1% of people were accountable for 63% of all violent crime convictions

Saturday, May 13th, 2023

A small minority of repeat offenders are responsible for a large fraction of all crimes:

Criminal and delinquent behavior approximately follow such power laws. It is observed for arrests, convictions and even self-reported delinquent behavior. For example, Cook et al. (2004) compared convictions in a UK study and self-reported delinquency from a US dataset and found that both were well-described by a power law. Other UK data show that 70% of custodial sentences are imposed on those with at least seven previous convictions or cautions, and 50% are imposed on those with at least 15 previous convictions or cautions (Cuthbertson, 2017).

But perhaps the most illustrative study is by Falk et al. (2014), who used Swedish nationwide data of all 2.4 million individuals born in 1958–1980 and looked at the distribution of violent crime convictions. In short, they found that 1% of people were accountable for 63% of all violent crime convictions, and 0.12% of people accounted for 20% of violent crime convictions.


Another notable fact: approximately half of violent crime convictions were committed by people who already had 3 or more violent crime convictions. In other words, if after being convicted of 3 violent crimes people were prevented from further offending, half of violent crime convictions would have been avoided.


It is clear that people tend to have many arrests before being incarcerated. The data show, among persons admitted to state prison, more than 3 out of 4 have at least 5 prior arrests, including the arrest that resulted in their prison sentence. Going further into the tail: 46% (almost 1 in 2) had 10 or more prior arrests, 14% (1 in 7) had 20 or more prior arrests, and 5% (1 in 20) had 30 or more prior arrests. Indeed, having 30 or more prior arrests when admitted to state prison was more common than having no arrest other than the arrest that led to the prison sentence (i.e., 1 prior arrest). Further, it was more common to have 9 or more prior arrests than it was to have 8 or fewer.


Data from New York City finds that a tiny number of shoplifters commit thousands of theft. The police stated that nearly a third of all shoplifting arrests in the city in 2022 involved just 327 people, who collectively were arrested and rearrested more than 6,000 times. Thus 0.00386% of New York City’s population (327 out of 8.468 million, 1 in ~26,000) accounted for nearly a third of all shoplifting arrests in the city. As illustrated by a different study, crime in New York City is not only disproportionately committed by few people, it also disproportionately affects specific local areas. They find that 14% of streets in the city produce 75% of property crime and 10% of streets produce 75% of violent crime.

Never go home at night without wondering where the mole is

Thursday, May 11th, 2023

During the first 25 years of the Cold War, U.S. counterintelligence was in the hands of two men, Tim Weiner explains, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA’s James J. Angleton:

Hoover was slow to see that the Kremlin’s spies had run rampant in the United States since the early 1930s. By World War II, they had infiltrated the State Department, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor), and the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb; Representative Samuel Dickstein, who represented the Lower East Side for 22 years, served the Kremlin as a paid agent in Congress from 1937 to 1940, informing on anti-communist and pro-fascist Americans for the Soviet Embassy. After the war, the FBI picked up the scent of Soviet spies in the United States. By 1951, with the Red Scare in full roar after the convictions of the atomic spies and leaders of the Communist Party of the United States, whose underground had supported the Kremlin’s agents, the Soviets laid low. But not for long.

Angleton became the CIA’s counterintelligence chief in 1954. For the next 20 years, he dominated his field throughout the free world. He was secretive and suspicious and, as he grew older, paranoid and alcoholic. An official CIA historian, David Robarge, wrote that Angleton enveloped himself “in an aura of mystery, hinting at knowledge of dark secrets and hidden intrigues too sensitive to share.” He thought the Kremlin commanded a company of moles within the CIA, and that every Soviet defector after 1961 was a double agent. The main purpose of this monstrous, though imaginary, plot was to seduce American presidents into the delusions of détente. Angleton tore the CIA apart in a futile hunt for Soviet moles, ruining loyal men. He missed the fact that the Chinese, Cubans, Czechs, and East Germans either had recruited agents in the CIA or doubled all the spies the agency thought it was running against them.

U.S. counterintelligence depends in great part on cooperation between the CIA and the FBI, though the two are often at loggerheads. Their cultures clash; the bureau’s agents are cops and the agency’s spies are robbers. The trust between Hoover and Angleton glued them together despite this friction. But Hoover died in 1972, Angleton was fired two years later, and counterintelligence fell into chaos. By the 1980s, spies working for the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Israelis had burrowed into the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, and Navy intelligence. Some were caught, but others went undetected: The CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen were busy selling out almost every Russian agent working for the United States. Ames spied for nine solid years, Hanssen off and on for 22; they were arrested, respectively, in 1994 and 2001.


The FBI now opens a new counterintelligence case against Chinese spies and agents every 10 hours. In October, the CIA’s assistant director for counterintelligence sent an alert throughout the agency noting that, in recent years, dozens of recruited informants in China, Iran, Pakistan, and other hostile nations have been compromised and turned against the United States as double agents, or arrested, tortured, and killed. And in January, Charles McGonigal, who was in charge of counterintelligence at the FBI’s New York office from 2016 to 2018, was indicted for aiding the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, over the course of several years. The case has cataclysmic implications; the charges represent the worst breach at the bureau in the last 20 years.

All this suggests several ground truths. First is the actuarial certainty that, at this moment, the U.S. government is penetrated by spies, foreign and domestic, as has been the case for nearly a century. Second, if counterintelligence officers aren’t finding those spies, they have failed. Third, when they do catch them, the public perception is that they’ve failed again, by not detecting them for years on end. Spy-catchers are thus damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and one may sympathize if they drink too much or doubt if God is just. The awful truth is that no outsider—and no insider, for that matter—can say for sure whether U.S. counterintelligence is better or worse than it was two, four, or eight decades ago, because no one knows if there are two, 20, or 200 moles burrowing into our body politic at this moment.

Diffused lighting camouflage

Wednesday, May 10th, 2023

Diffused lighting camouflage  was a form of active camouflage using counter-illumination to enable a ship or plane to match its background, the night sky. You could light up a ship or plane to make it harder to see:

An equivalent strategy, known to zoologists as counter-illumination, is used by many marine organisms, notably cephalopods including the midwater squid, Abralia veranyi. The underside is covered with small photophores, organs that produce light. The squid varies the intensity of the light according to the brightness of the sea surface far above, providing effective camouflage by lighting out the animal’s shadow.


In 1940, Edmund Godfrey Burr, a Canadian professor at McGill University, serendipitously stumbled on the principle of counter-illumination, or as he called it “diffused-lighting camouflage”. Burr had been tasked by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) to evaluate night observation instruments. With these, he found that aircraft flying without navigation lights remained readily visible as silhouettes against the night sky, which was never completely black.

Burr wondered if he could camouflage planes by somehow reducing this difference in brightness. One night in December 1940, Burr saw a plane coming in to land over snow suddenly vanish: light reflected from the snow had illuminated the underside of the plane just enough to cancel out the difference in brightness, camouflaging the plane perfectly.

Burr informed the NRC, who told the RCN. They realized that the technique could help to hide ships from German submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic. Before the introduction of centimetre radar, submarines with their small profile could see convoy ships before they were themselves seen. Diffused lighting camouflage might, the RCN believed, redress the balance.


In January 1941, sea trials began on the new corvette HMCS Cobalt. She was fitted with ordinary light projectors—neither designed for robustness, nor waterproofed—on temporary supports on one side of the hull; brightness was controlled manually. The trial was sufficiently promising for a better prototype to be developed.

The second version, with blue-green filters over the projectors, was trialled on board the corvette HMCS Chambly in May 1941. This gave better results as the filters removed the reddish bias to the lamps when at low intensity (lower colour temperature). The supports too were retractable, so the delicate projectors could be stowed away for protection when not in use. This second version reduced Chambly‘s visibility by 50% in most conditions, and sometimes by as much as 75%. This was enough to justify development of a more robust version.

The third version featured a photocell to measure the brightness of the night sky and the ship’s side; the projectors’ brightness was automatically controlled to balance out the difference. It was tested in September 1941 on the corvette HMCS Kamloops.


The British General Electric Company developed a manually operated diffused lighting system, which was trialled on the ocean boarding vessel HMS Largs and the light cruiser HMS Penelope. The Largs surface observation trials were conducted between 25 January and 6 February 1942; air observation trials, using Hudson bombers, took place on the nights of 4/5 February and 25/26 March 1942. They found an average reduction in the range at which the ship could be seen at night from another ship of around 25% using binoculars, 33% using the naked eye. The results from the air were less conclusive.


The best case was on the exceptionally clear moonless night of 29/30 January 1942, when Largs could be seen from a surface ship with the naked eye at 5,250 yards (4,800 m) unlighted, but only 2,250 yards (2,060 m) with her diffused lighting, a 57% reduction. By June 1942, Royal Navy commanders considered that camouflage was largely unnecessary, given that the enemy would be using RDF and submarine hydrophones. In April 1943, the Admiralty decided that diffused lighting was impractical, and development was halted, though discussions continued with the Canadian Navy.


Because submarines at the surface could see the dark shape of an attacking aircraft against the night sky, the principle of diffused lighting camouflage also applied to aircraft. However, British researchers found that the amount of electrical power required to camouflage an aircraft’s underside in daylight was prohibitive, while externally mounted light projectors disturbed the aircraft’s aerodynamics.


An American version, “Yehudi”, using lamps mounted in the aircraft’s nose and the leading edges of the wings, was trialled in B-24 Liberators, Avenger torpedo bombers and a Navy glide bomb from 1943 to 1945. By directing the light forwards towards an observer (rather than towards the aircraft’s skin), the system provided effective counter-illumination camouflage with an affordable use of energy, more like that of marine animals than the Canadian diffused lighting approach. But the system never entered active service, as radar became the principal means of detecting aircraft.

You become more an intel-crat

Sunday, May 7th, 2023

A CIA case officer explains why he left the job:

And it’s funny because I thought I would do this all my life. But I think what happens very often is just an epiphany comes. It happened to me a few years later. I was back in Washington on a trip, I was talking to the deputy director of intelligence. As I walked out of the office I said, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I went home, I spoke to my wife, and then I called the DDO and I said, “I’m retiring.” I never looked back.

I wasn’t leaving because of the stress of the job — no, no, I loved all of that. I think that I was upset with the bureaucratization of the place, with a lot of changes that had taken place that I just didn’t agree with. You know, after rising to a certain level, you’re not going to do the kinds of things you enjoyed as a NOC. You become more an intel-crat, a senior bureaucrat of intelligence. That’s what you are. I saw the frustration of my younger officers, who were not having the kind of fun I was having when I was a case officer.

I think originally the job, which required a lot of creativity and imagination became much more a job of bureaucracy. Obviously, you need some sort of balance because you can’t have people just going off and doing crazy things, but it came to the point I think where people in Washington, who had never even been in the field, were making so many decisions that in the past had been made in the field. I think we become risk-averse because of that bureaucratization.

Who funds Antifa protests? We all do

Saturday, April 29th, 2023

Who funds Antifa protests?. We all do, Andy Ngo argues:

Through a developed network of radical leftist legal groups, like the National Lawyers Guild, lawfare against cities and police departments is the go-to method for payloads. At nearly every left-wing “direct action” or riot, you’ll see NLG “legal observers” move in and out with the mob to record police. This “evidence gathering” is propaganda made to portray the police in the worst possible light while specifically omitting any recordings of what their comrades do.

Independent press are subjected to assault and robbery by others in the group to maintain tight control over the narrative and any photographic evidence. Kyle Seraphin, a former-FBI agent who was assigned to do surveillance in Portland during the 2020 Antifa riots, says the green-hat “legal observers” were linked via radio with the mob and worked as auxiliary counter-surveillance.

Seraphin told me: “My team witnessed several instances of NLG hat-wearing ‘legal observers’ calling out the license plates of suspected surveillance personnel [over] radios — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. These call-outs were met with a response by 5-6 uniformly clad, black-bloc individuals who attempted to intimidate the suspected ‘fed.’ ”

On March 5, an NLG member and staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center named Thomas Jurgens was charged with domestic terrorism for his alleged involvement in a violent Antifa attack on police in Atlanta.

When the NLG’s legal observers and their comrades are arrested, they’re immediately provided with pro-bono legal aid and connections for bail money (rioters often write the NLG’s phone number on their body in anticipation of arrests.)

And then the lawsuits come.

Last year, New York City agreed to pay tens of thousands to NLG members arrested in the Bronx in June 2020.

In Detroit, NLG members are suing the city for alleged wrongful conduct stemming from its police response in 2020.

Nearly every American city afflicted by mass protesting and rioting in 2020 ended up settling and paying out millions in taxpayer money to radical protesters who were allegedly subjected to force by law enforcement.

Denver settled to pay $1.6 million to just seven people.

Austin settled to pay $17.3 million.

The cities, led by Democrats, don’t even bother to fight the cases, preferring to write a check.

The settlement cash doesn’t just end up rewarding the protesters, awarded inflated attorney fees are used to reinvest in the legal groups to grow the operation for the next cause. Additionally, law enforcement morale declines as they are punished for doing their jobs.

But lawsuit settlements aren’t the only way that militant protesters and riot suspects get paid. Bail funds have emerged as a lucrative cash source with progressive district attorneys refusing to prosecute most left-wing riot-related cases.

In Portland, for example, the 2020 riot suspects that needed bail money due to the seriousness of their felony charges later received the cash back when district attorney Mike Schmidt declined to prosecute. I witnessed this creating an incentive for rioters to get arrested, as outside groups covered the bail and the suspect would keep the returned cash when the case was dropped.

An accidental experiment during COVID suggests too many children are removed to foster care

Thursday, April 27th, 2023

An accidental experiment during COVID suggests too many children are removed to foster care:

COVID changed things.

With children home from school and routine doctors’ appointments and other activities canceled, the number of maltreatment reports fell by half.

The New York state child welfare agency waived the requirement that caseworkers visit children’s homes and directed them to conduct remote check-ins instead, unless the caseworker was unable to reach the family by video call, or if a remote visit raised concerns.

And the family court no longer allowed ACS to file petitions for court-ordered supervision; it would consider only requests for removal.

“For the first time, ACS was forced to triage the cases it filed, no longer able to seek court intervention for less severe cases,” Friedman and Rohr wrote. “On every level — reporting, investigation, monitoring, and court intervention — New York City’s child welfare apparatus dramatically shrunk its footprint.”

As a result, the numbers of children placed in foster care dramatically decreased: from April through June 2020, roughly half as many children were removed from their families compared with the same period the previous three years, according to Friedman and Rohr’s analysis.

If these plummeting numbers of reports and removals had obscured a wave of abuse, the authors point out, one would expect signals of that abuse to emerge, for example, in an increase in children with suspicious injuries at city emergency rooms. But as David Hansell, the ACS director at the time, testified at a city council hearing in June 2021, there were no significant changes in ER visits for children during the lockdown, as “you might think would happen if there were more children suffering any kind of serious physical abuse,” he said.

If the pandemic hid a wave of abuse, one would also expect a surge in substantiated reports of abuse once schools and courts reopened, as previously undetected signs of maltreatment were finally discovered. But that didn’t happen either, Friedman and Rohr found.

Around 600 well-trained Company civil servants, guarded by 155,000 Indian sepoys, were to administer most of peninsular India

Wednesday, April 26th, 2023

After the Battle of Delhi, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), the East India Company consolidated a land empire that controlled over half a million square miles of territory, which, fifty years later, would become the British Raj:

Around 600 well-trained Company civil servants, guarded by 155,000 Indian sepoys, were to administer most of peninsular India. Here the Company’s army was now unequivocally the dominant military force, and the Governor General who controlled it the real Emperor. Not only had Lord Wellesley gained many more subjects than Britain had lost a decade earlier in North America — around 50 million — he had also created a cadre of young men committed to his imperial project, and who would carry it forward after he had gone. Wellesley’s ambitious protégés were working for the establishment and spread of an Anglicised colonial state that would provide an efficiently regimented but increasingly remote and alien administrative infrastructure for this new empire. As one of them, the young Company diplomat Charles Metcalfe, wrote, ‘Sovereigns you are, and as such must act.’

In London there was surprisingly little awareness as yet of what had been achieved. The country was still obsessed with the struggle with Napoleon, and despite the swathe of territories Lord Wellesley had conquered, there was little interest in what had taken place in India outside those organisations or people directly concerned with it. Even Wellesley’s ultimate boss, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, declared himself ‘totally unacquainted with every part of this subject’ when Lord Wellesley’s aggressively expansionist Indian policy was briefly discussed in a half-empty House of Lords.

But within India everyone knew that a major revolution had just taken place. Many Muslims, led by the puritanical Delhi imam Shah Abdul Aziz, saw this as the moment that India had slipped out of their hands for the first time since the twelfth century: ‘From here to Calcutta, the Christians are in complete control,’ wrote Shah Abdul Aziz in an 1803 fatwa of jihad. ‘India is no longer Dar ul-Islam.’ Company officials realised it with equal clarity: ‘We are now complete masters of India,’ wrote Thomas Munro, ‘and nothing can shake our power if we take proper measures to confirm it.’

The sinews of British supremacy were now established. With the exception of a few months during the Great Uprising of 1857, for better or worse, India would remain in British hands for another 144 years, finally gaining its freedom only in August 1947.

The next fifty years would be remembered as ‘the Golden Calm’

Monday, April 24th, 2023

The Battle of Delhi was, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), the last time British troops faced French officers in South Asia, ending more than a century of rivalry:

At 10 a.m., after marching eighteen miles, with the sun beginning to beat down on the column, Lake ordered a halt for breakfast beside a marshy lake on the banks of the Hindan. Tents were erected, boots were removed, fires lit and the sepoys began to cook their parathas. The general sent a dram around his officers.

Quite suddenly there was a series of bright flashes and the thunder crash of heavy artillery, ‘shattering not only the tranquillity of the day but the eardrums of men closest to the guns … The accompanying pressure wave generated by the explosive muzzle-blasts, which flattened the obstructing grass, was immediately followed by other, unnatural and far more eerie auditory sensations that played upon deafened ears. Grape shot tore and chain shot scythed through the grass with a shearing sound which was followed by a metallic clatter or muffled thuds depending on whether the projectiles struck equipment or the flesh of men and horses.’

It was a massacre. Among the many casualties was Pester, who was hit by some of the first volleys: ‘A grapeshot passed through the housing of my pistols, and shattered the stock of one of them, and I felt my horse stagger under me; another grape had grazed his side and lodged under the skin; a third went through him. It entered at his near quarter and passed out at the other. He staggered and fell onto me.’

Chaos broke out, but the Marathas remained at their defensive position on the raised ground, failing to advance and scatter the terrified Company sepoys. This gave Lake time to rally his men. Deciding to lure Bourquien off his strong position, Lake gave the order for the infantry to fall back in a feint, and they did so, between two wings of cavalry who lay hidden behind the tall grass. The Marathas took the bait and rushed forward, only to find themselves caught in a pincer movement. The Company infantry then turned and advanced methodically forward with bayonets, supported by the galloper guns. ‘We drove them into the Yamuna,’ wrote the badly bruised Pester, ‘and hundreds of them were destroyed in endeavouring to cross it.’

The Flying Artillery was up, and the river appeared boiling by the fire of grape kept up on those of the enemy who had taken to the river. It was literally, for a time, a stream of blood, and presented such a scene as at another period would freeze a man’s very soul. When this was past, we faced about, and returned to the field of battle to collect our wounded men and officers …

There the scene was truly shocking … About thirty surgeons were absolutely covered in blood, performing operations on the unfortunate soldiers who had had their legs and arms shattered in the action, and death in every shape seemed to preside in this assembly of human misery. Their exclamations were enough to pierce the hardest heart. Numbers were fainting, and even dying under the operation; others bore the pain with as much fortitude as they could … In one corner of the tent stood a pile of legs and arms, from which the boots and clothes of many were not yet stripped off.

That night, five French commanders gave themselves up, and Lord Lake wrote to tell Wellesley what had passed. He added: ‘Your Lordship will perceive that our loss has been very great … under as heavy a fire as I have ever been witness to …’ Later he expanded on the bravery and skill shown by his Maratha opponents. ‘Their battalions are uncommonly well appointed,’ he wrote, ‘have a most numerous artillery, as well served as they possibly can be.’

All the sepoys of the enemy behaved exceedingly well, the gunners standing to their guns until killed by the bayonet … I was never in so severe a business in my life, and I pray to God I may never be in such a situation again. Their army is better appointed than ours; no expense is spared, and they have three times the number of men to a gun we have. These fellows fought like devils, or rather heroes, and had we not made a disposition for attack in a style that we should have done against the most formidable army we could have been opposed to, I verily believe, from the position they had taken, we might have failed.

Terrible as it was, the Battle of Delhi was the last time British troops faced French officers in South Asia, ending more than a century of rivalry which had caused so much bloodshed, mostly of non-Europeans, across the subcontinent. It also brought to a close Hindustan’s unhappy century of being fought over, and plundered, by rival armies. As Khair ud-Din put it shortly afterwards, ‘the country is now flourishing and at peace. The deer lies down with the leopard, the fish with the shark, the pigeon with the hawk, and the sparrow with the eagle.’ mKhair ud-Din was, of course, writing to flatter his British patrons, but there was a measure of truth in what he wrote: in comparison with the horrors of the last century – ‘the Great Anarchy’ – the next fifty years would be remembered as ‘the Golden Calm’.

Most importantly, the Battle of Delhi decided the future fate of India. The Marathas were the last indigenous Indian power that was militarily capable of defeating the Company and driving it out of South Asia.

Damn your writing! Mind your fighting!

Saturday, April 22nd, 2023

Before Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Assaye, the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Lake, advanced on the Mughal capital, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy):

Lord Lake, who liked to claim descent from the Arthurian hero Lancelot of the Lake, was not a man who admired diplomacy or who liked being told what to do: ‘Damn your writing,’ he is alleged to have cried at an army book-keeper. ‘Mind your fighting!’ The phrase became his maxim. Although sixty years old, and a veteran of the Seven Years War and, more recently, the American War of Independence, where he fought against Washington at Yorktown, he was still famous for his boyish charm and immense energy, often rising at 2 a.m. to be ready to lead the march, blue eyes flashing.

Determined to take the offensive, Lake left Kanpur on 7 August, a day after he heard about the declaration of war, even though it was in the middle of the monsoon and the roads were awash with mud. He headed due west towards Perron’s fortress at Aligarh. Intent on fighting a fast-moving campaign, Lake brought with him a small but highly trained Grand Army of 10,000 men, including a cavalry division armed with his light galloper guns; but he deliberately brought little heavy artillery and no siege equipment.

His intention to lead a small and mobile force was, however, somewhat challenged by Indian reality. By the early nineteenth century, East India Company armies had accumulated a huge establishment of attendants and assistants and support staff. In the end, the total body heading west amounted to more than 100,000 people, including mahouts and coolies, grass-cutters and horse-keepers, tent lascars and bullock-men, Banjarrah grain-collectors and money-changers, ‘female quacks, jugglers, groups of dancing girls, and votaries of pleasure’. These numbers did not, of course, include the thousands of elephants, camels, horses, poultry and flocks of goats and sheep which followed close on their heels: ‘The march of our army had the appearance of a moving town or citadel,’ remembered Major Thorn, ‘in the form of an oblong square, whose sides were defended by ramparts of glittering swords and bayonets.’

After three weeks of difficult marching through heavy rain, wading through mud and badly flooded roads with carefully sealed ammunition boxes carried aloft on men’s heads, on 29 August Lake’s army crossed into Maratha territory and advanced swiftly on the mighty polygonal fortress of Aligarh, with its massive French-designed walls, reinforced corner towers and deep moat.

Aligarh was regarded as one of the strongest and best-provisioned forts in Hindustan; a siege could have taken months. Throughout the march, however, Lake had been in negotiations with General Perron over what he would charge to deliver the fortress into the hands of the British. Through intermediaries, the two commanders had eventually come to an understanding, and when Lake’s army advanced on his headquarters, Perron obediently withdrew, along with his bodyguard, after only the briefest of skirmishes with Lake and a few salvoes from his galloper guns.

Perron told his men he was off to gather reinforcements from Agra and Delhi, and to his deputy, Colonel Pedron, ‘a stout, elderly man with a green jacket with gold lace and epaulettes’, he sent a remarkably disingenuous letter: ‘Remember you are a Frenchman,’ he wrote, ‘and let no action of yours tarnish the character of your nation. I hope in a few days to send back the English general as fast, or faster, than he came. Make yourself perfectly easy on the subject. Either the Emperor’s army or General Lake shall find a grave before Allyghur. Do your duty, and defend the fort while one stone remains upon another. Once more remember your nation. The eyes of millions are fixed upon you!’

These brave words were belied by the last conversation he had before fleeing up the Delhi road. One of his junior cavalry officers, of mixed Scottish and Rajput blood, attempted to ride with him, but was waved away, ‘Ah, no, no! It is all over!’ Perron shouted over his shoulder, ‘in confusion and without his hat’, at the young James Skinner. ‘These fellows [the cavalry] have behaved ill: do not ruin yourself, go over to the British; it is all up with us!’

Distrusted by the French, all the Anglo-Indians among the Maratha forces, including Skinner himself, crossed the battle lines at this point: ‘We went to General Lake and were kindly received,’ wrote Skinner later. Pedron and many of Perron’s French mercenary colleagues were equally happy to surrender if they were assured of a safe passage home with their lifetimes’ savings intact. But Lake had not reckoned with the honour of Scindia’s Rajput and Maratha officers, who stoutly refused all inducements to drop their weapons and quickly withdrew behind the walls to begin There they deposed and imprisoned Pedron, elected a Maratha commander of their own, and prepared to fight to the death.

For three days Lake continued to negotiate, making the men a variety of extravagant promises, but the defenders remained firm. ‘I tried every method to prevail upon these people to give up the fort,’ wrote Lake, ‘and offered a very large sum of money, but they were determined to hold out, which they did most obstinately, and, I may say, most gallantly.’

Lake was daunted by the challenge now lying in front of him: ‘The strength of the place cannot be described,’ he wrote to Wellesley. ‘A Seventy-Four [gun ship] might sail in the ditch.’ But ever the hyperactive sexagenarian, Lake was temperamentally incapable of conducting a patient siege, and anyway had left his siege equipment in Kanpur. So, on 4 September he opted for the only alternative: a frontal assault on the main gate of a fortress long considered impregnable. An Irish deserter from Scindia’s garrison, Lieutenant Lucan, offered to lead the storming party, under the supervision of Lake’s deputy, Colonel Monson.

Two hours before dawn, the storming party set off and shortly after that had their first stroke of luck. Had the Marathas withdrawn behind the moat and destroyed the bridge, there was very little Lake could have done. But the defenders had stationed a piquet of fifty men with a 6-pounder gun behind a breastwork in front of the fort, leaving the bridge undamaged and the wicket gate open. Lucan and his storming party edged up in the dark and found the men smoking at their post. ‘They ran at them like lions,’ wrote Skinner, and slit the throats of as many as stood their ground. The rest ‘ran away to the wicket, and got in. The assaulting party attempted to get in along with them, but were shut out.’

Instead, however, of retreating, these brave fellows stood upon the goonjus [bridge] under one of the heaviest fires of musketry and great guns I have seen … [attempting to scale the walls.] Only at sunrise did they fall back about one hundred yards … and in going back they carried with them the [abandoned] Maratha gun.

They fired the gun twice, then a third time, but failed to blow open the heavily reinforced gate. While waiting for a new and larger cannon to be hauled up, the attackers continued their attempts to mount the walls with scaling ladders. As before, they were driven down by the Marathas on the battlements, who had long pikes waiting for them. A heavy 12-pounder cannon was finally wheeled forward to the gate, but just before it could be fired its weight broke through a mine gallery that the defenders had skilfully tunnelled under the area in front of the wicket gate, leaving the gun half in, half out of the tunnel beneath.

As Monson and Lucan tried to lever the cannon out, the attackers were raked with musketry from above and exposed to the fire from two heavy mortars filled with grape that the defenders had prepared and positioned for just this moment. To add to the chaos, the defenders then began to climb down the scaling ladders that the British troops had left propped against the walls. One of them wounded Monson in the thigh with a thrust of his pike; four of his officers were also killed. ‘This misfortune detained us considerably, and at this time it was that we lost so many of our officers and men. Never did I witness such a scene. The sortie became a perfect slaughter house, and it was with the greatest difficulty that we dragged the gun over our killed and wounded.’

In the Company camp, Lake was on the verge of blowing the bugle to call off the attack. But at the last minute the cannon was righted, pressed against the wood of the gate and fired. It was a muzzle-blast containing no shot, but the pressure from the powder charge at close quarters finally buckled one of the great doors open. ‘I was close to Lord Lake,’ wrote Skinner, ‘and saw and heard everything that passed.’

The God of Heaven certainly looked down upon those noble fellows … for they blew open half the gate, and giving three shouts, they rushed in. The Rajputs stood their ground, like brave soldiers, and from the first to the second gate the fight was desperately maintained on both sides, and the carnage was very great … Then spurring his horse [Lake] galloped to the gate. When he saw his heroes lying thick there, tears came to his eyes. ‘It is the fate of good soldiers!’ he said; and turning round, he galloped back to the camp, and gave up the fort to plunder.

In the hours that followed, the garrison of 2,000 was massacred. No quarter was asked for and none was given. ‘Many of the enemy were killed in attempting to escape by swimming the ditch after we got in, and I remarked an artilleryman to snap his piece at a man who at the same instance dived to save himself,’ wrote John Pester, Lake’s quartermaster. ‘The soldier coolly waited his coming up and shot him through the head.’

All agree that the battle was the fiercest that has ever been seen in India

Thursday, April 20th, 2023

In July, 1803, Lord Wellesley sent Scindia an ultimatum to withdraw north of the Narmada or to face the consequences, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy):

In the end, Daulat Rao Scindia did not back down; instead, like Tipu, he began making preparations for hostilities. On 1 August 1803, he gave Collins a formal declaration of war and dismissed him from his camp.

It took a week for express couriers to carry the news to Calcutta; but only a few hours for Lord Wellesley to give the order for his carefully laid war plans to be immediately put into action on no less than four fronts — with minor thrusts along the coasts of Orissa and Gujarat as well as the two main assaults which were designed to take control of the entire Deccan and all of Hindustan.

To Scindia and Bhosle, the Governor General wrote a brief note: ‘While we have no desire to open war against you, you two chiefs have given a clear indication of your intention to attack us, since you have collected large forces on the Nizam’s frontiers and you have refused to move away from your positions. You have rejected the hand of friendship I have offered you, and I am now starting hostilities without further parleys. The responsibility is entirely yours.’

Major General Arthur Wellesley heard the news of Scindia’s declaration of war on 4 August. On the 6th he broke camp and with 40,000 troops headed off north towards the mighty fortress of Ahmadnagar which he captured on the 11th after a brief bombardment and the payment of a large bribe to the French and Arab mercenaries holding the fort for Scindia. Inside was found large amounts of gunpowder, part of Scindia’s remaining treasure and ample food supplies. Arthur Wellesley garrisoned the fort as his base while he sent scouts out to search for the main Maratha army.

Scindia and Bhosle, meanwhile, had succeeded in bringing their forces together; they then marched their confederated army south to plunder the Nizam’s territories around Aurangabad and draw Wellesley out of the safety of his fortifications. In this they succeeded. Leaving a large garrison behind to guard Ahmadnagar, Wellesley moved eastwards to defend his allies’ territory and stop the Maratha advance. The two armies finally came within sight of one another in the dusty alluvial plain to the north of the Ajanta Pass, in the early morning of 23 September, after Wellesley’s troops had just marched eighteen miles through the night.

The major general had broken his force in two the day before to avoid the delay that would have taken place in sending his whole army through the narrow Ajanta defile; half he had sent off to the west under his deputy, Colonel Stevenson. He therefore had less than 5,000 men — half of them Madrasi sepoys, the other half kilted Highlanders — when he heard from his scouts that Scindia’s camp was only five miles away and that the Marathas were about to move off. His small army was exhausted from their night march. But, worried that his quarry might escape if he waited, Wellesley made an immediate decision to head straight into the attack, without giving his troops time to rest or waiting for the other half of his force.

Reaching the crest of a low hill, the major general saw the two Maratha armies spread out before him, next to the fortified village of Assaye. Their tents and qanats (tented enclosures) extended for as much as six miles along the banks of the shallow Khelna River to near where it reached a confluence with another smaller stream, the Juah. He calculated that there were around 10,000 infantry and around five times that number of irregular cavalry. They were clearly not expecting an attack and their artillery bullocks were out grazing along the riverbank.

Leaving his baggage and stores behind him under guard, Wellesley marched straight forward, as if to make an immediate frontal attack over the river. Then at the last moment he turned eastwards to cross the meandering Khelna at an unguarded ford whose position he had guessed at due to the proximity of two small villages just before it. His guess was a lucky one: the water was between knee and waist high, and Wellesley just managed to get all his troops across without them getting their powder wet. Even so, his artillery had trouble crossing, and several guns got stuck in the mud, leaving his infantry to form up and face the opening salvos of the Maratha bombardment without the protection of artillery cover.

Arthur Wellesley had hoped that the speed and surprise of his movement would leave the Marathas in disarray and allow him to attack their unguarded right flank; but to his surprise he found that Scindia’s troops had managed not only to get themselves into full battle formation but had also skilfully wheeled around to the left in order to face his new direction of attack, all the while maintaining perfect order. This was a difficult manoeuvre that he presumed they would be incapable of, but which they instantly effected with parade-ground precision.

This was only the first in a whole series of surprises in a battle that Arthur Wellesley would later remember as one of the hardest he had ever fought, and altogether tougher than his later confrontation with Napoleon at Waterloo. ‘Their infantry is the best I have ever seen in India, excepting our own,’ he wrote afterwards to his friend John Malcolm. ‘I assure you that their fire was so heavy that I doubted at one time if I should be able to induce our troops to advance. All agree that the battle was the fiercest that has ever been seen in India. Our troops behaved admirably; the sepoys astonished me.’

A particular shock was Scindia’s heavy field guns which proved just as deadly as Collins had warned: ‘The fire of the enemy’s artillery became most dreadful,’ remembered Major John Blakiston. ‘In the space of less than a mile, 100 guns worked with skill and rapidity, vomited forth death into our feeble ranks. It cannot then be a matter of surprise if our sepoys should have taken advantage of any irregularities in the ground to shelter themselves from the deadly shower, or that even, in some few instances, not all the endeavours of the officers could persuade them to move forward.’ Major Thorn concurred: ‘It was acknowledged by all the officers present, who had witnessed the power of the French artillery in the wars of Europe, that the enemy’s guns at the Battle of Assaye were equally well-served.’

The major general himself had two horses shot under him and had several of his immediate staff killed around him by the clouds of grape the Maratha gunners sent in his direction. One large round shot just missed Wellesley as he was crossing the Khelna but decapitated his dragoon orderly as he paused midstream. The horrifying sight of the headless horseman features in many accounts of the battle, ‘the body being kept in its seat by the valise, holsters, and other appendages of a cavalry saddle, and it was some time before the terrified horse could rid himself of the ghastly burden’.

The Madras infantry sepoys in the centre and the Highlanders on the right wing of Wellesley’s front line were targeted with particular violence, as the Maratha gunners tried to blow away the core of Wellesley’s formation with large canisters of anti-personnel chain and grapeshot, fired at short range and at close quarters: whirring through the air with a terrifying screeching noise, ‘it knocked down men, horses and bullocks, every shot’.

Nevertheless, Wellesley’s infantry continued to advance at a steady pace, through the smoke. They fired a single volley, then charged the Maratha guns with bayonets, killing the gunners as they stood at the gun muzzles ‘and none quitted their posts until the bayonets were at their breasts … nothing could surpass the skill or bravery displayed by their golumdauze [gunners]’.

A final surprise awaited the British as they marched forward to drive Scindia’s men from their fallback position. Once the British infantry lines had safely passed by, many of the Maratha ‘dead’ around the cannons ‘suddenly arose, seized the cannon which had been left behind by the army, and began to reopen a fierce fire upon the rear of our troops, who, inattentive to what they were doing, were eagerly bent upon the pursuit of the flying enemy before them’. The British lines were raked with yet more canister shot until the major general personally led a desperate cavalry charge ‘against the resuscitated foe’, during which he had his second horse shot beneath him.

Two hours later, after a final stand in the village fort, Scindia’s Marathas were driven from the field and back over the Juah, leaving ninety-eight of their guns in British hands; but the casualties on both sides were appalling. The Marathas lost around 6,000 men. Wellesley lost fewer, but as the smoke cleared the major general found he had just left fully one-third of his army dead on the battlefield: 1,584 out of 4,500 of his troops were later burned or buried on the plains of Assaye. Indeed, so battered were his forces that Wellesley declared pursuit of Scindia and his fleeing men impossible, writing to his elder brother, ‘Scindia’s French[-trained] infantry were far better than Tipu’s, his artillery excellent, and his ordnance so good, and so well equipped, that it answers for our service. We never could use Tipu’s. Our loss is great, but the action, I believe, was the most severe that ever was fought in this country.’ As one of Wellesley’s senior officers wrote to the major general soon afterwards: ‘I hope you will not have occasion to purchase any more victories at such a high price.’

Arthur Wellesley went on to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

The Permanent Settlement, introduced in 1793, gave absolute rights to land to zamindar landowners

Tuesday, April 18th, 2023

In India, Cornwallis set about making a series of land and taxation reforms guaranteeing a steady flow of revenue, particularly in time of war, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), as well as reinforcing the Company’s control of the land it had conquered:

The Permanent Settlement, introduced in 1793, gave absolute rights to land to zamindar landowners, on the condition that they paid a sum of land tax which Company officials now fixed in perpetuity. So long as zamindars paid their revenues punctually, they had security over the land from which the revenue came. If they failed to pay up, the land would be sold to someone else.

These reforms quickly produced a revolution in landholding in Company Bengal: many large old estates were split up, with former servants flocking to sale rooms to buy up their ex-masters’ holdings. In the ensuing decades, draconian tax assessments led to nearly 50 per cent of estates changing hands. Many old Mughal landowning families were ruined and forced to sell, a highly unequal agrarian society was produced and the peasant farmers found their lives harder than ever. But from the point of view of the Company, Cornwallis’s reforms were a huge success. Income from land revenues was both and enormously increased; taxes now arrived punctually and in full. Moreover, those who had bought land from the old zamindars were in many ways throwing in their lot with the new Company order. In this way, a new class of largely Hindu pro-British Bengali bankers and traders began to emerge as moneyed landowners to whom the Company could devolve local responsibility.

So even as the old Mughal aristocracy was losing high office, a new Hindu service gentry came to replace them at the top of the social ladder in Company-ruled Bengal. This group of emergent Bengali bhadralok (upper-middle classes) represented by families such as the Tagores, the Debs and the Mullicks, tightened their grip on mid-level public office in Calcutta, as well as their control of agrarian peasant production and the trade of the bazaars. They participated in the new cash crop trades to Calcutta–Dwarkanath Tagore, for example, making a fortune at this time in indigo–while continuing to lend the Company money, often for as much as 10–12 per cent interest. It was loans from this class which helped finance colonial armies and bought the muskets, cannon, horses, elephants, bullocks and paid the military salaries which allowed Company armies to wage and win their wars against other Indian states. The Company’s ever-growing Indian empire could not have been achieved without the political and economic support of regional power groups and local communities. The edifice of the East India Company was sustained by the delicate balance that the Company was able to maintain with merchants and mercenaries, its allied nawabs and rajas, and above all, its tame bankers.

In the end it was this access to unlimited reserves of credit, partly through stable flows of land revenues, and partly through the collaboration of Indian moneylenders and financiers, that in this period finally gave the Company its edge over their Indian rivals. It was no longer superior European military technology, nor powers of administration that made the difference. It was the ability to mobilise and transfer massive financial resources that enabled the Company to put the largest and best-trained army in the eastern world into the field.

Cornwallis’s mission was now to make sure that the same never happened in India

Sunday, April 16th, 2023

As soon as he recovered from his duelling wound in October 1780, Philip Francis returned to London, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), where he used his new Indian wealth to buy a parliamentary seat and to lobby to bring Hastings down:

In February 1782, he found a sympathetic ear in Edmund Burke, then a rising Whig star. Burke had never been to India, but part of his family had been ruined by unwise speculation in East India stock.


Nor did he even look the part: far from being an ostentatious and loud-mouthed new-rich ‘Nabob’, Hastings was a dignified, intellectual and somewhat austere figure. Standing gaunt at the bar in his plain black frock coat, white stockings and grey hair, he looked more Puritan minister about to give a sermon than some paunchy plunderer: nearly six feet tall, he weighed less than eight stone: ‘of spare habit, very bald, with a countenance placid and thoughtful, but when animated, full of intelligence.’


If anything, the Impeachment demonstrated above all the sheer ignorance of the British about the subcontinent they had been looting so comprehensively, and profitably, for thirty years.


Few were surprised when, after seven years, on 23 April 1795, Hastings was ultimately cleared of all charges.


Amid all the spectacle of Hastings’ trial, it made sense that the man sent out to replace him was chosen by Parliament specifically for his incorruptibility. General Lord Charles Cornwallis had surrendered the thirteen American Colonies of the British Empire over to George Washington, who then declared it a free and independent nation.

Cornwallis’s mission was now to make sure that the same never happened in India.


In America, Britain had lost its colonies not to Native Americans, but to the descendants of European settlers. Cornwallis was determined to make sure that a settled colonial class never emerged in India to undermine British rule as it had done, to his own humiliation, in America.

By this period one in three British men in India were cohabiting with Indian women, and there were believed to be more than 11,000 Anglo-Indians in the three Presidency towns.61 Now Cornwallis brought in a whole raft of unembarrassedly racist legislation aimed at excluding the children of British men who had Indian wives, or bibis, from employment by the Company.


Yet, like their British fathers, the Anglo-Indians were also banned from owning land. Thus excluded from all the most obvious sources of lucrative employment, the Anglo-Indians quickly found themselves at the beginning of a long slide down the social scale. This would continue until, a century later, the Anglo-Indians had been reduced to a community of minor clerks, postmen and train drivers.

It was under Cornwallis, too, that many Indians – the last survivors of the old Murshidabad Mughal administrative service – were removed from senior positions in government, on the entirely spurious grounds that centuries of tyranny had bred ‘corruption’ in them.

So began what the Maratha newswriter described as a ‘dance of the demons’

Friday, April 14th, 2023

After his father Zabita Khan led several rebellions against Shah Alam II, the young Ghulam Qadir was captured, William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy), and kept in a (metaphorical) gilded cage. As an adult, he returned, with his own people, the Rohilla, under the pretense that “this Ghulam Qadir is a child of His Majesty’s house and has eaten his salt”:

‘The Rohillas swore [on the Quran] that they had no intention of doing any harm,’ wrote the Maratha newswriter. ‘They said they only wanted that the Emperor should lay his gracious hand on their heads. After Ghulam Qadir had taken a formal oath swearing he came to his sovereign in peace and as an ally, the Emperor sent his eunuchs to tell him he would admit him to an audience, but only with ten or twenty followers.’107 However, the Head Eunuch, Mansur Ali Khan, who was also the Nazer, or Overseer of the Fort Administration, had saved Ghulam Qadir’s life at the fall of Pathargarh and now wished to reingratiate himself. Against the Emperor’s orders, he opened the great double gates of the Fort and allowed the Afghan to march in all 2,000 of his men.


Then Ghulam Qadir, in what would at any other time be regarded as an unpardonable breach of etiquette, sat down on the cushions of the imperial throne next to the Emperor, ‘passed an arm familiarly round his neck and blew tobacco smoke into his sovereign’s face’.


So began what the Maratha newswriter described as a ‘dance of the demons’, a reign of terror which lasted for nine weeks.


While he was still speaking, the Rohilla summoned Prince Bedar Bakht. Ghulam Qadir stepped forward, and took the Emperor’s dagger from his girdle, then without a word sent the Emperor off to the imperial prison of Salimgarh, and placed Bedar Bakht on the throne.


While he looted the city and the palace, according to Azfari, the Rohilla, ‘day and night gave himself over to great quantities of various intoxicants, particularly to bhang, bauza [beer-like booze] and ganja’.


The servants began to be hung upside down and tortured over fires to reveal hiding places of the Emperor’s treasure.


‘Some maid-servant dancing girls and providers of pleasure favoured by Shah Alam were brought in without veil or covering; they were taken to the daira camp where they were made to pleasure drunken louts.’


The Head Eunuch Mansur Ali was dragged through a latrine and left nearly to drown in the sewer beneath: ‘Ghulam Qadir called out to his henchmen: “If this traitor (namak-haram) doesn’t produce the seven lakhs rupees** within the next watch, stuff his mouth with excrement!”’120 When the eunuch protested that he had saved Ghulam Qadir’s life as a baby, the latter replied, ‘Do you not know the old proverb, “to kill a serpent and spare its young is not wise”.’


“Throw this babbler down and blind him.”


Shah Alam looked straight at Ghulam Qadir and asked: ‘What? Will you destroy those eyes that for a period of sixty years have been assiduously employed in perusing the sacred Quran?’


But the appeal to religion had no effect on the Afghan.


Ghulam Qadir Khan jumped up and, straddling his victim’s chest, ordered Qandahari Khan and Purdil Khan to pinion his hands to his neck and hold down his elbows. With his Afghan knife [contrary to the usual practice of blinding with needles] Qandahari Khan first cut one of Shah Alam’s eyes out of its socket, then the other eye was wrenched out by that impudent rascal. Shah Alam flapped on the ground like a chicken with its neck cut.


Then he called for a painter, and said, ‘Paint my likeness at once, sitting, knife in hand, upon the breast of Shah Alam, digging out his eyes.’


Just as he may once have been turned into a catamite, so now it was his turn to humiliate the males of the royal house.


He signed an order to that effect, dismissed his henchmen, and settled down to go to sleep with his head on the knees of the Crown Prince Mirza Akbar Shah, having taken off his sword and dagger and placed them within sight and reach of the princes. He closed his eyes for an hour, then got up and gave each of the princes a violent slap, calling out derisively: ‘You are prepared so passively to swallow all this, and still you delude yourselves that you could become kings? Huh! I was testing you: if you had one little spark of manly honour in your heart, you would have grabbed my sword and dagger and made quick work of me!’ Heaping them with abuse, he dismissed them from his presence and sent them back to prison.


The same day a number of the younger princesses were stripped naked, minutely searched ‘in every orifice’, fondled, flogged, then raped. Victorian translations of the sources have censored these passages, but the Persian original of Khair ud-Din tells the whole brutal story.


This was an Irish mercenary called George Thomas, ‘the Raja from Tipperary’, a one-time cabin boy who had jumped ship in Madras and made a name for himself as a talented artilleryman and caster of cannon.


After almost three months, Ghulam Qadir had finally departed, taking with him everything he had plundered, along with nineteen of the senior princes, including Prince Akbar, as hostages. The badly wounded Shah Alam he left behind in the Red Fort, apparently hoping he would be incinerated by the explosion he set off as a final parting present to the Mughals

Ghulam Qadir did not get away:

They then seized Ghulam Qadir, bound him and locked him in a cage. They despatched him on a humble bullock cart, with chains on his legs and a collar around his neck, to Scindia’s headquarters, ‘guarded by two regiments of sepoys and a thousand horse’. For a while Ghulam Qadir was displayed in his cage, suspended in front of the army, to be jeered at and mocked. Then, ‘By the orders of Scindia, the ears of Ghulam Qadir were cut off and hung around his neck, his face was blackened, and he was carried around the city.’

The next day his nose, tongue and upper lip were cut off, and he was again paraded. On the third day, he was thrown upon the ground, his eyes were scooped out, and he was once more carried round. After that his hands were cut off, then his feet, then his genitals and last of all, his head. The corpse was then hung, neck downwards, from a tree.


Mahadji Scindia sent the ears and eyeballs to the Emperor Shah Alam in a casket as a congratulatory gift. He then had Mansur Ali Khan, the head eunuch who had let the Afghans into the fort, ‘trampled to death under the feet of an elephant’.

Normal governments can’t deal with such people unless the stakes are existential

Thursday, April 13th, 2023

Alanbrooke — Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke — is one of Britain’s great heroes, Dominic Cummings reminds us, though not nearly so famous as Nelson or Wellington:

Most involved in politics talk a lot about ‘strategy’ but know little or nothing about this crucial strategist of WW2. Other WW2 generals such as Montgomery are much more famous. Alanbrooke was promoted by Churchill to Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in the dark days of November 1941 as the Nazis approached Moscow. His nickname was ‘Colonel Shrapnel’. His formidable character burst with energy yet he also held himself in incredible control — true leaders, he thought, had to preserve and project self-control (to a degree that would be regarded as ‘unhealthy’ now). He repeatedly deflated Churchill and others, sometimes snapping a pencil between his fingers as he said ‘I flatly disagree’. His relationship with Churchill was stormy. Alanbrooke deeply admired him but the responsibility fell on Alanbrooke, more than anybody, of dealing with Churchill’s flaws and the dangers they risked. In replacing Dill with Alanbrooke, Churchill wanted someone more vigorous to prosecute the war and he got it.

When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes — stiff-necked Ulstermen and there’s no one worse to deal with than that!

It’s greatly to Churchill’s credit that he appointed him and stuck with him despite extreme disagreements and passions exploding amid the incredible tension of world events and their vast stakes, but it’s also much to his discredit that his memoirs vastly underplayed Alanbrooke’s contributions to victory.


Alanbrooke was one of those extraordinary people thrown up by war to senior roles who then almost always disappear when the war ends and discussions at the top revert to the norm — avoiding hard questions. It’s as if normal governments can’t deal with such people unless the stakes are existential. General Groves was another such extraordinary character who ran the Manhattan Project and was pushed out of the Pentagon after 1945 for being ‘too difficult’.


While children and students are told they study history ‘to learn from the mistakes’, one of the most fascinating and striking things about our world is how little learning there is from the greatest of errors. You can read analyses of deterring Prussia/Germany in Whitehall that are practically identical and indistinguishable from 1866, 1870, pre-1914, and the 1930s. You can read history after history of war after war. Human nature and the dynamics of large organisations don’t change so the same problems recur from the start of written history, and nobody can find a way of creating institutions that surmount these problems for long. You may reshape the Prussian General Staff and then reshape the map of Europe but before you know it, you’ve gone from the Elder Moltke working with Bismarck in triumph to his nephew imploding in disaster. One minute Bill Gates; the next, Steve Ballmer. Everything has its time of growth and decay. This means that we stumble into disaster after disaster where the details change but the fundamental patterns don’t. Covid and Ukraine are just the latest examples.

On one hand, we can see abstract principles of high performance a) recur constantly in written history we can all read, b) are extremely simple and do not require high intelligence to understand, and c) when deployed are frequently shocking, even world-changing, as well as sometimes bringing power, wealth and fame to those who deploy them.

But on the other, these principles remain essentially unrecognised by roughly 100% of institutions of all kinds, private and public. Instead, roughly all normal large organisations actually optimise for the opposite principles and promote those who embody these anti-principles. If there is some occasional high performing blip (such as PARC or the Vaccine Taskforce), these normal organisations, and particularly the middle managers within them, will move swiftly to close them and push away those responsible as far and as fast as possible.

This reliable feature of our world has many effects. One of them is that government systems are essentially ‘programmed’ to be slow and inefficient in updating. All institutions optimise for certain things based on incentives and culture. Large established organisations almost always optimise for ‘protect established power networks’, not ‘update useful information even if it disrupts established power networks’. And this means that the old parties, old bureaucracies and old political media are necessarily constantly surprised by events far beyond what they need to be — beyond the inevitable surprises generated by the uncomputable complexity of the world. The most valuable information is and will be almost always at the edge. Elite self-deception was critical to the context of WW2 and looking over the centuries it seems only safe to assume it’s a permanent state of affairs, at least without revolutionary experimentation with institutions that optimise differently and will (we should assume) in their own ways be as, or even more, dangerous.

The Mirza’s army was joined by a very different class of soldiers

Wednesday, April 12th, 2023

William Dalrymple explains (in The Anarchy) how the Mughal ruler in Delhi prepared to reconquer his lands:

Mirza Najaf was well aware that the new European military tactics that had already become well known in eastern and southern India were still largely unknown in Hindustan, where the old style of irregular cavalry warfare still ruled supreme; only the Jats had a few semi-trained battalions of sepoys. He therefore made a point of recruiting as many European mercenaries as he could to train up his troops. In the early 1770s, that meant attracting the French Free Lances who had been left unemployed and driven westwards by the succession of Company victories in Bengal…

Steadily, one by one, he pulled them in: first the Breton soldier of fortune René Madec; then Mir Qasim’s Alsatian assassin, Walter Reinhardt, now widely known as Sumru and married to a remarkable and forceful Kashmiri dancing girl, Farzana.


Soon the pair created their own little kingdom in the Doab: when the Comte de Modave went to visit, he was astonished by its opulence. But Sumru, he noted, was not happy, and appeared to be haunted by the ghosts of those he had murdered: he had become ‘devout, superstitious and credulous like a good German. He fasts on all set [Catholic feast] days. He gives alms and pays for as many masses as he can get. He fears the devil as much as the English … Sometimes it seems he is disgusted by the life he leads, though this does not stop him keeping a numerous seraglio, far above his needs.’


A little later, the Mirza’s army was joined by a very different class of soldiers: the dreadlocked Nagas of Anupgiri Gossain. Anupgiri had just defected from the service of Shuja ud-Daula and arrived with 6,000 of his naked warriors and forty cannon. These Nagas were always brilliant shock troops, but they could be particularly effective against Hindu opponents. The Comte de Modave records an occasion when the Company sent a battalion to stop the Nagas ‘pillaging, robbing, massacring and causing havoc … [But] instead of charging the Nagas, the Hindu sepoys at once laid down their arms and prostrated themselves at the feet of these holy penitents – who did not wait to pick up the sepoys’ guns and carry on their way, raiding and robbing.’

By August, under these veteran commanders, Najaf had gathered six battalions of sepoys armed with rockets and artillery, as well as a large Mughal cavalry force, perhaps 30,000 troops in all. With these the Mughals were ready to take back their empire.