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Intelligence and National Security/TMR

Jun 24, 1996 08:52 AM
by K. Paul Johnson

In general, it seems inadvisable to post reviews of one's own
work, and I refrained from sharing a rave from The Skeptic, on
the assumption that it would only stir up "the opposing forces"
:)  But this one is so interesting and informative that I'm
passing it along in hopes that some readers may find it
worthwhile.  I will also forward it to Jim Santucci, since it
points to a documentary find that would be a good thing for TH
to publish.  My comments are in brackets.  The journal is
devoted entirely to the history of intelligence, espionage,
etc. and is very scholarly in tone, published in the UK.  The
reviewer has published on British Indian history.

Any scholar who speaks of the political influence of secret
societies runs the risk of seeming a fool, of addressing
matters best left to *The Illuminatus Trilogy*, *Foucault's
Pendulum*, or *None Dare Call it Treason*.  Yet secret
societies demonstrable have shaped the history of many modern
states, while belief in this idea has marked a powerful
subterranean current in western thought, most recently
surfacing in The Reverend Pat Robertson's *The New World
Order*.  These ideas about the power of secrecy have affected
popular views of intelligence services and sometimes even these
services themselves.  There are, for example, similarities
between the conspiracy theories preached by Mrs Nesta Webster
in the early 1920s and ideas put forward by the contemporary
SIS [Alan, what's that?  Some British govt. agency?]  Thus,
historians of intelligence have something to learn from studies
of secret societies and something to say about them.

This certainly is true of the Theosophical Society. [Not a
secret society, but a society with a lot of secrets.]  Its
founder, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, is a notorious figure, to
her followers, a saint, to others, a fraud.  She is an
intellectual fount for the `New Age' movement, a favourite
target for conspiracy theorists on the right, and had
connections with Tsarist intelligence services which remain
murky even today.  The latest study of her career, *The Masters
Revealed*, addressed many issues related to the history of
intelligence.  Unfortunately, this book is difficult to read,
let alone review. [If you think this one is hard to read, you
should have seen its predecessor.]  It consists of 32 pocket
biographies of individuals whom K. Paul Johnson links to
Blavatsky.  Each account advances piecemeal a complec argument
about Blavatsky's career.  Johnson admires her doctrines but
denies her claims that they were dictated by a secret society
of spiritually advanced `Masters'.  He argues that Blavatsky
frequently lied about events while her ideas were her own
synthesis of various European and Asian esoteric traditions.
[Learned from authentic adepts in these traditions].  He
further claims that Blavatsky was a political figure no less
than a religious one, like other revolutionaries who worked
through secret societies, such as Giuseppe Mazzini; above all,
that her `Masters' were real figures, ranging from Mahajara
Ranjit [Ranbir] Singh of Kashmir to Jamal ad-Din-al-Afghani,
many, like her, involved in a secret struggle against British
rule in India and Egypt.  For a few years during the 1880s,
Johnson argues, the Theosophist movement was a nexus for
attempts to subvert British rule by Indian and Egyptian
dissidents, aided by powerful unofficial figures in Russia and
France.  Only with the failure of this effort did Theosophy
become a body with purely mystical concerns, even though its
exponents often remained significant opponents of British

Given its complexity, only a review expert in the history of
Theosophy, and in anti-colonial movements throughout the Middle
East and India, and in the plots of various Indian, French and
Russian individuals in the middle 1880s, and in British actions
against them, could judge this book fully. [I think this means
that no one on earth, including the author, is qualified to
judge the book fully-- sounds true enough.]  Nor does the
difficulty end with this tall order.  Johnson's method consists
of comparing the well documented Theosophist side of the
equation with standard secondary sources on the political
aspects, backed by some original material from European and
Indian archives, including previously unused British official
records about Madame Blavatsky. [Fair enough, except that some
of the Theosophical material I dug up was pretty obscure, and
that the standard secondary sources led to primary ones for the
major figures.]  In particular, he attempts to graft the
history of the Theosophist movement (as he has reconstructed
it) onto well established material regarding (a) the conspiracy
of the 1880s by Dalip Singh, the claimant of the Sikh kingdom
of Lahore, against the British Empire and (b) Ranjit [Ranbir]
Singh's contacts with the Tsarist government during the 1870s
and his relations with Jemal ad-Din when the latter was a
figure of note in Afghan politics during the 1860s.  At its
worst, this method falls victim to the problem of `garbage in,
garbage out': thus Johnson's claims about Blavatsky's links to
Mazzini or his argument that the Russian spy Pachino was Jamal
ad-Din in disguise. [SAY WHAT?!?  I make no such argument, and
wouldn't, but just point out some similarities between the two
men.  As for the Mazzini stuff, a non-Theosophist scholar might
find HPB's references unconvincing, but when Sotheran, Olcott,
and Rawson all talk about him the same way, I don't think
`garbage in, garbage out' is quite fair.]  He also mistakes the
statement of Egyptian conspirators and British spies in 1888
that Turkey had agreed to support an attack on the British
Empire as proof that The Porte really had decided to do so.
[Guilty as charged.]  Nor do ample official sources support
Johnson's argument that around 1885 [February 1887] Blavatsky
betrayed to British authorities a French plot against India. [I
don't argue, but reproduce a letter in which she does just
that, making it clear that there is no documentary evidence that Sinnett
passed on the warning to the authorities.]  Many other of his
suggestions are questionable and they all must be treated with
caution.  [Agreed, but that is made clear in the text.]  Yet
still there is something here, especially in the links which
Johnson tries to establish between Blavatsky and many Europeans
and Indians involved in Dalip Singh's conspiracy, especially
his two principal allies, the Sikh leader, Thakur [Thakar]
Singh, and the Russian publicist Miklail [Mikhail] Katkov.  One
can fairly conclude that more remains to be learned about these
issues and perhaps others. [Hooray!  What better group of
readers to be told this than experts in the reviewer's

Some of this learning can be acquired from British documents
which Johnson did not examine.  These indicate that during the
first part of Madame Blavatsky's stay in India between 1879 and
1885, British authorities did regard her as a potential
security threat and did monitor her movements-- not
surprisingly, since she was a Russian woman contacting
precisely those religious/political leaders who were regarded
as posing the greatest possible danger to British rule.  [All
that is made clear in documents I do reproduce.]  At
this point, British authorities in India possessed no
specialist security service: local officials instead monitored
subversion on an ad hoc basis and through amateur means.
Hence, each Presidency monitored Blavatsky (and her American
associate, Colonel Olcott) through the most obvious of
methods.  As the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, complained, local police
forces `have caused the couple to be everywhere publicly
followed about by a mounted sowar and a European police
officer.  The Yankee colonel, naturally irate, has through his
counsel [sic] in Bombay, demanded an explanation for this
`intolerable persecution'-- and received a formal apology for
these actions (E. 218/26, Earl Lytton papers, India Office
Records and Library, Lytton to Cranbrook, 25 May 1879).  In this
letter, Lytton also referred with fair
accuracy to Pachino's mission to India and to the secret
relations between Ranjit [Ranbir] Singh and Afghan and Russian
authorities.  All this would fit Johnson's case perfectly,
except for what followed. The Indian government almost
immediately lost any concern with Blavatsky, once the failure
of her efforst to link up with significant internal movements
became clear.  [Hmm-- what about TS role in the founding of the
Indian National Congress?-- more Olcott than HPB.]  At
precisely this point, British authorities learned much more
about Ranjit [Ranbir] Singh's relations of previous years with
Afghans and Russians and, so to handle the potential danger of
Dalip Singh's conspiracy with its various connections in India,
Egypt, France and Russia, mounted the first coordinated effort
in history by all the disparate intelligence services of the
British empire. [News to me, and exciting to know.]  They
penetrated and smashed the conspiracy, not surprisingly, given
its ramshackle nature-- this product of an Indian princeling, a
French countess, a Fenian emigre, a Russian newspaper editor
and Pan-Islamists in Cairo seems worth the pen of George
MacDonald Fraser, but still it worried grizzled heads in London
and Calcutta.  More significantly, these efforts finally led
the Indian government to put its internal security services in
India on a permanent basis, though the latter still remained
flimsy for another generation.  All this evidence indicates
that indeed secret socities did shape the development of modern
British intelligence, though in the manner of farce rather than

John Ferris
University of Calgary

[If my work places HPB on the radar screens of scholars of
British Indian political history, interesting discoveries may
result.  As a total amateur I am highly flattered to be deemed
worthy of review in such a journal despite the reviewer's
sometimes unflattering remarks and inexplicable errors of fact.]

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