1. Churchill regularly played polo with Indian Muslims and Sheiks while he was a soldier.
When Churchill was stationed in India as a subaltern in 1896, he, like most British cavalry officers, was an avid polo player. In a letter to his mother on 12 November 1896, Churchill was happy to announce that the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars (for whom he played) won a polo tournament for the Golconda Cup in Hyderabad and that this victory was a record because ‘no English Regiment ever… won a first class tournament within a month of their arrival in India.’ Churchill told his mother he would send pictures of the event and that she would be able to see him ‘fiercely struggling with turbaned w
arrior.’ The ‘turbaned warriors’ Churchill, later recalled, were the ‘famous Golconda Brigade, the bodyguards of the Nizam himself.’ (The
photographic evidence of this in the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge.) Churchill greatly enjoyed polo matches with the native Indian Army officers and even returned to play in the Inter-Regimental Tournament in February 1899, when he stayed with Sir Pertab Singh (the Maharaja of Idar, a British Indian Army officer, and a polo enthusiast) for a week prior to the tournament.
2. He tried to fight for the Ottoman Empire in the Greco -Turkish war of 1897
By 28 April 1897, Churchill made up his mind to fight on the side of the Ottomans and asked his mother to send money to the Ottoman bank. However, he feared the Balkan War would be over too soon for him to get involved. Churchill met Ian Hamilton (later Sir General Ian Hamilton) on the transfer boat, and while Hamilton had promised his service to Greece, Churchill had promised his to Turkey. While Churchill’s peculiar allegiance to Turkey largely owes to his lust for glory, an additional explanation might be that he inherited a ‘Turkophile’ attitude from his father. Some historians have dismissed such connections, arguing that ‘subalterns are often Turkophile’ but regardless, the two men shared little love for one another on the boat ride due to their conflicting alliances. Interestingly, Churchill himself recalled the incident years later, saying that Hamilton was a ‘romantic’ and was thus ‘for the Greeks,’ while Churchill ‘having been brought up a Tory… was for the Turks.’ However, their formal confrontation was not to be, for by the time they reached their port of call at Port Said in Egypt, the war was over. Churchill lamented his lost adventure in a letter to his mother in late May 1897: ‘I have reluctantly had to give up all hopes of Turkey as the war has fizzled out like a damp firework.’
3. He used to dress up as an Arab Bedouin at Wilfrid S Blunt’s estate in Sussex
It is remarkable that such an eccentric character like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Winston Churchill were friends in the first place. Churchill was a rising star in the Edwardian political scene and Blunt had become “the avatar for anti-imperial causes” and an active force for the “regeneration of Islam” by means of “agitation and negotiation as well as by poetry and horse breeding.” Perhaps even more bizarre was that they would dress as Arabs and would wander around Blunt’s estate in Sussex pitching tents and pretending to be Bedouins. This first occurred in 5 July 1904 and continued as a tradition until Blunt’s death in 1922. For instance, Blunt recorded in his diary for 19 Oct 1912, ‘It was a fine night and we dined in the bungalow , dressed in gorgeous Oriental garments , Clementine [Churchill] is a suit of embroidered silk, purchased last year in Smyrna, Winston [Churchill] in one of my Bagdad robes…Winston was very brilliant in all this .’
4. Churchill’s sister-in-law was afraid he might convert to Islam
Churchill’s curious fascination with Islamic culture even became obvious to others around him. He received a letter from his long-time friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie on 27 August 1907 who was perhaps alarmed at Churchill’s new relationship with Wilfrid S Blunt. In her letter, she explained she was afraid that Churchill was so fascinated by ‘Oriental cultiure’ that he might actually convert to Islam:
‘Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalism, pasha-like tendencies, I really have; you are not cross my writing this, so if you come in contact with Islam, your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do… fight against it.’
5. He defended Muslim civil rights in British India during the 1930s
Sure everyone knows that Winston Churchill tried to keep India in the British Empire in the 1930s and that he developed a real grudge against Mahatma Gandhi calling him ‘a half-naked fakir’ and a ‘seditious Middle Temple lawyer.’ However, what most people don’t know was that one of the dimensions of Churchill’s argument for keeping India within the Empire was his defence of Muslim civil rights.
Churchill’s relationship with India’s Muslims is far more complex than the traditional narrative indicates. Far from lumping all of India’s groups together as non-differential imperial subjects, Churchill distinguished between the different ethnic and religious communities of India. Like many of his contemporaries, Churchill typically favoured the Muslims due to their status as a “martial race”. This was a recurring theme throughout Churchill’s speeches during the 1930s when he referred to Muslims as “men of martial nature”, members of a “fighting race”. Moreover, Churchill held on to this idea of courageous and loyal Muslim soldiers through World War I and after. In his note on “the importance of fair dealings with Moslems of India”, he recalled that: “During the Great War the Moslems of India confounded the hopes of their disloyalty entertained by the Germans and their Turkish ally and readily went to the colours; the Punjab alone furnished 180,000 Moslem recruits.”
Though Churchill was heavily influced by books like Mother India by Catherine Mayo, the most important influences which helped shape Churchill’s defence of British rule in India were his various friendships with prominent Muslims such as the Aga Khan, Baron Headley (president of the British Muslim Society), Waris Ameer Ali (a London judge), Feroz Khan Noon (a future Prime Minister of Pakistan) and even M.A. Jinnah — the so-called father of Pakistan.”
While the Aga Khan and Baron Headley connected Churchill to important pro-Islamic groups such as the British Muslim Society, the greatest influence on Churchill’s thinking regarding the Muslim population of India was probably Waris Ali. Waris Ali and Churchill became good friends whose correspondence lasted into the post-war years, and they worked closely together on the Indian Empire Society, which later became a part of the Indian Defence League. Waris Ali used his connections in India to keep Churchill informed of Muslim opinion on the ground in India, and continually sent Churchill information which Churchill would then use in the House of Commons as evidence of the necessity of British rule. For Instance, on 12 April 1931, Waris Ali wrote to Churchill regarding the Cawnpore Massacre saying that the Cawnpore riots were a “well thought-out […] programme for […] the terrorisation of the Muslim minority into submission and surrender of their demand for effective safeguards in the future constitution of India”. Within a month Churchill addressed an audience in Kent thus: “Look at what happened at Cawnpore […] A hideous primordial massacre has been perpetrated by the Hindus on the Moslems because the Moslems refused to join in the glorification of the murder of a British policeman.”
Furthermore, the aspects of Churchill’s position which might be characterised as concern for the Muslim minority were informed by Ali and were evident in his portrayal of the Indian Congress Party, of which he later said that it “does not represent India. It does not represent the majority of people in India. It does not even represent the Hindu masses. Outside that Party and fundamentally opposed to it are 90 million Moslems in British India who have their rights to self-expression.” Churchill himself implied that Waris Ali had influenced his position, saying to Ali that he had “availed himself fully of [his letters and articles]” and that he planned “to recur to him” if he needed more help in Parliament.
Clearly, Churchill’s connection to prominent Indian Muslims had a major impact on his views of Indian independence. While Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence was not completely motivate by Muslim civil rights (he was still a Victorian imperialist after all), as an issue it certainly help characterize, and may have been an attempt to legitimatize his views on them British Empire in India.
For more interesting facts on Winston Churchill and the Islamic World out my book, Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2014).
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