An email currently in wide circulation features a “short speech from Winston Churchill, delivered by him in 1899 when he was a young soldier and journalist.” The text is a well written but impolitic philippic against Islam, which compares one effect of the religion on its followers with rabies in dogs. The condition of Muslim women is called slavery. “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.” Science protects European civilization from falling before the militant faith of Mohammedanism.
The email gives as its source “The River War, first edition, Vol II, pages 248-250 London.” There are two editions of Churchill’s book, The River War. The 1899 two-volume first edition is rare, and its full text
isn’t on the web, at least not in any of the usual places. See coments below for links to the two volumes. The much shorter single-volume second edition is easily found online, but it doesn’t contain anything like what the email recites.
Did Churchill really say such things about a world religion, words now buried in an old book, obscure even in the internet age? Or is this purported quotation another fanciful wonder of the wild, wild web, like Einstein’s calling the Bible’s stories childish, a lie much repeated despite never happening?
What Churchill wrote in context
The chapter is entitled “The Return of the British Division.” The fighting in Sudan has been successfully concluded. The soldiers are riding a train on their way home as Churchill begins his tale, which goes as follows.
Only one incident occurred to diversify the journey and mar the perfection of the railway arrangements. It will be remembered that although the British officers on the railway never failed, the British engines sometimes did. The men were made of better stuff than the machines; they stood a greater strain. The incident occurred at ‘No. 6’ station; and since any event in the desert is rare, remarkable, and sometimes welcome, I will set it down.
The engine, which had been working more jerkily every minute of the preceding hour, stopped with an ominous and alarming suddenness. Everyone got out. Something was wrong. The awful thought that we might perhaps have to wait some twenty hours or so at this attractive spot arose in many minds. Then the worst was known. The engine had broken down. It was in a thoroughly bad condition. Hard work had worn it out. I will not commit myself to technical language. It appeared that everything was loose. The native engine-driver was appalled and perfectly helpless. It would not work and go forward, he said; whereas before it had worked and gone forward. Undoubtedly, there was an accident. But who should say Allah had not some wise purpose? There would not be much delay. Another engine might come, perhaps tomorrow – this last hopefully. And we were all going home!
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every
woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity were sheltered in the strong arms of science – the science against which it had vainly struggled – the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.
To return to No. 6. The versatility of a British officer saved us a most unwelcome delay. Lieutenant Bathhurst5 proceeded to the locomotive, stimulated the driver’s energy, patched up the engine, and, getting into the cab himself, succeeded in ‘coaxing her’ along the odd two hundred miles that separated us from Wady Halfa…
Thus far the words of Churchill. Note 5 resolves to: “Lieut. F. Bathhurst, Grenadier Guards.” (Terminal punctuation in original.)
Comparison with the email
An example of the typical email text, with some discussion, can be found here:
There was no “speech.” A great writer, still a young man, set out to blame a train engineer’s religion for the man’s ineffectual response to a mechanical breakdown, digressed onto Islam in general, managed to work in a comment on science and Christianity before ending with an evocation of the fall of Rome.
The email trims away the actual context, and invents a new one (the non-existent “speech”). It omits the mitigating phrase, “Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die;” without indicating that any editing has occurred. Ironically, Churchill’s now politically incorrect term “Moslems” is replaced in the email by the acceptable “Muslims,” as if Sir Winston were a politician writing in the late Twentieth Century, rather than a soldier in the late Nineteenth.
Nevertheless, what the email quotes from Churchill is nearly what Churchill wrote. In particular, the most inflammatory parts are true to the original source.
Whether Churchill’s description of Islam was fair for 1899 and especially whether the description is fair today, are open for discussion. The modern secular state of Turkey did not exist when Churchill wrote, for example. Followers of the Prophet live, and some rule, there, but few summarize aspects of Turkish life as improvident, slovenly, sluggish or insecure. The late Christopher Hitchens, hardly soft on Islam, is our witness that in the aftermath of the 1990’s collapse of Yugoslavia, Muslims were generally the more tolerant among the factions, more victimized than predatory. Here’s a memorable taste,
Individual Muslims in the same area had sheltered Jews during the Nazi era, and also in Italian-occupied Albania,
At the very least, the more contemporary situation is less black-and-white than young Winston Churchill painted it more than a century ago. Churchill himself grew, too. In 1953, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
The Uncertaintist thanks the Dartmouth College Berry Library for the use of its 1899 copy of The River War, and an anonymous student staffer for her able and friendly assistance.