Mar 22 2016

The Battle of Plassey

Published by under History

This is a piece on a history event you’ve probably never heard about but its implications have been unimaginable.

A great misfortune of growing up in the West is that general surveys of history almost completely ignore the East. There’s a story from India that took place in the 1700s that’s just incredible.

We’ve all heard of Gandhi. But what’s less known is why Gandhi is famous. Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Independence movement that lasted from 1915 until 1947. He wanted the British to leave India. Ultimately, he succeeded. But what’s even lesser known is how the British came to power in India at all. This piece will cover a fateful day that gave the British much power – June 23, 1757. But first, a little backstory.

The year is 1756. The Indian subcontinent has been ruled by the Mughal empire for 200 years but that power has dissolved and European countries want to fill the vacuum. The British, French, Portuguese, Dutch and, strangely, Armenians are moving all over India. In eastern India, a prime seat of power is in a place called Murshidabad, about 70 miles north of Calcutta.

The ruler (or Nawab, as they were known at the time) is a man named Siraj-ud-Daulah. For about a decade, the British have been trying to undermine him. They’ve been stealing money and fortifying their outposts against the express commands of Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Finally, Siraj has had enough. He attacks the British in Calcutta at Fort William in June in what becomes known as The Siege of Calcutta. The British commander, Roger Drake, assembles a force of 500 rookie soldiers to defend the fort. Siraj quickly breaches the walls. Drake flees, leaving a surgeon, John Holwell, to remain behind with a small force. But Holwell and his men are overwhelmed by Siraj’s forces and thrown into the fort’s prison – an 18ft x 14ft room intended for no more than 2-4 prisoners at a time. Holwell claims the number of prisoners is 146, although most historians dispute this number, saying it’s inflated and maybe more on the order of 60-70 men. Regardless, a lot of people are in a small space on a very hot Indian summer night. Siraj goes to sleep the evening of June 20, 1756.

Throughout the night, the British prisoners plead with their Mughal captors to move them out of the room. Unsympathetic, the guards do nothing but offer small quantities of water through a tiny window. When Siraj wakes up in the morning and orders the cell opened, dozens of the British prisoners have died from asphyxiation and heat exhaustion. This is the room that becomes known as The Black Hole of Calcutta.

Holwell survives and his account of the incident births a retribution for the massacre. The British East India Company sends Colonel Robert Clive, stationed in southern India, up the coast with 3,000 soldiers to the outskirts of Calcutta to prepare for a battle. But Clive’s forces are outnumbered at least 6 to 1 by Siraj’s 12,000 men. Knowing a battle against these odds is foolhardy, the British begin searching for Indians disaffected with Siraj who may be interested in betraying Siraj and changing sides. They find their man – Mir Jafar.

Mir Jafar was a man known to Siraj. Mir Jafar had served as a brave military commander under Siraj’s father, Nawab Alivardi Khan. But Mir Jafar tried to overthrow Alivardi Khan and was dismissed.

In spite of this, with the British forces now advancing, Siraj forgives Mir Jafar for his prior treachery and asks him to fight against the British. Mir Jafar agrees to help and is placed in charge of one of three divisions for the battle. But what Siraj doesn’t know is that Mir Jafar has cut a deal with the British. Mir Jafar will sacrifice his entire division to the British in exchange for being named the new Nawab of Bengal.

Almost exactly one year to the day of the Siege of Calcutta and the deaths in The Black Hole, The Battle of Plassey begins some 90 miles north of Calcutta. The British, though far outnumbered, easily win the battle. Mir Jafar is named Nawab. Siraj, who flees during the battle, is captured 10 days later and murdered.

The Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the British full control over Eastern India. The British remained in India for nearly 200 more years – until 1947 when Gandhi finally succeeded in removing them.

In US history, everyone has heard of Benedict Arnold. He was the American traitor who was put in charge of West Point during the American Revolution. His aim was to surrender the fort over to the British. And it would have happened if the Americans had not captured British Major General John Andre who had papers on him that outlined the entire operation. Even today, more than 225 years later, calling someone “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous to calling them a “traitor.” Only Judas’ betrayal of Jesus looms larger.

Think on this, though. Benedict Arnold failed in his plan and his treason is loathed today. Mir Jafar succeeded in his plot and turned Eastern India over to the British. In the East, the most damning accusation of betrayal is to be called a “Mir Jafar.” He sold his people out to the British for his own personal gain. Oh, how history pivots on the fulcrum of such very small moments. The Battle of Plassey lasted a mere 12 hours but ended up affecting hundreds of millions of Indian people. The extraction of wealth off the India subcontinent by the British is a significant reason why such poverty exists in India today. All because a guy named Mir Jafar wanted to sit in a big chair.

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Mar 21 2016

Getting to the Fabric of Life

Published by under Life

What happens when the most moored parts of our life begin to loose and shake and even break away? I think most notably about relationships and philosophical ideas about God and the purpose of our lives.
What a fear we experience!
There’s a sense of floating or falling.
Oh, how many days I find myself whispering into the air, “What do I do? What do I do?” I plead with God, “Lord, help me. Help me. Help me.” Sometimes, I just call out The Name. “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.” Sometimes I don’t speak clearly but mumble his name. I actually do this often – a few times a day on most days. With my new niece now eight months old, I’ve recently reflected on what my mumbling and hers might have in common. I’ve thought about Jesus’ words in Matthew 21:16 – “Have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise.’” What if her “incoherent” babbling really is “the language of God”? And what if mine is the most pure part of me calling out to my maker?
Why does my brain skip on a loop, repeating itself in these moments? Tonight I wonder if it’s a habit unique to myself or universal to all people. But don’t all infants and toddlers repeat themselves. I just watched a video of my friends’ 18-month daughter. Dad says to his daughter, “You ready to go?” She replies to her dad (whose name is Kurt), “No, Kouwt. No, Kouwt. No, Kouwt.” She ends up saying it 10 times. :)
Infants, toddlers, children… They’re close to the fabric of life – the most elemental expressions of personhood. Very close to it. As we grow up, everything gets complicated. Children aren’t concerned with “image.” Society teaches us this terribly damaging, completely absurd, non-sense idea of coolness. It’s 100% arbitrary and we know this because it shifts so frequently over time and between cultures. God cares quite little about my clothes, my car, or my career compared to whether I’m clothed in love, caring, and devoted to doing good.
What if these moments of what I’ll call Dependent Repetition (“God, help me. God, help me.”) are a sign of our child-like soul’s rebellion against the facade of an ill-lived life? Appeals to God are the rawest of communication, cutting through all pretense. But at the same time, it requires a lack of dependence on the life we’ve built up around us. That’s the scary part – the floating and falling part.
Some people have said God is a crutch for weak people. This is probably true. Why fight the diagnosis as though any man or woman is strong in themselves? We’re all weak. We just use different crutches. It can just as equally be said that much of our culture and our embracing of it is a crutch to help us through life and, too often, to avoid God. We pine for the approval of others and will shift shapes to gain it at steep costs to our self-esteem, our bank account, and self-respect. Tori Kelly tells us the truth in her song: “I’m paper thin and you make me whole again… Cause I’m hollow.”
The “you” in her song is God.
Call out to him. Never be ashamed to do it. It’s often weakness that prompts us to seek him. Good. We’re finally understanding the reality of life – we’re nothing apart from him and his power. Nothing. Children inherently understand this, holding out their arms to be picked up. And they get the comfort of their parents. If we refuse to seek him, we won’t receive his divine comfort in the way we need it. We cannot live on God’s blessings alone. We need God himself. May we walk closely with him forever. Help it happen, O God!

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Nov 09 2015

Sanjib From Calcutta

Published by under India



I learn so much about people on these trips.

Sanjib. I’ve known him four years – since he was a little boy. He often has a hesitant smile and you can see that in the top picture. He can be very shy and unsure. We had just gotten off a rollercoaster in that picture.

In the bottom photo, we had been playing swords with our plastic water bottles and he destroyed my bottle, my hand, and my pride. His smile here is full and complete. This is the power of play. Whatever it is that typically keeps Sanjib from fully smiling went away when we played a made-up game.

All games have rules. And one rule universal to all games is that kids will smile while playing games. There is no language barrier to joy. May God keep us young enough to play games until the day we die!

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Nov 09 2015

Martha From Calcutta

Published by under India



After spending all day at an amusement park here in Calcutta, Martha became so sad on the final ride. She didn’t want to go home.

Martha lives at a boarding school because her home situation is very complicated. And even though life is sometimes difficult for her, I’m reminded it is in the hard places where God really becomes our friend. Today’s sadness is tomorrow’s strength. May God comfort us all in the places we feel weak. And may he bless Martha with every good thing in the kingdom.

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