Stomaching the Truth

I’ve recently been doing some research for an article I’m writing about the career of a judge in the Indian Civil Service at the end of the nineteenth century called Aubray Percival Pennell. He was dramatically kicked out of the Service in 1901 after a career of publicly criticizing the Government of India in his judgments on cases involving abuses committed by European policeman. But I’ve also been interested in one of his less public problems, although a chronic one none the less: his persistent stomach upsets.

"A poor man suffering from indigestion", a coloured lithography by C.J. Traviès (Thanks to the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images)
“A poor man suffering from indigestion”, a coloured lithography by C.J. Traviès (Thanks to the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images)

In fact, it appears that his moments of bureaucratic notoriety were linked to his spells of dyspepsia (painful indigestion, that can be a symptom of gastritis or even a peptic ulcer). He was consulting a doctor for the condition when, in 1894, he accused the entire secretariat of British Burma of being a shadow government, secretly directing operations without the consent or knowledge of the executive authorities. In his later apology and explanation for his conspiratorial accusations, he drew attention to his increased anxiety that was partly caused by his painful stomach. In 1901, in his 90 page judgment on a case in which the police in Bengal had attempted to cover-up a murder, he had to apologize half way through for his deteriorating handwriting. He was experiencing another bout of his illness, which he now identified as acute gastritis. The judgment was an extraordinary one, consisting of an incendiary attack on the injustices of British rule. And Pennell did not hesitate to point the finger of blame at those at the top, in this case the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal and the Viceroy, Lord Curzon. It was not the first time that Pennell had made such a judgment, but it was his last. He was unceremoniously dismissed from the Service.

Part of the reason that Pennell was treated so severely by the authorities was because he not only wrote these inflammatory judgments, he published them in the Bengali newspapers. The Bengalee Press published Pennell’s entire 1901 judgment. Funnily enough, among adverts printed at the back of this pamphlet was one for a medicine that purported to be a cure for Pennell’s ailment: Kshudhabati. The advert claimed, much like similar adverts in British newspapers at the time, that the product could cure impaired digestion ‘by increasing the gastric juice, purifying the blood, giving tone to the nerves, and by increasing the peristaltic action of the bowels’. It went on to evidence its healing qualities with the testimony of prominent Bengali legal professionals. The advert was not unusual in this. Most of the adverts at the back of the pamphlet were for medical products, and all included quotes attributed to judges and lawyers.

Here we have several links between medicine and justice. Pennell used his illness as an excuse for his misconduct. More interestingly though, his angry writings may have been in part inspired by his physical discomfort. His increased irritability might have contributed to his growing intolerance of British abuses of power. At the same time, the efficacy of medicine was conveyed to the readers of Pennell’s publication through testimonials provided by prominent Bengalis working within the judicial system. Upset stomachs might encourage imperial judges to speak truth to power. But the testimony of judges might help flog cures to those suffering from upset stomachs.

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