Richmond, Russell, and India

DID THE YOUNG BERTRAND RUSSELL ever rush up King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park and enjoy the famous view of St Pauls Cathedral ten miles away? We might never know the answer to this, but there is a good chance that he did (on days with clear sky) because this small hillock (184 feet above sea level) that might once have been a Neolithic burial ground is only about 330 yards from Pembroke Lodge. This Georgian mansion in Richmond Park was built in the mid-18th century. In between 1788 and 1796, it was extended according to plans by the famous architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837). In 1847, Queen Victoria granted the lodge to her then prime minister, John Russell (1792-1878).



Eric Gill’s cover for the book in which Bertrand Russell wrote the preface

John Russell had a son, John Russell (Viscount Amberley), who was born in 1842. He died in 1876, four years after his son, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, was born (in Monmouthshire, Wales). Bertrand’s mother died in 1874. Bertrand and his brother were placed in the care of their grandparents, who were living at Pembroke Lodge. Had Bertrand’s parents lived longer, they would have been pleased to have learnt that their son was awarded a scholarship to study mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge in 1890.

Bertrand Russell was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, but I am not qualified to describe his contributions to that field. In his autobiographical book “Unended Quest”, the famous Karl Popper (1902-1994) wrote of Russell that he was:

“… perhaps the greatest philosopher since Kant.”

That was praise indeed.

When I visit places for the first time, they often ignite new interests. Pembroke Lodge was  no exception, and visiting it sparked my interest in its former inhabitant Bertrand Russell. It appears that he was interested in a huge range of things. One of these, which also interests me, was the Indian freedom struggle that culminated in the country becoming independent in August 1947. Wikipedia reveals:

“During the 1930s, Russell became a close friend and collaborator of V. K. Krishna Menon, then President of the India League, the foremost lobby in the United Kingdom for Indian self-rule Russell was Chair of the India League from 1932-1939.”

Krishna Menon (1896-1974), born in Telicherry (now in Kerala, India) came to study at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) in 1925, then at University College London. He became a keen promoter of the idea of independence for his native land. He was founder and president of the India League from 1928 to 1947.  The League was Britain’s foremost and most influential organisation fighting against the continuation of British imperialism. During the 1930s, Bertrand Russell was one of its its leading supporters and its Chairman for a while.

In 1932, the League decided to send a delegation to India to investigate conditions there. The group, which included Menon, spent 83 days travelling the length and breadth of the country, interviewing people, Indians and Britishers, in all walks of life. After the delegation returned to the UK, they prepared a damning report, “Condition of India”, which was banned by the Government of India but published in England in 1932. Its cover was designed by the artist Eric Gill (1882-1940) and Bertrand Russell wrote its preface. Bertrand Russell began the preface with the following words

“… TO obtain a true picture of the present state of affairs in India is as important as it is difficult. Many English people content themselves with the remark that India does not interest them. If India were independent, they would perhaps be justified in this attitude, but so long as the British insist upon governing India, they have no right to ignore what is done in their name by the Government which they have elected. There has been no lack of interest in the misdeeds of the Nazis in Germany; they have been fully reported in the Press, and have been commented on with self-righteous indignation. Few people in England realise that misdeeds quite as serious are being perpetrated by the British in India. Large numbers of men and women, including many of the highest idealism, have been imprisoned under horrible conditions, often without any charge having been made against them and without any hope of being brought to trial…”

Later in the same piece Russell wrote:

“In India, the peasants are powerless against the landlords and the Government combined, so that no economic lesson is learned from their hardships, and they are expected to ‘Starve quietly without making a fuss’. Only people with political power have a right to make a fuss ; this is one of the great lessons of history, and, lest history should not sufficiently impress the Indians, we are teaching it by the lathi and the gaol. Our ruling classes have lost their former skill, and I fear the ultimate result of their folly In India must be disaster. For in India, also, if the new regime is ushered in by bloodshed the result will not be so good as if it came peacefully. Statesmanship is dead in the post-war world, and India, like other countries, suffers in consequence.”

Like the philosopher Richard Congreve (1818-1899) many years earlier (in 1857), Russell was clearly convinced that the British should leave India. By 1938, Russell, who had dedicated a substantial part of his political activity to matters regarding the future of India, began to concentrate more on philosophy and academia. In the late 1950s, he re-entered political activity, becoming one of the founder members of CND, which opposed the atomic bomb and other nuclear weaponry.

Incidentally, after India became independent, Russell’s former collaborator in Indian affairs, Krishna Menon, then India’s High Commissioner to the UK, and others including Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten founded the India Club in 1951. In the mid-1950s, its premises shifted to 145 The Strand, near the LSE and India House, where it still stands today. Its shabby looking second floor restaurant preserves its original 1950s look and houses a portrait of Krishna Menon. It has a nice old-fashioned bar on the floor below. A few years ago, before the India Club got a licence to serve alcohol in its restaurant, alcohol could only be served to members of the Club. The only requirement for joining it was to pay an annual subscription of 50 pence.

Returning Pembroke Lodge, we enjoyed hot drinks with our friends in its tranquil garden. It was then that one of our friends pointed out its links with the great philosopher, who spent his childhood there (from 1876 to 1894). After returning home, I looked up Bertrand Russell on the Internet and that is when I found that he had a connection with the history of India. It is wonderful that someone brought up in such fine surroundings as Pembroke Lodge should have felt moved to fight for the people of India, very few of whom would have enjoyed such a luxurious childhood as Russell did.

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