Monday, 2 April 2007

No more 'kow tow'?

It is easy, I know, for me to say, but as I look at TV images of the British sailors and marines in Iran, explaining how they 'really were' inside Iranian waters when they were taken hostage (sorry, taken prisoner), I am reminded of the story I read as a schoolboy about John Moyse, a private in 'The Buffs', the East Kent regiment.

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, Moyse, along with a number of Indian porters and a sergeant from the regiment, was captured by a party of cavalry and taken to the Chinese camp. There, they were brought before the mandarin and told that if they would only 'kow tow' - touch the ground before him with their forheads - they would be released.

All except Moyse complied. However, according to the account given later by the sergeant, Moyse refused. Some said it was because he would not disgrace his country. Other reports are that he said he would not prostrate himself "before any Chinaman alive." Whatever the reason, after being warned again, Moyse was promptly beheaded.

It was this incident which led Sir Francis Hastings Doyle to write his once-famous poem, reproduced below, the best-known stanza of which is this: "Vain, mightiest fleets, of iron fram’d; Vain, those all-shattering guns; Unless proud England keep, untam’d, The strong heart of her sons." Or to put it in modern vernacular, what would be the point of Trident if the country had lost its soul?

The Private of the Buffs
by Sir Francis Hastings Doyle

Last night, among his fellow roughs,
He jested, quaff’d, and swore:
A drunken private of the Buffs,
Who never look’d before.
To-day, beneath the foeman’s frown,
He stands in Elgin’s place, [Lord Elgin, British Ambassador and marble collector]
Ambassador from Britain’s crown,
And type of all her race.

Poor, reckless, rude, lowborn, untaught,
Bewilder’d, and alone,
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
He yet can call his own.
Ay, tear his body limb from limb,
Bring cord, or axe, or flame:
He only knows, that not through him
Shall England come to shame.

Far Kentish hop-fields round him seem’d,
Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry-blossom gleam’d,
One sheet of living snow;
The smoke, above his father’s door,
In gray soft eddyings hung:
Must he then watch it rise no more,
Doom’d by himself, so young?

Yes, honour calls!—with strength like steel
He put the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink,
To his red grave he went.

Vain, mightiest fleets, of iron fram’d;
Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untam’d,
The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through Europe ring—
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s king,
Because his soul was great.

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