John Jacob of Jacobabad
By H.T. Lambrick
Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699860379
448pp.

One of the worst things about the British Raj was its perpetrators’ belief that they were indispensable, that by suppressing the local population, usurping their land and subjecting them to famine, they were doing a great service. In their absence, they believed, the Subcontinent would continue to suffer under the ‘tyranny’ of local rulers.

Written in a similar vein, Hugh Trevor Lambrick’s John Jacob of Jacobabad is an obsequious account of the life and times of the subject of the book, and his exploits in Sindh and Balochistan.

First published in 1959, the book was reprinted in 1974 by the author himself. This third edition has been brought out by the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh.

A bit of background about the author is in order. Before joining the University of Oxford as an academic, Lambrick served in Sindh from 1927 to 1947 as a civil servant of the Raj. Therefore, he seems reasonably familiar with the terrain and the ethnic groups in Sindh and neighbouring Balochistan.

A third edition of H.T. Lambrick’s obsequious account of the life of another Englishman from the Raj drives home the inherent racism of the colonial project

The tome covers the period from Jacob’s arrival in India in 1828, until his death in 1858, and is peppered with mention of rivalries between his contemporaries: Charles Napier, Henry Frere, James Outram, William Merewether and Robert Montgomery — all names straight out of a map of old Karachi.

Jacob came eastwards as a 16-year-old army officer. Military service was not an unusual choice, as several of his brothers had already served in India. His father was a vicar, so Jacob’s later agnostic leanings would have come as a rude shock to the family.

He was instrumental in setting up the Scinde Horse — a regiment that was inherited by the Indian army after independence and survives to date with the same spelling — and, by the time he died, at the relatively tender age of 46, he had a city named after him.

This was apparently the first Subcontinental city to be named after an Englishman, that too by the locals themselves, but it’s a claim one is not sure should be accepted. The book alleges that the officer’s grave in Jacobabad, Sindh, is deeply venerated and receives visitors much in the manner of Sufi shrines.

The author, too, seems to think Jacob was the best thing to happen to Sindh since sliced bread — Lambrick describes him as a reforming genius and a masterful writer, city planner and military strategist.

So what was it about this Englishman from Somerset, who struggled with a stammer throughout his life, which made for such a remarkable legacy? For this reader, if Jacob’s achievements were impressive, then they are overshadowed by the racism embedded in both his own thinking, as well as that of the author.

It is amazing how the colonisers’ privilege to rule is considered inherent and natural, and that it is okay for “millions of natives” to be governed by a “handful of Englishmen.”

In fact, there are two layers of racist thinking in this book: the first is John Jacob’s thoughts, while the second is the writer’s. It will be hard for readers to dismiss these simply as typical of the time they were written in, especially because the second edition was published as late as 1974. It is astounding that such writing was considered acceptable in a period when the postcolonial movement had kicked off.

There are some incredibly racist confessions by both Jacob and Lambrick: for example, that the Baloch are well suited to perform feats of endurance under the sun, that Baloch tribes are wild and warlike and that Sindhis are addicted to bhang [cannabis].

According to the author, for men of the English race, violence is momentary. The implication, of course, is that brown people are inherently violent. Lambrick subliminally laments the White Man’s burden: Jacob thought India was capable of great development, but was being held back by its tyrannical rulers — until the British ‘saviours’ arrived, of course. His time spent working in Sindh did not stop him from harbouring some very stereotypical views about the local population.

It is amazing how the colonisers’ privilege to rule is considered inherent and natural, and that it is okay for “millions of natives” to be governed by a “handful of Englishmen” because the latter are so essentially different from the former, and it is important to keep habits, feelings and thoughts different. Furthermore, the natives must be convinced that the English are morally superior.

What nonsense.

Also, for the writer, it is unthinkable that the “natives” would have figured things out on their own and Lambrick goes so far as to suggest that a zigzag path down a mountain to the Siahaf valley near Dera Bugti would not have materialised had Jacob not come up with it.

One is also left astounded by the bloodiness of the conflicts taking place during the time. So many young lives — mostly Indian — are mentioned as lost in battle. For instance, in the 1843 Battle of Miani, the first British victory in what is now Pakistan, England lost six officers, while the dead on the other side piled up in heaps; one account says 5,000 died. It makes one wonder if anyone has ever bothered to document such loss of life.

While London celebrates Charles Napier in Trafalgar Square, does anyone in Pakistan remember the countless hundreds who died fighting Napier? The plunder of the losing side’s riches after the war is shocking as one reads of the merriment with which the so-called “Prize Agents” make off with valuable silks, carpets and furniture.

Sadly, the book drives home the fact that the British Raj and, subsequently, the Pakistan state’s policy towards Sindh and Balochistan, has been the same: viewing the adjoining provinces from a strategic lens rather than having a developmental vision. This makes for a sobering realisation.

Another contemporary theme is that of the Great Game — the Anglo-Saxon infatuation with limiting Russian influence in Afghanistan — which features heavily throughout the book.

Annoyingly, the book seldom mentions dates and readers will have to themselves look up the years of events being described. Given that this is a reprint of an old book, it can be forgiven, but should be kept in mind for future editions.

While the book is rich in pictures, most were taken during Lambrick’s tenure in Sindh between 1927 and 1947, and so are of poor resolution and colour. Adding some recent photographs would have improved the reading experience considerably.

As Pakistan celebrates 75 years of independence from Britain this year, one sincerely hopes this book will make readers acknowledge — over more than a hundred years after Jacob’s death — the rather problematic views that Jacob, and subsequently the author himself, held.

It is easy to say these were words spoken by men of the times. But surely, if all men back then were racists, they wouldn’t have needed men such as Jacob and Lambrick, in positions of authority, to immunise the public to racism, convince people that such thinking was acceptable and enforce racism from the top down. Something for the discerning reader to mull over.

The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 24th, 2022

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