‘The Corpse of India’, or a Cautionary Tale of Citogenesis

This post is a sobering illustration of how readily fiction can become entrenched as accepted fact, through a process of historiographical ‘Chinese whispers’ or ‘broken telephone’.

In late August, the ‘Colonial Countryside’ project, an initiative that partners with the National Trust to facilitate discussion of colonial history, called for public interpretations of the Duke of Wellington to give more prominence to his early military service in India. In support of this reasonable suggestion, it shared a claim that the future Lord Wellington had celebrated the death of Tipu Sultan, slain during the British storming of Seringapatam (Srirangapatna) in 1799, with a contemptuous toast: ‘Ladies & gentlemen, I drink to the corpse of India.’ The anecdote was reiterated on social media by the project’s leader, Professor Corinne Fowler, as a means of emphasizing Wellington’s involvement in the British subjugation of the Indian subcontinent.

Having never encountered this quotation before, I searched for it online, and soon found that the remark is mentioned on page 354 of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. It is also used as the title of a chapter in this prizewinning 2019 book. I noticed, however, that Dalrymple attributed the toast to Richard Wellesley, Lord Mornington, the Governor-General of India, rather than his younger brother Arthur, the colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot and the future Duke of Wellington. Further investigation revealed that no other sources attributed the line to Arthur; it transpired that an individual had read Dalrymple’s reference to ‘Wellesley’ and failed to appreciate that more than one Wellesley brother was in India in 1799. I pointed out the mistaken attribution to Professor Fowler, along with the erroneous claim that the future Duke of Wellington ‘oversaw’ the assault on Tipu’s stronghold. The social media posts were consequently deleted.

There was, however, a good deal more to the story. While investigating the origin of the ‘corpse of India’ comment, I had been disconcerted by the fact that relatively few reliable accounts seemed to mention the toast. It was quoted in the Journal of the Pakistan History Society in 1983 and the 2010 edition of India First by K. R. Malkani, but neither provided a source. Dalrymple did include a citation, albeit to another secondary work: page 39 of Abdus Subhan’s chapter ‘Tipu Sultan: India’s Freedom-Fighter par Excellence’ in A. Ray (ed) Tipu Sultan and his Age: A Collection of Seminar Papers (Kolkata, 2002).

Encouraged by several friends who were curious about the origins of and context for the remark, I consulted the book at the Bodleian Library. I discovered that, while Subhan did indeed mention the anecdote, the author failed to give a source (see below).

In fact, the only work I could find which furnished a reference for Mornington’s ostensible ‘corpse of India’ comment was Kabir Kausar’s Secret Correspondence of Tipu Sultan (New Delhi, 1980), available on Archive.org. On page 33, Kausar presented the episode as fact and cited The Sword of Tipu Sultan by B.S. Gidwani.

Yet Gidwani’s bestselling book, first published in 1976 and subsequently adapted for Indian television, was subtitled A Historical Novel about the Life and Legend of Tipu Sultan of India. Gidwani described his extensive research into Tipu Sultan’s life and times in the author’s note but unambiguously identified his book as a work of historical fiction, complete with ‘imaginative judgements’ and ‘invented’ dialogue intended to fill out his characterization of the Tiger of Mysore. I searched the 2015 edition on Amazon Preview and discovered that the ‘corpse of India’ toast was the final line in the novel.

Despite considerable sleuthing, I have not been able to find any references to such a toast prior to 1976. While I would be happy to stand corrected, it seems clear that the comment originated with Gidwani and was heedlessly copied by scholars who either did not recognise or did not bother to identify its fictional genesis. The toast’s allegorical nature was certainly not lost on critics of the novel, including a 2005 reviewer in the Indian Journal of English Language Teaching, who understood the quip as a ‘metaphorical proclamation’ illustrative of Gidwani’s authorial imagination rather than a bona fide exclamation by the historical Mornington.

The evolution of the ‘corpse of India’ anecdote from invented scene to accepted historical truth is a classic case of what Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd comic series, has termed ‘citogenesis’. A false claim, mentioned in and repeated by ‘reliable’ sources such as books and media articles, all too easily becomes established as fact.

xkcd comic by Randall Munroe on ‘citogenesis’

Needless to say, I am not writing this post to criticize either the ‘Colonial Countryside’ project nor William Dalrymple. The former’s valuable work has often been unfairly smeared and the latter is a fine historian. I have read The Anarchy and you should too – it is a magnificent and accessible survey which deserves the ample praise it has received. No book is free from errors; I am sure mine won’t be. Dalrymple was, it should be remembered, relying on a published chapter authored by an academic – something most laypeople would consider the very definition of a dependable source.

When I shared my findings, William Dalrymple responded with grace, thanking me and and adding: ‘I rarely cite secondary sources for quotations and this is a very good illustration of why one should be very careful when doing so.’

As a PhD student presently occupied with drafting my thesis, I am fully cognizant of the fact that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace every scrap of evidence back to its origins, even with all the wonders of the digital revolution. Historians must inevitably rely to a greater or lesser degree upon the work of others. I consider this story a lesson in humility (There but for the grace of God…) rather than a reason for smugness. That said, it is important to verify sources wherever practicable, cite them properly, and treat unreferenced anecdotes and assertions, especially quotations that seem too good to be true, with due skepticism.

On reflection, it is not entirely surprising that the quip has been so widely parroted. The toast seems to perfectly encapsulate the arrogance and genuine rapacity of the conquerors of India. It also dovetails with a popular South Asian perception of Tipu Sultan as ‘the first among modern Indian nationalists’, to borrow a phrase from the back cover of the 2015 edition of Gidwani’s novel. The fictional anecdote’s invocation as historical evidence unfortunately reinforces this interpretation – criticized as anachronistic by the Indian-born American historian Narasingha Sil – by casting Tipu as the embodiment of India who led a doomed last stand against the British.

As public and academic debates about Wellington, Mornington and colonialism continue, I fully expect that the ‘corpse of India’ anecdote will be trotted out by well-intentioned individuals unaware of its backstory for many years to come. Yet I hope that, by laying out the origins of the remark in this blog post, I will have prevented its wholesale acceptance as fact.

The journey of the ‘corpse of India’ red herring and the phenomenon of citogenesis more broadly are disturbing reminders of the fragility of truth and the historical record. They prompt us to recognize that misinformation can be spread not only by demagogues, pranksters and conspiracy-mongers but also by people acting in good faith. Once accepted and echoed by mainstream sources, false or exaggerated claims are often exceedingly difficult to debunk. A far-fetched origin story for the Amelia Bedelia books, an American children’s series, for instance, was even believed and repeated in an interview by the author’s own nephew! To choose another example, readers of the Washington Post learned in 2018 that nineteenth-century Toronto, Canada, was widely known as ‘Methodist Rome’ on account of the prevalence of Protestant nonconformity and strait-laced morals, an anecdote allegedly mentioned in ‘all the tour books’. This unfounded piece of trivia had in fact been popularized by an unreferenced Wikipedia article created fourteen years earlier.

Readers interested in learning more about ‘citogenesis’ can peruse a list of further cases on (where else?) Wikipedia.

Eamonn O’Keeffe, September 2021

Featured image: ‘The Assault and taking of Seringapatam, 1799’; Coloured aquatint c1800 by Laminet after H Singleton. National Army Museum, Accession Number 1971-02-33-385-1

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