I was born in Calcutta, the city that served as British India’s capital for the majority of the Raj years, born a bare ten years after India gained independence from the Empire. British India was still very much a part of people’s lives when I was growing up, with tales, often apocryphal, of unusual events and traditions.
One of the Raj “traditions” that used to make me laugh was the insistence that the First Secretary of the Bengal Government could not see visitors until after he’d fiinished the day’s Times crossword. Never proven, but fun to think about, particularly if you were in a queue in Writers’ Building.
There were many apocryphal stories; one set (of three stories) in particular was of considerable interest to me, given my passion for words and puzzles.
- Charles Napier, when capturing the province of Sindh in 1843, was meant to have sent a telegram with just one word on it: Peccavi.
- Colin Campbell, similarly, is meant to have sent one that just said Nunc Fortunatus Sum when he arrived in Lucknow.
- And, to complete the set, Lord Dalhousie is credited with sending just Vovi when annexing Oudh.
Peccavi. I have sinned. Nunc Fortunatus Sum. I am in luck now. Vovi. I have vowed.
There are many arguments as to whether any of these events actually happened, with people focusing on particular angels and particular pins. For example, it is said that a 17-year old girl named Catherine Winkworth wrote in to Punch to say that Napier should have said Peccavi, and that the Punch cartoon published in May 1844 was directly as a result of the letter, that Napier never said it.
I don’t know the answer, there is no evidence that Napier actually sent the telegram. But there is evidence that Napier was born in Whitehall, that he went to school in Celbridge in Eire, a place with a history of 5000 years of habitation, a place that had a school since 1709, that “Ireland’s richest man” then, William “Speaker” Conolly, built his mansion there at the turn of the 18th century. So there is some likelihood that Napier was educated enough to have said it. As I study the other pronouncements attributed to Napier, I tend to have some sympathy with the view that he actually sent the message, even if Miss Winkworth did write a letter a year later.
For the purposes of this post, it doesn’t actually matter whether Napier said it or not. What matters is the accessibility of the story.
In the past, the Peccavi story would only have made sense to people who understood Latin and who had a facility with Empire history and geography. A limited set of people.
Today, if Napier were alive and he used Twitter to send his message, he could have sent one that looked like this:
This ability to compress context and associate it with communication is critical. It is an example of what David Weinberger was referring to when he said “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies”.
The implications for accessibility should not be underestimated. In the past, Peccavi was an “in” joke amongst well-read people. Now, it can be shared by all, with links providing the context and background required to “understand the joke”.
I think this is a big deal. It is one of the reasons why the web is different, the ability to associate content and communication with compressed context.