One of the features of previous National Blog Post Month series on this site has been the ‘six degrees of separation’ piece. This is where I start with a Wikipedia search on a current topic of interest, and then follow six links through the on-line encyclopaedia and see where I end up. As always, one shouldn’t place too much reliance on the facts that follow in this piece – they are as accurate and reliable as any crowd-sourced open access on-line encyclopaedia can hope to be!
Today’s starting point is St Thomas (being the eponymous hospital that is currently caring for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he seeks to overcome his covid-19 infection). Thomas was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus in the Christian tradition. Thomas is occasionally labelled “Doubting Thomas” as a result of his refusal to believe initial accounts of Christ’s resurrection until he had seen the crucifixion wounds with his own eyes. After Christ’s ascension, Thomas is reputed to have travelled beyond the limits of the Roman Empire preaching the gospel, eventually reaching the Malabar Coast in modern-day Kerala, in India. Some authorities state that Thomas is the Patron Saint of India.
The Malabar Coast refers to a part of south west India that runs from the Western Ghats to the Arabian Sea. It seems likely that the region acquired its name from the 6th Century town of Male, which was a major pepper trading emporium. Barr is the Arabic word for continent or country, and so Male Barr would have been the region or country around Male. During the British occupation of the Indian sub-continent, Malabar District was under the supervision and control of the British East India Company.
The East India Company received its Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I on 31st December 1600 as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East-Indies. Initially (and for the first hundred years of its existence) the Company was solely interested in trade between England and India. It was only during the 18th Century, as the power of influence of the Mughal Empire waned and was under threat of being superceded by French and Portuguese interests, that the East India Company became interested in territorial occupation and politics. At the height of its power and influence in 1803, the Company controlled a private army of 260,000 soldiers (twice the size of the British Army at that time) and effectively ruled directly or indirectly, the whole of the Indian sub-continent. It was only in 1858 that the Government of India Act abolished the East India Company and the British Government assumed direct responsibility for the management of the country through the establishment of the Raj.
The first Governor of the East India Company was Thomas Smythe, a position that he held only fleetingly initially, before returning in 1603 and remaining in post for some 18 years. As well as his interests in India, Smythe was also heavily involved in the settlement of Virginia in north America, having acquired the rights from Sir Walter Raleigh. Indeed, Smythe was heavily implicated in a scandal surrounding the management of the Virginia Settlement when he was charged with enriching himself at the expense of the company that he controlled to run the colony. Smythe effectively conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting indigenous people in Virginia, turning over their land to the production of tobacco. It appears that Smythe’s influence over King James was such that he was able to extricate himself from the scandal and retain his position as a personal adviser and confidante to the King. Smythe’s influence extended beyond Britain, India and America into Russia, where he was appointed as an advisor to Tsar Boris Godunov in 1604.
Boris Godunov’s rise to become Tsar of Russia is a story that is so Russian as to be almost a cliché, involving murder, intrigue, politicking, banishments to Siberia and even the flogging of a bell (yes – you read that right) that had been rung to draw attention to the death (at Godunov’s instigation) of a potential heir to the throne. It’s well worth a read on the relevant Wikipedia page. It will suffice for present purposes for us to note that dramatisations of Godunov’s life have inspired and opera by Mussorgsky and a play by Alexander Pushkin, the incidental music for which was composed by Sergei Prokofiev.
Prokofiev’s score for his ballet version of Romeo and Juliet is a staple of the Classic FM playlist, where the Dance of the Knights is a particular favourite. And if you’re not familiar with this piece, then “You’re Fired!”