26 November 2020

A Tottering British Empire, 1780

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 303-304:

Elsewhere in the world, 1780 saw the British suffering other major reverses – and these were indeed followed through to their logical conclusion. In America, the Patriots had turned on the King, partly as a result of government’s attempts to sell the stockpiles of East India Company tea, onto which was slapped British taxes: the Boston Tea Party, an event that built support for what would become the American War of Independence by dumping 90,000 pounds of EIC tea, worth £9,659 (over £1 million today), in Boston harbour, was in part provoked by fears that the Company might now be let loose on the thirteen colonies, much as it had been in Bengal.

One Patriot writer, John Dickinson, feared that the EIC, having plundered India, was now ‘casting their eyes on America as a new theatre whereon to exercise their talents of rapine, oppression and cruelty …’ Dickinson described the tea as ‘accursed Trash’, and compared the prospect of oppression by the corrupt East India Company in America to being ‘devoured by Rats’. This ‘almost bankrupt Company’, he said, having been occupied in ‘corrupting their Country’, and wreaking ‘the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies’ in Bengal, now wished to do the same in America. ‘But thank GOD, we are not Sea Poys, nor Marattas.’ The American watchmen on their rounds, he said, should be instructed to ‘call out every night, past Twelve o’Clock, “Beware of the East India Company.”’

After a horrendous war, the Patriots managed to see off the government troops sent to impose the tea tax. Even as Haidar was pursuing a terrified Munro back to Madras, British forces in America were already on their way to the final defeat by Washington at Yorktown, and the subsequent final surrender of British forces in America in October the following year. There was a growing sensation that everywhere the British Empire was in the process of falling apart. In Parliament, a year later, one MP noted that ‘in Europe we have lost Minorca, in America 13 provinces, and the two Pensacolas; in the West Indies, Tobago; and some settlements in Africa’. ‘The British Empire,’ wrote Edmund Burke, ‘is tottering to its foundation.’

25 November 2020

The Francis v. Hastings Duel, 1780

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 293-296:

On 14 August, Hastings wrote a public minute in which he denounced Francis as a liar and braggard: ... The following day, on 15 August 1780, Philip Francis challenged Warren Hastings to a duel.

The two duellists, accompanied by their seconds, met at 5.30 on the morning of 17 August at a clump of trees on the western edge of Belvedere, a former summer house of Mir Jafar, which had since been bought by Warren Hastings.

Hastings had hardly slept. He spent much of the night composing a farewell letter to his beloved wife Marian, to be delivered in the event of his death. ... Hastings then slept fitfully on a couch until 4 a.m. when his second, Colonel Thomas Deane Pearse, came to collect him in his carriage. ‘We arrived at Belvedere exactly at the time proposed, at 5.30,’ wrote Hastings afterwards, ‘and found Mr F[rancis] and Col Watson walking in the road. Some time was consumed looking for a private place. Our seconds proposed we should stand at a measured distance which both (taking a recent example in England) fixed at 14 paces, and Col Watson paced and marked 7. I stood to the southwards. There was, as I recollect, no wind. Our seconds (Col Watson I think) proposed that no advantage should be taken, but each choose his own time to fire.’

It was at this point that it became clear, as Pearse noted, ‘that both gentlemen were unacquainted with the modes usually observed on these occasions’; indeed, neither of the two most powerful British intellectuals in Bengal seemed entirely clear how to operate their pistols. Francis said he had never fired one in his life, and Hastings said he could only remember doing so once. So both had to have their weapons loaded for them by their seconds who, being military men, knew how to operate firearms.

Hastings, ever the gentleman, decided to let Francis fire first. Francis took aim and squeezed the trigger. The hammer snapped, but the pistol misfired. Again, Francis’s second had to intervene, putting fresh priming in the pistol and chapping the flints. ‘We returned to our stations,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I still proposed to receive the first fire, but Mr F twice aimed, and twice withdrew his pistol.’ Finally, Francis again ‘drew his trigger,’ wrote Pearse, ‘but his powder being damp, the pistol again did not fire. Mr Hastings came down from his present, to give Mr Francis time to rectify his priming, and this was done out of a cartridge with which I supplied him finding they had no spare powder. Again the gentlemen took their stands and both presented together.’

‘I now judged that I might seriously take my aim at him,’ wrote Hastings. ‘I did so and when I thought I had fixed the true direction, I fired.’ His pistol went off at the same time, and so near the same instant that I am not certain which was first, but believe mine was, and that his followed in the instant. He staggered immediately, his face expressed a sensation of being struck, and his limbs shortly but gradually went under him, and he fell saying, but not loudly, ‘I am dead.’

I ran to him, shocked at the information, and I can safely say without any immediate sensation of joy for my own success. The Seconds also ran to his assistance. I saw his coat pierced on the right side, and feared the ball had passed through him; but he sat up without much difficulty several times and once attempted with our help to stand, but his limbs failed him, and he sank to the ground. ...

But there was no need for Hastings to be arrested. The doctor later reported that Hastings’ musket ball ‘pierced the right side of Mr Francis, but was prevented by a rib, which turned the ball, from entering the thorax. It went obliquely upwards, passed the backbone without injuring it, and was extracted about an inch to the left side of it. The wound is of no consequence and he is in no danger.’

Francis later instigated the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the British Parliament, a huge media event with many false charges between 1788 and 1795. Hastings was eventually acquitted overwhelmingly.

23 November 2020

Black Hole of Calcutta Revisited

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 144-145:

That evening [20 June 1756], having ‘swept the town of Calcutta with the broom of plunder’, Siraj ud-Daula was brought in his litter to visit his new possession. He held a durbar in the centre of the Fort where he announced that Calcutta was to be renamed Alinagar, after Imam Ali – appropriately for a prominent city in a Shia-ruled province.

...

So far, the surrendered garrison had been treated unusually well by Mughal standards: there had been no immediate enslavement, no summary executions, no impaling, no beheading and no torture, all of which would have been, in the Mughal scheme of things, quite routine punishments for rebellious subjects. It was only after Siraj had left that things began to fall apart.

Many in the Company’s garrison were still blind drunk, and in the early evening one intoxicated soldier who was being stripped of his goods became incensed and promptly pulled out a pistol and shot his Mughal plunderer dead. Immediately the tone changed. All the survivors were herded into a tiny punishment cell, eighteen feet long by fourteen feet ten inches wide, with only one small window, little air and less water. The cell was known as the Black Hole. There, according to the Mughal chronicler Yusuf Ali Khan, the officers ‘confined nearly 100 Firangis who fell victim to the claws of fate on that day in a small room. As luck would have it, in the room where the Firangis were kept confined, all of them got suffocated and died.’

The numbers are unclear, and much debated: Holwell, who wrote a highly coloured account of the Black Hole in 1758, and began the mythologising of the event, wrote that one woman and 145 Company men were shoved inside, of whom 123 died. This was clearly an exaggeration. The most painstaking recent survey of the evidence concludes 64 people entered the Black Hole and that 21 survived. Among the young men who did not come out was the nineteen-year-old Stair Dalrymple from North Berwick, who only two years earlier had been complaining of Calcutta’s cost of living and dreaming of becoming Governor.

Whatever the accurate figures, the event generated howls of righteous indignation for several generations among the British in India and 150 years later was still being taught in British schools as demonstrative of the essential barbarity of Indians and illustrative of why British rule was supposedly both necessary and justified. But at the time, the Black Hole was barely remarked upon in contemporary sources, and several detailed accounts, including that of Ghulam Hussain Khan, do not mention it at all. The Company had just lost its most lucrative trading station, and that, rather than the fate of its feckless garrison, was what really worried the Company authorities.

22 November 2020

Bengalis Recruit the East India Company, 1757

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 161-162:

The bankers and merchants of Bengal who sustained Siraj ud-Daula’s regime had finally turned against him and united with the disaffected parts of his own military; now they sought to bring in the mercenary troops of the East India Company to help depose him. This was something quite new in Indian history: a group of Indian financiers plotting with an international trading corporation to use its own private security force to overthrow a regime they saw threatening the income they earned from trade. This was not part of any imperial masterplan. In fact, the EIC men on the ground were ignoring their strict instructions from London, which were only to repulse French attacks and avoid potentially ruinous wars with their Mughal hosts. But seeing opportunities for personal enrichment as well as political and economic gain for the Company, they dressed up the conspiracy in colours that they knew would appeal to their masters and presented the coup as if it were primarily aimed at excluding the French from Bengal for ever.

By 1 May, a Secret Committee made up of senior Company officials in Bengal formally resolved to join the conspiracy: ‘The Committee were unanimously of the opinion that there could be no dependence on this Nabob’s word, honour and friendship, and that a revolution in the Government would be extremely for the advantage of the Company’s affairs.’

The Secret Committee then began to haggle over their terms of service, again using Khwaja Petrus as the intermediary for their coded correspondence. Before long, Mir Jafar and the Jagat Seths had significantly raised their offer, and were now promising the participants Rs28 million, or £3 million sterling – the entire annual revenue of Bengal – for their help overthrowing Siraj, and a further Rs110,000 a month to pay for Company troops. In addition, the EIC was to get zamindari – landholding – rights near Calcutta, a mint in the town and confirmation of duty-free trade. By 19 May, in addition to this offer, Mir Jafar conceded to pay the EIC a further enormous sum – £1 million – as compensation for the loss of Calcutta and another half a million as compensation to its European inhabitants.

On 4 June a final deal was agreed. That evening, Khwaja Petrus obtained for Watts a covered harem palanquin ‘such as the Moor women are carryed in, which is inviolable, for without previous knowledge of the deceit no one dare look into it’. Within this, the Englishman was carried into Mir Jafar’s house to get the signatures of the old general and his son Miran, and to take their formal oath on the Quran to fulfil their part of the treaty obligations. On 11 June, the signed document was back in Calcutta with the Select Committee, who then countersigned it. The next evening, pretending to set off on a hunting expedition, Watts and his men decamped from Kasimbazar and made their escape through the night, down the road to Chandernagar.

On 13 June 1757, a year to the day since Siraj had begun his attack on Calcutta, Clive sent an ultimatum to Siraj ud-Daula accusing him of breaking the terms of the Treaty of Alinagar. That same day, with a small army of 800 Europeans, 2,200 south Indian sepoys and only eight cannon, he began the historic march towards Plassey.

21 November 2020

From Merchants to Mercenaries in Mughal India

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 90-91:

Soon both the British and the French were intriguing with the different states in the south, covertly offering to sell their military assistance in return for influence, payments or land grants. In 1749, in return for a small trading port, the EIC became involved in its first attempt at what today would be called regime change, taking sides in a succession dispute in the Maratha kingdom of Tanjore. The attempted coup was a miserable failure.

Dupleix, however, had much more success as a military entrepreneur. His clients had to pay for their European weapons and troops in land grants and land revenue collection rights that would enable the French Compagnie to maintain its sepoys and finance its trade from Indian revenues rather than importing bullion from Europe. Dupleix sold his services as a mercenary first to one of the claimants to the throne of the Carnatic, and then, in a much more ambitious move, despatched the Marquis de Bussy to Hyderabad to take sides in the succession crisis that had followed the death of the region’s most powerful Mughal overlord, Nizam ul-Mulk, as his sons fought for control of the Nizam’s semi-detached fragment of the Mughal Empire. Dupleix was handsomely rewarded for his assistance with a present of £77,500, the high Mughal rank of Mansab of 7,000 horse – the equivalent of a Dukedom in Europe – the rich port of Masulipatnam and a jagir (a landed estate) worth £20,000. Selling the services of his trained and disciplined troops, he soon realised, was an infinitely more profitable business than dealing in cotton textiles.

Dupleix’s generalissimo, the Marquis de Bussy, who also made a fortune, could hardly believe the dramatic results his tiny mercenary force achieved as he marched through the Deccan: ‘Kings have been placed on the throne with my hands,’ he wrote to Dupleix in 1752, ‘sustained by my forces, armies have been put to flight, towns taken by assault by a mere handful of my men, peace treaties concluded by my own mediation … The honour of my nation has been taken to a pinnacle of glory, so that it has been preferred to all the others in Europe, and the interests of the Compagnie taken beyond its hopes and even its desires.’

In reality, however, these were all two-way transactions: weak Indian rulers of fragmented post-Mughal states offered large blocks of territory, or land revenue, to the different European Companies in return for military support. The warfare that followed, which usually involved very small Company armies, was often incoherent and inconclusive, but it confirmed that the Europeans now had a clear and consistent military edge over Indian cavalry, and that small numbers of them were capable of altering the balance of power in the newly fractured political landscape that had followed the fall of the Mughal Empire. The Carnatic Wars that rumbled on over the next decade might have had few conclusive or permanent strategic results, but they witnessed the transformation of the character of the two Companies from trading concerns to increasingly belligerent and militarised entities, part-textile exporters, part-pepper traders, part-revenue-collecting land-holding businesses, and now, most profitably of all, state-of-the-art mercenary outfits.

19 November 2020

Nader Shah Robs the Mughal Empire, 1739

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 76-80:

On 21 May, Nader Shah with a force of 80,000 fighting men crossed the border into the Mughal Empire, heading for the summer capital of Kabul, so beginning the first invasion of India for two centuries. The great Bala Hisar of Kabul surrendered at the end of June. Nader Shah then descended the Khyber. Less than three months later, at Karnal, one hundred miles north of Delhi, he defeated three merged Mughal armies – around a million men, some half of whom were fighters – with a relatively small but strictly disciplined force of 150,000 musketeers and Qizilbash horsemen armed with the latest military technology of the day: armour-penetrating, horse-mounted jazair, or swivel guns.

Nader Shah’s job was certainly made much easier by the increasingly bitter divisions between Muhammad Shah’s two principal generals, Sa’adat Khan and Nizam ul-Mulk. Sa’adat Khan arrived late at the Mughal camp, marching in from Avadh long after the Nizam had encamped, but, keen to show off his superior military abilities, decided to ride straight into battle without waiting for his exhausted soldiers to rest. Around noon on 13 February, he marched out of the earthwork defences erected by the Nizam to protect his troops, ‘with headlong impetuosity misplaced in a commander’, and against the advice of the Nizam, who remained behind, declaring that ‘haste is of the devil’. He was right to be cautious: Sa’adat Khan was walking straight into a carefully laid trap.

Nader Shah lured Sa’adat Khan’s old-fashioned heavy Mughal cavalry – armoured cuirassiers fighting with long swords – into making a massed frontal charge. As they neared the Persian lines, Nader’s light cavalry parted like a curtain, leaving the Mughals facing a long line of mounted musketeers, each of whom was armed with swivel guns. They fired at point-blank range. Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground. As a Kashmiri observer, Abdul Karim Sharistani, put it, ‘the army of Hindustan fought with bravery. But one cannot fight musket balls with arrows.’

Having defeated the Mughals in an initial engagement, Nader Shah then managed to capture the Emperor himself by the simple ruse of inviting him to dinner, then refusing to let him leave. ‘Here was an army of a million bold and well-equipped horsemen, held as it were in captivity, and all the resources of the Emperor and his grandees at the disposal of the Persians,’ wrote Anand Ram Mukhlis. ‘The Mughal monarchy appeared to be at an end.’ ...

On 29 March, a week after Nader Shah’s forces had entered the Mughal capital, a newswriter for the Dutch VOC sent a report in which he described Nader Shah’s bloody massacre of the people of Delhi: ‘the Iranians have behaved like animals,’ he wrote. ‘At least 100,000 people were killed. Nader Shah gave orders to kill anyone who defended himself. As a result it seemed as if it were raining blood, for the drains were streaming with it.’ Ghulam Hussain Khan recorded how, ‘In an instant the soldiers getting on the tops of the houses commenced killing, slaughtering and plundering people’s property, and carrying away their wives and daughters. Numbers of houses were set on fire and ruined.’ ...

The massacre continued until the Nizam went bareheaded, his hands tied with his turban, and begged Nader on his knees to spare the inhabitants and instead to take revenge on him. Nader Shah ordered his troops to stop the killing; they obeyed immediately. He did so, however, on the condition that the Nizam would give him 100 crore (1 billion) rupees before he would agree to leave Delhi. ‘The robbing, torture and plundering still continues,’ noted a Dutch observer, ‘but not, thankfully, the killing.’

In the days that followed, the Nizam found himself in the unhappy position of having to loot his own city to pay the promised indemnity. The city was divided into five blocks and vast sums were demanded of each: ‘Now commenced the work of spoliation,’ remarked Anand Ram Mukhlis, ‘watered by the tears of the people … Not only was their money taken, but whole families were ruined. Many swallowed poison, and others ended their days with the stab of a knife … In short the accumulated wealth of 348 years changed masters in a moment.’
...

Nader never wished to rule India, just to plunder it for resources to fight his real enemies, the Russians and the Ottomans. Fifty-seven days later, he returned to Persia carrying the pick of the treasures the Mughal Empire had amassed over its 200 years of sovereignty and conquest: a caravan of riches that included Jahangir’s magnificent Peacock Throne, embedded in which was both the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the great Timur ruby. Nader Shah also took with him the Great Mughal Diamond, reputedly the largest in the world, along with the Koh-i-Noor’s slightly larger, pinker ‘sister’, the Daria-i-Noor, and ‘700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones’, worth in total an estimated £87.5 million in the currency of the time. In a single swift blow, Nader Shah had broken the Mughal spell. Muhammad Shah Rangila remained on the throne, but, with little remaining credibility or real power, he withdrew from public life, hardly leaving Delhi.

18 November 2020

Aurangzeb's Mughal Legacy, 1707

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 62-63, 82-83:

It was the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 that changed everything for the Company.

The Emperor, unloved by his father, grew up into a bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan, as intolerant as he was grimly dogmatic. He was a ruthlessly talented general and a brilliantly calculating strategist, but entirely lacked the winning charm of his predecessors. His rule became increasingly harsh, repressive and unpopular as he grew older. He made a clean break with the liberal and inclusive policies towards the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by his great-grandfather Akbar, and instead allowed the ulama to impose far stricter interpretations of Sharia law. Wine was banned, as was hashish, and the Emperor ended his personal patronage of musicians. He also ended Hindu customs adopted by the Mughals such as appearing daily to his subjects at the jharoka palace window in the centre of the royal apartments in the Red Fort. Around a dozen Hindu temples across the country were destroyed, and in 1672 he issued an order recalling all endowed land given to Hindus and reserved all future land grants for Muslims. In 1679 the Emperor reimposed the jizya tax on all non-Muslims that had been abolished by Akbar; he also executed Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the gurus of the Sikhs.

While it is true that Aurangzeb is a more complex and pragmatic figure than some of his critics allow, the religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed, and at the time they tore the country in two. Unable to trust anyone, Aurangzeb marched to and fro across the Empire, viciously putting down successive rebellions by his subjects. The Empire had been built on a pragmatic tolerance and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs, who formed the core of the Mughal war machine. The pressure put on that alliance and the Emperor’s retreat into bigotry helped to shatter the Mughal state and, on Aurangzeb’s death, it finally lost them the backbone of their army.

But it was Aurangzeb’s reckless expansion of the Empire into the Deccan, largely fought against the Shia Muslim states of Bijapur and Golconda, that did most to exhaust and overstretch the resources of the Empire. It also unleashed against the Mughals a new enemy that was as formidable as it was unexpected. Maratha peasants and landholders had once served in the armies of the Bijapur and Golconda. In the 1680s, after the Mughals conquered these two states, Maratha guerrilla raiders under the leadership of Shivaji Bhonsle, a charismatic Maratha Hindu warlord, began launching attacks against the Mughal armies occupying the Deccan. As one disapproving Mughal chronicler noted, ‘most of the men in the Maratha army are unendowed with illustrious birth, and husbandmen, carpenters and shopkeepers abound among their soldiery’. They were largely armed peasants; but they knew the country and they knew how to fight.

From the sparse uplands of the western Deccan, Shivaji led a prolonged and increasingly widespread peasant rebellion against the Mughals and their tax collectors. The Maratha light cavalry, armed with spears, were remarkable for their extreme mobility and the ability to make sorties far behind Mughal lines. They could cover fifty miles in a day because the cavalrymen carried neither baggage nor provisions and instead lived off the country: Shivaji’s maxim was ‘no plunder, no pay’.

...

But what appeared to be the end of an era in Delhi looked quite different in other parts of India, as a century of imperial centralisation gave way to a revival of regional identities and regional governance. Decline and disruption in the heartlands of Hindustan after 1707 was matched by growth and relative prosperity in the Mughal peripheries. Pune and the Maratha hills, flush with loot and overflowing tax revenues, entered their golden age. The Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of the Punjab and the Jats of Deeg and Bharatpur all began to carve independent states out of the cadaver of the Mughal Empire, and to assume the mantle of kingship and governance.

For Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and the other Rajput courts, this was also an age of empowerment and resurgence as they resumed their independence and, free from the tax burdens inherent in bowing to Mughal overlordship, began using their spare revenues to add opulent new palaces to their magnificent forts. In Avadh, the baroque palaces of Faizabad rose to rival those built by the Nizam in Hyderabad to the south. All these cities emerged as centres of literary, artistic and cultural patronage, so blossoming into places of remarkable cultural efflorescence.

Meanwhile, Benares emerged as a major centre of finance and commerce as well as a unique centre of religion, education and pilgrimage. In Bengal, Nadia was the centre of Sanskrit learning and a sophisticated centre for regional architectural and Hindustani musical excellence.

To the south, in Tanjore, a little later, Carnatic music would begin to receive enlightened patronage from the Maratha court that had seized control of that ancient centre of Tamil culture. At the other end of the subcontinent, the Punjab hill states of the Himalayan foothills entered a period of astonishing creativity as small remote mountain kingdoms suddenly blossomed with artists, many of whom had been trained with metropolitan skills in the now-diminished Mughal ateliers, each family of painters competing with and inspiring each other in a manner comparable to the rival city states of Renaissance Italy.

16 November 2020

The EIC Meets the Mughals, 1608

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 49-50:

On 28 August 1608, Captain William Hawkins, a bluff sea captain with the Third Voyage, anchored his ship, the Hector, off Surat, and so became the first commander of an EIC vessel to set foot on Indian soil.

India then had a population of 150 million – about a fifth of the world’s total – and was producing about a quarter of global manufacturing; indeed, in many ways it was the world’s industrial powerhouse and the world’s leader in manufactured textiles. Not for nothing are so many English words connected with weaving – chintz, calico, shawl, pyjamas, khaki, dungarees, cummerbund, taffetas – of Indian origin. It was certainly responsible for a much larger share of world trade than any comparable zone and the weight of its economic power even reached Mexico, whose textile manufacture suffered a crisis of ‘de-industrialisation’ due to Indian cloth imports. In comparison, England then had just 5 per cent of India’s population and was producing just under 3 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods. A good proportion of the profits on this found its way to the Mughal exchequer in Agra, making the Mughal Emperor, with an income of around £100 million [over £10,000 million today], by far the richest monarch in the world.

The Mughal capitals were the megacities of their day: ‘They are second to none either in Asia or in Europe,’ thought the Jesuit Fr Antonio Monserrate, ‘with regards either to size, population, or wealth. Their cities are crowded with merchants, who gather from all over Asia. There is no art or craft which is not practised there.’ Between 1586 and 1605, European silver flowed into the Mughal heartland at the astonishing rate of 18 metric tons a year, for as William Hawkins observed, ‘all nations bring coyne and carry away commodities for the same’. For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, the silk-clad Mughals, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power – a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word ‘mogul’ ever since.

By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had become used to easy military victories over the other peoples of the world. In the 1520s the Spanish had swept away the vast armies of the mighty Aztec Empire in a matter of months. In the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the Dutch had recently begun to turn their cannons on the same rulers they had earlier traded with, slaughtering those islanders who rode out in canoes to greet them, burning down their cities and seizing their ports. On one island alone, Lontor, 800 inhabitants were enslaved and forcibly deported to work on new Dutch spice plantations in Java; forty-seven chiefs were tortured and executed.

But as Captain Hawkins soon realised, there was no question of any European nation attempting to do this with the Great Mughals, not least because the Mughals kept a staggering 4 million men under arms.

15 November 2020

Origin of the East India Company, 1600

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 44-45:

On 31 December 1600, the last day of the first year of the new century, the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies’, a group of 218 men, received their royal charter.

This turned out to offer far wider powers than the petitioners had perhaps expected or even hoped for. As well as freedom from all customs duties for their first six voyages, it gave them a British monopoly for fifteen years over ‘trade to the East Indies’, a vaguely defined area that was soon taken to encompass all trade and traffic between the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Magellan, as well as granting semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies. The wording was sufficiently ambiguous to allow future generations of EIC officials to use it to claim jurisdiction over all English subjects in Asia, mint money, raise fortifications, make laws, wage war, conduct an independent foreign policy, hold courts, issue punishment, imprison English subjects and plant English settlements. It was not without foundation that a later critic and pamphleteer complained that the Company had been granted monopoly on ‘near two-third parts of the trading World’. And though it took two and a half centuries for the potential to be realised, the wording of the EIC’s charter left open from the beginning the possibility of it becoming an imperial power, exercising sovereignty and controlling people and territory.

In the intervening year, the merchant adventurers had not been idle. They had been to Deptford to ‘view severall shippes’, one of which, the May Flowre, was later famous for a voyage heading in the opposite direction. Four vessels had been bought and put into dry dock to be refitted. Given that time was of the essence, a barrel of beer a day was authorised ‘for the better holding together of the workemen from running from ther worke to drinke’. What was intended as the Company’s 900-ton flagship, a former privateering vessel, specifically built for raiding Spanish shipping in the Caribbean, the Scourge of Malice was renamed the Red Dragon so that it might sound a little less piratical.

Before long the adventurers had begun to purchase not only shipping, but new masts, anchors and rigging, and to begin constructing detailed inventories of their seafaring equipment – their ‘kedgers’, ‘drabblers’, ‘all standard rigging and running ropes’, ‘cables good and bad, a mayne course bonnet very good’ and ‘1 great warping hauser’. There was also the armament they would need: ‘40 muskets, 24 pikes … 13 sackers, 2 fowlers, 25 barrelles of powder’ as well as the ‘Spunges, Ladles and Ramers’ for the cannon.

They also set about energetically commissioning hogsheads to be filled with ‘biere, 170 tonnes, 40 tonnes of hogshed for Porke, 12 tonnes drie caske for Oatemeal, one tonne dryie caske for mustard seed, one tonne dry caske for Rice … bisket well dryed … good fish … very Dry’ as well as ‘120 oxen’ and ‘60 Tons of syder’. Meanwhile, the financiers among them began to collect £30,000 [over £3 million today] of bullion, as well as divers items to trade on arrival – what they termed an ‘investment’ of iron, tin and English broadcloth, all of which they hoped would be acceptable items to trade against Indonesian pepper, nutmeg, cloves, mace, cardamom and the other aromatic spices and jewels they hoped to bring home.

10 November 2020

Cemeteries of Przemyśl

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 241-242:

Przemyśl buries its dead to the south. Today, if one walks from the city’s clock tower down what used to be called Dobromil Street, whose end destination now lies cut off across the Ukrainian border, the municipal cemetery soon comes into view. Turn right up a twisting, undulating road which in 1914 led past some of the Fortress’s main powder magazines, and very soon you reach the military burial ground. For all its tranquility, this is a sad place. A pretty, lightly wooded field lies at the top of the sloping grounds. Only a monument, flanked by two imposing Byzantine crosses, warns visitors that below their feet is the mass grave of some 9,000 Russian soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian cemetery across the road appears more organized, with row on row of dark stone crosses. Yet no plaque records how many men lie here—as if that were still a military secret—and the crosses have no inscriptions; these peasant soldiers are in death, as in life, anonymous. The empires for which they fell would within just a few years both lie in ruins. Yet the violence unleashed by their war would live on. Silent witnesses to future, even greater horrors lie nearby: in a Polish military cemetery for soldiers killed fighting German invaders in 1939 and Ukrainians in the 1940s, and, just to the east, in the city’s eerily beautiful Jewish burial grounds.

08 November 2020

Ethnic POW Gulags in Russia, 1915

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 250-251:

The prisoners were driven by knout-wielding Cossacks “like cattle” on long marches to rail stations. Most entrained at Lwów or, another 90 kilometers (around 56 miles) to the northeast, at the Galician frontier town of Brody. Nearly all passed through the Tsarist army’s large transit camp at Kiev, 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Przemyśl. Here, prisoners’ names, ranks, and regiments were recorded. Above all, the Russian army was avidly interested in prisoners’ ethnicity. Its officers’ racialized thinking had already been evident in Przemyśl. There, first the Hungarian regiments were sent away—for the Russians regarded them as the most dangerous—then the Austrian Germans. Slavic units, whom the conqueror hoped were less hostile, were dispatched last. In Kiev, a more thorough sorting took place. Magyars, Germans, and Jews were separated to be cast into the harshest camps. Serbs and Romanians in Honvéd uniforms were sought out and earmarked for privileged treatment as “friendly” peoples. Hundreds of Przemyśl prisoners were transported to Russia’s capital, St. Petersburg, where they were paraded humiliatingly before the public along the main thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt. Then they, too, were made invisible.

Most of the Przemyśl prisoners were incarcerated deep in Asian Russia, in the region of Turkestan (in today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). The rail journey lasted two to four weeks. Cattle wagons, those functional items of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution that, in the dehumanizing twentieth, became icons of ethnic cleansing and genocide, were provided for transport. Cold, dark, overcrowded, and stinking, they were breeding grounds for disease-carrying parasites. The wagons rolled slowly. Food was distributed only irregularly and could be barely edible. When the weak men eventually disembarked, they found themselves in a strange climate. Turkestan was a place of extremes. In the winter, it could feel like the arctic. In summer, temperatures soared up to 45°C (113°F). Its unsanitary camps were overseen by brutal guards, and epidemics raged through them in 1915. Everybody contracted malaria. Dysentery, cholera, and typhus killed thousands.

The Russian hell had many circles. There were prisoners who spent years in Turkestan. Others were moved around the Tsar’s empire. Sometimes Slavic prisoners—although not Poles, who were distrusted by the Russians—were set above their fellows and given privileged conditions; they themselves then became instruments of suffering. Many prisoners volunteered to work as a means of escaping the camps and earning money so they could supplement their meager rations. They might end up felling trees or plowing the fields on big landed estates. Those most fortunate were handed over to small peasant farmers who would treat them as one of the family. In contrast, labor in the mines of southern Russia could be lethal. Whether benevolent or brutal, however, employers had total power over their prisoners. For sure, they had duties of care, but often there were no checks to ensure these were observed. Instead, official regulations emphasized that “it is the duty of all prisoners to carry out all work to which they are commanded, no matter how heavy. If one refuses, he is to be… treated as a convict, and this punishment shall… last the entire period of his captivity.”

The deepest circle was the Tsar’s own Death Railway to Murmansk. This place of suffering was reserved largely for Hungarians and Germans. The line was urgently needed to transport war materials left by British ships at the northern port to the Russian armies at the front. Over 50,000 prisoners worked here until 1917 in conditions that in their hardship equaled, and even exceeded, those of the later Soviet Gulags.

07 November 2020

Officer POWs in Tsarist Russia

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 247-248:

An officer’s existence in captivity, although psychologically straining, was generally not physically arduous. The Hague Convention of 1907, the international treaty governing the laws and customs of war on land, to which both Russia and Austria-Hungary were signatories, dictated that officers could not be forced to work and guaranteed them a regular salary. Generals received 125 rubles per month. Regimental officers were paid an entirely adequate 50 rubles. Especially in 1915 and 1916, living conditions were fairly comfortable. Some officers were permitted to live in houses. In the prisoner-of-war camps, they could afford extra furnishings and had soldier-servants. Sports and educational activities were organized. The Berezovka camp in Siberia became famous for its “extraordinarily rich” library, which was well stocked thanks to “officers from Przemyśl who brought with them a major part of the Fortress’s library.” Not only post but also telegraphic services were accessible. For Gayczak, this easily compensated for all the other hardship. At long last, after eight months of aching worry, he was able to contact his family in Russian-occupied Lwów. On April 19, 1915, he received a five-word telegram from his wife that left him euphoric with relief: “Everyone alive and healthy, Lucy.”

The fate of Przemyśl’s other ranks was far grimmer. For them the war was by no means over. The Russian army took 2.1 million Habsburg prisoners during the First World War. Horrifyingly, one in every five—around 470,000 men—died during their captivity.

05 November 2020

Europe's Most Anti-Semitic Great Power, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 134-136:

Like flame following a gunpowder trail, violence blazed toward Przemyśl. Cossack cavalry were especially dangerous and fiercely anti-Semitic. They had a long history of murderous conduct—or, as they glorified it, of righteous slaughter of infidels. In Russia, they were the Tsar’s enforcers, and they had been instrumental a decade earlier in harshly suppressing revolution. In Galicia, they lived up to their reputation as wild and merciless. Everywhere, Jews were mugged and shops looted. In some places, worse crimes were perpetrated. Men were beaten or murdered, women raped. Christians were also sometimes attacked, but from the start it was clear that their Jewish neighbors were the invaders’ main targets. That the violence might pass them by, many displayed icons of Mary the Mother of God, Jesus, or Saint Nicholas in their windows or on the roofs of their dwellings. Jews, trying to save their property, copied that example. Many fled. By some estimates, nearly half of Galicia’s Jewish population, up to 400,000 people, ran for the Austrian interior. Witnesses described an “interminable file of refugees… poor wretches who had left everything behind them except a few belongings on their backs.” These frightened, fatigued, fleeing Jews “presented a picture of truly piteous misery.”

The worst atrocity befell Lwów. There, on September 27, after nearly a month of tense but peaceful occupation, a pogrom flared. News of this pogrom reached Przemyśl in January 1915 through a spy who had been sent out to reconnoiter the zone of occupation. In his account, it was a ploy “in real Russian style” by Tsarist troops to circumvent a ban on plundering. A soldier had fired off a shot from a house on a street in the Jewish quarter, and a cry had then immediately gone up that the Jews were attacking the military. The soldiers were ordered to punish the Jews and given permission to plunder their shops. In its outline, the spy’s account was correct. Who fired the shot which sparked the pogrom was never firmly established. The occupation authorities insisted, of course, that it was a Jew. Not in contention, however, was the brutality of the Russian reaction. Cossacks stormed through the streets beating and shooting helpless Jewish civilians. They butchered 47 Jews and arrested 300 Jewish bystanders.

Neither Grand Duke Nikolai nor his subordinate commanders organized or officially sanctioned this ill-disciplined violence. However, the atmosphere of anti-Semitic hatred at Stavka, the Russian High Command, and the toleration of atrocities against Jews at all levels of the army’s command structure made it possible. The Russian Empire was Europe’s most anti-Semitic Great Power. Religious, economic, and, by the First World War, especially political prejudice, increasingly influenced by the modern ideology of race, stamped the Russian ruling elite’s and military’s hostility toward Jews.

04 November 2020

Civilian Internments in Przemyśl, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle p. 71:

KUSMANEK’S FIRST TWO tasks at the war’s start were to protect the Fortress from surprise attack and to prepare it for siege. The third, however, was inward-looking: to maintain internal order. Kusmanek possessed formidable powers to fulfill this objective. Galicia fell within the extensive “Area of the Army in the Field” declared on July 31, 1914, in which military commanders were placed above the civilian administration. On August 2, repressive martial law was imposed throughout this area. Unrest or rebellion, high treason, espionage, lèse majesté, and a host of other offenses detrimental to smooth mobilization were henceforth to be tried in military courts. Through the Fortress Command court, over which Kusmanek presided, passed a stream of civilian cases from the surrounding region.

The Fortress Command, like other military and civilian authorities in Galicia, acted preemptively to smash all possible resistance. Lists of potential traitors had been drawn up by district officials in peacetime, and across the province, over 4,000 people were arrested in the first days of war. The Russophile intelligentsia was the primary target, but through paranoia, denunciations, and the cynical exploitation of the emergency by some Polish officials to rid themselves of troublesome local opponents, many Ukrainian nationalists, for whom rule by the Tsar would be a catastrophe, were also taken into a Kafkaesque “preventive detention.” The Greek Catholic Church, to which most Ruthenes adhered, suffered particularly grievously. The similarity of its eastern rites to those of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the fact that a small minority of its priests were Russophile, all fueled suspicion. Its churches around Przemyśl had been built with Russian funds, went one rumor, as landmarks to help orientate an invading army. In the Przemyśl diocese, where 873 clergy had their ministries, more than a third of the priests, 314 altogether, were interned.

03 November 2020

Russian vs. Habsburg Military Tactics, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 37-38:

The Habsburg army displayed almost superhuman courage in this early fighting, but it was outnumbered and, crucially, heavily outgunned. Russian divisions fielded sixty guns to the Habsburg divisions’ forty-eight. Their artillerymen were more skilled, too. The Tsarist force had absorbed many lessons from humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the war of 1904–1905, among them the importance of combined arms operations. Its field regulations stressed the dominance of firepower in combat, and its artillery was expected to work closely with forward infantry to support any advance. By contrast, as Romer frankly confessed, cooperation between the Habsburg artillery and infantry was weak. The gunners chose their own targets, often with only vague knowledge of enemy positions. Much ammunition was wasted. The obvious superiority of the Russian gunners, who seemed everywhere capable of putting down accurate and heavy bombardments, was debilitating. As one staff officer of the 11th Division, fighting on the Third Army’s right, observed, the enemy’s shellfire “instantly caused a feeling of defenselessness, which grew from one battle to the next.”

The Habsburg army’s tactical doctrine exacerbated the problem. In peacetime, Conrad had enjoyed a reputation as a tactical genius, although his ideas about how to balance fire and movement, the most important military debate of the period, had barely developed since 1890, when he had first put them in print. Conrad, like most commanders of the day, was a firm advocate of the offensive, but he stood out for his uncompromising belief in the ability of sheer willpower to conquer the fire-swept battlefield. In Conrad’s conception, artillery was not needed to clear a way forward. His 1911 regulations asserted that physically tough, determined, and aggressive infantry could alone “decide the battle.” Within the professional officer corps, his subordinates thoroughly imbibed this mentality. Manic admonitions to act “ruthlessly” or “with utmost energy” were virtually obligatory in any order. At the outset, heavy casualties were not seen so much as a problem as proof of troops’ “outstanding feats of arms.”

This toxic combination of inadequate fire support and a tactical doctrine encouraging impetuous rushes directly at the enemy brought horrendous loss of life when it was tested on the battlefield in the autumn of 1914. Officers suffered catastrophic casualties, for they led from the front, pulling their peasant soldiers forward through their own exemplary courage. The professionals, in particular, were determined to display no fear; as critics scathingly observed, they behaved as though accurate, long-range rifles were never invented and refused to use cover. Russian snipers, ordered to take down anyone wearing officers’ distinctive yellow gaiters, reaped a grim harvest. The same mentality fostered a disdain for lifesaving digging. Regiments were quickly obliterated. On the first day of battle, August 26, units of the III “Iron” Corps, operating farther south from where Romer was fighting, lost between a quarter and a third of their men. Infantry Regiment 47, a mainly Austrian German unit, had 48 officers and 1,287 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing that day. Infantry Regiment 87, filled mostly with Slovenes, suffered 350 killed and 1,050 wounded in clumsy and fruitless attacks.

02 November 2020

Hapsburg Landsturm: Alien Officers and 'Army Slavic'

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 57-59:

As a guest list for a gentlemen’s club dinner, the officers’ roll of III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18 would have promised a fascinating evening. However, as a warrior fraternity, a band of brothers sworn to defend to their dying breath the realms of a venerable emperor, these officers were unlikely to strike fear into many enemy hearts. In this terrible war, their ranks began to thin immediately....

Beyond the almost complete absence of military qualities, what is also striking is how entirely alien the officers of the regiment were to the men they led. Of course, class distinctions between officers and their soldiers were virtually universal among the armies of 1914, and they even had advantages: the self-confidence, self-control, and education associated with an elite upbringing were, commanders insisted throughout the war, the best foundation for military leadership. However, the officers of the battalion were also geographically remote. Most lived 500–600 kilometers (310–375 miles) from Czerteż. Eight came from Vienna, five from Brno, and nine from other parts of Moravia or Bohemia. Only two, one Pole and one Ukrainian (this last a cadet rather than a full officer), were from Galicia. The cultural gulf between these officers—bourgeois big city slickers from the most economically advanced western regions of the Habsburg Empire—and the Central Galician battalion’s rank and file was immense. In the eyes of the pious middle-aged peasants they led, the officers might as well have landed from Mars.

The regional divide between III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18’s officers and other ranks raised practical problems of language. All the battalion’s officers, with the exception of the two from Galicia, had as their mother tongue Czech or German. Their men, by contrast, spoke Polish or Ukrainian. Occasionally, one came across a Yiddish-speaking Jew. Theoretically, this posed no great difficulty, for the Habsburg army had long experience of managing polyglot units. The army recognized three different types of languages. The “language of service,” which was German in most of the army, and Hungarian in Honvéd and Hungarian Landsturm units, was used for all communication above the company level. (The Magyar term for Landsturm was Népfelkelő.) More important for interaction between the officers and the men was the “language of command,” which was a list of eighty basic military words and phrases in either German or Hungarian, such as “March!,” “At Ease!,” and “Fire!” To cultivate deeper relations between ranks, all units also had one or more “regimental languages.” Any tongue spoken by at least one-fifth of the regiment’s personnel was so designated, and officers were obligated to learn every one of them in order to engage with their subordinates, bond with them, and exert influence over them.

In III/Landsturm Infantry Regiment 18, as in most wartime formations, such intricate arrangements were pipe dreams. For officers, a decent grasp of the German language was essential, as it was the medium for communication with the various levels of the Fortress Command and with other units. Within the battalion’s mess, German was also widely spoken, although, to annoy Major Zipser, the Czech officers made a special point of speaking their mother tongue to each other. Communication with the men was, kindly put, a challenge. Some officers may have gotten by with “Army Slavic,” a most peculiar military Esperanto blending Slavic grammar with German military terminology. Thus, for example, the battalion’s Poles could be ordered to antretować (from the German antreten—to form up) on parade, and would then narugować (nachrücken—to move up) to the front, before forming a szwarmlinia (Schwarmlinie—firing line). Others who spoke only German relied on the battalion’s few Jews to act as intermediaries. Still, even with goodwill, careful listening, and much imagination on all sides, frontline command of Landsturm troops was difficult.

01 November 2020

Multiethnic Przemyśl in 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-13:

The Przemyśl municipal authorities were keen to emphasize the Polish credentials of their city. This too was a mark of modernity, for nationalism was the new, exciting, and inspirational ideology of the late nineteenth century, promising the renewal of real and imagined past glories and a better, more efficient future. The reforms of the 1860s had placed Galicia in the hands of Polish conservatives and granted considerable powers of self-government to Austria’s municipalities. As in other Galician cities, Polish Democrats—more liberal and elite than their name might today imply—ran Przemyśl in the decades before 1914. Under mayors Aleksander Dworski (1882–1901) and Franciszek Doliński (1901–1914), the expanding city not only improved its infrastructure—building wells and drains, a municipal slaughterhouse, a hospital, and an electrical power station—but also asserted the Polishness of its public spaces. The most impressive new or rebuilt main streets were named after the most revered Polish poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński, or landmark events in Poland’s history, such as the May 3, 1791, constitution, or the medieval victory of Grunwald over the Teutonic Knights. Statues of Mickiewicz and the Polish warrior-king Jan Sobiecki III, funded by popular subscription, were raised by the old Market Square.

Przemyśl’s other ethnic groups were also caught by the new spirit of the late nineteenth century. The Greek Catholic minority generally had little opportunity to make much mark on the city in brick or stone beyond its historic churches. There was, however, one important exception: schools. Language issues, and the right to teach children in one’s mother tongue, were becoming central to identity and to political disputes across the Habsburg Empire, and Ukrainian-speakers—or Ruthenes, as they were known in this period—were no exceptions. In the late nineteenth century, elite boys’ and girls’ secondary schools teaching in Ukrainian were founded, augmenting existing primary provision and attracting pupils from far beyond the city limits. Ruthenes were deeply divided in their identity, and the fractures were reflected in their associations and in the press. “Ukrainian” at this time denoted a political stance: a conviction that Ukrainian-speakers were a distinct nation. The majority of the small clerical and intellectual elite adhered to this view. A lesser group, the so-called Russophiles, disagreed, regarding themselves culturally, and sometimes also politically, as a branch of the Russian nation. Though difficult to enumerate, a fairly large section of lower-class Ruthenes was mostly indifferent to the novel idea of the nation, and persisted in prioritizing the Greek Catholic faith as the foundation of their identity.

Przemyśl’s Jewish community displayed some similar divisions. Orthodox Jewry had long predominated, and though this was still true in the early twentieth century, the modern era had brought schism and change. There were four synagogues in Przemyśl by 1914. The oldest, situated in the Jewish quarter, and eight other smaller prayer houses were frequented by the traditionalist, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews who so fascinated Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg. They were instantly recognizable, especially the men, with their curly sidelocks, beards, black hats, and black kaftans. To attend synagogue with them was a profoundly spiritual experience. Künigl-Ehrenburg ducked under the low doorway of the Old Synagogue one Sabbath and climbed up to the women’s gallery to watch. The faithful filled every inch of space. Some sat, others stood, all pressed tightly together. From above, a stream of light pierced the darkness and shone onto the silver-edged Torah scroll displayed by the altar. Wrapped in their gray-and-white striped prayer shawls, the believers rocked back and forth murmuring their sacred devotions. To the Styrian countess, it was strange—“oriental”—but very moving. “Everything was full of atmosphere, harmonious,” she wrote.

Times were shifting, however. Beginning in 1901, the kehilah, Przemyśl’s Jewish communal council, dropped Yiddish and instead conducted its meetings in Polish. The city’s three other synagogues had all been built since the 1880s and catered to wealthy, educated Jews. Jews—some of them—had particularly prospered from Przemyśl’s rapid expansion, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by their Christian neighbors. The town’s credit institutions were nearly all in Jewish hands. The majority of new manufacturing concerns and almost all trading and services were as well. The most intense civic development in the final thirty years of peace had taken place to the east of the old town and in the suburb of Zasanie, north of the San River. In these districts, the housing stock had more than doubled, and it was to there that well-off Jews had moved. They had bought up property on the smartest strips; it was a mild irony that on Mickiewicz Street, named for Poland’s national poet, no fewer than 74 of the 139 buildings were Jewish-owned. The synagogues serving these communities, like the people who attended them, took inspiration from modern liberalism and nationalism. The “Tempel” in the old city was home to Jewish progressives keen to integrate into Polish culture. Faced with red brick, like synagogues in the west of the empire, it celebrated Polish holidays and had sermons and prayers in the Polish language. The Zasanie synagogue was popular with Zionist youth.

28 October 2020

Kimjang in North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 230-232:

IN THE SECOND WEEK OF NOVEMBER, SACKS AND SACKS OF garlic and cabbages were delivered on a truck at lunchtime, and several classes were called outside to unload them. They brought the garlic into the cafeteria, and for two consecutive days students and faculty spent more than an hour peeling them. That was how I learned that this was the week of kimjang.

In both North and South Korea, in the late fall, most families make enough kimchi to last through the winter. This tradition originated more than a thousand years ago, when vegetables were not readily available year round. When I was a child, the kimjang season was always festive. The women in my neighborhood got busy suddenly, buying the ingredients—cabbage, radishes, chili peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, marinated baby shrimps, and anchovies. Then they gathered together to wash the cabbages and radishes, salt them, and make barrels and barrels of kimchi. It was a time of laughter, gossip, and good feelings all around. I would hover around my mother, waiting for a bite of freshly made kimchi dripping chili liquid. That piercing taste of crispy cabbage and raw seasoning was etched in my memory as the first sign of winter. The finished kimchi would be stored in earthenware pots and kept outside to ferment slowly. The increasingly pungent-tasting kimchi kept us strong through the snowy nights of the long, hard Korean winter.

I had not thought about kimjang in a long time. When we moved to America, my mother worked seven days a week and made kimchi less and less, so we got by on the store-bought kind. Besides, with most vegetables available fresh year round, there was no reason to make so much kimchi at once, never mind the fact that we had no garden or balcony to put out the pots. Yet, there I was in Pyongyang, peeling garlic for kimjang with hundreds of young North Korean men who rolled up their sleeves and obliged without hesitation, cheerfully sharing their memories of kimjang at their own houses.

One said he always helped his mother by carrying buckets of water up the stairs: “It takes a lot of water to wash one hundred fifty kilos of cabbage.” That suggested there was no fresh water at his house, despite the fact that his family was part of the elite. Another chimed in that his family was small, just he and his parents, so they only needed eighty kilos. Then they asked me how many kilos my government delivered to my house for kimjang. I could not bring myself to tell them that kimjang was a disappearing tradition for the modern generation, and that the city of New York did not distribute a ration of cabbages to each household, so I just said that my mother no longer did kimjang. They seemed confused and asked how my family then obtained kimchi during the winter. I explained that America was big and the weather varied from region to region, and that all kinds of foods were available during the winter because we traded with many other countries. I used their country’s trade with China as an example, which helped them to understand.

I confessed that I too was confused, about their way of doing kimjang. What about peppers and radishes and scallions, since each family, presumably, had its own unique recipe, with slightly different ingredients? A student explained that the rations varied. This year, for example, the harvest had been bad and there was not enough cabbage for families, so some people bought whatever extra was necessary. This was the second time a student had admitted to a lack of anything.

27 October 2020

Reporter Meets Minder in North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 23-26:

On the Philharmonic trip, Mr. Ri and I had chatted so effortlessly that at times it was confusing to make sense of our relationship, since his job was to report on me, and my job as a magazine correspondent, reporting on the event, was not all that different. It is remarkable how quickly camaraderie develops when tensions are high.

The thirty-six hours in Pyongyang on that trip were a whirlwind. It turned out that that was the whole point. It was a PR event carefully orchestrated by the DPRK regime, with the American orchestra providing the incidental music. There was nothing any of us could write about except what we were allowed to see, which was a concert like any other, a few staged welcome performances, and the usual tourist sites. It was a lesson in control and manipulation. The real audience was not those in the concert hall but the journalists whose role was to deliver a sanitized version of North Korea to the outside world, and what shocked me was how easily seduced they were. Both CNN and the New York Times reported that the performance drew tears from the audience, and soon the major newspapers around the world followed with stories about this successful experiment in cultural diplomacy. Lorin Maazel, then the conductor of the Philharmonic, declared that seventy million Koreans would thank him forever. I witnessed no crying in the audience—all handpicked members of the Party elite—nor did any of the correspondents I spoke to after the performance. The tears I recall from that trip were a different kind.

Although it was my second time visiting North Korea, I burst into tears while saying goodbye to my minder. I was not a journalist on assignment in that moment. Instead I was thinking of my grandmother and my uncle, and my great-aunt and her daughters, and of the millions of Korean lives erased and forgotten. Right there, on the tarmac, before boarding the chartered flight with everyone in our mission, I told Mr. Ri that I was sick of this division, and that I would probably never see him again because the people of his country were not allowed to leave or even have contact with the rest of the world, that his country was so isolated that even I, a fellow Korean, could only visit it as part of the American delegation, shadowing the American orchestra, and that it broke my heart to see how bad things really were there. I said all this standing on that tarmac, my face covered with tears, the floodgates open after thirty-six hours of enforced silence. This, in hindsight, was thoughtless of me. I was about to climb onto that flight and return to the free world, but he was stuck there, and the other minders saw this encounter. But, surprisingly, tears ran down his face too, along with the faces of two other minders nearby. They said nothing, just cried and cried.

My first reaction to seeing Mr. Ri here, three years later, was that of relief. He had not been punished for crying with me at the airport. He was okay! Then I felt afraid. He had met me as a journalist, so what would he make of the fact that I stood before him as a missionary teacher? It was a mystery to me why I had been allowed in. Joan and President Kim knew that I was a writer, although they thought of me as a novelist, which they must not have considered a threat. But they had only to Google me to find out that I had in fact published a fair number of articles and op-eds about North Korea. The most recent piece had been a feature essay on defection, a taboo topic. But President Kim had also been very interested in the Fulbright organization—which had given me a fellowship—and asked me to arrange a meeting between him and the Seoul division’s director, which I did. And I had been referred to him by the powerful Mrs. Gund. Whatever the reason, I had passed their vetting.

26 October 2020

Twelve Wonders of North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 105-106:

The students proudly said that the apple farm was the eleventh songun (military first) wonder of their country, and that they had helped to build it. They told me that in April and May 2009, college students from throughout Pyongyang had spent every Sunday digging holes for the trees, working in teams. They seemed genuinely fond of their memories of working there, though one student admitted that it had been hard because it was extremely cold that spring. I asked if they had since visited to see—and taste—the fruits of their labor. There was a pause before they told me that they had not seen the farm since the trees had been planted. Yet the farm was less than half an hour’s drive from the school.

To ease the sudden awkwardness, I asked about the other wonders. They seemed relieved and volunteered information eagerly. When General Kim Jong-il took over after Eternal Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, they told me, there had been only eight wonders, but now they had twelve. The first one was the Sunrise at Baekdu-san (Mount Baekdu), where Kim Jong-il was born. The second was the winter pines at Dabak Military Base, where Kim Jong-il had first thought of the songun policy. The third was the azaleas at Chulryong hill near a frontline base, where Kim Jong-il often visited. The fourth was the night view of Jangja mountain, where Kim Jong-il had taken refuge during the Korean War as a child. The fifth was the echo of the Oolim Falls, which Kim Jong-il said was the sound of a powerful and prosperous nation. The sixth was the horizon of Handrebul field, the site of Kim Jong-il’s 1998 land reform. The seventh was the potato flowers from the field of Daehongdan, where Kim Il-sung had fought the Japanese imperialists and Kim Jong-il upheld his revolutionary spirit by starting the country’s biggest potato farm. The eighth was the view of the village of Bumanli, which Kim Jong-il had praised as a socialist ideal that shone bright during the Arduous March. The ninth was the beans at the army depot, which Kim Jong-il once said made him happy that his soldiers were well fed. The tenth was the rice harvest in the town of Migok, so plentiful that Kim Jong-il had declared it to be a shining example of socialist farming. The eleventh was the apple farm, and the twelfth was the Ryongjung fish farm of southern Hwanghae province whose sturgeons swarmed toward the sea, just as the satellites of the DPRK, under Kim Jong-il, flew toward the sky. The students uniformly remarked that the increase from eight to twelve wonders under the Great General’s guidance meant that their country was powerful and prosperous and would continue to be so.

It was at moments like these that I could not help but think that they—my beloved students—were insane. Either they were so terrified that they felt compelled to lie and boast of the greatness of their Leader, or they sincerely believed everything they were telling me. I could not decide which was worse.

21 October 2020

They Shot Horses, Didn't They?

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 200-202:

One of the more unpleasant jobs I had to undertake at Ubon was to condemn and destroy the Japanese army horses. They had already marched over 1,500 miles from China and were in a terrible condition, both from starvation and ill-treatment. I had Tom Phillips to help me, who had been a racehorse trainer in Norfolk before the war, and out of 1,200 horses we inspected, we condemned 700 to be shot; they were dying at the rate of about ten a day from starvation and had only their droppings to eat. Some of the saddle sores were so big and deep that I could put my fist in them; I had never in my life seen such ill-treated horses.

Tom Phillips and I shot a great many, and I was often sick afterwards. The first day a deputation of Thais formed up and asked me not to kill the horses because it was against their Buddhist principles. I replied that it was a duty I very much regretted. I noticed plenty of Thais around afterwards removing their horses’ tails, before they were buried in huge pits dug by Japanese working parties.

Word reached me after the first day that the Japanese were saying that I had shot the horses for motives of revenge, because we had won the war. I therefore had them all paraded and through Sergeant Thomas told them that I was not shooting the horses because we had won the war, but to put them out of their misery after the ill-treatment to which they had been subjected.

I did not understand the Japanese mentality, for when leading their horses up to be shot, many of the men were in tears, and after they were shot they would take off their caps and bow at the graves, and even put flowers on them. A signal came from Bangkok suggesting that I was killing these animals unnecessarily, and that a veterinary officer would be coming to Ubon to inspect those that remained. A few days later a very fine-looking Indian colonel arrived and the Japanese paraded the remaining 500 that we had not shot for his inspection. He promptly condemned a further 400 to death.

Tom Phillips had left when I still had to shoot these 400 horses, and so I gave some of the Japanese vets back their pistols and told them to help me. After I discovered that they were taking up to three shots per horse, and found that some of the horses were being buried still alive, I stopped them and had to deal with the rest myself. Out of the 700 horses that I shot personally with an American .30 carbine with a folding butt which I used like a pistol, I had to give only one horse a second bullet. This was a horse that I shot in the correct place — at the centre of the X drawn from the ears to the eyes — but it trotted off apparently uninjured. When it was caught and brought back again, it was found to have a neat bullet hole in exactly the right place. It did not appear to be either frightened or in pain, or upset in any way. I fired the next shot downwards into its skull from above its ears and it dropped dead — I can only think it had a freak skull. I was very thankful when this distressing job was over.

19 October 2020

Thailand's Ambiguous Status in WW2

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 153-154:

My briefing gave me the first indication of the extraordinary political set-up in Thailand. Technically, my briefing officer told me, Thailand was at war with the Allies, against whom she declared war when she was occupied by the Japanese. ‘Didn’t she fight against the Japanese when they invaded Thailand?’ I asked. ‘And why did she have to declare war on us?’ She only offered ‘token resistance’ against the Japanese, I was told, and declared war on us ‘under strong Japanese pressure’. She was, however, a most unwilling ally of the Japanese. ‘How do you know that?’ I said. One had only to look, he replied, at the size of the underground movement. It included not only a number of high-level politicians, service chiefs and government officials, but was led by the Regent himself. He went on: ‘You’ll hear a great deal of the Regent from now on. His real name and title is Luang Pradit Pridi Panomyong but he is known to all of us as “Ruth”, which is his codename.’

At the end of April 1944 the first British officer from Force 136 to visit Siam was Brigadier Jacques, codenamed ‘Hector’. He and Chin had been landed off the coast of Siam by Catalina flying boat and had then transferred to a fishing boat that took them to Bangkok. Hector had been a prominent lawyer in Bangkok before the war and had many friends and contacts there; he also spoke the language fluently. In Bangkok they had meetings with Ruth and some of Ruth’s friends, then returned the way they had come.

After Hector had reported to Mountbatten he returned to Bangkok by the same means, taking with him a radio and radio operator. He came out once more, when I met him, then stayed until the end of the war. As a soldier he insisted on wearing uniform, which caused Ruth a security problem. However, Ruth found him a safe house either in his own palace or the University of Moral and Political Science, where he was in daily communication with Force 136 HQ. As he was in close contact with Ruth, who had frequent meetings with the Japanese, he was able to pass on much vital information which would be on Mountbatten’s desk in Kandy within twenty-four hours. Hector remained the senior BLO [British Liaison Officer] throughout his time in Thailand.

18 October 2020

Guarding Egypt's Docks, 1941

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 47-49:

The only useful job we did in Alexandria was regular dock guard, which was not as dull as it sounds. Air raids were an almost nightly occurrence and there were other diversions as well....

Among our other duties in the docks we had to prevent the pilfering of stores. Local Australian ack-ack gunners were the worst offenders and since their officers seemed to condone it, we gave up handing over any men we caught and merely beat them up. The sailors from the merchant ships were also pretty bad. They would unload attractive stores such as NAAFI supplies during the day, then steal them at night and take them back on board. We caught several and they got quite stiff punishments from their captains when we handed them over. The Egyptian dockers were the other looters, but after we had shot one they became less of a problem.

For some reason the French sailors from the pro-Vichy naval ships that had been interned were allowed complete freedom to wander about Alexandria. Many had pro-Axis sympathies and frequently became involved in brawls, especially with our Spaniards, one of whom died of knife wounds.

During the evacuation from Greece most of the commando was on guard, not only to prevent unauthorised people from entering the docks, but to prevent any from getting out, whether civilians or servicemen. Most troops disembarked in an orderly manner with their arms, were entrained and taken off to camps; but we had a great deal of trouble with the Australians. They disembarked, luckily without any arms, with the one objective of getting into the town as quickly as possible to have a drink and a woman. They strongly resented our guards for preventing them from leaving the docks. ‘Yellow bastards, why weren’t you fighting in Greece?’ they taunted. ‘Why did you run away and leave all your weapons behind?’ countered the commandos. They soon came to blows and free fights started. More guards and military police were rushed to the scene to restore order. It was all very unpleasant.

The most impressive disembarkation that I watched was when HMS Ajax came in at high speed, made fast, and disembarked a battalion of New Zealanders with their arms in perfect order. She was speeding away again in under an hour, bound back to Greece to carry out further rescue work.

17 October 2020

Earliest British Commando Units, 1940

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 30-31:

At Geneifa I joined my new unit — No 52 (Middle East) Commando. All the officers arrived first; the men were due ten days later. Before their arrival we had to learn as much as possible from specialist instructors, most of whom had come from England, in order to pass our training on to our men. I was appointed a company commander, which meant promotion to captain.

Intensive training, interesting and wide-ranging, started at once. I was already proficient at compass work and map reading, and had some knowledge of explosives and demolition, but new subjects for me were boat work, weapon training with the new Thompson submachine gun, unarmed combat and less orthodox subjects such as camel riding and camel mastership, first aid, and scientific roughhousing.

When the men arrived it was obvious that with a few exceptions — notably the Brigade of Guards and the cavalry regiments — their commanding officers had seized a golden opportunity to get rid of their most undesirable characters. Twelve men came from every unit in the Middle East, some of whom had conduct sheets with up to eight pages of crimes. By the time the last stragglers had arrived under military police escort from Cairo, where they had already been arrested for a variety of crimes, the commando numbered about 600 men.

Some of these were criminal types, but GHQ in Cairo refused to allow us to return them to their units unless they were physically unfit. After a week I took my company on a forced march in full kit, during which we covered thirty-three miles in eleven hours in blazing sun in the desert. Many of the men fell out, and as a result I was able to return some thirty per cent of my undesirables as unfit. Only my orderly knew that I had no skin left on my heels and was almost a casualty myself; but the exercise paid off.

Our commando, being a new type of unit, was used as a guinea-pig for every sort of unorthodox idea. The private soldier was given the rank of ‘raider’, which was well thought out as it avoided calling men by their branch of service such as ‘private’, ‘trooper’, ‘guardsman’, ‘gunner’ or ‘sapper’. It also fostered an esprit de corps which would otherwise have been lacking. For the same reason all identities with former units were dropped, and everyone wore the same uniform and insignia. The majority of men chosen for the Commandos were bachelors, on the theory that a bachelor was more likely to take risks than a married man.

Drill and inspections were out, because they were alleged to destroy initiative. We were not allowed to shout orders on parade, but had to give them by hand signal — the object was to ensure silence and keep the men alert. We marched out of step, which was supposed to be less tiring and quieter. Officers were not saluted, to prevent the enemy identifying them. No welfare comforts were allowed, for fear they might make the men soft. On night guards the entire guard stayed awake all night instead of the normal change at regular intervals, though I was never quite clear as to what was the advantage of this method. Even the eating of raw food was encouraged in order to increase mobility; this may indeed have helped those who were taken prisoner and later escaped to the mountains in Crete. In tactics other experiments were carried out such as making an attack without previous reconnaissance in order to achieve surprise. This was a complete failure.

Very early in our training many of the ideas were discarded, particularly since the ill-disciplined men who had been sent to join the commando took every opportunity to abuse them. Parades and marches rapidly became a shambles; even marching out of step proved not only more difficult but more tiring. Gym shoes worn for comfort, silence and speed very soon wore out. It was some months before we were equipped with a rubber-soled commando boot.

16 October 2020

Travails of a Royal Horse Guards Cornet, 1930s

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 5-8:

In September 1936 I had arrived at Hyde Park Barracks, Knightsbridge, commissioned a 2nd lieutenant (cornet) in the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). At Sandhurst I had lost six months’ seniority by ‘dropping a term’ after a crashing fall in a point-to-point which put me in hospital for six months. My only academic achievements at Sandhurst were passing out top in map reading and bottom in economics.

Rules in the Household Brigade were strict, even off parade. I was soon to find this out when I was awarded fourteen extra orderlies — an officer’s equivalent to CB (confined to barracks) — for dancing downstairs in the Café de Paris in a dinner jacket. If you chose to dance downstairs in the Café de Paris you had to wear a white tie and tails; in a dinner jacket you had to confine yourself to dancing on the less conspicuous balcony upstairs. White tie and tails were also de rigueur at the theatre and I was once reprimanded for being seen in a party at the theatre wearing a dinner jacket — at my hostess’s request.

I accepted these rather strange rules and customs, chiefly because life as a cornet in the Blues was, in most ways, idyllic. Like our sister regiment The Life Guards, we were a very small unit, almost a kind of club. The peacetime strength in 1936 was 14 officers, 419 men and 250 horses. Our only motorised transport was about a dozen Austin Sevens and a few motor cycles used by the signals troop.

...

Everything in a young officer’s life depended on his NCO. We had no experience; many of the NCOs had served ten to twenty years. They knew all the tricks of the trade and the characters of our senior officers. A good NCO was one part nanny, one part coach, and one part poacher turned gamekeeper. I was lucky to have an excellent corporal of horse (sergeant).

Soldiering, however, played only a small part in our lives. Officers were encouraged to seek adventure on leave. Bob Laycock sailed home from Australia in a windjammer. Others went on big game safaris to Kenya. Some did a stint as ADCs, usually to the Viceroy of India or Governor-General of Canada. Hunting, shooting, polo and steeplechasing were regarded as duty; in other words they didn’t count against one’s leave. Before the war leave was the same as it is today — six weeks in the year; but adding to it the days spent away hunting, and weekends, it must have amounted to three or four months. In those days we were informed that leave was a privilege and never a right. All my army life I failed to understand the logic of this, but I did find that the higher you climbed the ladder of promotion, the less leave you seemed to get.

The Munich crisis caused a flap. I was orderly officer and had to telephone every officer who was on leave recalling him to barracks. This did not make me very popular. We dug slit trenches and weapon pits in the sports fields in Hyde Park just opposite the barracks. To the delight of the more insubordinate, so many sandbags were piled on the roof of the Orderly Room block, which included the colonel’s and the adjutant’s offices, that the roof collapsed.

13 October 2020

African Slaves Save Macao, 1622

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 310-311:

Chinese pirate crews in the South China Seas, an area which no state power adequately controlled and where it was often in minor rulers’ interests to turn a blind eye for their own financial benefit, often employed Africans who had escaped from slavery or gone it alone. An example, though shortly after Yasuke’s time in the 1620s, was the Chinese pirate, smuggler and merchant, Zheng Zhilong.

Zheng had a large African bodyguard corps, more than three hundred men at its peak. The bodyguards were recruited from various places, but most entered his service via Macao, the Portuguese enclave in southern China, and many were escaped slaves. They could also have been men freed in reward for their part in the successful defense of Macao against the Dutch in 1622.

In this battle, an attempt by the Dutch to wrest control of the inter-Asian trade from the Portuguese, Macao found itself virtually defenseless as the Dutch attacked when most of the Portuguese merchant militia were away on trading missions in China. In a desperate bid to defend the outpost, all African slaves—a large group who did most of the manual labor in the colony—were granted their freedom, and as much alcohol as they could drink, in exchange for fighting in the city’s defense. These drunken, newly freed men and women were wildly successful in destroying the Dutch, and their mercenary Japanese and Thai troops, despite being heavily outnumbered. The Africans charged the Dutch musket fire fearlessly and gave no quarter; and as it was the feast of John the Baptist, allegedly celebrated by removing heretic Protestant heads from their bodies. The former slaves, having been released from their bondage, would have been searching for better employment (and quickly), and pirates such as Zheng Zhilong could provide this.

Zheng had lived much of his life in Japan, where he was safe from Chinese government authority and could take advantage of Japanese and European trade and smuggling opportunities. At the height of his power, his fleet was estimated at up to a thousand ships and controlled almost all interactions in the South China Sea.

10 October 2020

Market for Mercenaries in Mughal India

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 155-157:

Afghans, Turks, Persians, Africans, Arabs, Mongols and Portuguese all flocked to the Indian subcontinent to make their fortunes in war.

Even so, the need for soldiers far surpassed the influx of voluntary global mercenaries. As a solution, African boys like Yasuke were forcibly brought to India and trained to become slave soldiers.

Many free Africans also made the journey, seeking the same opportunities as the Turks, Arabs or Portuguese. But the vast majority were children captured in Africa, as Yasuke had been, and sold to foreign slavers in coastal ports, most often Zeila (now in northern Somalia), or Suakin (in modern-day Sudan). Here, their young lives were traded for salt, Indian cloth or iron bars along with other commodities such as guns. If not immediately put to work on dhows or galleys, they were taken on Arab, Ottoman or Indian ships, north toward Egypt, Arabia, Turkey and Europe, or east toward Persia and India.

During the voyage, slave traders often chose to invest in their slaves, educating or even mutilating them to gain more profit at the next stage of sale. For instance, while some were taught their letters, many more young boys were castrated. Handsome eunuch slaves fetched astronomical prices partly because only 10 percent of the victims survived the cut. By the time the captives reached northern India, almost a fourth of those who’d boarded ships in Africa had perished. On arrival in India, the Africans found themselves in slave markets, where they were again sold and taken farther afield to wherever trade routes and eager customers waited—places like Gujarat, the Gulf of Cambay, the Deccan, Cochin (modern-day Kochi), and to Portuguese Goa.

First arriving in Gujarat in northern India, Yasuke and the others had been herded into underground cells, with only street-level barred windows for light and air. The conditions were dark, airless, cramped and horrific. (On the ships, they’d been kept above deck and out of chains, doing simple maritime chores.) He was thirteen now; the voyage from Africa had taken almost a year—as the ships he traveled on stopped to trade or take shelter from adverse weather on the way. He’d been stripped, subjected to a full body examination and checked that he’d not been overly damaged by punishments or abuse on the way from Africa. The slavers who inspected Yasuke were themselves of African origin, perhaps having passed through exactly the same slave cells years before. Their appraising eyes summed up the young Yasuke, observed his size and growth potential and purchased him on the spot.

He was now a member of a military caste called Habshi—African warriors, often horsemen, who fought for local rulers or were loaned out by a mercenary band leader to whomever was willing to pay. Some of these bands numbered in the thousands, but most were only a few hundred strong. The Indians called the Africans Habshi—a word derived from “Abyssinia,” the ancient name for Ethiopia—because a large majority of the Africans destined for India had started their sea journeys there. During the span of recorded history, it is estimated that as many as eleven million Africans were trafficked to India as slaves, primarily to be used as soldiers. During Yasuke’s time, when soldiers were in peak demand, estimates reach into the tens of thousands.

Yasuke spent his first years in India training to use weapons, to ride a horse, to kill and fight. Too valuable to be used as mere fodder (the weakest slaves, who were judged to have little military worth, were often used as human shields, driven before the main force to absorb bombardments), he took the field only after training. Throughout, he would have been both brutalized and baptized into the cult of the killer, through actual battle, but also by carrying out commissions such as executions for his new masters. In his teens, he’d likely supped with assassins, marched and fought beside fifty thousand men, helped slaughter entire villages, joked and bet as comrades fought to the death in camp over some village girl, missing token or misheard comment. He also grew taller and his muscles hardened. He learned to kill with his hands. To ignore the gore and screams of new friends and foe alike. By eighteen, he was a valuable warrior. Now training young boys, as he’d once been a lifetime ago. His body a chronicle of ever-fading scars, a book written in blood.