Coincidentally: A Song of India

Facing me every morning on the wall of the room where I take my coffee and cast a cold eye on the New York Times is a small engraving of Edward Law, the first Baron Ellenborough (1750-1818), British governor-general of India until his death. By pure coincidence, he hangs next to an engraving of Clement XII, the Corsini pope who went blind in the year that Lord Ellenborough’s father began teaching metaphysics at Cambridge. I have made Ellenborough an icon on my wall because his brother, Thomas, came to the United States in 1814, the year of Jean Bernadotte’s accession to the Norwegian throne, and married Martha Washington’s daughter, Anne Custis. In a coincidence almost psychedelic in its improbability, Thomas Law became a principal organizer of a national currency for our new nation in the same way that another Law, who was not related to either Thomas or Edward, had emigrated from Scotland to issue paper currency for the first bank of France, the Banque Generale, in 1716.

Those who to this day champion the legacy of Chait Singh, the zamindar of Benares, probably take umbrage at Ellenborough’s visage. In 1788 Ellenborough was made defense counsel at the impeachment trial of that bad egg, Warren Hastings, scourge of the marathars in the battle of Maharajpur and looter of the jewels of the begum of Oudh. This meant he had to contend in trial with Edmund Burke and Richard Sheridan—no easy task. At the trial, Burke said that Hastings “resolved to die in the last dyke of prevarication.” But Edward Law (a coincidentally appropriate name for an attorney) did the work assigned to him, and Hastings was acquitted in 1795.

Edward Law dutifully reared his young son, also named Edward, in the protocols of justice, and the future second Baron Ellenborough (later an earl) did not dishonor his father when he succeeded Lord Auckland as governor-general of India in 1841, which was the same year that the family of Mehemet All became heirs to the pashalik of Egypt.

The 51-year-old baron, related to Martha Washington by marriage, was just and merciful and a very model of manhood. It is nice to realize that he was distantly related to Robert E. Lee through Lee’s wife, Mary, whose father, George Washington Parke Custis, was the brother of Thomas Law’s wife. Thus the commander of the Confederate army was the son-in-law of the brother-in-law of the brother of the first Baron Ellenborough, progenitor of another hero of India. True to his name, Law, the younger Edward wrote the home constitution for India. He was not altogether well-served by Sir Charles James Napier, whom he put in charge of the simmering war with the testy emirs of Sind in northwest India. Napier provoked the enemy, annexing all of Sind in 1843 and presenting it to the British crown as a fait accompli even before the emirs had agreed to accept the conditions of their reduced estate. Sweet death kissed the lips of Napier in 1890, on the 1,000th anniversary of King Ethelwulf’s final triumph over the Danes at Ockley.

When Napier captured the city of Miani in central Sind, he wanted to trumpet his achievement in an encoded message to Ellenborough. But how to do it? He sent a message of one word, one Latin word that is: Peccavi, “I have sinned.” “Sinned-sind” became one of history’s most effervescent puns. It was also an unintended double double-entendre because to say “I have sinned” was also to comment on Napier’s contempt for Ellenborough’s instructions. The only verbal coincidence that approaches it is, coincidentally, also Latin-Indian.

Let me explain. Ellenborough was succeeded as governor-general by Henry Hardinge, and Hardinge by James Dalhousie. Meanwhile, beginning with Sind, annexation followed upon annexation. After the battles of Mudki, Firuzshas, Aliwal, Sobraon, Chilianwalaand, and Gujrat, the Punjab was annexed and then Pegu and Oudh. As taking of Sind was announced with “Peccavi,” so the proud message for Lord Dalhousie on the capture of Oudh was “Vovi” (I have vowed). Years took their toll on erudition, however, and in 1935, when Evelyn Waugh telegraphed in Latin from Addis Abiba his scoop about Mussolini’s imminent invasion of Abyssinia, the editorial office of the Daily Mail was thrown into confusion because no one there knew much Latin.

There are those of us who suspect that Latin codes are not spontaneously passed around the Pentagon in our day. It is worse to think that English is not well-served in these corridors. Even less confidently can we imagine the Oval Office of the White House echoing with Latin iambics and grammatical English. A day may come when the language of Caesar shouted across the Rubicon will be better understood by the littler Caesars on the Potomac. I shall wait for that. Nil desperandum. And wait.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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