Sunday, 23 June 2019

Napoleon and the Malay slave

In 1815, after his defeat at battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled by the British to the island of St. Helena - a lonely, desolate rock in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean. When he first arrived on the island, Napoleon had to temporarily stay at the home of an official of the East India Company, William Balcombe. It was there that Napoleon met a Malay slave who was responsible for taking care of the Balcombe's beautiful garden and whom the Balcombes had given the name Toby.

Toby's  story was rather pathetic. He had been enticed from his native place many years before, brought to St. Helena by the English, smuggled on shore and illegally sold as a slave, given out to whoever would hire him, and his earnings chiefly appropriated by his master.

Napoleon showed the Malay slave great kindness, perhaps recognizing in Toby a kindred spirit, or at least feeling a common bond in the fact that both had been brought unwillingly to the island and were doomed to die there. Certainly Napoleon liked Toby enough that, when he had heard his story, wished to buy him, set him free and send him back to his home country. But for political reasons, when Mr. Balcombe made Napoleon's wishes known to the island's governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, he could not get his consent.

Toby, however, was grateful to Napoleon for his wish to help him, and continued to be his devoted admirer. When Napoleon left the Balcombes' home to move to his own residence, Longwood, he presented Toby with twenty-nine gold napoleons and always inquired for his health. When Napoleon left The Briars, Toby often arranged bouquets and fruits to go to Longwood,—"to that good man, Bony."

Toby, from all accounts, was an attractive fellow. His countenance had a frank and benevolent expression. His eyes were animated and sparkling, his aspect not abject, but prepossessing.  A perfect despot in his garden  domain, he never allowed his authority to be disputed ; and the family stood almost as much in awe of him, as they did of the master of the house Mr. Balcombe.

Speaking to his companion in exile the Count de Las Cases, Napoleon frequently reflected on Toby's fate. "What, after all, is this poor human machine? There is not one whose exterior form is like another, or whose internal organization resembles the rest. And it is by disregarding this truth that we are led to the commission of so many errors. Had Toby been a Brutus, he would have put himself to death; if an Aesop he would now, perhaps, have been the Governor’s adviser, if an ardent and zealous Christian, he would have borne his chains in the sight of God and blessed them."

"As for poor Toby, he endures his misfortunes very quietly: he stoops to his work and spends his days in innocent tranquility. Certainly there is a wide step from poor Toby to a King Richard. And yet, the crime is not the less atrocious, for this man, after all, had his family, his happiness, and his liberty; and it was a horrible act of cruelty to bring him here to languish in the fetters of slavery."

There is no mention of Toby's death in the Count's journals, so it is possible Toby lived on after Napoleon's death in 1821. In 1818, Governor Lowe initiated the first step in emancipating the slaves in St Helena by persuading slave owners to give all slave children born on the island after Christmas of that year their freedom once they had reached their late teens. The phased emancipation of over 800 resident slaves began in 1827; under certain circumstances a slave could buy his or her freedom, using money borrowed from the East India Company. The actual abolition of slavery on the island had to wait until 1st August 1834, after which date all slaves would be freed but would remain in work, becoming paid apprentice labourers. Hopefully, that would have been Toby's fate had he lived to 1834.

Ironically, in 1840 the British Government designated St. Helena as its main naval station to suppress the African slave trade in the Atlantic (mostly to America, by this time). During its War on Slavery, Royal Navy ships based there pursued and attacked ships carrying slaves from British territories, with the captains and crews of the slave ships being tried at the Vice Admiralty Court that was established in St Helena.

Extracted from "Memoirs of the life, exile, and conversations of the Emperor Napoleon (Volume I)" by  Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases [1836].  

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Martini-Henry's Baptism of Fire in the Malay States

In popular culture, when the vast majority of people think of the British Empire, they envisage a redcoat soldier in his white sun helmet clutching his trusty Martini-Henry rifle. In the film 'Zulu', when Colour Sgt. Bourne remarked that it was a miracle their outnumbered outpost had managed to defeat the Zulu army,  Lt. John Chard famously replied "If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short-chambered, Boxer-Henry .45 calibre miracle." Martini–Henry variants were the weapons of choice for the British army in the last three decades of the 19th century, during the height of Britain's empire building days in Asia and Africa. But not many realise that the very first time this iconic weapon was fired in anger was in the Malay States of Perak and Sungei Ujong during the war in 1875-1876.

The Martini-Henry first entered service in 1871, replacing the Snider–Enfield muzzle-loading rifle. The Martini-Henry was the British army's first rifle that was designed from the outset as a breechloader and, as a result, had a faster rate of fire and a longer range than the Snider. Utilising the .577/450 Boxer-Henry cartridge, it also had a very high calibre and was to prove a real ‘man-stopper.’

However, the new weapon was not without its faults. As service battalions and the Navy began to train the men in its use, they reported an alarmingly large number of incidents of cartridge jams and accidental discharges. Nevertheless, in June 1875, the British army's Director of Artillery and Stores concluded “I think we need take no action at present, it is a subject which may be discussed at a future conference, with other points which may arise, when we get more experience with the arm”. That “more experience” was not long in arriving.

On 2nd November 1875, the British Resident in the Malay State of Perak was murdered by followers of a local Malay chief, Dato Maharajalela, and the alarmed British rushed several army units to the Malay Peninsula, including battalions which were just issued with the new Martini-Henry such as the 10th Regiment, 80th Regiment (Staffordshire Volunteers) and 3rd Regiment (The Buffs). By most accounts, the new weapon appears to have performed admirably, contributing greatly to the rapid destruction of the opposing Malay forces in Perak and Sungei Ujong. Lieutenant H B Eich of the Royal Engineers reports that troops advancing slowly up the Perak River were suddenly fired upon from a hastily- formed Malay stockade in the district of Belanja, near modern-day Parit. "The enemy fired two or three volleys, and in the meantime a gun and rocket tube were brought up and got into position. Two rounds of shell and one of case shot were then fired into the stockade, as also two rockets. Several rounds of the Martini-Henry were also fired, as the advanced guard advanced - the enemy retreated forthwith."

A Straits Times report from 8th December 1875 described an attack by the 10th Regiment on a strong Malay stockade at Paroi, near modern-day Seremban. "Behind the ridge, there was good cover and, as the 10th doubled up and lay down behind it, the enemy opened fire on them, which was returned with such a continuous roar of musketry from the Martini-Henry that it must have rather astonished the Malays."

However, someone else who must have been astonished during that particular battle was the commander of the 1st Batallion 10th Regiment Lieutenant Henry Charles Hinxman. In his despatches, Hinxman reported "I was much disappointed with the new (Martini-Henry) rifles. When they get hot, the extractor becomes jammed, and eight or ten of my men told me their rifles were useless, so I told them to take the wounded men's rifles."

The problem did not appear to have greatly affected the outcome of the battle. Hinxman reported: "The enemy were now in full retreat up the hill at E. I formed up my men and poured effective volleys into them. We now gave three cheers and burnt the village."

Nevertheless, Hinxman's report caused a great deal of consternation in London and the issue of the effectiveness of the Martini-Henry was even debated in Parliament following the experience of the war in the Malay States. The Hansard of 9th June 1876 reports that Sir Walter Barttelot called attention to the question of the Martini-Henry rifle, believing that it was not the best weapon with which to furnish our Army.  "He believed this weapon would absolutely fail if it came to the practical test of war. At Perak it was reported on unfavourably, and it was said, that after being fired a certain number of times it became too hot to hold, and the cartridges got jammed."

However, the Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, Lord Eustace Cecil, replied in the debate that "they had one report from Perak, which stated that after a certain time the weapon got hot and out of order, and that the men had to throw it away; but since then they had reports of the campaign, and not a single fault was found with the rifle. There had been a solitary report, and that was all."

The issue of the barrel heating up rapidly on high rates of fire was something that continued to plague the Martini-Henry and men in the field began to fashion their own hide leather grips to counteract the heat. This became standard issue in 1884. However, the overheating problem persisted - at the battle of Tofrek during the Sudan war in 1885, for example, as many as half of the British rifles jammed.

Nevertheless, the variants and improvements of the Martini-Henry saw service throughout the Empire for the remainder of the century until it was replaced by the bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle. It saw some of Britain's most desperate conflicts, including the Xhosa war in Southern Africa, the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Anglo-Sudan War and the Anglo-Zulu War. The power of the rifle’s legacy can even be seen today, as Martini-Henry rifles continue to be found in Taliban arms caches in Afghanistan. But it was in Malaya where this weapon of mass destruction found first blood.