In the frontier thrusting early years of the nineteenth century, the British Army
attracted some of the boldest, bravest, most eccentric and unorthodox officers
ever to grace the field. Looming large over them all was General Sir Charles
James Napier, Commander-in-Chief in India and Governor of Bombay Presidency.
His most notable campaign led to the subjugation
Sindh in modern day Pakistan. In conquering the province, Napier had far exceeded
his mandate. He had been given orders to quell the insurrection of the region’s
Muslim rulers and, instead, greatly augmented the territory under direct
One of the great
anecdotes of military history attached itself to the action. In Punch
magazine, Napier was reported as having informed his superiors of his action by sending a
messenger with a single word in Latin – ‘Peccavi’.
The General assumed the classically educated elites of the East India Company would
understand both the translation and its implication.
Peccavi is the past
participle for the verb ‘to sin’ and translates as ‘I have sinned’. In
overreaching his orders he had fulfilled the pun – he had both sinned and
Sindh. And, like many great historical anecdotes, it
is a fabrication. The real author was a teenage girl, Catherine Winkworth,
whose teacher had submitted her witty Latin observation to Punch magazine. It
was reported as a factual report under foreign affairs, and credited to Napier.
General Napier did, however, reinforce his credentials as a
member of Britain’s idiosyncratic Imperial elite by challenging long standing customs he
found abhorrent. Chief amongst these was the practise of Sati, the immolation
of the still living widow on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. He stated
that he was prepared to tolerate the custom but only if English customs
were similarly followed:
"Beit so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my
nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and
confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on
which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act
according to national customs."
The widow was thus saved, and the practice ultimately
banned in areas under British control.