Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The fakir pointed to a small wooden platter, making signs for us to examine it.

In the following post, Theodore Roosevelt, author of forty books, I documented the extent to which before 1900, most of our presidents were multilingual and I commented that
I knew of course that Latin and Greek were mainstays of a gentlemen's education but I am not sure I realized the extent to which, if these fellows are representative, that they used it and maintained fluency through life.
I am currently reading an out of print book, Battles of the Indian Mutiny by Michael Edwards which offers additional evidence of the extent to which educated gentlemen sustained their Greek and Latin through their professional lives. The Mutiny began in May 1857. In the early months, many British communities were cut off from one another with little or no communication between them. Messages had to be smuggled through mutineers' lines and the unsettled country side. The British officers, like US Presidents, were commonly schooled in both Greek and Latin. Apparently Greek was the preferred lingua franca for coded messages. I am only a third of the way through the book and already have come across three occasions where British officers cut off in isolated forts sent messages to relief columns, written in Greek.

One such account, recorded by Frederick Roberts, who was there.
Some excitement was caused on reaching camp by the appearance of a fakir seated under a tree close to where our tents were pitched. The man was evidently under a vow of silence, which Hindu devotees make as a penance for sin, or to earn a title to more than a fair share of happiness in a future life. On our addressing him, the fakir pointed to a small wooden platter, making signs for us to examine it. The platter had quite recently been used for mixing food in, and at first there seemed to be nothing unusual about it. On closer inspection, however, we discovered that a detachable square wood had been let in at the bottom, on removing which a hollow became visible, and in it lay a small folded paper, that proved to be a note from General Havelock, written in the Greek character, containing the information that he was on his way to the relief of the Lucknow garrison, and begging any commander into whose hands the communication might fall to push on as fast as possible to his assistance, as he sorely needed reinforcements, having few men and no carriage to speak of.
An example of the enormous role contingency plays in the paths of history. A small hidden message sent from a beleaguered general out into the immense wilds of India, coded in Greek on the assumption that it would be understood by any British officer, and hidden in a dish. How would one estimate the odds that that would have actually worked and the message have gotten through. And yet it did.

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