BOMBAY IS RICH in fine examples of buildings in the art deco style, which flourished roughly between the end of WW1 and the end of the 1930s. There is a good collection of buildings in this style along Marine Drive in Bombay, the Oval Maidan, and elsewhere in the city. London has some fine examples of structures that exhibit features of this kind of decorative style, but, apart from along a stretch of the A4 road, there are few concentrations of art deco buildings in London, such as can be found in Bombay. In London, the art deco buildings are mostly scattered around the city.
At the end of December 2021, we were walking with friends along the bank of the Thames between the London Apprentice pub at Isleworth and Richmond Bridge when I spotted a row of houses built in the art deco style. I had never seen them before. They line the south side of Park House Gardens in Twickenham. The detached house nearest the river, number 66, is larger and more attractive than the others in the street. The rest of the art deco residences on the street are rather mundane pairs of semi-detached homes, constructed to a pattern that I have seen elsewhere in London’s suburbs. Most of them have curved art deco period Crittall windows, which have panes of glass framed in metal rather than wood.
Park House Gardens was laid out in the early 1930s when:
“…gravel pits were filled in with, according to the local people, rubble and other material from the foundations of the Old Hotel Cecil in the Strand. The first houses were then built in Park House Gardens at prices of up to £1600 for semi-detached with garages, about the price of a garage today.” (www.twickenhampark.co.uk/a-brief-history.html)
The Cecil Hotel was in the Strand. Of its many guests, one was Mahatma Gandhi.
WHEN I USED TO visit Hampstead with my parents in the early 1960s, we always walked past a place that intrigued me when I was a youngster. It was the still standing Hampstead Quaker Meeting House, which has a lovely front garden. The latter is overlooked by its neighbour, the late 18th centuryMansfield Cottage, which in the 1960s housed a tearoom or restaurant. The Meeting House with art nouveau (Arts and Crafts) features was built in about 1907 to the designs of Fred Rowntree (1860-1927). According to James D Hunt in his detailed book “Gandhi in London”, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), the future Mahatma, spoke in this meeting house on the 13th of October 1909:
“… perhaps travelling there by the recently opened underground line … The Society of Friends (Quakers) were not at this time much interested in Indian affairs … The 1909 meeting was sponsored by the Hampstead Peace and Arbitration Society”
The speech, as recorded by Robert Payne in his “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi”, was entitled “East and West” and outlined the evils of the British occupation of India and the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. I knew nothing of this or about the house when we used to stroll down Heath Street.
RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.
I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.
The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.
During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.
Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.
Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.
In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley. What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.
I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.
THE AREA AROUND FITZROY Square was richly supplied with restaurants serving good Indian food during the 1970s, when I was studying physiology and then dentistry at nearby University College London. My Indian friends, all students, introduced me to the delights of the Diwan-i-am, the Diwan-i-khas, and the Agra restaurants around Fitzrovia, all of which served superb food that was far better than that which could be found in most other Indian restaurants both in and out of London. The two Diwans have long gone, but I believe the Agra has been revived. Another place to which my Indian friends took me to enjoy Indian cuisine was the self-service canteen of the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.
Students from India, formerly British India, have been coming to study in London since the 19th century. Whereas now people of Indian subcontinental origin are commonly seen in the streets of London, in earlier years there were not so many of them about and their presence aroused both curiosity about them and prejudice against them. For the Indian students of yesteryear, London, its inhabitants and their habits, must have presented them with puzzling experiences. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in London in October 1888. After a few weeks, he took a room at 20 Barons Court Road. His landlady was an English widow, who had lived in India. Gandhi gave his reasons for choosing to stay in a family:
“It is generally thought desirable to live in families in order to learn the English manners and customs. This may be good for a few months, but to pass three years in a family is not only unnecessary but often tiresome…” (Quoted from “Gandhi in London” by James D Hunt).
However, lodging in an English family had its pitfalls. It was difficult to lead a regular student’s life; Indian food was not served; and most landladies knew nothing of Indians and their ways of life. Gandhi, like many other students from the Indian subcontinent moved into single rooms. In 19th century London, student hostels were a rarity, and those catering to Indian students were non-existent. At Oxford and Cambridge, Indians, like the rest of the students, were housed in college accommodation.
India House, one of the first (if not the first) hostels in London dedicated to accommodating Indian students was opened at 65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate in 1905, as part of a protest against the unpopular Partition of Bengal and because its founder recognised the lack of places where Indian students in London could find a ‘home away from home’. It was financed by a wealthy barrister and Sanskrit scholar from Kutch (now a part of Gujarat), Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930). As I have described in my book “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, India House soon became a nucleus for anti-British agitation by Indians aiming to free India from British rule. Unlike Gandhi, many of the freedom fighters who met and/or lived in India House, few of them were averse to employing violent methods to oust the British. Soon, it attracted the attention of the British security organizations. Indian students, in general, were regarded with some suspicion by these organizations because there was a fear amongst the British authorities that many of them might have been sympathetic to efforts to liberate India from British rule. There were other official fears such as Indians becoming involved in miscegenation. Things came to a ghastly head in 1909 when Madan Lal Dhingra, who was closely associated with India House, murdered a high-ranking colonial official, who had worked in India. India House was closed soon after this assassination was carried out.
Conspiracies, especially those being hatched in India House, led to the setting up of the Lee-Warner Committee in 1907 “…to Enquire into the Indian Students Problem in the United Kingdom”. One of its recommendations was to set up a hostel for Indian students, who had just arrived in London. Clearly, this was to be under the supervision and ideological control of the India Office and a ‘rival’ to India House in Highgate. It and several other government-approved organizations in London (e.g., the National Indian Association and The Northbrook Club, both established before India House) were designed to provide useful assistance to Indian students, but also to ‘keep an eye’ on them. At this point, I should point out that despite the fears of British officialdom, only a small percentage of students from India were involved in, or even remotely interested in, what was then regarded as ‘sedition’; most of them wanted to better their economic status.
On the 20th of October 1919, Kanakarayan Tiruselvam (‘KT’) Paul (1876-1931), first Indian National General Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs in India and 11 others met in London to explore the idea of establishing a hostel in London for Indian students studying in the city (“YMCA Indian Students Hostel: Triumph of Faith: 1920-2010” by John Varughese). KT Paul, born in Salem (now in Tamil Nadu), was an Indian Christian leader. In 1920, he published an article critical of the horrendous behaviour of the British in the Punjab (e.g., the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919). However, despite this, he like many other Indians, believed that India’s best hope for the future was by maintaining links with western Christianity and contact with the British (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._T._Paul). The meeting decided to set up a hostel for 100 students, 75% of whom should be Indian, and for up to 500 non-resident, Indian members. Thus, the Indian YMCA in London came to be born.
The first home of London’s Indian YMCA (‘IYMCA’) was not in Fitzroy Street but in Shakespeare Hut, a now non-existent half-timbered building in Keppel Street near to the University of London Senate House. It was leased to the IYMCA by the Shakespeare Society. During WW1, the so-called hut was used for entertaining troops from New Zealand. In 1924, it was demolished to make way for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (www.ymca.co.uk/about/feature/vintage-photographs-ymca-shakespeare-hut).
In 1923, the IYMCA moved out of the Hut and acquired the freehold of numbers 106-112 Gower Street, which was then fitted out to become a hostel with 40 rooms, a restaurant, a library, and recreation facilities. As had been the case in the short-lived India House in Highgate, the hostel in Gower Street hosted many meetings during which affairs relating to India and its future were held. Unlike those held in Highgate, the meetings were far less militantly revolutionary in Gower Street. Many students came to hear and discuss with a wide variety of prominent Indian leaders. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi addressed members of the IYMCA in Gower Street. Other still well-known leaders of the Indian independence movement who made appearances at Gower Street included BR Ambedkar, Sarojini Naidu, MA Jinnah, Subhas Chandra Bose, J Nehru, and Pandit Malaviya, to name but a few.
On the 23rd of September 1940, three of the four houses that made up the IYMCA were destroyed by bombing. One student was killed, and five others injured. The hostel moved to temporary premises leased from the University of London at 25 and 26 Woburn Square. The booklet containing the hostel’s history records that in 1946 while inter-communal tensions were frighteningly high in pre-Partition India, the marriage of a Hindu to a Muslim woman was celebrated at the hostel. After Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Henry SL Polak (1882-1959), donated 300 books to the hostel, the nucleus of what was to become its MK Gandhi Library. Polak had been a friend and associate of Gandhi when the Mahatma was in South Africa.
When University College London offered to exchange land, which they owned near Fitzroy Square, for the site of the bombed hostel on Gower Street, the offer was accepted and planning for a new hostel on its present site began. With finances coming from many sources in India and elsewhere, construction began, with Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon laying the foundation stone in 1950. The building designed by Ralph Tubbs (1912-1996) was opened on the 24th of March 1953. Tubbs tried to harmonise his building with the fine architecture in nearby Fitzroy Square. I think he did a good job. Although of a completely different architectural style, it does not clash with the fine buildings designed by Robert Adam, which line two sides of the square.
Since the inauguration of the hostel in Fitzroy Street, it has been visited by many celebrities including Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II, JRD Tata, Harold Macmillan, Indira Gandhi, the Indian National Cricket Team (1971), Harold Wilson, and Lord Mountbatten. Apart from visits by celebrities, the hostel and its extension (opened 2004) has been home to many students from India and elsewhere. Despite the Christian basis of the YMCA, the hostel caters for people of all religions. In addition to providing accommodation, both long-term and for short stays, the Indian YMCA canteen is open to all, when there are no restrictions imposed by the Government during the covid19 pandemic. It provides something closer to home-cooked food rather than fancy restaurant fare.
Had the Indian YMCA, or even the short-lived, discredited India House in Highgate, been in existence when Gandhi, a vegetarian, arrived in London in 1888, he would have had no difficulties with finding food to his liking from the start of his sojourn there. I have heard from people who have stayed in the hostel in Fitzroy Street that it is reasonably priced, conveniently located, comfortable but not luxurious. What more could one want?
DURING THE FIRST ‘LOCKDOWN’, we spent a lot of time walking within two miles of our home. Despite having lived in Kensington for about 30 years, we wandered along many streets, which we had never visited until after March 2020. One of these many streets, which we ‘discovered’, is Aldridge Road Villas, a few yards south of Westbourne Park Underground station. On our first walk along this road, we met a man, who was repairing or restoring an old model of a Volkswagen parked near his home. Amongst his collection of old restored cars was an old Chevrolet truck, which we admired. We chatted with him and hoping to meet him again, we revisited Aldridge Road Villas several more times, sometimes meeting whilst he was working on one of his vehicles. Because we tended to walk along this road hoping to meet him, we managed to miss something else of great interest to us. It was only recently, that I spotted what we had been walking past without noticing it.
Aldridge Road Villas is probably named after the Aldridge family, who had owned land beside the Harrow Road at Westbourne Park since 1743 or before. The barrister, member of Lincoln’s Inn, John Clater Aldridge (c1737-1795), who became MP for Queensborough between 1780 and 1790 and then for Shoreham between 1790 and 1795, married Henrietta Tomlinson, widow of William Busby and a wealthy landowner, in 1765 (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/aldridge-john-clater-1737-95). Through this marriage, John came into possession of more land around Westbourne as well as some near Bayswater. It is on this land that Aldridge Villas Road was built (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=10787). The oldest houses on the street date from the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. A map surveyed in 1865 shows that the road was already lined with houses by that date.
One former resident of Aldridge Villas Road, at number 1, was the surgeon George Borlase Childs (1816-1888), who was born in Liskeard, Cornwall. A biography (https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/) reveals that he was:
“…connected with the Metropolitan Free Hospital for many years, but is perhaps best remembered as Surgeon-in-Chief to the City of London Police, and to the Great Northern Railway. He took, indeed, a large share in organizing the medical departments of these institutions, displaying on a wider field the characteristic forethought and ingenuity of his work as an operator. The sanitary and physical well-being of the City policeman was one of his prime interests. He devoted much thought and care to the process of selection of members of the force, to their housing and their dress. The last-mentioned is, in fact, his creation, for he introduced the helmet as we now know it, the gaiters, and so forth. He also established the City Police Hospital…”
Celebrated as he should be, it is not Childs who was the best-known resident of the short road near Westbourne Park station. Although he did not live for a long time in the street, the most famous inhabitant of Aldridge Road Villas must be Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950). It was the plaque affixed to a five-storey terrace house, number 23, which had avoided our attention the first few times that we walked along the road.
Like many other Indians living under British rule in India, who became involved in political activity, including Mahatma Gandhi, Shyamji Krishnavarma, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Patel decided to sail to England to study. Vallabhbhai set sail from Bombay in July 1910. On arrival in London, he stayed briefly at the then luxurious Hotel Cecil in the Strand. After that, he stayed in a series of ‘digs’ in different parts of London while he completed his legal training. One of these was for several months at 23 Aldridge Road Villas, the address that appears in his records following his admission to The Middle Temple to become a barrister on the 14th of October 1910 (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/), the same year as that in which Jawaharlal Nehru joined Inner Temple. Patel was called to the Bar on the 27th of January 1913 (www.telegraphindia.com/india/alma-mater-honours-iron-man/cid/220801). Incidentally, many years later my wife was also called to the Bar at Middle Temple, as had also been the case, many years earlier, for my wife’s great grandfather and his father-in-law.
This shortage of money might well have been the reason that he walked between his digs and the library every day. His biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in “Patel. A life”:
“His twice daily walk between Aldridge Villas Road, Bayswater and the Middle Temple – 4 ¾ miles each way – took him past parks and edifices of great charm or magnificence, including Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace, St James Park, Cleopatra’s Needle and Waterloo Bridge. When he moved digs his walks were as long or longer but not less scenic.”
Gandhi lists Patel’s other London digs as 62 Oxford Terrace, 2 South Hill Park Gardens, 57 Adelaide Road, and 5 Eton Road. With the exception of Oxford Terrace, the other did were near Belsize Park and Swiss Cottage.
Back in India, Patel became involved in the struggle for Indian Independence, joining Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party. Like many other freedom fighters Patel served several terms in prison. After WW2, he was significantly associated with negotiations with the British regarding transfer of power to the Indians. In 1947, when India became independent, the country consisted of areas that were directly under British rule and well over 800 Princely States that were allowed some independence providing that their rulers did not do anything to challenge the overriding authority of the British Empire. Sardar Patel oversaw and encouraged the rulers of these Princely States to give up their supposed sovereignty and to become part of a new unified India. This was no easy task because some of the larger states, notably Junagarh, Kashmir, and Hyderabad, wished to become part of the recently created Pakistan instead of India. Some considerable persuasion was required to get these places to merge with India. Patel’s achievement at unifying India must surely rival that of Otto Von Bismarck, who unified the myriad German states to become one country by 1871.
The plaque in Aldridge Road Villas is a modest and almost discreet memorial to the great Patel. If you wish to see a more spectacular monument to this remarkable man, you will need to travel to Gujarat in western India, where an enormous statue of him, almost 600 feet high, was completed in 2018. Called ‘The Statue of Unity’, its bronze plates and cladding were cast in the Peoples Republic of China.
Usually, we walk south along Aldridge Road Villas. Until we spotted the plaque commemorating Patel’s residence in the road, we had not realised that we were likely to have been following in the footsteps of one of India’s greatest politicians, which he made when he set out for Middle Temple every morning. And, the idea that one is often walking where famous figures of the past have trod is yet another thing that makes London so wonderful for both residents and visitors alike.
NOBODY IS PERFECT, and that includes all of those ‘great’ men and women whose lives are remembered with statues. Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without questioning (or even after questioning) nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.
Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without or with questioning nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.
Consider Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). He was not a person that I would have enjoyed meeting, even for a brief drink in a pub. From what I know of him, he was power hungry and greedy and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
Undoubtedly, money derived from his endeavours has been spent on good works including the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which began funding bright young scholars from 1902 onwards. Many academic and other fine accomplishments have been achieved by the recipients of these awards. However, some of them are now criticising the way that Rhodes exploited/plundered Africa to produce his wealth. Given that these scholarships, funded by what some might describe as ‘dirty money’, are awarded to people with above-average intellectual abilities who could easily have examined Rhodes’ history, I find it strange that the recipients did not question the morality of the origins of what was being offered to them before receiving and spending it. Some recipients justify accepting the scholarships by saying it is a way that Rhodes’ debt to Africa can be partially repaid. Maybe, but would you feel comfortable if, say, the infamous Kray Twins or Al Capone offered to use some of their ill-gotten gains to fund your education? Would you justify accepting their money by saying that although they killed people and committed crimes like theft, it was good that they were using someone else’s wealth to repay their debt to society? Few people would justify erecting statues to either the Kray Twins or Al Capone.
Unlike Capone and the Krays, Rhodes was not breaking any British law when he was plundering Africa to glorify the British Empire and line his own pockets. From the viewpoint of the great majority of ‘white’ British people, his contemporaries, Rhodes was doing a good job during his lifetime for the Empire and his native land, Great Britain. Statues were erected in his memory by those who had benefitted from his life’s work. Those people were mostly, if not all, ‘white’ people. The monuments were put up during an era when racial prejudice went unquestioned and people ‘of colour’ lacked any public influence.
Times have changed. The racial situation, the rights of ‘people of colour’, is also changing, albeit too slowly. Recent and not so recent events across the Atlantic in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” have justifiably heightened popular consciousness and questioning of the worthiness of those, like Rhodes, whose statues adorn our lands.
So as Vladimir Ilych Lenin, discredited by some, and many of whose statues have been toppled, asked in 1902: “What is to be done?” What is to be done with the statues of celebrated people with flaws in their personalities? One could pull them down as has been the case with many statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a slave owner in Bristol. Apart from temporarily assuaging the temper of an assembly of aggrieved folk, the toppling or destruction of a statue might have few or no lasting beneficial effects.
It would be far better to remove the statues from positions of great public prominence to more discreet locations (maybe to museums) and to label their plinths with inscriptions that summarise the subjects’ both good and bad actions. Also, it would be a good idea to educate children and other students to understand that just as there are two competing teams in a football match, there are two sides to a person’s personality: a good one and a bad one. It is the balance of these that needs to be judged. In the case of Rhodes, the bad wins, but in the case of, say Edward Jenner (of smallpox vaccination fame), whose statue can be found in Hyde Park, his good features easily predominate.
Finally, destruction of statues and monuments worries me because they are part of remembering. If we know that a monument commemorates something that should not be repeated, such as slavery, let it remain, suitably labelled, so that we do not run the risk of unpleasant aspects of history repeating themselves. For as the philosopher George Santana (1863-1952) wrote in 1906: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
IN THE CURRENT CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK, infection is spread from person to person in close contact with one another. Isolation and quarantine are likely to be effective in eventually reducing the rate of infection.
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, another deadly pandemic, the bubonic plague, spread around the world. It was then believed that separating people from each other was likely to help arrest the plague. It was not because bubonic plague is rarely contagious, but usually transmitted by a vector.
While researching the life of my great grandfather, Franz Ginsberg, sometime Mayor of King Williams Town and later a South African Senator, I needed to explore the history of bubonic plague in South Africa. While doing so, I discovered that the young Indian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, also entered the story. The following is extracted from my article that was published in a South African medical journal back in 2008:
When the Boer forces, provoked by the British, started invading the Cape Colony in 1899, another invasion, covert in nature, was also beginning to threaten the area. The hidden enemy, a bacterium, lives in the blood of fleas and the rats (and other rodents) whose blood they ingest. These fleas are also partial to feeding off the blood of humans. When an infected flea feeds off the blood of a susceptible human, that person runs the risk of developing an often fatal illness known as ‘bubonic plague’. When my great-grandfather Councillor Franz Ginsberg (1862-1933) was serving on the Borough Council of King William’s Town in 1899, little was known about the transmission of the plague, even in the scientific world, except that its causativeagent was the bacterium Yersinia pestis (Y.pestis). This ‘bug’ is named after one of its discoverers Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943).
Today, much is known about the mechanism of transmission of Y. pestis. Bubonic plague is an example of a zoonosis: a disease that normally exists in other animals, but also infects humans. The danger to humans is that the bacterium is carried in the blood of certain kinds of rat, and that these rats often live in close proximity to humans. The rats serve as a mobile reservoir for this pest, but they are susceptible to its ill-effects. When a flea bites an infected rat, it ingests the blood of the rat and some of the bacteria living in it and the bacteria multiply within the flea’s digestive tract, causing considerable harm to the flea itself. If this same flea should bite a human, the human victim will receive some of the bacteria from the flea because the flea, while feeding, regurgitates some of its Yersinia-infected stomach contents into its human victim, who may then begin to exhibit the symptoms of bubonic plague. The plague can produce numbers of victims in epidemic or pandemic proportions. The Black Death, also known as ‘The Second Pandemic’, killed between one third and one half of the population of Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. It is thought by some to have been a pandemic of (bacterial) bubonic plague but others feel that it was a viral infection. The ‘Third Pandemic’ began in China’s Yunnan Province in 1855, and is known to have been caused by Y.pestis. Its dissemination around the world in the decades that followed was facilitated by global shipping. Rats and their fleas were frequent stowaways on ships, and as infected rats moved from port to port so did the bubonic plague.
AN UNWELCOME IMPORT
In September 1896, the bubonic plague reached India (most probably from Hong Kong) and had claimed its first of many victims in the port of Bombay. News of the plague spread faster that the plague itself. In 1896, the Natal Medical Council discussed the bubonic plague – by then well-established in India – and its relevance to Natal. The Council decided that the whole of India should be regarded as an infected area, and that all ships entering the ports on the coast of Natal should be quarantined.
In January 1897, an anti-Indian demonstration was held in Durban to protest against the landing of ‘asiatics’ on board two Indian-owned ships which arrived there in mid-December 1896. The ships had been held in quarantine for 25 days. A group of Indians in Durban, including Mohanlal K Gandhi (later to be known as ‘Mahatma Gandhi’) who had just arrived in Durban on one of these two ships, the ‘Courland’, sent a long ‘memorial’ protesting against this to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Its authors shrewdly noted:
‘…that the quarantine was more a political move against the Indians than a safeguard against the introduction of the bubonic plague into the Colony’,
and they provided evidence that the measures taken to effect quarantine were done ineffectively and too late to have been of any practical use. Despite measures such as these, bubonic plague reached South Africa sometime between 1899 and 1901.
The Natal medical community had some grounds for its fears that the plague might arrive from India. At a meeting of the Borough Council of King William’s Town in February 1899,13 it was announced that the bubonic plague had arrived in Port Louis on the island of Mauritius (a place that ships sailing from India to South Africa may have visited occasionally), and the Council had received a letter from the Town Office of Port Elizabeth, asking for the support of King William’s Town in their request for the government to enforce quarantine regulations (the Transvaal and Orange Free State prohibited entry to Indians in early 1899).
My great-grandfather, Franz Ginsberg, moved that the Council of his town should cooperate with that of Port Elizabeth. Although fear of importing the dreaded plague was the cause of an anti-Indian demonstration in this port as early as about 1897, the disease only began to occur in the town in April 1901 –soon after its arrival in grand style in Cape Town in March 1900 (having possibly arrived on board a ship from plague infested Rosario in Argentina). As early as November 1900, a doctor in King William’s Town reported eight cases of bubonic plague amongst Africans, three of these leading to death. By early 1901, the inhabitants of King William’s Town had good reason to worry about the plague.
THE FOCAL POINT OF GOLDERS GREEN (in north west London) is where Finchley Road meets Golders Green Road and North End Road. Here, there stands a monument to those inhabitants of Golders Green who lost their lives in the two World Wars.
The monument’s basic design is typical of many British war memorials erected all over the British Empire during the 1920s. Standing on a square base, this type of memorial resembles a tall obelisk, truncated by not rising to a point. The monument, which doubles up as a clock tower, in Golders Green, was erected in 1923. It includes lists of the names of those who were killed during each of the two World Wars.
A similarly designed memorial (but without clocks) was erected in Bangalore in 1928. It stands on a triangular traffic island at the intersection of Residency and Brigade Roads. It commemorates members of various battalions and regiments of the Madras Pioneers, who fell in the following campaigns: East Africa 1914-18; Mesopotamia 1916-18; The Great War; and The North West Frontier 1915.
The monument in Bangalore bears no names, but only numbers. For example, in Mesopotamia the following fell: 1 British officer, 3 Indian Officers, and 69 “NCOs and Pioneers”. For each campaign the statistics are given in both English and Tamil scripts.
Most of those men of Golders Green, whose names appear on the memorial there, were most likely volunteers, who believed that the British Empire had to be defended. I wonder if the same could be said for the Indian soldiers who are commemorated on the monument close to one of the busy shopping streets in central Bangalore.
Many Indians sacrificed their lives for the British Empire during the two World Wars and other military campaigns designed to maintain British dominance in the world. Unlike the men of Golders Green, many of the Indian victims were fighting for a cause in which they had no interest and from which they could expect little or no benefit, especially during First World War.
A great tragedy, which accounts for much loss of Indian life during WW1, was the belief amongst many Indian leaders (including MK Gandhi during the last months of the War) that by helping Britain to fight they would be rewarded with reforms that would bring India closer to self government. Indians had been as good as promised increased freedoms in exchange for fighting in the First World War. Although, many Indian lives were lost in WW1, these sacrifices were not considered by the British to merit any loosening of their grip on India, the jewel in the crown. Indeed, the opposite occurred. One needs only remember the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 to see what I mean.
I found it sad that whereas in Golders Green, the dead are remembered by their names, in Bangalore the monument only records statistics. In 1928, the individual Pioneers were, apparently, not important enough to be remembered as individuals, members of families like those in Golders Green.
VINAYAK DAMODAR SAVARKAR (1883-1966) has been dead for over half a century. Yet, his ideas continue to influence political thinking in India today. A controversial freedom fighter, writer, and politician, he is either admired uncritically by his biographers or damned by them. Vikram Sampath’s recently published book “Savarkar:Echoes from a Forgotten Past 1883-1924″ provides a reasonably balanced story that is neither over critical (as is, for example, AG Noorani) or hagiographic (as are D Keer and J Joglekar).
The period covered in the book by Sampath, 1883 to 1924, is the most important part of his life as far as the present is concerned.
From an early age, Savarkar, who was much influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini, was involved with secret societies and conspiracies, all connected with his desire to rid India of its British imperialist rulers.
In 1906, Savarkar travelled to London to study to become a barrister. He was funded by a scholarship granted by Shyamji Krishnavarma and his wealthy supporters. For most of his stay in London, he resided at India House in Highgate, founded by Krishnavarma (and described in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets).
Savarkar’s years in London (1906-10) were productive in several ways. He wrote a biography of Mazzini and a history of the First Indian War of Independence (1857-58). Both works reflected his aim of expelling the British from India. In addition to writing, he became deeply involved in: what the British authorities might have called ‘terrorism’; bomb making; smuggling ‘seditious’ literature and weaponry into India; assassinations; and so on. This is all described well and interestingly by Sampath.
The British police and their counterparts in India became desperate to put Savarkar behind bars. He left for France in late 1909 and his freedom fighting friends there, including Krishnavarma and Madam Cama, tried to persuade him not to return to England. However, he did and was arrested.
Savarkar was kept in custody in Brixton prison for months whilst a lengthy case for his extradition to face charges in India, was fought. In the end, he lost and began his long journey to India as a political prisoner.
At Marseilles, Savarkar escaped from the ship and was rearrested on French soil by British police, who had been accompanying him. This arrest on foreign, not British, soil gave rise to an international tribunal in the Hague. However, by the time when the legality of this irregular arrest was decided, Savarkar was in prison in Bombay, being tried without a jury. He was condemned to two terms of life imprisonment (50 years) in the Cellular Jail, a hellhole on the almost inhospitable Andaman Islands. Interestingly, it was the terrible years he spent there that were to lead to his development of important ideas about Hindu Nationalism.
Savarkar underwent unbelievably horrendous experiences in the Cellular Jail. Regarded as highly dangerous by the British, he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Despite often being so unwell that he was close to dying, Savarkar survived his prison ordeals. As the years passed, he was able to educate his fellow prisoners and to develop his ideas on the shape of a future India free of British domination. It was while in the Andamans that his views on who could be counted as a ‘true Indian’ began to form in earnest.
Many of Savarkar’s detractors brand him as a coward for having written many petitions for clemency to the British authorities. Sampath shows, as does another recent biographer (V Purandare) that Savarkar was far from being alone amongst the political prisoners in trying to cut short his prison sentence. He made promises to abstain from political activity if his sentence was shortened. In addition to wanting to save himself from future torments, Savarkar believed that a politician behind bars was far less use to his country than outside prison. Sampath shows that both he and the British officials believed that his promises of good behaviour were of questionable value.
Sampath’s description of Savarkar’s time in the Andamans is heavily dependent on Savarkar’s own detailed account of it, which was published a few years after his release. I have read parts of this fascinating story (available in English on savarkar.org). However, one should be a little cautious about its accuracy because I felt that although much of what Savarkar described was probably accurate, he wrote it not only as a piece of personal history but also with political intentions, as was the case with his earlier history of the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’. That said, any biographer of Savarkar needs to depend heavily on Savarkar’s own story of his imprisonment.
Eventually, Savarkar was moved from the Andamans to prisons on the Indian mainland, and then later was released but confined to living within one district without being allowed to engage in politics. It was in the period following his release from the Andamans and before 1924, when Sampath ends his biography, that Savarkar wrote and published (using a pseudonym) his highly influential book on Hindutva, the ‘highway code’ or ‘road map’ for Hindu nationalism and Hindu nationalists. The ideas contained within the book, which Sampath discusses with clarity, have had great importance in recent Indian politics.
Even though a lengthy volume, I have enjoyed reading Sampath’s detailed, informative, and exciting account of the first part of the life of Savarkar. It is a well written and engaging book, almost a ‘page turner’.
Most importantly, in this age of uncritical damning of people whose political views do not chime with one’s own, Sampath has written a balanced account of a man who until recently has either been described as being purely a hero or a total villain.
I Read Sampath’s book and discovered a man, Savarkar, who, with all fairness, cannot be easily characterised as either good or evil. Instead, Sampath reveals him as being intriguing and multi-faceted: a man who played a not insignificant role in India’s struggle for independence.
I recommend this book by Sampath to all who take an interest in the current Indian political scene and/or the fascinating story of the India’s difficult road to independence.
MADAM CAMA ROAD IN BOMBAY is so named to commemorate the Indian pro-independence Mme Bikhaiji Cama, a Parsi who was born in Navsari in 1861 and died in 1936 in Bombay. Some of her bold exploits are described in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.
It is appropriate that in the street named after her, there are statues of two men who played significant roles in India’s fight for independence: Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru.
A third statue in the street depicts another eminent Parsi born in Navsari: Jamsetji N Tata (1839-1904). Though not a freedom fighter, he did much to revolutionise industry in India. Starting with the cotton business, he soon became known as “the father of Indian Industry”.
In 1903, Tata opened the now famous Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. His successors, members of his family, established the variety of industries now known as the Tata Group. His family also fulfilled his ambition of creating educational institutions in his name with Tata money, for example The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
It is appropriate that the statue of Jamsetji Tata is close to that of other important players in India’s independence movement, Gandhi and Nehru, because Tata was a keen supporter of the Swadeshi movement. That is to say, he encouraged the production of products made in India to reduce or prevent the need to import these same products. In Tata’s case, he set up cotton mills to produce cotton fabrics in India, reducing the need to import them from Manchester.
A plaque at the base of Jamsetji’s statue records that it was unveiled in 1912 by George Clarke (1848-1933), Governor of Bombay between 1907 and 1913. Incidentally, in 1907 he considered Vinayak Savarkar, future Hindu nationalist and father of Hindutva, to have been “one of the most dangerous men that India had ever produced” Clarke was a liberal, but became a supporter of fascism later in life (in the 1930s). I wonder what he thought about the Swadeshi movement as he unveiled the statue.
Madam Cama Road is not very long, yet it commemorates four people who in different ways helped India throw off the yoke of the British Empire.