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'Peccavi' - the Quotable Sir Charles Napier

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Salah ad-Din View Drop Down

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    Posted: 10-May-2013 at 19:49
Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) was one of a host of 19th Century British military men to carry that surname. He was also the first, and one of the most colorful, British generals to distinguish himself during the reign of Queen Victoria. Napier was notable for both his courage and his bad luck during the Napoleonic Wars, being captured at Corunna and then suffering a miserable facial wound during the Peninsular Campaign. He held command of the 102nd Foot during the American War, known to his foes as the 'War of 1812'.

Napier was the British governor of part of the Ionian Islands 1819-1830; he stood out for his humanity and his desire to better the lives of the people he governed. He also acquired a lover, a high-spirited Greek girl named Anastasia by whom he fathered two daughters. Napier married twice; both of his brides were almost old enough to be his mother. His mistress Anastasia seems to have been the only woman he ever loved with romantic passion, but their liaison ended when he was dismissed from the Ionian Islands.

In 1839 Napier was given the rank of major-general, and commanded the Northern District of England. He was charged with surpressing Chartist sentiments in the area, despite his personal sympathies with the working man. In 1841, despite his advanced age and poor health, he accepted a command in Sind, where he famously defeated an army of 30,000 Baluchis at Miani in 1843. A month after this victory, he defeated them again at Dubba. Because 'Dubba' was a local word for 'skin of grease', Napier dispatched a young officer - incidentally, his future son-in-law - to find another local, more eloquently-named village to name the battle after. It went down in histoy as the Battle of Hyderabad.

As in the Ionian Islands, Napier ruled Sind with decency and compassion for the poor, and was again dismissed by his superiors. He returned to India in 1849, however, to replace Sir Hugh Gough as the British commander in the Second Sikh War. Gough had already brought the war to a conclusion by the time Napier arrived. He was the commander in chief in India for two years, before he was forced to resign yet again. Sir Charles Napier died in retirement near Portsmouth on August 29th, 1853.

Even by Victorian standards, Sir Charles Napier was something of an eccentric. He was brilliant and forward-thinking, and was remarkably understanding and seemingly devoid of supremacist attitudes in his dealings with 'natives'. He stood out for being the first British general to ever mention non-white soldiers by name in post-battle dispatches. He was a fervent Christian, yet was known for his foul mouth and his sexual promiscuity; however, he abstained from alcohol and smoking. In his letters to family, Napier stands out for his witty perspective, and his love of irony and gothic humor.

Ironically, the quote most often attributed to Sir Charles Napier does not seem to have been his. During his 1843 conquest of Sind, Napier was reportedly appalled at the level of human suffering he had caused, and supposedly exclaimed 'peccavi!' Latin for, 'I have sinned!' Though this expression was falsely put in Napier's mouth by Punch magazine, his disgust with the bloodshed seems to have been genuine. The rest of this essay will consist of some of Napier's cleverest or best-known quotes. My primary source has been Eminent Victorian Soldiers by Byron Farwell.

'She looked so wicked and haughty...I think of nothing else, and hate any kind of company where she is not' - Napier, writing in 1802 of his first love, the daughter of Lord Gage

'Then blaze away!' - Napier to his soldiers at Corunna, when he asked them if they could see the enemy

'George was hit in the stern and I in the stem. That was burning the family candle at both ends' - Napier, upon hearing that his brother was wounded in the hip

'My friend Stewart is dead: I wonder how he likes it' - Napier in a letter to his mother in 1812

'This kind of man it gives me pleasure to flog, and no regiment is without several' - Napier, on a soldier he punished for beating his own wife

'I dislike sacking and burning very disgusting...nevertheless a pair of breeches must be plundered, for mine are worn out, and btter it will be to take a pair than to shock the Yankee dames by presenting myself as a sans culotte' - Napier in a letter to his mother during the War of 1812

'Tell Aunt that out of regard for her I don't bayonet many children' - another letter written during the American War

'They are fine fellows, liars it is said, but so are we' - Napier on the Americans

'Power is never disagreeable' - Napier on his administration in the Ionian Islands

'Never have I wronged a woman in my life. I have kissed away many a tear, but never caused one'

'So thin, so sharp, so black, so Jewish, so rascally, such a knavish looking son of a gun' - Napier describing his own physical appearance

'I saw she had a good head and no humbug and this, I thought, would suit the kangaroos' - Napier on his second wife, whom he married in 1835, when he was aspiring to become a governor in Australia

'The people are starving and the government does nothing...the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but it is assuredly hung with Manchester cotton' - Napier, during the Chartist 'disturbances'

'Charles! Charles Napier! Take heed of your ambition for military glory; you had scotched that snake, but this high command will, unless you are careful, give it all its vigour again. Get thee behind me, Satan!' - Napier in his journal, during his first Indian command

'They are tyrants, and so are we, but the poor will have fairer play under our sceptre than under theirs...we have no right to seize Scinde, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality it will be' - Napier on his conquest of Sind

'We break treaties, but that is not a reason for letting others do the same.'

'Am I guilty of these horrid scenes?' - Napier in his journal, after the Battle of Miani

'I never feel angry in my heart against any one - beyond wishing to break their bones with a broomstick!' - Napier on his critics in Parliament

'The burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to our national customs' - Napier to Indian leaders indignant at his ban on the practice of Hindu widow-burning

'My God! What numbers of lives I could have saved had I been master in this Sikh War! I think there never was a such a galaxy of blunders since war was war!' - Napier on Gough's conduct in the Second Sikh War

'So perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to be misgoverned by its own people rather than well ruled by another'

'The human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear'

'The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed'
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