the epic rivalry that
destroyed an empire
and forged our age
b a n t a m b o o k s
I see no being which lives in the world without violence.
Mutiny. The news had spread through the on wind.The native sepoys
or soldiers at the garrison at Meerut just outside Delhi had shot their
British officers, and were marching on the ancient Mughal capital.
Other sepoys, it was said, were scrambling to join them. Cawnpore’s
English families, ensconced in their comfortable bhangalaos and sur-
rounded by native servants, felt uneasy.
Between Calcutta in the south east and Peshawar to the north, a dis-
tance of twelve hundred miles, there was exactly one battalion of British
troops of 700 men.Very suddenly in a few short days in May of 1857,
British rule in India, which had seemed so stable and secure for the past
half century, found itself on the edge of the abyss.
One question burned in everyone’s mind. Would the sepoy regi-
ments in Cawnpore remain loyal or join the rebels? One of those won-
dering was William Shepherd.He served in the garrison’s Commissariat
Office and had just moved his widowed sister’s family to Cawnpore.
Like many who worked for the British in India, Shepherd was of mixed
race, half-Indian and half-English. “Everyone in the station seemed to
think something dreadful was about to happen.”1 He knew that the
small garrison town on the bank of the Ganges was weak and isolated,
and that the native troops in Cawnpore outnumbered the whites by ten
to one. If they mutinied, the nearest help would be more than fifty miles
in Lucknow, assuming the soldiers there remained loyal.Shepherd also
sensed that he and other so called half-castes, or anyone who worked
C h a p t e r O n e
THE CHURCHILLS AND THE RAJ
The Gandhis, India, and British rule
And Blenheim’s Tower shall triumph O’er Whitehall.
—anonymous pamphleteer, 1705
On november 30, 1874, another baby boywas born halfway around the
world. This one also first saw light in his grandfather’s house, but on a
far grander scale—indeed, in the biggest private home in Britain.
Surrounded by 3000 acres of “green lawns and shining water, banks
of laurel and fern, groves of oak and cedar, fountains and islands,”
Blenheim Castle boasted 187 rooms.32 It was in a drafty bedroom on
the first floor that Jennie Jerome Churchill gave birth to her first child.
“Dark eyes and hair,” was how her twenty-five year old husband
Randolph Churchill described the boy to Jennie’s mother, and “wonder-
fully very pretty everybody says.”33
The child’s baptized name would be Winston Leonard Spencer
Churchill. If the Gandhis were unknown outside their tiny Indian
state, the Churchill name was steeped in history. John Churchill, the
first duke of Marlborough, had been Europe’s most acclaimed general
and the most powerful man in Britain. His series of victories over
France in the first decade of the eighteenth century had made Britain a
world-class power. A grateful Queen Anne gave him the royal estate at
Woodstock on which to build a palace, which he named after his most
famous victory. For Winston Churchill, Blenheim Castle would always
symbolize a heritage of glory, and a family born to greatness.
Yet the first duke of Marlborough was followed by a succession of
nonentities. If the power and wealth of England expanded to unimag-
ined heights over the next century, Churchills steadily declined.
with the British, would be in mortal danger if the soldiers joined the
But would they? Shepherd certainly thought so. In an unguarded
moment, some of them had revealed the depth of their resentment
toward the British, and their paranoia. “See what deep plots are being
laid against us,” the Cawnpore sepoys told him. They had already
refused the new cartridges issued from the arsenal at Dum Dum for
their Enfield rifles, which rumor said were smeared with pig grease so
that any Moslem soldiers would be polluted, and any Hindu soldier
would break his caste. It was fear of those same cartridges which had
set off the mutiny in Meerut.Now the rumor was that their British offi-
cers were secretly mixing the commissariat flour with pig and cow
bones, for the same purpose: to make them all badhurrum, or outcastes.
Shepherd knew this was a lie but did not dare to contradict them.
But he did ask why they would wish to attack civilians and others like
himself who had done them no harm.They gathered menacingly
around him, shouting over and over: Suffun suffa! Suffun suffa!
“Enough is enough!” It was time to wipe the slate clean. Time to drive
the British out of India.
One veteran sepoy, one with bristling mustache and piercing eyes,
almost rushed at Shepherd.
“Oh you are all one, all of the same breed,” he cried, “You are ser-
pents, and not one of you shall be spared!” That night Shepherd moved
his family out of the city and into Cawnpore’s only entrenched position,
the old dragoon hospital, to the west of town.2
But Major-General Hugh Wheeler, commander of the garrison,
was still confident. Wheeler was sixty-seven. He had been born and
raised in India; even his wife was Indian. He thought he knew his
sepoys as well as anyone, and like most old school British officers he
spoke fluent Hindustani. On May 18th, even as panicky whites were
pouring into the hospital and laborers were put to work building a four-
foot mud wall around it, Wheeler was writing to officials in Calcutta,
“All is well in Cawnpore.”
British economy, still the most productive in the world. Both agreed on
the importance of keeping the gold standard. They even agreed that
social reform was best left in private and local hands, although
Parliament would occasionally give its approval to a round of slum
clearances or a comprehensive health act. A twelve hour day for the
average workman, and 10 1/2 hours for women and young persons
older than thirteen, made eminent good sense economically and moral-
ly. Giving them a government retirement pension or an unemployment
check did not.38
Tories and Liberals also agreed on maintaining an empire that was
without rival, and defending it with a navy that was second to none. In
1874 that empire was not only the most extensive but the most cohesive
on the planet.39 There was Britain itself, with England, Wales,
Scotland, and Ireland welded together under a single government and
crown. Across the Atlantic there were the islands of the West Indies
and Canada, the empire’s first self-governing “Dominion”-a word that
would loom large in the later battles between Churchill and Gandhi.
Yet most Britons still knew almost nothing about the subcontinent or
its peoples. Nonetheless, the fact that they possessed India, and gov-
erned it virtually as a separate empire, gave Britons a halo of superpow-
er status no other people or nation could match. The attitude was
summed up nine years later in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Ave
And all are bred to do your will
By land and sea-wherever flies
The Flag, to fight and follow still,
And work your Empire’s destinies.
In the midst of this triumphant march to the future, the only hint of
trouble was Ireland. The question of whether the Catholic Irish would
ever enjoy any degree of “Home Rule” had become a live issue in Irish
politics. In 1875 it sent Charles Stewart Parnell to Parliament. But oth-
erwise, Irish nationalism hardly registered in Westminster—-nor did
any other issue.*
There seemed to be no burning questions to divide public opinion,
no bitter clash of interests, no looming threats on the horizon for an
unknown but ambitious politician to seize onto. By 1880 Randolph
The vast fortune the first duke accumulated in the age of Queen
Anne was squandered by his successors. When Randolph’s father
inherited the title in 1857, the same year the Great Mutiny raged in
India, he had been faced like his father and grandfather before him by
debts of Himalayan proportions and slender means with which to meet
them. Randolph’s grandfather had already turned Blenheim into a
public museum, charging visitors one shilling admission. Randolph’s
father would have to sell off priceless paintings (including a Raphael
and Van Dyke’s splendid equestrian portrait of King Charles I, still the
largest painting in the National Gallery), the fabulous Marlborough col-
lection of gems, and the 18,000 volume Sunderland library, in order to
make ends meet.34
In the financial squeeze which was beginning to affect nearly all the
Victorian aristocracy, the Spencer-Churchills felt the pinch more than
most. For Randolph Churchill, the Marlborough legacy was a bankrupt
inheritance. In a crucial sense, it was no inheritance at all. His older
brother, Lord Blandford, would take over the title, Blenheim, and the
remaining estates. What was left for him, and for his heirs, was rela-
tively paltry (although much more, of course, than the great majority of
Britons), with £4200 a year and the lease on a house in Mayfair. 35
So the new father, twenty-five year old Randolph, was going to have
to cut his own way into the world, just as his son would. And both
would choose the same way: politics.
Randolph was the family rebel, a natural contrarian and malcontent.
Beneath his pale bulging eyes, large exquisite mustache, and cool aristo-
cratic hauteur, was the soul of a headstrong alpha male. As he told his
friend Lord Rosebery, “I like to be the boss.”36 Young Lord Randolph
was determined to make a name for himself as member of
Parliament.All he needed was an issue.
In 1874 that was not easy to find.When Winston Churchill was
born, British politics reflected a consensus the country had not known
in nearly a hundred years-and soon would never know again. 37 The
last big battle had been over the Second Reform Bill of 1867, when
crowds in London clashed in the streets with police, and tore up railings
around Hyde Park.Passage of the act opened the door to Britain’s first
working class voters. Yet almost a decade later neither Conservatives
nor Liberals were inclined to let it swing open any wider.
Both parties agreed that Free Trade was the cornerstone of the
gandhi & churchillarthur herman 54
of the House chamber by police and locked up in the Big Ben tower.
Some people began to joke that Randolph must be bribing
Northampton voters to keep voting for Bradlaugh, since they were also
keeping Randolph in the headlines.42
However, Lord Randolph had the good sense to realize that while
the Bradlaugh case had launched his political rise, he needed some more
substantial issues to sustain it. He tried Ireland for a while, taking up
the cause of Ulster Protestants in the North and lambasting the Irish
nationalists of the south. He tested a new catchphrase, “Tory
Democracy,” urging Conservatives to win votes and allies among
Britain’s newly enfranchised working class-although the phrase had
more headline appeal than substance or thought behind it.He even
tried Egypt, furiously denouncing the Liberal government’s support of
its corrupt ruler. Finally in the summer of 1884, the man an American
journalist called “the political sensation of England” turned to India.
Crucial though India was to the empire, few politicians had any
expertise in the empire’s greatest possession; certainly no one among the
Tories. The party’s new crown prince was determined to fill that gap.
In November 1884, he planned a major tour of India. His friend
Wilfred Blunt, who had traveled widely there, set up the key introduc-
tions. He predicted “a great future for any statesman who will preach
Tory Democracy in India.”43 Lord Randolph left in December and did
not return to London until April 1885, after logging more than 22,800
miles. He then delivered a round of fiery speeches denouncing the
Gladstone government’s policies there, from neglecting the threat from
Russia to failing to gain more native participation in the Raj. The
speeches established him as the Conservatives’ “front line spokesman on
India.”44 So when they returned to power in June that year, he was the
obvious candidate for Secretary of State for India.
In terms of direct influence over people’s lives, it was the single most
powerful position in the cabinet, even more than being prime minister.
At age thirty five, Randolph Churchill would be overseeing an imperi-
al domain that was, as he discovered in his travels and readings, unique
in British history-perhaps unique in human history.
How the British built an empire in India, and conquered one of the
most ancient and powerful civilizations in the worlds, is an epic of hero-
ism, sacrifice, ruthlessness, and greed. But it is also the story of a grow-
ing sense of mission, even destiny: the growing conviction that the
realized there was only one way to get attention in Parliament: by
becoming a nuisance and stirring things up.
The issue Winston’s father’s seized upon was the Bradlaugh case.
Charles Bradlaugh was a Liberal and radical atheist who, when elected
to Parliament that year, refused to take the oath of allegiance needed to
take his seat in the Commons, because it contained the words “so help
me God.” The question of whether
Bradlaugh should be allowed to take his seat anyway stirred the
hearts of many Conservative members, and Randolph’s friend Sir
Henry Drummond Wolff asked his help against Bradlaugh.
Randolph soon discovered that Bradlaugh made an easy target.40He
was not only a free thinker but a socialist, an advocate of birth control,
and even a critic of Empire.* Bradlaugh was also a radical republican
who denounced the monarchy and aristocrats like Randolph in heated
terms. So when Randolph made his speech on May 24, 1880, condemn-
ing Bradlaugh for his atheism, he also read aloud from one of
Bradlaugh’s pamphlets calling the royal family “small German breast-
beating wanderers, whose only merit is their loving hatred of one
another.” He then hurled the pamphlet on the floor and stamped on it.
The House was ecstatic. “Everyone was full of it,” Jennie wrote, who
had watched the speech from the gallery, “and rushed up and congrat-
ulated me to such an extent that I felt as though I had made it.”41 Lord
Randolph Churchill’s career was launched as a sensational, even outra-
geous, headline grabber. Together with Wolff and another friend, Sir
Henry Gorst, he formed what came to be known as the Fourth Party*,
a junta of Tory mavericks who ripped into their own party leaders any
time they sided with the government, to the delight of journalists and
Suddenly, thanks to Randolph Churchill, politics was fun again.
When Bradlaugh was reelected in spite of being denied his seat,
Randolph attacked him again, carefully playing it for laughs and for the
gallery and the news media; when the voters of Northampton insisted
on returning Bradlaugh again, Randolph did the same thing. And then
a fourth and a fifth time: at one point Bradlaugh had to be escorted out
gandhi & churchillarthur herman 76
*He would also be one of the first champions of Indian Nationalism. When he died in 1891 and was
buried in London’s Brookwood Cemetary, among the three thousand mourners who attended the funer-
al would be a young Mohandas Gandhi
1. W.G. Shepherd, A Personal Narrative of the Outbreak and Massacre
at Cawnpore, During the Sepoy Revolt of 1857 (1879; New Delhi: Academic
Books, 1980), 2.
2. Ibid., 11.
3. Captain Fletcher Hayes, quoted in Richard Collier, The Sound of
Fury: An Account of the Indian Mutiny (London: Collins, 1963), 72.
4. Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, The Great Mutiny (New York:
Viking, 1978), 168.
5. Mrs. H. Duberly, Suppression of Mutiny 1857-8 (1859: New Delhi:
Sirjana Press, 1974), 156.
6. Shepherd, Personal Narrative, 15-17, 32-33.
7. Hibbert, Mutiny, 180; Shepherd, Personal Narrative, 47.
9. Mowbray Thomson, The Story of Cawnpore (London, 1859), 160-1.
10. Hibbert, Mutiny, 192.
11. Amelia Horne, “Narrative,” quoted in Andrew Ward, Our Bones
Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (New
York: Henry Holt, 1996), 329.
12. Hibbert, Mutiny, 203.
13. Quoted in S. Chunder, Travels of a Hindu (London, 1869), Vol. 2,
14. Quoted in Sir John Kaye, History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-8
(London, 1880). Vol. 2, 269.
15. J.C. Pollock, Way to Glory: The Life of Havelock of Lucknow
(London, 1957), 176.
16. Hibbert, Mutiny, 195.
17. Ibid., 207.
British were meant to rule India not only for their own interests, but for
the sake of the Indians as well. That belief would decisively shape not
only the character of the British Empire in India, but also Randolph’s
son Winston Churchill-the man into whose hands the destiny of the Raj
would ultimately fall.
Ironically, that empire’s founding fathers, the group of God-fearing
merchants living in Shakespeare’s London who created the Honorable
East India Company, never intended to go to India at all-any more than
Queen Elizabeth I did when she gave them a royal charter on the last
day of 1600. Their aim was to get to the Spice Islands (the Molucca
Islands in today’s Indonesia), where Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch
merchants and adventurers were battling over fortunes in nutmeg,
cloves, and mace. The East India Company’s initial stop at Surat on
India’s west coast was only supposed to be a layover for ventures further
But when the Dutch tortured and murdered ten of their merchants in
the island of Amboyne in 1623, and foisted the English out of the Spice
Islands, the London-based company had nowhere else to go.45By 1650,
when John Churchill was born in Devon, the East India Company
found itself precariously perched in a tiny settlement near Surat called
Fort St George, doing business at the pleasure of the rulers of India, the
Mughal emperors-at the time, probably the richest human beings in the
world. In 1674 the Company acquired a similar outpost at Bombay,
which King Charles II had received as a wedding present from the king
of Portugal. Then in 1690 it built another in Bengal at Kalikat, which
the English pronounced Calcutta.But the English were still only one of
several European communities doing business in the region. The
Portuguese had a thriving settlement in Goa, where Portuguese and
Indian Christians worshiped in a cathedral contained the bones of St
Francis Xavier. The Dutch dominated Ceylon; the Danes were set up at
Tranquebar. The French East Indies Company, founded in 1668, had
large “factories” or warehouses at Pondicherry and Chandernagar for
their cargos of indigo, sugar, and pepper.In the blazing heat and stifling
humidity, surrounded by disease and flies, everyone’s energies were con-
centrated on making money and staying on the Emperor’s good side.
Then in 1712, Emperor Bahadur Shah I died at his palace at
Lahore, surrounded by his courtiers, generals, and concubines-even as
gandhi & churchill 11
18. G.M. Trevelyan, Cawnpore (London, 1886), 312-3.
19. Hibbert, Mutiny, 209.
20. Ward, Bones, 438-9; Wayne Bruehl, The Crisis of the Raj (Hanover
NH: University Press of New England, 1986), 141-3.
21. Quoted in Kaye, Sepoy War, Vol 2, 399.
22. Quoted in Ward, Bones, 455.
23. Suppression of Mutiny, 25.
24. Michael Edwardes, Battles of the Indian Mutiny (New York:
Macmillan, 1963), 23.
25. Hibbert, Mutiny, 313.
26. The account of events by Lieutenant MacDowell is published in
W.R. and George Hudson,
Twelve Years of a Soldier’s Life in India (1859; Lahore: Wajidalis, 1983),
27. Ibid., 297; 303.
28. Pyarlel, Mahatma Gandhi: Volume 1: The Early Phase (Ahmedabad:
Navajivan, 1965), 189.
29. Ibid., 190.
30. Fatima Meer, Apprenticeship of a Mahatma (Madiba Publishing,
31. Cf. David Arnold, Gandhi (London: Longmans, 2001), 17.
32.Quoted in R. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Volume 1, 4-5.
33.Letter to Mrs L. Jerome, Nov 30, 1874, Randolph S. Churchill,
Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume 1, Part 1 (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1967), 2.
34.Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, Blenheim Revisited. The Spencer-
Churchills and Their Palace. (London: Bodley Head, 1985), 98; 105-7.
35. That included £3000 from his father-in-law. Pearson, Private Lives, 42.
37.R. F. Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1981), 25.
38. Although most men stopped work when the women and children
did, since factories could not function shorthanded. See Peter Mathias, The
First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain , 2nd Edition
(London: Methuen, 1983), 183.
39. A cohesiveness enhanced by the coming of steam power and the tele-
graph. For a readable account, see Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and
Demise of the British World Order (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 165-171.
40. Foster, Political Life, 66-7. Gladstone’s observations on the
Churchills’ lack of principle is found in Ibid., 127.
of Marlborough’s workmen were erecting the stately towers of
Blenheim Palace six thousand miles away. Although no one realized it,
Bahadur was India’s last great ruler. After his death the magnificent
Mughal Empire came apart with alarming speed.
Bahadur’s death left that empire split in two, with competing Mughal
capitals at Delhi in the north and Hyderabad in the south. External
enemies like the Afghans and Persians, and internal ones like the Sikhs
and Hindu warrior clans of Marathas and Rajputs, made their move.
When the old Nizam of Hyderabad died in 1748, the French and
British merchant communities in India were forced, almost against
their will46, to choose sides in the struggle for control of the southern
half of the empire before it crumbled into chaos.
The Frenchman Dupleix was the first to grasp that by throwing the
power of his Compagnie de l’Indie Ouest behind a candidate for the
Nizam’s throne, he could shape events decisively to his side. But it was
his rival Robert Clive who put that insight to work as a formula for
In 1751, Clive was just another underpaid Company clerk in Madras,
tormented by fever and prickly heat and bouts of manic depression.
Twice he had tried to commit suicide, and twice the pistol he had used
had failed to fire. He had no military experience at all when his supe-
riors suddenly decided to put him in charge of taking the Nizam’s
fortress at Arcot.
But Clive grasped better than anyone else, that power in India came
literally out of the barrel of a gun.India was descending into anarchy. In
order to protect their interests against local marauders and the French,
the East India Company had created its own army, with regiments of
native soldiers or sepoys and cavalrymen or sowars serving under
British officers and using modern muskets and European-style disci-
pline and training.47 Recruited largely from northeastern India in the
Hindu and Moslem villages between Bihar and Agra, these British-
trained sepoys were far superior to troops any native ruler could field.
So with a few hundred of them and some supporting European troops,
Clive was able to take Arcot, hold it against all comers, and then form
an alliance with a local Maratha chieftain to begin driving the French
out of southern India-and to make himself a fortune.
From Hydrabad Clive went to Bengal, the Mughal Empire’s richest
province, where he and his barefoot sepoys did the same thing. By the