Sir Charles Napier’s sin

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General Sir Charles Napier, commanding the East India Company’s Bombay Presidency army, defeated the Muslim rulers of Sindh. He then proceeded, against orders, to conquer the entire province.

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He informed his superiors by sending a single-word despatch: ‘Peccavi’ – the Latin for “I have sinned.”

The story

Whenever this story was related in any medium in the past, it was usually prefaced by that quintessential British cliché: “As every schoolboy knows … ” But that was back when schoolboys (and a few girls as well) were expected to have a firm grasp of both imperial history and Latin grammar.

Historians loved the story because it captures the mischievous personality of Napier and, more importantly, the morally-questionable nature of his blatant annexation of hitherto independent territory to the empire.

Career soldier Sir Charles James Napier (1782–1853) remains one of the most fascinating and complex characters in all of 19th-century England. From a well-to-do and eccentric family, he served with great distinction in the Peninsular War, but regularly criticised his superiors, and always considered himself an outsider. His personal and political sympathies tended towards the underdog, and as commander of the army in the north of England, he later claimed he had prevented civil war by his sensitive handling of Chartist agitation between 1838 and 1841.

This is a highly contentious claim, but there’s no question that he headed off a lot of trouble. Soldiers who served under him adored him because of his unusual concern for their wellbeing – the statue of Napier in Trafalgar Square was mostly paid for by donations from private soldiers.

In 1842 Napier was in India commanding a British army in Sindh. “Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties, was money,” he wrote. “Every shilling of this has been picked out of blood, wiped and put into the murderer’s pocket … We shall yet suffer for the crime as sure as there is a God in heaven.” Despite all this, he needed money to provide for his family, and because he longed to command an entire army.

His conquest of Sindh (nowadays in Pakistan) in 1843 was the stuff of imperial legend, a string of victories against massive odds. Ruled by a federation of chieftains, Sindh was a wealthy province with a thriving textile industry. While many complained that Napier was exceeded his orders, neither the Honourable East India Company nor the British government was in any hurry to return it to the control of its amirs.

Napier’s own view was that British control of all India was inevitable, and while Britain’s entire presence in the subcontinent was a crime, British rule was at least better than that of feudal oppressors.

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But did he ever send a punning despatch in Latin saying he’d done wrong? No. The ‘peccavi’ story appeared in Punch in 1844 and became accepted as fact. It’s thought that the author of the joke was Catherine Winkworth, then still a teenager, who sent it in to the magazine. Winkworth (1827–1878) went on to become a translator and campaigner for women’s rights.