I look forward to charing a panel discussion on the impact of war on Britain and Ireland between 1688 and 1815 on Monday 12 December at 5pm GMT. This free online event is sponsored by the National Army Museum and the Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics.
The discussion will be also recorded and subsequently shared online for those unable to join live.
The long eighteenth century was in many respects defined by war. Britain and Ireland were involved in major armed conflicts for nearly half the era; a preponderance of state spending was devoted to preparing for and prosecuting hostilities. This event brings together leading historians to consider the impact of armed conflict and military service on politics, government, and society in light of the latest research. How were the lives of soldiers and civilians altered and disrupted by conflict? What role did the army play in political debates and social change? Did soldiering and the demands of war forge a sense of shared patriotism or exacerbate tensions between disparate communities? Encompassing the Revolution of 1688 to the Napoleonic Wars, the discussion will consider the deployment and duties of soldiers across Britain and Ireland and examine differing attitudes to their presence. The panelists will also examine whether the nature of war and the army’s reputation evolved over time and reflect on the legacies of eighteenth-century wars in the present.
Professor Stephen Conway (University College London) is a historian of eighteenth-century war and society. His books include The British Isles and the War of American Independence (Oxford, 2000) and War, State and Society in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2006).
Dr Catriona Kennedy, a senior lecturer at the University of York, researches the cultural history of war, politics, gender and national identity. Her publications include Narratives of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: Military and Civilian Experience in Britain and Ireland (Basingstoke, 2013).
Dr Hannah Smith, an associate professor at the University of Oxford, works on the history of political culture and gender. She has recently published Armies and Political Change in Britain, 1660-1750 (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Chair: Eamonn O’Keeffe, the National Army Museum Junior Research Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge.
This past week I started work at the University of Cambridge (Queens’ College) as a Junior Research Fellow in the History of the British Army. I am affiliated with the Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics and the National Army Museum, which has generously sponsored my three-year fellowship.
Last month I submitted my DPhil thesis on military music during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and look forward to the viva (oral examination) later this year.
In my new role, I plan on working towards the publication of my thesis while also pursuing a number of other research projects, including an examination of attitudes towards duelling and honour among army officers. I look forward to contributing to the public programming of the Centre for Geopolitics and the National Army Museum, thereby helping deepen understanding of the relationship between the military and society in the long eighteenth century.
I am in the final weeks of drafting and revising my DPhil thesis before submission here in Oxford – an exciting but at times gruelling experience! I am very much looking forward to completing this project and moving on to a new job in the autumn.
In late July I presented remotely at the biennial conference of the North American British Music Studies Association in Illinois. I was pleased to learn recently that I was recognised as runner-up for the Nicholas Temperley Student Paper Prize.
The judges made the following kind comments about my presentation, which was entitled ‘Diligence, Discipline, and Time: Training Military Musicians during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars’ and was based on material from one of my thesis chapters.
“Eamonn’s paper was an impressive piece of historical research. He consulted memoirs, newspaper write-ups, and extensive archival research to develop and support an argument that essentially turns previous research on its head, challenging the established view of the Georgian military’s instrumental instruction as disorganized and incompetent. He argues cogently that this characterization is far from accurate, and that not only were the military’s efforts efficient and comprehensive, but in several respects they anticipated curricular developments in the civilian music professions.”
I’m pleased to learn of the publication of Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes by Michigan historian Dianna Higgs Stampfler later this month. The first chapter discusses my research into the 1815 murder of Toronto lighthouse keeper John Paul Radelmüller, allegedly by soldiers of the garrison.
Stephen Banks, A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman 1750–1850 (Woodbridge, 2010).
Review by Eamonn O’Keeffe
This book is a welcome addition to the literature on duelling. It provides a helpful synopsis of the origins of the practice, stretching back to Renaissance Italy. The volume also examines the diverse motivations and actions of duellists through analysis of a wide array of case studies, a selection of which are helpfully summarized in an appendix.
Refreshingly, Banks takes duelling seriously as a phenomenon. Rather than caricaturing the institution as a bloodthirsty anachronism, he looks past the rhetoric of the Victorian anti-duelling movement to explore the culture of honour that drove men to risk death over seemingly minor slights.
Although he concedes that duelling was relatively rare and confined to an exclusive stratum of society, Banks convincingly argues that the study of this practice provides useful insight into elite social structures and values during a period of significant social and political change. Even though only a small minority of gentlemen duelled, the institution nonetheless played an important part in constructing elite conceptions of masculinity, serving as a social marker differentiating the high-born from the commoner.
Drawing on a database of almost eight hundred duels reported in The Times, along with further encounters documented in selected provincial newspapers, Banks analyzes the incidence of duelling, the social backgrounds of duellists and the geographical spread of these affrays. For instance, he demonstrates that over half of known English duels took place in or around London, with very few occurring in the countryside or in growing industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham. Interestingly, the bulk of English duels outside the metropolis took place in port cities where army and naval officers – an occupational class especially prone to duelling – were most likely to be stationed.
Banks provides fascinating insight into the hitherto under-researched responsibilities of the seconds, charting how their role evolved over the course of the eighteenth century from that of retainers who often joined in the fight themselves to intermediaries who tried to resolve disputes amicably. Banks also convincingly demonstrates the divergence between the de jure and de facto treatment of duelling under the law. While duelling had always been illegal, most duellists who killed their opponents could expect leniency in court. Many (though not all) judges were complicit in the tacit societal acceptance of this often-deadly institution. Juries typically acquitted defendants as long as the duel was deemed to have been conducted fairly according to the prevailing code of honour.
With the exception of brief forays to British colonies, Banks primarily focuses on England, paying scant attention to Ireland and Scotland. However, he does provide instructive comparisons to duelling in France and Germany, arguing that the nineteenth-century bourgeois embrace of duelling on the Continent gave new life to the institution. This stands in pointed contrast to Antony Simpson’s argument that the increasing participation of the middle classes in duelling and honour culture in England undermined and devalued this time-honoured ritual in the eyes of the aristocracy, precipitating duelling’s Victorian-era demise.
Indeed, Banks challenges Simpson’s influential thesis, contending based on his dataset of known affrays that the social status of duellists did not decline significantly during the nineteenth century. The temporary flirtations of socially aspirant surgeons and lawyers excepted, Banks suggests that the middle classes in England never embraced duelling. He further argues that Victorian public discourse contains little evidence of any widespread concern that the ‘aristocratic’ institution of duelling was being subverted by bourgeois parvenus.
Banks charts the increasing condemnation and public ridicule of duellists in the nineteenth century, but refuses to attribute the practice’s demise to any single factor. The evangelical revival and the rise of middle class values emphasizing self-restraint over public displays of courage may indeed have turned gentlemen against duelling. Further, Banks suggests that an invigorated culture of professionalism in the armed forces, prioritizing discipline and collective military aims over individual honour, may have helped discourage the practice amongst military men. He also asserts in the closing pages of the book that a crisis of confidence amongst the English elite, shaken by the French Revolution and social unrest, hastened the demise of duelling. This argument seems plausible and may well have merit, but would have been more convincing had Banks marshalled more direct evidence.
While his research is unquestionably impressive, Banks could have done more to document duelling in the armed forces – widely acknowledged as the strongest bastions of the custom by the early nineteenth century. Banks draws on the diary of Colonel Bayley of the 12th Foot, a helpful source with several relevant examples, but unfortunately did not cast his net much wider even though scores of Napoleonic-era military memoirs, sprinkled with discussions of duelling, are now readily available online. Looking beyond often terse newspaper reports, he also might have consulted the courts-martial records for duelling officers held in the UK National Archives to enhance his analysis of encounters between military men. That said, given the state of the field, this book probably offers the best account of British military duelling published to date, and Banks’ analysis of the military’s honour culture is always astute.
In sum, Stephen Banks’ monograph is a commendable and insightful study – the most comprehensive analysis of English duelling published to date.
In the summer of 2019, I visited Chetham’s Library in Manchester and consulted the manuscript memoirs of James Weatherley, a local bookseller. Among other useful references, I was delighted to encounter a grotesque story about a drummer and Waterloo veteran.
On his first visit to London in November 1821, Weatherley attended a public hanging of eight convicts at the Old Bailey. As he relates, ‘I stood there some time after the drop fell…Old Jack Ketch [the executioner] came on the scaffold bringing a man and woman with him. The woman pulled of[f] her shawl and stood close to one of the bodys. Jack Ketch took hold of one of the dead man’s hands and rubbed the woman’s neck with it up and down several times. She then put on her shawl and turning round to go, I saw both of their faces. I was quite surprised to see two of the Manchester market stall keepers, old neighbours of mine in the market. It was Jem Hallewell and his wife. They had a stall opposite the Exchange. Mary his wife had a large wen [boil or other swelling on the skin] on her neck and they had been advised to go to London to have her neck rubbed with a man’s hand that had been hung, it was to take it away by a charm. They were both very superstitious but they might as well have rubbed it with a duck’s foot in Manchester. Jem told me they had given Jack Ketch 10/- [10 shillings] for the job. Jem had been a drummer in the 33rd Foot and was at Waterloo…Jem had lost one hand and three fingers of the other. He was druming [sic] when a shot took his hands. He said that he kept druming [sic] a minute or two after his hands and drum sticks were gone, he was not aware of his loss for a short time there was such a noise and the shock so sudden.’
Recourse to digitized military discharge records on FindMyPast reveals that James Hallowell or Hallewell, a Lancashire native and a weaver by trade, had served in the 33rd Foot from October 1810 to February 1816. He spent 2 years and 227 days as drummer, ranking as a private for the remainder. The records broadly corroborate Weatherley’s account of his battlefield injuries: Hallewell was discharged aged nineteen or twenty due to the ‘loss of left hand, & thumb of right hand, occasioned by a gun shot wound received at Waterloo’ on 18 June 1815. Described as ‘a very bad case’ on account of his injuries, Hallewell was awarded a large pension of two shillings and six pence a day.
The behaviour of Hallewell and his wife on the scaffold may seem more in keeping with ancient or medieval superstition but in fact reflected a folk medical practice that remained popular in the Georgian era. As Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni wrote in a 2015 article for the Social History of Medicine journal: ‘From the eighteenth century through to the abolition of public executions in England in 1868, the touch of a freshly hanged man’s hand was sought after to cure a variety of swellings, wens in particular.’
Jem Hallewell’s claim that he had been injured while drumming provides rare evidence of British drummers beating at Waterloo, although what he was playing, and in what circumstances, is not specified. While a surgeon of the Life Guards heard ‘the drums of different regiments beating along the line’ on the morning of 18 June before the battle commenced, drummers do not generally seem to have communicated commands under fire, in contrast to light infantry buglers and cavalry trumpeters. One officer present noted that British drummers no longer rolled during charges. Instead, they were tasked with assisting the wounded. Another infantryman wrote that neither drum nor fife ‘mock[ed] us with useless din’ during the battle, adding that gunfire, groans and cheering were the true ‘music of the field’.
Sources Chetham’s Library, Manuscripts/1/371, ‘Recollections…by James Weatherley’, pp.34-35 UK National Archives, WO97/512/8, discharge of James Hallowell. J. Anton, Retrospect of a Military Life (Edinburgh, 1841), p.211. [H. Ross-Lewin], The Life of a Soldier: A Narrative of Twenty-Seven Years’ Service in various parts of the world (3 vols, London, 1834), vol. ii, p.198. J. Vansittart (ed.), Surgeon James’s Journal (London, 1964), p.31. O. Davies and F. Matteoni, ‘”A virtue beyond all medicine”: The Hanged Man’s Hand, Gallows Tradition and Healing in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century England’, Social History of Medicine, 28/4 (November 2015),pp.686-705.
Last night I appeared on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, the hit genealogy series on BBC One, speaking with English singer-songwriter Pixie Lott about Victorian military musicians in her family tree. I highlighted the significance of regimental bands as a social amenity in garrison towns and a major employer of professional musicians. An episode synopsis can be found here. Filming was completed at Aldershot Military Museum in June.
The programme is now available to view in the UK on-demand via BBC iPlayer.
I previously appeared on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ in 2019, conversing with Kate Winslet about her ancestor, a drummer in the Grenadier Guards. A clip from that episode has been made available on YouTube.
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.
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 Postlearned 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
The 1815 murder of J.P. Radelmüller, lighthouse keeper and servant of royalty, forms the basis of one of Canada’s most famous ghost stories. My 2015 research on the case was featured in the 8 August 2021 edition of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper.
Reporter Peter Edwards describes the tall tales surrounding the lighthouse and my efforts to distinguish fact from fiction. The story is available on the Star’s website here.
On 24 June at 2pm EDT (7pm in UK/ROI) I will be giving a lecture for the Ontario Genealogical Society (Toronto Branch) on the 1815 demise of J.P. Radelmüller, royal servant and lighthouse keeper. His death, allegedly at the hands of soldiers, forms the basis of a famous Canadian ghost story. The talk is based on my past research on the case, which was nominated for the 2016 Heritage Toronto Awards and can be found elsewhere on this website.
Those interested may register for the talk, part of a four-part speaker series entitled ‘Unusual Lives’, by clicking the following link: https://torontofamilyhistory.org/unusual-lives-online/ A recording of the lecture, along with recordings of the other talks in the series, will be available to paid registrants until July 31, 2021.
See below for the lecture synopsis:
June 24, 2:00 pm EDT: The 1815 Murder behind Toronto’s Oldest Ghost Story – Eamonn O’Keeffe
The 1815 murder of J.P. Radelmüller, keeper of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, forms the basis of Toronto’s most enduring ghost story. In this webinar, historian Eamonn O’Keeffe will share his research into the case, separating fact from fable. He will explore Radelmüller’s early life as a servant of royalty, consider the circumstances of his untimely death, and identify the soldiers charged with his murder. The webinar will devote extensive attention to the sources used to discern the truth behind one of Toronto’s oldest mysteries, ranging from court records and newspapers to British military muster rolls. By sharing his research methods, Eamonn will provide insight for genealogists and historians interested in researching the inhabitants of colonial York and life in early-19th-century Upper Canada more generally.
Speaker: Eamonn O’Keeffe, a Toronto native, is undertaking a PhD at the University of Oxford on military musicians during the Napoleonic Wars. He has published several academic articles and appeared as an expert on the BBC’s hit family history show “Who Do You Think You Are?” Eamonn has served as a trustee of the Society for Army Historical Research since 2016 and previously spent eleven years volunteering and working at Fort York in Toronto.