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Back in those jolly days of World War II, the Jesuits at Regis High School were great believers in the importance of having a really fine debating society. Otherwise, the boys would be distracted, thinking about girls. Or Guadalcanal. Or model airplanes. Each year a specific argument was put and the boys debated it, for the affirmative or negative, and then turned nimbly around and argued just as persuasively the other way. One year the debate topic (a nationally established affair in which our Jesuits merely participated) was:

"Resolved: That this house favors immediate independence for India."

Since I had been brought up on movies like "Gunga Din" and "Drums" and "Four Feathers" and "The Rains Came" or anything with Sabu in it or C. Aubrey Smith, I took a good deal of interest in India and the other far-flung outposts of what was then the British Empire.

And it seems in view of recent events that the world, while it had far fewer "independent" countries, might at least marginally have been a better place; that probably Regis High School and the Jesuits and the other debating societies have a good deal to answer for in the role they played in breaking up the Empire.

Just look at the great Subcontinent. Where once we had tiger hunts and sinuous dancing girls and Clive of India, now we have nuclear devices and similar nonsense. That fellow Gandhi, for example. The Mahatma wouldn't rest until he got the Brits out and what do we have now: a vast land divided into India and Pakistan, which hate each other; with Pakistan itself hiving off Bangladesh. Are the Indians and Pakistanis and Bengals better off today than under the Raj? I do not believe so.

Take Egypt. When the British ran Egypt, there was none of this political rubbish and unrest. The pyramids, the Sphinx, a mummy or two, camels and the Nile. What more does an Egyptian want? And the Sudan, which these days has been killing off a million a year in a never-ending civil war, well, if there were trouble in the Sudan, London sent a gunboat up the Nile. Once in a while, of course, someone slipped up. General Gordon got himself surrounded in Khartoum and the Mahdi paraded Gordon's head around on a pike staff for all the lads to see. It took Lord Kitchener to set that straight.

Or British East. Were the Tutsis and the Hutus going at it when Dr. Livingstone was preaching there on the Zambesi? I should say not; they were attending Bible class.

And what of Bukhara and The Bug Pit, eh? Didn't know about The Bug Pit, did you? Well, let me set the scene and you decide for yourself if things in central Asia might be less chaotic today if we still had gallant chaps out there like Conolly (yes, that's the curious spelling) and Stoddard. Back then the Tsar and Britain pretty much divided up Asia. And their intelligence services, courageous young men on both sides, played what they then called "The Great Game," spying on each other and bribing or persuading various majarajahs and princelings to throw in their lot with one side or the other. Kipling could tell you all about it.

In any event, Nasrullah, Emir of Bukhara, was an unsavory fellow who built himself the highest minaret in Islam. And on market Saturdays, after prayers, with the square full of amiable rustics in from the country, Nasrullah would provide amusement by having criminals bound and then tossed off the minaret to their deaths on the cobblestones below. Some mornings a hundred perps might go splat and market days were very popular throughout the land.

But despite his cruelty, both the Brits and the Russians wanted the emir on their side. So Colonel Conolly was sent in to jolly him into signing a treaty of sorts. What poor Conolly got instead was. . .ta dah! The Bug Pit.

And for the next two years sat naked at the bottom of a dry stone well amid vermin, flies, rats and so forth, while a cleverly designed chute from the royal stables daily poured gallons of fresh horse manure atop the colonel's head, all the better for the vermin and rats to breed and multiply. Then along came Stoddard. One source says the British government sent him in to ransom Conolly; another claims his girlfriend had just dumped him and, half-mad, he went to Bukhara to brood or something. What he got, instead of solace, was a place alongside Conolly in the Bug Pit.

But Stoddard was a most fortunate man. He was in there with the manure and the vermin for only a year or so before the emir had both British officers fetched up into the sunlight where, emaciated and covered with bites and scabs and sores, he gave them both the chop. That, too, I believe, was on a market day. And I am informed that to this day the market square of Bukhara is a favorite tourist destination, especially (and oddly so) for traveling Brits.

Bring back the British Empire? Better Bug Pits than The Bomb.

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