round up any cattle they could muster. This was the first thing that Edwardes put a stop to. The Sikh army he was put in charge of, which a mere year before he had been at war with, was to behave in a civilised and ordered manner. They were to support themselves, pay their own way and not resort to living off the land of those they came to speak with. When one Sikh cut some corn to feed his elephant, Edwardes had him thrashed and he was paraded before the rest of the troops so the lacerations on his back would be a lesson to all. There were no more deviations from Edwardes' standard.

This policy impressed the local tribesman, who heard the Sikhs were acting in an unprecedented manner as they had an Englishman in their midst. The Wazir tribe, led by Swahu Khan, came to the Edwardes' camp bearing a 25-year-old note from an Englishman named Moorcroft who had been fed by the Wazir's. Edwardes honoured the sentiment of the note, which bid hospitality be given to its bearer, and warmly encouraged the tribe to stay as long as they pleased. And so talks began.

Edwardes parleyed with the tribes for 6 weeks, making an initial demand of Rs 40,000 tax, in exchange for which the troops would leave and protect the area. If they refused an army would return the next year with a Sikh official who would ensure the taxes were paid. They talked night after night but no settlement was agreed upon. Yet the fact that peaceful talks were occurring at all was an achievement. In the past foreign forces had come with weapons, not with words. It was decided that Edwardes would return the following year for longer talks.

True to his word, the young officer came back the next year, this time for three months. His task, in his own words, was to "subdue them by a peaceful and just treaty; and reduce the nominal revenue, which was never paid, to a moderate tribute in acknowledgement of sovereignty". In these three months astonishing progress was made and the task was achieved. All the tribes in the area, with one exception, decided to pay taxes; the leaders agreed to destroy the tall walls protecting the hundreds of villages (a sight Edwardes watched, he wrote, "with equal shares of satisfaction and contempt"); and a large fort was constructed by the Sikh army in the centre of the Bannu valley. Edwardes also decided that the tribes really ought to have a legal code, so one night he sat down and wrote one himself. It was a fusion of Napoleonic codes and Biblical values. He then took it upon himself to administer the law. So it was that one man, beyond the range of easy communication with his superiors, was simultaneously legislator, judge, law enforcer, taxman, diplomat, president and commander in chief.

The local tribes held Edwardes in reverence and awe. They thought his watch was a bird and listened entranced to the tick, which they thought its song. Some of the chiefs thought that Englishmen could never lie. (This is in sharp contrast to the joke I've been told repeatedly since I arrived in Pakistan a century and a half after Edwardes: How can you tell an Englishman is lying? His lips are moving.) One chief even asked if it was true that Edwardes had read books for 12 years constantly without sleep. The town now known as Bannu was even called Edwardesabad for a time. The Bannuchi trusted and admired him, especially the tribesman who followed him into battle a year later in the second Sikh war.

Hubert Edwardes of Edwardesabad Bannu fame

For Edwardes part, he spoke eloquently of the land in admiring tones, "In Spring it is a vegetable emerald; and in winter its many coloured harvests look as if Ceres had stumbled against the Great Salt Range, and spilt half her cornucopia in this favoured vale". However, his love of the beauty of the landscape, was punctured by his sense that there was a snake in its midst: "Altogether, nature has so smiled on Bannu, that the stranger thinks it a paradise; and when he turns to the people, wonders how such spirits of evil ever found admittance". He clearly has no sympathy whatsoever with the culture of the people: "The Bannuchis, or, as they generally style themselves, Bannuwals, are bad specimens of Afghans. Could worse be said of any human race? They have all the vices of Pathans rankly luxuriant, the virtues stunted. Except in Sindh, I have never seen such a degraded people."

He divides the population of Bannu into four categories. "The mongrel and vicious Bannuchi peasantry," are the first, with whom he has very little truck, ruled by the Maliks, who, in their corruption and indolence, he has equally little time. Next come the Ulemma, whom he sees as using superstition to frighten and intimidate others into giving them money and land. A sixth of the land was in their control. It is clear he views their faith as being of a different order to his own: "A well educated man will, in all probability, be religious, but an ignorant one is certain to be superstitious. A more utterly ignorant and superstitious people than the Bannuchis I never saw."

Third in his categorisation are the "despised and infidel" Hindus "whose avarice made them insensible to the degradation of their position". They performed all trade, except that involving weapons, were generally mistrusted and treated poorly. Which leaves us with the final category, the Waziri tribesman, the only group with whom Edwardes seemed to have a certain respect. They were, he perceives, "wholly without law, but neither destitute of honour nor virtue".

The disunity of the people appears to have particularly frustrated Edwardes; their perpetual fighting amongst themselves which only ceased when they were united by the threat of an external force. As he says "The Bannuchis were literally never at peace unless they were at war!" And here he came, one man with good English common sense and an understanding of law and order, to put to right the cycle of violence.

When the so-called Indian mutiny broke out ten years after Edwardes' time in Bannu, he felt it was divine retribution for the lack of force used by the British in bringing their God to the people. It was a mutiny in which Edwardes played a prominent role, mustering a large force of Pathans in the Punjab, following his time as governor of Peshawar. After it was finished he wanted to see the Bible taught in all schools, and no teaching of Hinduism and Islam, combined with the suppression of all non-Christian holidays.

He was later offered the governorship of the Punjab but through ill health was forced to decline. Soon after he returned to England and started work upon a biography of Henry Lawrence, a book he never completed. He died on December 23, 1868, after having been knighted for his services to the crown.

In the position he held, so far away from all that was familiar, with complete power and potentially hostile companions and subjects, it is perhaps unsurprising that he was a man of such self-certainty. Faced daily with decision upon which he would have to resolve instantly, an absolute belief in his own values must have been invaluable. His devout Christianity, and desire to educate and civilise those he came across, no doubt sprang from a desire to do good. The only freedom he saw the locals deprived of was the freedom to murder and oppress, to burn and torture. His total lack of sympathy for local customs, differences and values, should not, however, be viewed as a necessity of circumstance. There was a lively debate at the time as to the role the British ought to be playing, and the extent to which they were there to impose themselves on the people who had lived in the region for millennia. There was a sense among many that a country would be better ruled by their own system, despite its failings, rather than have an external power impose, with the noblest intentions, its own system - an antiquated belief that many in England still hold against the grain of their rulers of today.

Edwardes, however, was unswerving in his missionary ideals. He thought that India had been given to England, rather than the other colonial European powers, as England "made the greatest effort to preserve the Christian religion". Edwardes proclaims, "The Giver of Empires is indeed God". Presumably God made a mistake in giving empires to the Mughals and Ottomans.

Jude Heaton is a staff writer at The Friday Times, Pakistan


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Herbert Edwardes; Jewels in the Crown, Jude Heaton
Published in Khyber.ORG on Sunday, December 12 2004 (http://www.khyber.org)