How many ships could a woman’s face launch? This question seems to have preoccupied Winston Churchill. As a young officer attending gala balls and events, he rated women on a scale of 1000 – based on the legend of Helen, whose beauty triggered the Battle of Troy.
It was in Hyderabad, 1897, that he first found a woman worth warring for. He first met Pamela Plowden at a Polo tournament in Hyderabad, where Churchill bragged of beating a first-class team 9-3. He does not mention the encounter in his autobiography, but it came to light after later biographers mention it as a key moment in his life.
He wished to take her around Hyderabad on elephant-back – a mode of transport that avoided the occasionally hostile natives of Hyderabad. The ride kicked off a romance by post, as he would later write to her in earnest:
I have lived all my life seeing the most beautiful women London produces… Never have I seen one for whom I would forego the business of life. Then I met you… Were I a dreamer of dreams, I would say… “Marry me – and I will conquer the world and lay it at your feet.
It was not an impossible promise, but it was not to be. Though he came from distinguished family, he did not have enough money to warrant the girl’s father’s approval (nor did he have enough to pay his dues to the Bangalore Club – where he was a regular member). Two years later, she married the son of the Viceroy of India, becoming Lady Lytton.
From then on, he seems to have wanted desperately to prove himself – and the defeat of romance was not something he could easily stomach.
We know Churchill as Britain’s hero of World War II. On the grounds of Blenheim Palace, he’s seen as a romantic – the very place he proposed to his wife, Clementine, marked by a monument (the Temple of Diana). But in India, he’s seen as an incurable racist – a man with a historic aversion to a people he called ‘beastly’.
How was Churchill’s experience in India? And did it shape his later world views?
The benefits of an idle life
Winston Churchill arrived at the port of Bombay as a 21-year-old subaltern. He was posted in Bangalore, where he lived in ‘a magnificent pink and white stucco palace in the middle of a large and beautiful garden’. Here, he was served by his staff – a gardener, a water-carrier, a dhobi, and a watchman.
For most of his time, he had little to do. He wrote about Bangalore and his life:
the sun even at midday is temperate and the mornings and evenings are fresh and cool
It’s said that here was where he caught up on his education, familiarising himself with historical works, political thinkers and even elements of science. He developed a sense of rationalism – and seems to have questioned the merit of religion. He collected butterflies, and other than these pursuits, he was left feeling unutilized.
He also developed a tab at the Bangalore Club, mostly on Whiskey. He owes them thirteen rupees, written off by the Bangalore club committee in 1899 as an irrecoverable sum.
It was a poignant heartbreak for a young man who was already bored and uncertain of his time in India. There is little wonder Bangalore’s idyllic settings (where he resided) and creature comforts made Bangalore seem like a “third-grade watering hole”.
A Thirst for war
The first opportunity he got for a holiday in Britain, he seized. But once there, news reached him of a Pathan Rebellion in the North-West Frontier Province. He returned to India – where he was commissioned as a war correspondent. On being deployed to the front, he saw the impact of rebellion – dead British and Indian soldiers. It seems to have soured his worldview, as is apparent from his dispatch:
The tribesmen are among the most miserable and brutal creatures on earth. Their intelligence only enables them to be more cruel, more dangerous, more destructible than the wild beasts. (…) I find it impossible to come to any other conclusion than that, in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.
It was a threat the British were willing to carry out, as they burned village after village in retribution. Churchill had tasted blood in India – and later proved himself an adept commander and survivor on the Egyptian front. His legacy spanned in World War II is but an outcome of many early experiences of war.
Love alone was not the driver – Churchill was always military minded. But love did provoke him to seek greater glories, at a time when he was alone, bored and perhaps feeling existential in sleepy Bangalore cantonment. By 1902, when Pamela was married, he even congratulated her on the wedding – feeling some solace that he still had his health.
I look to the consolations of life. I enjoy health, brains, youth and the future… God has taken pleasure in inventing an imperfect world. What a God.
Six years later, he would marry Clementine Hozier. He wrote to Pamela assuring her that they would remain best friends. The romance in Hyderabad that was not to be, had finally been overshadowed by one that was real.
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