ANNIE BESANT (1847-1933)
Annie Besant (1 October 1847 – 20 September 1933) was a prominent British socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer and orator and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule.
In 1867, Annie at age 20, married Frank Besant, a clergyman, and they had two children, but Annie’s increasingly anti-religious views led to a legal separation in 1873. She then became a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society (NSS) and writer and a close friend of Charles Bradlaugh. In 1877 they were prosecuted for publishing a book by birth control campaigner Charles Knowlton. The scandal made them famous, and Bradlaugh was elected M.P. for Northampton in 1880.
She became involved with union actions including the Bloody Sunday demonstration and the London matchgirls strike of 1888. She was a leading speaker for the Fabian Society and the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF). She was elected to the London School Board for Tower Hamlets, topping the poll even though few women were qualified to vote at that time.
In 1890 Besant met Helena Blavatsky and over the next few years her interest in theosophy grew while her interest in secular matters waned. She became a member of the Theosophical Society and a prominent lecturer on the subject. As part of her theosophy-related work, she travelled to India. In 1898 she helped establish the Central Hindu College and in 1922 she helped establish the Hyderabad (Sind) National Collegiate Board in Mumbai, India. In 1902, she established the first overseas Lodge of the International Order of Co-Freemasonry, Le Droit Humain. Over the next few years she established lodges in many parts of the British Empire. In 1907 she became president of the Theosophical Society, whose international headquarters were in Adyar, Madras, (Chennai).
She also became involved in politics in India, joining the Indian National Congress. When World War I broke out in 1914, she helped launch the Home Rule League to campaign for democracy in India and dominion status within the Empire. This led to her election as president of the India National Congress in late 1917. In the late 1920s, Besant travelled to the United States with her protégé and adopted son Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she claimed was the new Messiah and incarnation of Buddha. Krishnamurti rejected these claims in 1929. After the war, she continued to campaign for Indian independence and for the causes of theosophy, until her death in 1933.
Annie Wood was born in 1847 in London into a middle-class family of Irish origin. She was proud of her heritage and supported the cause of Irish self-rule throughout her adult life. Her father died when she was five years old, leaving the family almost penniless. Her mother supported the family by running a boarding house for boys at Harrow School. However, she was unable to support Annie and persuaded her friend Ellen Marryat to care for her. Marryat made sure that Besant had a good education. She was given a strong sense of duty to society and an equally strong sense of what independent women could achieve. As a young woman, she was also able to travel widely in Europe. There she acquired a taste for Roman Catholic colour and ceremony that never left her.
In 1867, at age twenty, she married 26-year-old clergyman Frank Besant, younger brother of Walter Besant. He was an evangelical Anglican who seemed to share many of her concerns. On the eve of marriage, she had become more politicised through a visit to friends in Manchester, who brought her into contact with both English radicals and the Manchester Martyrs of the Irish Republican Fenian Brotherhood, as well as with the conditions of the urban poor.
Soon Frank became vicar of Sibsey in Lincolnshire. Annie moved to Sibsey with her husband, and within a few years they had two children, Arthur and Mabel; however, the marriage was a disaster. The first conflict came over money and Annie’s independence. Annie wrote short stories, books for children, and articles. As married women did not have the legal right to own property, Frank was able to take all the money she earned. Politics further divided the couple. Annie began to support farm workers who were fighting to unionise and to win better conditions. Frank was a Tory and sided with the landlords and farmers. The tension came to a head when Annie refused to attend Communion. In 1873 she left him and returned to London. They were legally separated and Annie took her daughter with her.
Besant began to question her own faith. She turned to leading churchmen for advice, going to see Edward Bouverie Pusey, leader of the Catholic wing of the Church of England. When she asked him to recommend books that would answer her questions, he told her she had read too many already. Besant returned to Frank to make a last unsuccessful effort to repair the marriage. She finally left for London.
For a time she undertook part-time study at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, where her religious and political activities caused alarm. At one point the Institution’s governors sought to withhold the publication of her exam results.
Reformer and secularist
She fought for the causes she thought were right, starting with freedom of thought, women’s rights, secularism, birth control, Fabian socialism and workers’ rights.. She was a leading member of the National Secular Society alongside Charles Bradlaugh and the South Place Ethical Society.
Divorce was unthinkable for Frank, and was not really within the reach of even middle-class people. Annie was to remain Mrs Besant for the rest of her life. At first, she was able to keep contact with both children and to have Mabel live with her; she also got a small allowance from her husband.
Once free of Frank Besant and exposed to new currents of thought, she began to question not only her long-held religious beliefs but also the whole of conventional thinking. She began to write attacks on the churches and the way they controlled people’s lives. In particular she attacked the status of the Church of England as a state-sponsored faith.
Soon she was earning a small weekly wage by writing a column for the National Reformer, the newspaper of the NSS. The NSS stood for a secular state and an end to the special status of Christianity, and allowed her to act as one of its public speakers. Public lectures were very popular entertainment in Victorian times. Besant was a brilliant speaker, and was soon in great demand. Using the railway, she criss-crossed the country, speaking on all of the most important issues of the day, always demanding improvement, reform and freedom.
For many years Besant was a friend of the National Secular Society’s leader, Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh, a former soldier, had long been separated from his wife; Besant lived with him and his daughters, and they worked together on many issues. He was an atheist and a republican; he was also trying to get elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Northampton.
Besant and Bradlaugh became household names in 1877 when they published a book by the American birth-control campaigner Charles Knowlton. It claimed that working-class families could never be happy until they were able to decide how many children they wanted. It suggested ways to limit the size of their families. The Knowlton book was highly controversial, and was vigorously opposed by the Church. Besant and Bradlaugh proclaimed in the National Reformer:
We intend to publish nothing we do not think we can morally defend. All that we publish we shall defend.
The pair were arrested and put on trial for publishing the Knowlton book. They were found guilty, but released pending appeal. As well as great opposition, Besant and Bradlaugh also received a great deal of support in the Liberal press. Arguments raged back and forth in the letters and comment columns as well as in the courtroom. Besant was instrumental in founding the Malthusian League during the trial, which would go on to advocate for the abolition of penalties for the promotion of contraception. For a time, it looked as though they would be sent to prison. The case was thrown out finally only on a technical point, the charges not having been properly drawn up.
The scandal cost Besant custody of her children. Her husband was able to persuade the court that she was unfit to look after them, and they were handed over to him permanently.
On 6 March 1881 she spoke at the opening of Leicester Secular Society’s new Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate, Leicester. The other speakers were George Jacob Holyoake, Harriet Law and Charles Bradlaugh.
Bradlaugh’s political prospects were not damaged by the Knowlton scandal and he got elected to Parliament in 1881. Because of his atheism, he asked to be allowed to affirm rather than swear the oath of loyalty. When the possibility of affirmation was refused, Bradlaugh stated his willingness to take the oath. But this option was also challenged. Although many Christians were shocked by Bradlaugh, others (like the Liberal leader Gladstone) spoke up for freedom of belief. It took more than six years before the whole issue was sorted out (in Bradlaugh’s favour) after a series of by-elections and court appearances.
Meanwhile Besant built close contacts with the Irish Home Rulers and supported them in her newspaper columns during what are considered crucial years, when the Irish nationalists were forming an alliance with Liberals and Radicals. Besant met the leaders of the Irish home rule movement. In particular, she got to know Michael Davitt, who wanted to mobilise the Irish peasantry through a Land War, a direct struggle against the landowners. She spoke and wrote in favour of Davitt and his Land League many times over the coming decades.
However, Bradlaugh’s parliamentary work gradually alienated Besant. Women had no part in parliamentary politics. Besant was searching for a real political outlet, where her skills as a speaker, writer and organiser could do some real good.
For Besant, politics, friendship and love were always closely intertwined. Her decision in favour of Socialism came about through a close relationship with George Bernard Shaw, a struggling young Irish author living in London, and a leading light of the Fabian Society. Annie was impressed by his work and grew very close to him too in the early 1880s. It was Besant who made the first move, by inviting Shaw to live with her. This he refused, but it was Shaw who sponsored Besant to join the Fabian Society. In its early days, the society was a gathering of people exploring spiritual, rather than political, alternatives to the capitalist system. Besant began to write for the Fabians. This new commitment – and her relationship with Shaw – deepened the split between Besant and Bradlaugh, who was an individualist and opposed to Socialism of any sort. While he defended free speech at any cost, he was very cautious about encouraging working-class militancy.
Unemployment was a central issue of the time, and in 1887 some of the London unemployed started to hold protests in Trafalgar Square. Besant agreed to appear as a speaker at a meeting on 13 November. The police tried to stop the assembly, fighting broke out, and troops were called. Many were hurt, one man died, and hundreds were arrested; Besant offered herself for arrest, an offer disregarded by the police.
The events created a great sensation, and became known as Bloody Sunday. Besant was widely blamed – or credited – for it. She threw herself into organising legal aid for the jailed workers and support for their families. Bradlaugh finally broke with her because he felt she should have asked his advice before going ahead with the meeting.
Another activity in this period was her involvement in the London matchgirls strike of 1888. She was drawn into this battle of the “New Unionism” by a young socialist, Herbert Burrows. He had made contact with workers at Bryant and May’s match factory in Bow, London, who were mainly young women and were very poorly paid. They were also prey to industrial illnesses, like the bone-rotting Phossy jaw, which was caused by the chemicals used in match manufacture. Some of the match workers asked for help from Burrows and Besant in setting up a union.
Besant met the women and set up a committee, which led the women into a strike for better pay and conditions, an action that won public support. Besant led demonstrations by “match-girls”, who were cheered in the streets, and prominent churchmen wrote in their support. In just over a week they forced the firm to improve pay and conditions. Besant then helped them to set up a proper union and a social centre.
At the time, the matchstick industry was a very powerful lobby, since electric light was not yet widely available, and matches were an essential commodity; in 1872, lobbyists from the match industry had persuaded the British government to change its planned tax policy. Besant’s campaign was the first time anyone had successfully challenged the match manufacturers on a major issue, and was seen as a landmark victory of the early years of British Socialism.
During 1884, Besant had developed a very close friendship with Edward Aveling, a young socialist teacher who lived in her house for a time. Aveling was a scholarly figure and it was he who first translated the important works of Marx into English. He eventually went to live with Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. Aveling was a great influence on Besant’s thinking and she supported his work, yet she moved towards the rival Fabians at that time. Aveling and Eleanor Marx had joined the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and then the Socialist League, a small Marxist splinter group which formed around the artist William Morris.
It seems that Morris played a large part in converting Besant to Marxism, but it was to the SDF, not his Socialist League, that she turned in 1888. She remained a member for a number of years and became one of its best speakers. She was still a member of the Fabian Society; neither she nor anyone else seemed to think the two movements incompatible at the time.
Soon after joining the Marxists, Besant stood for election to the London School Board. Women at that time were not able to take part in parliamentary politics, but had been brought into the local electorate in 1881.
Besant drove about with a red ribbon in her hair, speaking at meetings. “No more hungry children,” her manifesto proclaimed. She combined her socialist principles with feminism: “I ask the electors to vote for me, and the non-electors to work for me because women are wanted on the Board and there are too few women candidates.” Besant came out on top of the poll in Tower Hamlets, with over 15,000 votes. She wrote in the National Reformer: “Ten years ago, under a cruel law, Christian bigotry robbed me of my little child. Now the care of the 763,680 children of London is placed partly in my hands.”
Besant was also involved in the London Dock Strike, in which the dockers, who were employed by the day, were led by Ben Tillett in a struggle for the “Dockers’ Tanner”. Besant helped Tillett draw up the union’s rules and played an important part in the meetings and agitation which built up the organisation. She spoke for the dockers at public meetings and on street corners. Like the match-girls, the dockers won public support for their struggle, and the strike was won.
The Home Rule movement
Along with her theosophical activities, Besant continued to actively participate in political matters. She had joined the Indian National Congress. As the name suggested, this was originally a debating body, which met each year to consider resolutions on political issues. Mostly it demanded more of a say for middle-class Indians in British Indian government. It had not yet developed into a permanent mass movement with local organisation. About this time her co-worker Leadbeater moved to Sydney.
In 1914 World War I broke out, and Britain asked for the support of its Empire in the fight against Germany. Echoing an Irish nationalist slogan, Besant declared, “England’s need is India’s opportunity”. As editor of the New India newspaper, she attacked the colonial government of India and called for clear and decisive moves towards self-rule. As with Ireland, the government refused to discuss any changes while the war lasted.
In 1916 Besant launched the All India Home Rule League along with Lokmanya Tilak, once again modelling demands for India on Irish nationalist practices. This was the first political party in India to have regime change as its main goal. Unlike the Congress itself, the League worked all year round. It built a structure of local branches, enabling it to mobilise demonstrations, public meetings and agitations. In June 1917 Besant was arrested and interned at a hill station, where she defiantly flew a red and green flag. The Congress and the Muslim League together threatened to launch protests if she were not set free; Besant’s arrest had created a focus for protest.
The government was forced to give way and to make vague but significant concessions. It was announced that the ultimate aim of British rule was Indian self-government, and moves in that direction were promised. Besant was freed in September 1917, welcomed by crowds all over India, and in December she took over as president of the Indian National Congress for a year.
After the war, a new leadership emerged around Mohandas K. Gandhi – one of those who had written to demand Besant’s release. He was a lawyer who had returned from leading Asians in a peaceful struggle against racism in South Africa. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s closest collaborator, had been educated by a theosophist tutor.
The new leadership was committed to action that was both militant and non-violent, but there were differences between them and Besant. Despite her past, she was not happy with their socialist leanings. Until the end of her life, however, she continued to campaign for India’s independence, not only in India but also on speaking tours of Britain. In her own version of Indian dress, she remained a striking presence on speakers’ platforms. She produced a torrent of letters and articles demanding independence.
Later years and Death
Besant tried as a person, theosophist, and president of the Theosophical Society, to accommodate Krishnamurti’s views into her life, without success; she vowed to personally follow him in his new direction although she apparently had trouble understanding both his motives and his new message. The two remained friends until the end of her life.
In 1931 she became ill in India.
Besant died on 20 September 1933, at age 85, in Adyar, Madras Presidency, British India. Her body was cremated.
She was survived by her daughter, Mabel. After her death, colleagues Jiddu Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, Guido Ferrando, and Rosalind Rajagopal, built Happy Valley School, now renamed Besant Hill School in her honour.