The Daily Star of Bangladesh begins a column on the country’s well-being,
War-time British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’, so said American journalist Ed Murrow. Churchill in a major address to the House of Commons quoted Alexander the Great as saying, “Why the Asians were slaves? It is because they have not learnt to say ‘no’.”
Adding, Churchill said, ‘I don’t want that epitaph for Britain.’ He was inspiring the Britons to stand up to the tyrannical Hitlerite blitzkrieg on London at an extremely crucial phase of World War II. Although Alexander’s remark was demeaning to Asia, going back to around 300 B.C when the native rulers were quarrelsome, the Asians were to give a much better account of themselves as history bore out subsequently.
The obvious thing to point out here is that if Alexander did make the remark ascribed to him, he did not say it ‘around 300 B.C.’ unless through a medium. By the turn of the century, he had, of course, been dead for 23 years.
Leaving the issue of the date to one side, is Churchill’s quotation an accurate one?
I certainly cannot think of any occasion when Alexander accused Asians (whether by this we mean those who lived in Asia Minor, India or anywhere in between) of being slaves for any reason let alone the lack of ability to say ‘no’. Certainly, in his own dealings with them, he did not treat them as slaves.
Against that, I have to admit that while I have read the four major histories (plus Justin) on Alexander’s life, I have not read every last reference and fragment. Maybe an author I have not heard of gives those words to him?
Is it worth searching to find out, though? A quick Google search reveals that not only does it appear that Churchill did not mention Alexander in a ‘major address to the House of Commons’ but – contra the Daily Star‘s report – he did not quote him, either.
According to The Churchill Centre, Churchill gave a broadcast speech to ‘the United States and to London’ (presumably the U.K. is meant here) on 16th October 1938. It is during this speech, that he said
Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word “No.” Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe.
I appreciate that while Churchill doesn’t quote Alexander directly he does say that the Macedonian king said the words that the Daily Star now puts into his mouth; however, the Daily Star has still inaccurately recorded both Churchill’s speech and, I believe (along with Churchill), Alexander’s opinion of Asian/barbarian history.
By-the-bye, I could only smile wryly when I read the column’s dismissal of Alexander as belonging to the ‘hoary past’ but then end with a reference to the Gordian Knot. That’s life in the old king’s example, yet.