‘My God, what I say is true’; how should a ‘Hindoo’ swear an oath in court?

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In the 1800s those giving evidence in the Police courts were sworn on the Bible. This worked fine for most prosecutors and witnesses but occasionally someone stepped into the box who was clearly not a Christian, so what happened then?

Nowadays those swearing can do so on a religious text of their choice if the Bible is not appropriate, and those without a religion can affirm. In 2013 the courts rejected a move to abandon the oath in favour of a promise to tell the truth and it remains core to all trials and summary hearings in England.

In 1879 two men were charged at Marylebone Police court with stealing 100 rabbit skins, and with conspiring with another (not in custody) to sell them. The skins weren’t of particularly high value (just 8s) but the novelty of the case was that the chief witness was Indian.

Ballee Bhatter was described as a ‘Hindoo cook’ working at the home of ‘his Highness Suchait Singh of Chumla’. The Chumla valley is in the Punjab and British troops passed through here in 1863 what one officer described as a ‘frontier war’. By the 1870s the Imperial project in India was complete; the British had survived the 1857 Indian revolution, the Sikhs had been defeated and turned into allies, but some pockets of resistance continued from hill tribes in the far north. Afghanistan had never been successfully subdued and after the debacle of 1842 and loss of so many British and Indian troops the empire chose to avoid any major campaigns north of the Punjab until the late 1870s.

The question for Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone, was whether it was appropriate for Ballee Bhatter to swear on the Bible before giving his evidence. Although described in court as a ‘Hindoo’ Mr Cooke thought he ought to swear on the Koran. The Rajah’s secretary confirmed that the cook wasn’t a Christian, but did that make him a Muslim? Was this a case of contemporary English ignorance or was the prince’s servant a Muslim working in the kitchens of a Sikh household? While today we would normally associate the word with the Hindu religion (for which the Koran would be an inappropriate text) in 1879 it may simply have been (mis)used to mean any native of the Indian sub-continent.

A police detective suggested that it was proper for the man to be able to swear the following oath: ‘My God, what I say is true’, but the justice wanted to be clear that Bhatter understood what was being asked of it. He decoded to adjourn the case so that a translator could be called for; someone that spoke ‘Hindostanee’.

Later that day the cook returned and the situation was explained in his native language. He swore an oath (on which text it is not stated) and explained that on the 7 April one of the prisoners and another man came to the Rajah’s house in Richmond Road, Paddington, and ‘asked him if he had any rabbit skins to sell’. Bhatter told him he had 100 and he was offered 2deach for them. Well, that is what he understood they’d offered, he added, his English wasn’t that good.

Since he wanted to be sure he went next door to find someone to translate for him but when he got back the men and the skins were gone. Two other local servants testified to seeing the two men and a barrow that day and Mr Cooke remanded the prisoners for a week.

This shows us that there were Indians living in London in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The British Empire involved a migration in both direction then, not simply a movement of British troops and administrators to India but families and their servants in the other direction. They would have added to the cultural melting pot that was London in the late 1800s and act as a reminder that this country (and particularly our capital) has been a multi-racial community for a very long time.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 14, 1879]

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