I have sinned

Did a British Army officer communicate a victory in a pivotal battle in India by transmitting a single Latin word?

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

Statue of General Sir Charles James Napier in Trafalgar Square By Elliott Brown [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

His most notable campaign led to the subjugation Sindh in modern day Pakistan. In conquering the province, Napier had far exceeded his mandate. He had been given orders to quell the insurrection of the region’s Muslim rulers and, instead, greatly augmented the territory under direct British rule.

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

Peccavi is the past participle for the verb ‘to sin’ and translates as ‘I have sinned’. In overreaching his orders he had fulfilled the pun – he had both sinned and Sindh. And, like many great historical anecdotes, it is a fabrication.

A view of Karoonjhar Mountains in Sindh Province

The real author was a teenage girl, Catherine Winkworth, whose teacher had submitted her witty Latin observation to Punch magazine. It was reported as a factual report under foreign affairs, and credited to Napier.

General Napier did, however, reinforce his credentials as a member of Britain’s idiosyncratic Imperial elite by challenging long standing customs he found abhorrent. Chief amongst these was the practise of Sati, the immolation of the still living widow on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

He stated that he was prepared to tolerate the custom but only if English customs were similarly followed:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

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