Out Now!

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Builders of Empire




My Grandfather was a full-blown Victorian, killed in action during Boer war. My dad, born in 1900 was a Victorian, too – just – and it’s a matter of great pride for me that my own children, who hopefully will live well into the C21st will be able to claim a Victorian grandfather. Such is history. 

Heritage and the longevity of Victorian values, I think, accounts for my own fascination with the C19th and empire. How else to explain: John Brunton’s Book found in a second-hand bookshop many years ago. I opened it earlier this week, the book having matured like fine cheese.





Brunton was a well-travelled engineer, who as a boy sat on the knee of the C18th engineer, Thomas Telford, began his working life in a Welsh coal valley ‘where the parson was afraid of the witch’ and worked with the Stephenson’s during the great railway boom that transformed Britain. He fought officialdom during the Crimean war, built the 120 mile Scinde Railway connecting Karachi to Kotri and died a well loved grandfather who told his doting grandchildren such snippets of worldly wisdom as My Goanese cook ‘was very black. . . but he was a Roman Catholic and therefore a Christian’. The simple self-confidence of Victorian man. Some might call it arrogance.

In building the 120 mile Scinde Railway connecting Karachi to Kotri, John Brunton had to negotiate with the manipulative and vicious Nawab of Bahawalpur, a notorious tyrant with a savage and unpredictable streak. In his journey through the Nawab’s state, Brunton was regaled every night by the growling of tigers prowling the camp. They were protected by the Nawab, only he being allowed to hunt them so much to Brunton’s regret, he didn’t dare shoot any but instead lit large fires around his camp each night to keep them at bay.

The Indus Railway Network

Brunton recounts how the Nawab was to be told immediately when a tiger established itself near a village. Being regularly harassed by a tiger, one unfortunate farmer informed the Nawab. Next day, in great state, the Nawab arrived at the farm, and when no tiger was to be found, the poor farmer had his ears and nose cut off. Knowing how much his subjects hated him, the Nawab had his drinking water brought in daily in specially sealed jars which had been filled across the Sutlej river in British territory.

Eventually the Nawab’s fears came true when an Ayah (nurse) responsible for one of the young princes not only poisoned the tyrant but also all the heirs but one:  her favourite child prince who would become the new Nawab. The crime shocked the British, but their response was pragmatic. In Brunton’s words

‘When this happened, our Indian Government stepped in, appointed an English officer as Regent – took the young prince in care, gave him a first-class education, and he now occupies the (throne) of Bahawalpur. I am told that he by no means follows in his father’s footsteps.’ He certainly didn’t.


The new Nawab was inculcated with ‘British values’ and proved a bastion of the empire in that area. The Romans taught us well two thousand years ago.

1900. The earliest photo we have

For those who'd like to read more on the Scinde Railway I strongly recommend this link. It has revealing snippets ref the process of building it and the cheerful arrogance of those who built it. 

1 comment:

Maria Zannini said...

Many countries have emulated the Romans since. If it works, why change?

On the other hand, a smart "groomed" future ruler might also learn from his groomers and learn their weaknesses as well as their strengths.