I have sinned

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In the frontier thrusting early years of the nineteenth century, the British Armyattracted some of the boldest, bravest, most eccentric and unorthodox officersever to grace the field. Looming large over them all was General Sir CharlesJames Napier, Commander-in-Chief in India and Governor of Bombay Presidency.

His most notable campaign led to the subjugationSindh in modern day Pakistan. In conquering the province, Napier had far exceededhis mandate. He had been given orders to quell the insurrection of the region’sMuslim rulers and, instead, greatly augmented the territory under directBritish rule.

One of the greatanecdotes of military history attached itself to the action. In Punchmagazine, Napier was reported as having informed his superiors of his action by sending amessenger with a single word in Latin – ‘Peccavi’.The General assumed the classically educated elites of the East India Company wouldunderstand both the translation and its implication.

Peccavi is the pastparticiple for the verb ‘to sin’ and translates as ‘I have sinned’. Inoverreaching his orders he had fulfilled the pun – he had both sinned andSindh. And, like many great historical anecdotes, itis a fabrication. The real author was a teenage girl, Catherine Winkworth,whose teacher had submitted her witty Latin observation to Punch magazine. Itwas reported as a factual report under foreign affairs, and credited to Napier.

General Napier did, however, reinforce his credentials as amember of Britain’s idiosyncratic  Imperial elite by challenging long standing customs hefound abhorrent. Chief amongst these was the practise of Sati, the immolationof the still living widow on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. He statedthat he was prepared to tolerate the custom but only if English customswere similarly followed:

“Beit so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But mynation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, andconfiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets onwhich to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all actaccording to national customs.”

The widow was thus saved, and the practice ultimatelybanned in areas under British control. 

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