Socialist Worker

Truth behind the generals' statues

Issue No. 1721

Trafalgar square-Napier and Havelock

Truth behind the generals' statues

By Hazel Croft

THE RIGHT wing press went mad after London mayor Ken Livingstone recently announced that he wanted to get rid of two statues in Trafalgar Square. The statues are of two British generals-Sir Charles Napier and Sir Henry Havelock. Papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph want us to look up to these men as "heroes".

They have used the statue issue to push the idea of a glorious British history that we should be proud of, and that children should learn about in school. So the Daily Mail claims that the "British Empire was by and large a force for good". It says, "Both Havelock and Napier were great men who performed brilliant deeds." But the very opposite is true. Ken Livingstone said the statues should be moved to alongside the River Thames. In fact they deserve to be toppled and smashed up.

The statues glorify two men who typified the savagery of the British ruling class against the workers they exploited at home, and the peoples of the countries they conquered and plundered abroad. "Decisive and daring, he fought on instinct," is the Daily Mail's description of Sir Charles Napier.

Napier was an army chief who decisively helped to crush the first mass working class movement in Britain, the Chartists. In the 1830s and 1840s the Chartists mounted a massive challenge to the British ruling class. The movement grew in revolt at the stark poverty, desperate conditions and brutal exploitation that destroyed the lives of workers and the poor in the early years of industrial capitalism.

There was a ferment of struggle and political agitation across Britain as huge crowds attended mass meetings and monster demonstrations. Workers organised, debated political ideas and went on strike.

THE RULING class was terrified and tried every means to crush the movement. It sent troops to quell unrest in Britain's industrial areas. In 1839 Charles Napier was put in charge of troops in the north of England. Napier was known for his "liberal" politics, his association with progressive figures such as the poet Lord Byron, and was even said to support some of the Chartists' demands.

But Napier's main fear was the prospect of revolution, and he acted to crush plans for an uprising. He had no qualms about threatening force against the very people he supposedly sympathised with. In 1839 he warned: "We have the physical force, not they. They talk of their hundred thousands of men. Who is to move them when I am dancing round them with cavalry and pelting them with cannonshot? What would their 100,000 men do with my 100 rockets wriggling their fiery tails among them, roaring, scorching, tearing, smashing all they came near? And when in desperation and despair they broke to fly, how would they bear five regiments of cavalry careering through them? Poor men! How little they know of physical force!"

Plans for a mass uprising in the north of England did not materialise during Napier's reign as army commander. But still his troops rounded up and arrested many Chartist leaders. Between January 1839 and June 1840 nearly 500 Chartists were arrested, and over half of these were sent to prison.

Six were sentenced to death. In the end they were deported rather than executed but only because the authorities feared executions would spark further revolt. In 1841 Napier was sent to India, where in a search for "glory" he led troops in the brutal conquest of the area of Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. Napier's troops, armed with bayonets and cannon, crushed resistance, slaughtering 5,000 Indian troops in one day alone.

Was it not a law of nature, Napier asked, that "barbarous peoples should be absorbed by their civilised neighbours?" The British ruling class rewarded Napier for his brutal conquest of Sindh. The government handed him 70,000 (worth millions today) and promoted him to governor of Sindh.

"A warrior who feared god but no one else," is how the Daily Mail describes the subject of the other statue, Sir Henry Havelock. In fact Havelock was a mass murderer. He was honoured by the ruling class for playing a major role in savagely suppressing rebellion against British rule in India.

India at that time was ruled by Britain through the East India Company, which made fabulous profits off the backs of the Indian population.

BUT IN 1857 the "Sepoy" troops (native Indian soldiers) turned on the arrogant colonial British officers. Within weeks the mutineers had seized control of Delhi and huge swathes of northern India. The army rebellion became a focus for the bitterness and discontent of peasants across India and the revolt became the most united and widespread challenge to British rule. The British ruling class was shaken to the core, and determined to crush the uprising and exact bloody revenge on those who had dared to challenge their rule.

Havelock himself saw his quest to crush the revolt as a "contest between the barbarism and fanaticism of Asiatic hordes and civilised authority of Christian rulers". But the "civilised" General Havelock and his troops led the way in atrocities. "Mutineers must be attacked and annihilated," he wrote. "And if they are few in any regiment, and not immediately denounced to be shot or hanged, the whole regiment must be deemed guilty and given up to prompt military execution."

The brutality of Havelock's troops knew no bounds. They shot, bayoneted, hung and disembollowed tens of thousands of Indians, soldiers and civilians alike. The Chartist Ernest Jones wrote, "They, the merciful Christians, have hit on the refined expedient of tying living men to the mouths of cannon and then firing them off, blowing them to atoms, scattering a rain of blood, a shower of quivering fragments of human flesh and intestines on the bystanders." One account of Havelock's regiment describes:

"In two days 42 men were hanged on the roadside, and a batch of 12 were executed because their heads were 'turned the wrong way' when they were met on the march. All the villages in his front were burned when he halted." Havelock was enthusiastic about his slaughter. He boasted:

"The unfortunate who fell into the hands of our troops was made short work of-Sepoy and villagers, it mattered not-no questions were asked. His skin was black and did not that suffice? A piece of rope and the branch of a tree or rifle bullet through his brain soon terminated his existence. It was taken for granted that every Sepoy had murdered [British] women and children."

Yet he justified this murder by claiming it was for "a righteous cause, the cause of justice, humanity, truth and good government in India". Generations of British ruling class generals would follow Havelock's example as Britain went on to conquer more and more parts of the globe through the 19th century.

The British ruling class would use similar ruthless methods in Africa, the Middle East and Asia to crush the peoples whose land and resources they stole. The ruling class also learnt from the way the 1857 uprising had united Indians against Britain. From then on the British followed a policy of divide and rule in India and throughout the rest of the empire, deliberately sewing religious and communal divisions to weaken resistance.

The "glorious" history of empire the Tories and right wing press want to preserve is a history of exploitation, racism and imperial plunder. There are "heroes" in British history. But they are not kings and queens, army generals or prime ministers. They are the men and women Chartists, and successive generations of working class activists who followed them, who fought against poverty, racism and injustice. And they are the people like those in India in 1857 who rose up to take on the might of the British empire.

It is this tradition we should be celebrating not with monuments or statues, but by continuing the fight against the exploitation and oppression, both in Britain and around the world.

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Sat 4 Nov 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1721
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