Sun Ra - Column for 1/7


There are whole flotilla of books I want to write. One of them came a step closer to being reality this last week, as I purchased several reference books (France in the 1930s and French Peasant Fascism), but by and large many are ideas that simply crop up, stellar in their brilliant call to be made incarnate, then slowly die down under the dust of everyday demands and distractions. A few wind up being forgotten, or more annoyingly partly forgotten ("Damn, that was a good idea. I wish I could remember it!"), but most just fade away into the "someday" bin.

I'm just finishing the second book in a biography of Theodore Roosevelt (not the first TR biograpy I've read, either), and both the Pulitzer Prize-winning first book and the second, recently published one are fantastic. If you are looking for a just plain good book, and have some vague interest in TR, I can unreservedly recommend Edmund Morris' The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Aside from simply brilliant writing, said book features the most useful feature of having a Prologue that so well befits the book, that it alone will either ensnare a reader or indicate to them that this is not really the book for them.

Airplane rides and family visits are a great source of literary impetus for me, as they pull me away from my computer. Sweet, sweet seductive computer. (For a list of what I read this Christmas-time, see my list of books I've read.) One of the first books I picked up was How the Scots Invented the Modern World, an interesting book by Arthur Herman, who gave a lecture series I was fortunate enough to attend this fall at the Smithsonian. Herman is one of the best lecturers I have encountered, and his courses on European Civilization (1848-1914) were wonderful. His book, sadly, does not match up - the vast panoply of subjects and characters that are the strengths of his lectures don't translate as well to the written page. And, rather poignantly, he is so honest with his scholasticism that he disproves his own rather commerically-titled thesis. The Scots perhaps outperformed any other culture in the creation of the Modern World, but they certainly did not invent it themselves.

However, it was in his book that I finally discovered the identity of one of my favorite, or at least most-quotable, side characters in history. And this is where the introduction comes in, for I find this individual to be fascinating enough to contemplate writing a biography of him. Due certainly to his rather definite second-tier status as a British soldier and diplomat, his more recent (and perhaps only) biography was written in 1952. And, even if not wildly important, he is certainly interesting enough to warrant an updated biography.

Sir Charles Napier was born in 1782, and was born to be a soldier. He joined the army at age twelve, and fought in Spain under Wellington. In combat, he was wounded numerous times, including getting a saber cut across the head, being bayonetted in the back, and perhaps most distressingly being shot in the face. After the Napoleonic period, he was stationed around the British Empire: Greece 1822-1830, where he became acquainted with Lord Byron; Northern England 1939-1840, a short tenure due to his unusual leniency in dealing with civil (Chartist) unrest, and then to India in 1841, from which he was in charge of the conquest of Sind (modern Pakistan) in 1843. He was governor there until 1847, and died in 1853.

Whether due to the Romantic influence of Byron (unlikely) or a rather different set of perspectives on what was truly Important after so many near-death experiences, Napier displayed a remarkable wit and almost modern sensibility in his dealing with people in general and Colonial Administration in particular. Upon conquering Sind, he informed the Foreign Office with a telegram consisting of a single word, 'Peccavi', which in Latin means "I have sinned." The reader is left to work out the pun for themselves.

His views on the Empire were both pragmatic and often wry. For success, he advocated "a good thrashing first and great kindness afterwards" (sounds rather like a certain Power's involvement in Central Asia at present); the annexation of Sind was "a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality" on the part of the British Empire. His administration was viewed as a success both by the occupying British and the locals, as he lowered taxes, created a police force, created the port of Karachi, and generally attempted to run things in the effective but humane fashion he saw fit.

Which was not always to the liking of the local power structure. His favorite quote of mine, the one that really inspires me to want to learn more about him, perhaps leading to an updated Biography, stems from his banning of the Hindu practice of suttee, where a woman was thrown alive onto her husband's funeral pyre. When local Brahmin leaders came to Napier to complain that he was interfering with an important national custom, he had the following to say:
"My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom."

Doesn't he sound like an interesting dinner guest?

Columns by Sun Ra