CLOSE TO WARWICK, there is a town that reminded me both of Brighton on the south coast of England and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) in the Czech Republic. The grandiose architecture, mostly neo-classical, of Leamington Spa reminds me of some parts of Brighton and the area around the town’s spa buildings, both new and old, brought faint recollections of visits I made long ago to the Czech spa town to my mind. What I did not know when we visited Leamington Spa was that it does have a not too distant historical relationship with what was once known as ‘Czechoslovakia’.
SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the main ‘architects’ of the Holocaust and in 1942 he was the acting Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the area now known as the Czech Republic. In January 1942, he was Chairman of the Wannsee Conference at which the terrible fate of the Jewish people was decided. On the 27th of May 1942, Heydrich was shot at while driving through Prague. During this attack, a hand grenade, thrown into his open top vehicle, exploded. Heydrich was rushed to hospital but died of his wounds or sepsis resulting from them early in the morning of the 4th of June. His senior, the Chancellor of Germany, the dictator Adolf Hitler, was furious.
The assassination attack was carried out by Czechoslovak men who had been trained in England and then parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The men were volunteers, who were members of the Free Czechoslovak Forces stationed in the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, where there was a training camp for them. It had been there since 1940. Seven of the Czechoslovak men flew from England in December 1941 and parachuted at various paces over their native land. Two of them, Jozef Gabčík (1912-1942) and Jan Kubiš (1913-1942), carried out the attack in Prague that led to the ending of Heydrich’s life. These two men and the others dropped over Czechoslovakia sacrificed their lives in the struggle to free their country from Nazi tyranny.
In November 2021, we paid a brief visit to Leamington Spa. Amongst its attractions is the pleasant Jephson Gardens, which are close to the spa establishments after which the town gets its name. The Park is named after the physician and philanthropist Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who promoted the superior healing powers of the town’s spring water. An attractive circular neo-classical temple containing a statue of Jephson was erected in his honour in 1849. This stands atop a small mound. Close to it there is another monument, also circular.
The other monument was unveiled in 1968, 50 years after the formation of Czechoslovakia out of the ruins of the failed Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memorial is in the form of a circular fountain. A bowl is supported by a single pillar on which the heraldic emblem of Czechoslovakia can be seen in bas-relief. Something, which at first sight resembles a large mushroom, sprouts upwards from the centre of the bowl. Closer examination of this reveals that it is a sculpture depicting a cluster of open parachutes. On each parachute, there is a name of one of the group of volunteers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The monument was designed by John French.
According to a noticeboard close to the Czechoslovak volunteers’ memorial, this small fountain also remembers the thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, who were murdered by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich’s death. After numerous arrests were made, two Czech villages suspected of having been involved in the assassination plot, Lidice and Ležáky were literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. Their innocent inhabitants were mostly killed, but some were sent to concentration camps. These poor people are remembered in Jephson Park, which is such a lovely place that one would not think that it could possibly be even remotely associated with the human tragedies that followed the death of a monstrous member of the Nazi party.
KARL MARX, MAHATMA GANDHI, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Ho Chi Minh, Benjamin Franklin, Simon Bolivar, Giuseppe Mazzini, and many other figures, who have caused major changes either in their own countries or in the wider world, have spent time living in London. Now I will introduce you to yet another man who lived in London and is celebrated as a liberator of the country in which he was born.
Despite having spent twelve years studying at University College London, I have not bothered to explore nearby Fitzroy Square until this year, 2021. The only part that I knew about while I was at college was the Indian YMCA, located in a building that was built the 1950s, where one can still enjoy Indian cuisine at below average prices. I shall write about this establishment in the future, as I will about Fitzroy Square. But now I will concentrate on a person, whose statue stands at the south east corner of the square, facing the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.
The statue, dressed in 18th century attire, depicts Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), standing with his left leg forward and a scroll in his right hand. Bare headed, his left hand is over his chest above his heart. Born in Caracas in the Venezuela Province of the Spanish colony of New Grenada, his full name was Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinoza. He was born into a wealthy family and educated at the best schools. Following a clash between his father and the aristocratic elite, Francisco travelled to Spain in 1771. Francisco studied in Madrid and in 1773 his father bought him a captaincy in the Spanish Army. He took part in military actions in North Africa, but his superiors considered that he devoted too much of his attention to reading and was also involved in various abuses of authority (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Miranda).
Miranda was next sent to the Americas and was involved with the Spanish in the American War of Independence. In 1782, he was involved in the Capture of the Bahamas. His superior, Galvez, was upset that this had begun without his permission and arrested Miranda. It might have been this clash with Spanish officialdom that made Miranda begin to consider being involved in the quest for independence of the Spanish colonies in Latin America. With his involvement in the failure of the Spanish invasion of Jamaica in about 1782, the Spanish authorities wanted to arrest Miranda and take him to Spain. Fearing that he would not be tried fairly, he fled to the British colonies in North America in July 1783. In what was to become the USA, he met with, and became acquainted with the ideas of, leaders of the American independence struggle, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams.
Between 1785 and 1780, Miranda stayed in Europe, first landing in London in February 1785. In London, the Spanish authorities kept a close watch on him. Between 1802 and 1810, he lived near to Fitzroy Square at number 58 Grafton Way, to which a commemorative plaque is attached. The building is next door to the current home of the Consulate of Venezuela (“Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela”). It was in number 58 that Miranda met the great liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) in 1810. It was also in 1810 that the Venezuelan patriot, philologist, jurist, and poet, Andres Bello (1781-1865) lived in this house. Bello had arrived in England with Bolivar as part of an expedition to raise funds for revolutionary activities in Latin America.
Miranda travelled around Europe and took an active part in the French Revolution between 1791 and 1798, when, disillusioned with the revolutionary movement, he returned to London. Back in London, at Grafton Street, Miranda had two children, Leandro (1803-1886) and Francisco (1806-1831). Their mother was his housekeeper Sarah Andrews, who became his wife.
From 1804 onwards, Miranda became actively involved with freedom struggles against the Spanish in the Caribbean and in what was to become Venezuela. He returned to Venezuela, along with Bello and Bolivar, when the First Venezuelan Republic was proclaimed in April 1810. It was short-lived. Miranda, who was briefly Dictator of Venezuela, was arrested, along with Bolivar, by the Spanish in mid-1812. Bolivar was released, but Miranda was shipped to Spain, where he died in prison in Cadiz in 1816.
Miranda’s statue next to Fitzroy Square was erected in 1990. It is a copy of one made by the Venezuelan sculptor Rafael de la Cova (c1850-c1896) in 1895 (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/francisco-de-miranda-statue). As the statue was erected in 1990, eight years after I finally completed my studies at University College and I had not been near Fitzroy Square since 1982, it was hardly surprising that it was only this year that I first saw it, one of several statues depicting liberators of Latin America, which are dotted around in London.
IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.
Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):
“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”
The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm, It contains chapters such as:
“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)
“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)
“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)
The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:
“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:
“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”
Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.
In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.
On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:
“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”
The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932. They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.
During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”
This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.
The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:
“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”
‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.
Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed. Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.
Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away. From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.
While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.
SEATED IN A CHAIR ON A STONE PLINTH, surrounded by a small pond and often with a pigeon on his head or shoulder, Henry Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland (‘Lord Holland’; 1773-1840) gazes benevolently towards the ruins of his home, which was destroyed by German bombs during WW2. The fine cast metal statue was sculpted by George Frederic Watts (1817-1914) with technical assistance from Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890). I have walked past this statue innumerable times and never given it much of a thought apart from being amused when I have seen pigeons resting on the crown of Holland’s head. A friend of ours pointed out that the sculptor has included, unusually, a depiction of Holland’s wedding ring, a memorial to his marriage which was to prove very interesting with regard to his political activities. Today, the 20th of June, I walked past it yet again, but with the recent interest in statues and their subjects’ relationships with the slave trade, I wondered whether Lord Holland had any connection with it. What I have discovered is somewhat surprising.
Lord Holland was the nephew of the Whig statesman Charles James Fox (1749-1806). According to the British History Online website: “On the death of his uncle … Lord Holland was introduced into the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal; but the strength of the Whig portion of the Government had then departed, and the only measure worthy of notice in which his lordship co-operated after his accession to office was the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.” This suggests that Holland was an abolitionist.
However, things are never so simple. When visiting Florence (Italy) in 1793, he fell in love with Elizabeth Vassall, wife of Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet. She and Webster divorced and then Elizabeth married Lord Holland. The “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography” (‘DNB’) records that in 1800 “… Holland assumed the additional name of Vassall to safeguard his children’s right to his wife’s West Indian fortune.” When her first husband died in 1800, Lord Holland became the owner of the Vassall plantations in Jamaica. By accident, the abolitionist became an owner of slaves.
According to a website published by the Portobello Carnival Film Festival 2008: “By all accounts, the Hollands were humane and improving proprietors who supported anti-slavery measures against their own financial interests. It can even be argued that he was more use to the abolitionist movement as a slave owner than he would have been as a mere politician. Nevertheless, in perhaps the defining local paradox, the finest hour of Holland House as the international salon of liberal politics was financed by the profits of slave labour.” The site continues by pointing out that after his uncle died, Lord Holland: “… was on the committee that framed his uncle’s bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Meanwhile Lady Holland founded the area’s multi-cultural tradition by employing Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and Italian servants – in order to enhance the foreign image of her political salon.”
VE Chancellor wrote in his article “Slave‐owner and anti‐slaver: Henry Richard Vassall Fox, 3rd Lord Holland, 1800–1840” that Holland regarded a slave: “…not as mere chattel, but as an individual with feelings and abilities no less than those of other men …”. However: “… he justified the continuing history of slavery in the British Empire in Whiggish terms of the right to property and the need to obtain the consent of those who owned slaves before Abolition could be achieved…” So, it seems that Holland, an avowed Abolitionist and ‘accidental’ owner of slaves, was placed in a difficult position. Chancellor records that the great Abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) regarded Holland as: “… a ‘most zealous partisan’ of slave trade abolition …”, And the DNB relates: “Holland himself was an equally keen supporter of the abolition of slavery in 1833, despite its adverse effect on his West Indian income.” Holland gave his full support for the Slave Trade Abolition Bill when it passed through the House of Lords. The passing of the Bill was accompanied by sizable tax relief to sugar producers in the West Indies. Lord Holland benefitted from these, as the University College London ‘Legacies of Slave Ownership’ website notes: “Lord Holland, awarded part of the compensation for under three awards for the enslaved people on his estates in Jamaica…” Chancellor wrote that Holland, who had benefitted financially from the tax relief concessions: “… learnt the lesson that those called on to make sacrifices in a good cause do so the more willingly when potential loss is compensated.”
So, now returning to the statue covered with bird droppings in Holland Park, what are we to think? No doubt, Lord Holland became an owner of slaves, but by an accident caused by one of Cupid’s arrows. Had he married someone else, he might not have become the inheritor of Caribbean plantations with slaves. If William Wilberforce was happy to regard him as a bona-fide Abolitionist, that is for me a favourable contemporary character reference for Lord Holland. Some, including me, looking at his statue with hindsight, might ask why he, an avowed Abolitionist, did not emancipate his slaves as soon as they came into his possession. I am willing to believe that the answer to this is far from simple.
On Sunday morning it was Republic Day, the 26th January 2020. The streets in Baroda were quite. Several of the few vehicles we saw carried Indian national flags that fluttered proudly as they sped past us.
It was also quieter than usual at the Sri Aurobindo Nivas, the home where Sri Aurobindo lived while he was an official in the government of the princely state of Baroda and both professor and vice chancellor of what is now Baroda University. Aurobindo lived with his wife, Mrinalini in this house donated by the Gaekwad. After Baroda, Aurobindo and his wife moved to Calcutta. Later, he moved to the French colony of Pondicherry. After he arrived there, his wife followed him but during the journey to join him, she died suddenly of an infection (https://www.boloji.com/articles/13683/mrinalini-sri-aurobindos-forgotten-wife). I have written a bit about Aurobindo in Baroda in my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped). Here is what I wrote:
“Today, Sri Aurobindo is associated with ‘peace and love’ by many people, especially the crowds of Europeans who seek spiritual solace at his ashram in Pondicherry. While Aurobindo was working as a teacher in Baroda in the early 20th century, he was involved in Indian independence movements. Although he espoused peaceful methods, he was not averse to the use of violence. Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in his book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, wrote: “It was at Baroda that Aurobindo took the first decisive steps into political life … Aurobindo clearly believed in the efficacy of violent revolution and worked towards organizing secret revolutionary activity as a preparatory stage for open revolt and insurrection…” In a biography, Sri Aurobindo for All Ages, its author Nirodbaran, who worked in close contact with the great man for twelve years, wrote: “When we asked him once how he could even conceive of an armed insurrection against the well-equipped British garrisons, he answered: ‘At that time, warfare and weapons had not become so lethal in their effect. Rifles were the main weapons, machine guns were not so effective. India was disarmed, but with foreign help and proper organisation, the difficulty could be overcome; and in view of the vastness of the country and the smallness of the regular British armies, even guerrilla warfare might be effective…”
After a year’s spell in Alipore prison in connection with his alleged involvement with some politically motivated murders in Bengal, Aurobindo settled in Pondicherry, and from then began espousing a spiritual approach to life. While living in that French colony, he continued to contemplate contemporary Indian issues, including that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In late 1909, Aurobindo wrote: “Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.” Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote: “Savarkar legitimately claimed paternity for the idea of Hindutva; but Hindutva could lay to an equally formidable patrimony in the thought of Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. What binds these four thinkers together is the systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism.” Sharma quotes the following passage, written in 1923, from Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (a collection of writings): “It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindus has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem.” And, in 1934, Aurobindo wrote: “As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Muslims who would not at all be conciliated by such a stupidity.”
The Sri Aurobindo Nivas, where Aurobindo lived until 1906 while he was an esteemed teacher and state official in Baroda, is a two-storey grand, mainly brick bungalow with European-style wooden window shutters. In 1971, the Government of Gujarat handed it over to Baroda’s Sri Aurobindo Society, which promotes the peaceful aspects of Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. The house is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. This contains an outdoor stone shrine, a flat marble table with a bas-relief of a lotus flower in its centre. The lotus was surrounded by a flower arrangement consisting of a circle surrounding a six-pointed star. The star with centrally enclosed lotus is a symbol of Sri Aurobindo, whereas the circle is the symbol of his spiritual partner, the Mother, who settled in Pondicherry in 1920. She was born Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) in Paris, of Turkish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. She became the founder of Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry.
The ground floor of this typical colonial-style bungalow contains offices and a library, which was full of people reading at tables. The upper floor has carpeted rooms decorated with relics and portraits of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These two people are often depicted in their old age, but here at Aurobindo Nivas we saw a couple of portraits, hung side-by-side, showing both as young people. The rooms on the upper floor are used for silent meditation. People sit cross-legged on the floor and occasionally prostrate themselves, their foreheads touching the floor. Also, they stand up and touch the paintings and photographs of Aurobindo and the Mother in the same way as Hindu worshippers touch idols in temples.
There is a large well-tended lawn behind the bungalow. About twenty-five people were sitting on the grass on rugs, meditating and doing yoga. They were facing a boundary wall on which there is a large outline map of India as it was before Partition in 1947 (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh). In the centre of what is now India, there is the circular symbol of the Mother.”
(end of extract).
After spending a pleasant hour in Aurobindo’s former residence, we took refreshments including south Indian filter coffee and dahi vada in the nearby three storey Canara Coffee House (founded 1950). Then we continued our exploration of the Sursagar Lake and looked for picturesque old buildings in the city. Many of the older structures, mostly residential usage, are rich in finely carved wooden decorative features.
By the time we had seen sufficient, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees Celsius – a contrast to the near zero conditions we had encountered earlier on our trip in places like Darjeeling and Mount Abu.
TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU is available from Amazon, lulu.com, and Bookdepository.com
GUJARAT UNWRAPPED , an Indian edition of the above is available from pothi.com (only in India)
GUJARAT IS THE BIRTHPLACE of several great politicians of India: Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, and Narendra Modi, to name but a few. Kutch, which until soon after 1947 was an independent princely state, is now part of the State of Gujarat. It was the birthplace of an important, but now largely forgotten, ‘father’ of Indian Independence, Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930).
The house in which Shyamji was born is the heart of the jumble of narrow streets in the old centre of Kutch Mandvi. Unlike the large house in Porbandar where Gandhi was born Shyamji’s birthplace is a very modest dwelling. Shyamji was the son of a poor man, who spent his working life struggling to make a living in Bombay.
We were shown around Shyamji’s birth house by Hriji Karani, who has not only founded a fine school in Mandvi but also instigated the creation of a monument to Shyamji at Kranthi Teerth.
The birthplace is now a museum, which is looked after by an elderly lady. In addition to caring fir the museum she helps her grandson and some of his friends with their schoolwork. Her grandson, aged only three, was able to speak a few words pf English as well as draw the Roman numerals on his slate.
The birthplace is devoid of household effects. Their pace is taken with exhibits, mainly photographs and paintings, relating to Shyamji’s fascinating life. Amongst the photos, there is one of the Middlesex Land Registry document relating to Shyamji’s purchase of a property in London’s Highgate, the building that was known as ‘India House’ between 1905 and 1910. This was the house where Shyamji and his ‘disciples’ including VD Savarkar plotted the downfall of the British in India. There was also a photograph of the block of flats in Geneva on which Shyamji spent the last few years of his life.
Shyamji and his wife died in Geneva. In his will, he had stipulated that his ashes were to remain in Switzerland and not to return to India until the land of his birth, India, became independent of the British.
Although India became independent, free of British domination, in 1947, it was not until 2003 that the ashes of Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma were brought to India. They were collected from Geneva by Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and brought to India. I knew that from 2010, the black marble casks containing the ashes were put on display in a specially built pavilion at Kranthi Teerth, but I had no idea where they were kept before that.
Mr Karani showed us the small room in the birth house where the ashes were kept from 2003 until 2010. This little chamber, like the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple, now contains several photographs and a reproduction of an early flag designed for India by Shyamji’s feisty revolutionary colleague Madame Bhikaiji Cama and VD Savarkar during the brief existence of India House in north London.
A large oil painting depicts Shyamji with Henry Hyndman (1842- 1921), the British socialist whose anti-colonialist ideas strongly influenced Shyamji and his followers. Hyndman delivered a speech at the opening of India House in 1905. In the background of the painting there is a portrait of BG Tilak (1865-1929), one of the most revolutionary of the earliest members of the Indian National Congress and can well described as ‘the father of Indian independence’. Like many other traditional houses I have visited in Kutch and Gujarat, the wooden staircase leading to the upper storey is incredibly steep, almost a ladder. The upper storey of Shyamji’s birthplace was a single room with more photographs and a tiny balcony that provides a view of backs of the houses on the street below.
Shyamji left Mandvi to study in Bhuj and then Bombay before setting off for England where he became a barrister in London and a world expert in Sanskrit based at Oxford. It is unlikely that he visited Mandvi much after beginning his impressive career. I have described the remarkable life of this son of Mandvi and esrly advocate of Indian independence in my book, “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”
Although I knew that Shyamji was born in Mandvi in a far from well off family, and I had already visited the town once before, seeing his actual birthplace, viewing its surroundings, and entering his childhood home helped me appreciate the ‘rags to riches’ aspect of his life.
IDEAS BOMBS AND BULLETS by Adam Yamey describes the life of Shyamji Krishnavarma and the centre for Indian freedom fighters that he created in North London. It is available from: Lulu.com Amazon Bookdepository.com Pothi.com (best place to purchase it if in India) Kindle
In my youth, there were no free newspapers in London. There were, and still are, daily newspapers that were available to buy every morning. In the evening, there was a choice of the Evening Standard and the Evening News. Both were available to buy for a few pennies.
The Evening News disappeared some years ago. The Evening Standard remained on sale. Then, a few years ago (in 2009), the Standard became available free of charge. In my opinion, its quality decreased a bit after it became free. Shortly before the Standard became free of charge, a morning paper, the Metro, came into existence in 1999. It was free of charge.
The Metro is a perfect read for a bus or train journey lasting 15 to 25 minutes. It covers much news and contains plenty of other interesting features. As free newspapers go, I would far rather have a copy of the Metro than the Standard.
Time Out is a weekly which provides fairly thorough information about what is happening on the London leisure scene and includes often useful reviews of films, restaurants, bars, theatres, etc. Founded in 1968, it provided a far more intelligent and edgy account of the London scene than its rivals. Until 2012, Time Out was sold to readers for a fee, which was well worth paying. Since September 2012, it has been handed out free of charge each week. For sveral years, I thought that the free version was not as interesting as the former paid version, but of late the quality of Time Out‘s contents has been improving.
These various free periodicals are great but in these days of worrying about the planet, should we not be minimising the amount of paper being used just as we are trying with plastics? Although I am not so keen about using on-line versions of newspapers, they do not involve sacrificing trees or rubbish creation.
Don’t worry! This is not really a crisis. I used the word ‘crisis’ in the title to catch your attention! And, now that I have caught your attention, you might as well read on for a fewminutes because what I am about to tell you has a good chance of being interesting for you.
Since marrying a lady born in India, I have had many opportunities to visit India House on the western arm of the Aldwych in central London. Built 1928-30 and designed by Herbert Baker (1862-1946) with AT Scott, this stone building is profusely decorated with Ashoka lions and many circular, coloured emblems, which were those of the pre-Independence (and pre-Partition) colonial provinces (e.g. ‘Baluchistan’, ‘United Provinces’, ‘Burma’, ‘Madras’ and ‘North West Frontier’).
Looking upwards, there are two elaborate crests each topped with heraldic lions and including the mottos: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” and “Dieu et mon droit”. These are ‘souvenirs’ of the era when India was a British colony. Just as in post-Independence India there are still some statues of Queen Victoria standing– there is a fine example in Bangalore, these reminders of British imperialism remain attached to the building.
One side of India House faces India Place, which contains a bust of the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who became a barrister at the nearby Inner Temple. Close to a side entrance of India House, there is a monument to an off-duty policeman Jim Morrison, who was stabbed in December 1991 whilst chasing a handbag thief, who has never been caught. A ‘Friendship Tree’ was planted nearby in 1994 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.
The India House, which now stands in the Aldwych, was NOT the first ‘India House’ in London. It had a predecessor in the north London suburb of Highgate. The earlier India House stood at 65 Cromwell Avenue was a Victorian house that still exists. The Victorian house was named India House between 1905 and 1910 when it was owned by Shyamji Krishnavarma who made it a hostel for Indian students and other Indians staying in London. The north London India House had a brief existence because it was under constant police surveillance on account of the anti-imperialist activities that went on within its walls (including producing anti-British propaganda, anti-British meetings, bomb-making, and arms smuggling).
Many Indian patriots, who wanted to force Britain to give its then colony India freedom, lived and congregated in Highgate’s India House. Their activities and often daring deeds are described in my new book about a lesser-known period in the history of India’s independence struggle: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.
“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”
by Adam Yamey is available from on-line stores including:
Amazon, Bookfinder.com, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and Lulu.com
There are some advantages to growing older. When our daughter turned 18 and was no longer eligible for reduced price tickets, we reached an age above which our cinema tickets were subject to discount. Our daughter was not amused.
If you are a London resident, you are eligible to receive a Freedom Pass after you pass a certain age over 60 years. This pass allows the holder to travel free of charge on London’s buses, trams, Underground trains, and national railway lines within certain limits. A London Freedom Pass holder can also use most local bus services anywhere within England (but not in Scotland). So, if you have the time and patience, it is possible to travel long distances in England free of charge by using a Freedom pass on local bus services.
‘K’, an old friend of mine, enjoyed exploring England with her Freedom Pass. On one of her earliest explorations, she set off from London to somewhere deep in the heart of Kent. She reached her destination eventually, having used a series of local buses without having to pay. The return journey was less successful.
K began her homeward trip and arrived at Tunbridge Wells at about five pm. When she made enquiries about local buses heading towards London, she received a diappointing answer. The last bus of the day that would taken her in her desired direction had already departed. The next would run on the following day. So, K was forced to return to London by train. Instead of paying nothing, she had to spend money on a costly one-way railway ticket. Her anticipated day of free travel ended up quite expensive. Since then, she has been more careful with her trip planning and not had a repeat of her unexpected travel expenses.
We make great use of the Freedom Pass when we are out of London. One of the best ‘bargains’ we have so far encountered was at Exeter in Devon. We parked our hired car at an Exeter ‘Park and Ride’ and boarded the bus which was to take us into the city. We were fully expecting to have to pay for a day’s parking and also the bus ride. When we showed our passes to the bus driver, he told us that there was nothing to pay.
Number 140 Sinclair Road in west London, not far from Shepherds Bush Green, looks like an ordinary Victorian terraced house, which it is. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century it was home to a few Indian freedom fighters. When the seventeen year old David Garnett, the writer and a future member of the Bloomsbury Group, visited the house in 1909, he met Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) the Bengali nationalist and a father of the Swadeshi movement, which promoted Indian economic independence. He shared the house with his son Niranjan Pal (1889-1959), a young Indian freedom fighter who was to become a founder of the Bombay Talkies film company. Sukhsagar Dutt (1890-1967), a young Indian revolutionary and brother of Ullaskar Dutt who was involved in the use of bombs in Bengal and Bihar and tried at Alipore (Calcutta), also lived at number 140.
In mid to late 1909, VD (‘Veer’) Savarkar (1883-1966) also lived at 140 Sinclair Road as a lodger of Bipin Chandra Pal. Savarkar, who was studying law at the time, was deeply involved in activities aimed at attempting to cause the British to leave India in order that the country became a sovereign nation. Savarkar is now best known for his contributions to the encouragement of Hindu nationalism. His book “Essentials of Hindutva”, published in 1923, is considered a seminal work by promoters of Hindu nationalism.
Savarkar moved from India House in Highgate, a centre of revolutionary Indian independence activists, to 140 Sinclair Road sometime in 1909 before the assassination in London’s Kensington of a senior Indian administrative figure, Sir WH Curzon Wyllie, in July 1909. The victim was shot at close range by Madan Lal Dhingra, a close associate of Savarkar. Savarkar was suspected of having some involvement in the plotting of Curzon Wyllie’s demise. Savarkar’s host in Sinclair Road, Bipin Chandra Pal, was firmly against what Dhingra had done, but accommodated Savarkar, who was pleased that the assassination had been successful until, as I wrote in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”:
“… an angry crowd gathered outside, the house, Pal had to tell them that apart from being a paying guest, Veer had no other association with him. Another resident at this address, Pal’s son Niranjan, was a close friend of Veer’s and a regular visitor to India House. Niranjan’s association with India House worried Bipin greatly…”
Soon after this, Savarkar shifted his home in London to a flat above an Indian restaurant in a now non-existent alleyway in Holborn.
From what I have described, the seemingly ordinary terrace house at 140 Sinclair Road has played a small role in the history of India’s struggle for freedom from the British, which was eventually gained in August 1947.
For much more information about Indian patriots in Edwardian London, I invite you to read my recently published book, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, which focusses on the Indian patriots who congregated at India House in Highgate between 1905 and 1910.