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Annie Besant

Annie Besant

Overview
Annie Besant (ˈ; née Wood, 1 October 1847 – 20 September 1933) was a prominent British Theosophist
Theosophy
Theosophy, in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy developed since the late 19th century. Its major themes were originally described mainly by Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the Theosophical Society...

, women's rights
Women's rights
Women's rights are entitlements and freedoms claimed for women and girls of all ages in many societies.In some places these rights are institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, and behaviour, whereas in others they may be ignored or suppressed...

 activist, writer
Writer
A writer is a person who produces literature, such as novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, poetry, or other literary art. Skilled writers are able to use language to portray ideas and images....

 and orator and supporter of Irish
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 and India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

n self rule.

She was married at 19 to Frank Besant but separated from him over religious differences. She then became a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society
National Secular Society
The National Secular Society is a British campaigning organisation that promotes secularism and the separation of church and state. It holds that no-one should gain advantage or disadvantage because of their religion or lack of religion. It was founded by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866...

 (NCS) and writer and a close friend of Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh was a political activist and one of the most famous English atheists of the 19th century. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866.-Early life:...

. In 1877 they were prosecuted for publishing a book by birth control campaigner Charles Knowlton
Charles Knowlton
Charles Knowlton was an American physician, atheist and writer.-Education:Knowlton was born May 10, 1800 in Templeton, Massachusetts. His parents were Stephen and Comfort Knowlton; his grandfather Ezekiel Knowlton, who was a Captain in the revolution and a longtime state legislator...

.
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Encyclopedia
Annie Besant (ˈ; née Wood, 1 October 1847 – 20 September 1933) was a prominent British Theosophist
Theosophy
Theosophy, in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy developed since the late 19th century. Its major themes were originally described mainly by Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the Theosophical Society...

, women's rights
Women's rights
Women's rights are entitlements and freedoms claimed for women and girls of all ages in many societies.In some places these rights are institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, and behaviour, whereas in others they may be ignored or suppressed...

 activist, writer
Writer
A writer is a person who produces literature, such as novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, poetry, or other literary art. Skilled writers are able to use language to portray ideas and images....

 and orator and supporter of Irish
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 and India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

n self rule.

She was married at 19 to Frank Besant but separated from him over religious differences. She then became a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society
National Secular Society
The National Secular Society is a British campaigning organisation that promotes secularism and the separation of church and state. It holds that no-one should gain advantage or disadvantage because of their religion or lack of religion. It was founded by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866...

 (NCS) and writer and a close friend of Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh was a political activist and one of the most famous English atheists of the 19th century. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866.-Early life:...

. In 1877 they were prosecuted for publishing a book by birth control campaigner Charles Knowlton
Charles Knowlton
Charles Knowlton was an American physician, atheist and writer.-Education:Knowlton was born May 10, 1800 in Templeton, Massachusetts. His parents were Stephen and Comfort Knowlton; his grandfather Ezekiel Knowlton, who was a Captain in the revolution and a longtime state legislator...

. The scandal made them famous and Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament
Member of Parliament
A Member of Parliament is a representative of the voters to a :parliament. In many countries with bicameral parliaments, the term applies specifically to members of the lower house, as upper houses often have a different title, such as senate, and thus also have different titles for its members,...

 for Northampton in 1880.

She became involved with Union organisers including the Bloody Sunday
Bloody Sunday (1887)
Bloody Sunday, London, 13 November 1887, was the name given to a demonstration against coercion in Ireland and to demand the release from prison of MP William O'Brien, who was imprisoned for incitement as a result of an incident in the Irish Land War. The demonstration was organized by the Social...

 demonstration and the London matchgirls strike of 1888
London matchgirls strike of 1888
The London match-girls’ strike of 1888 was a strike of the women and teenage girls working at the Bryant and May Factory in Bow, London.-The strike:...

 and was a leading speaker for the Fabian Society
Fabian Society
The Fabian Society is a British socialist movement, whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary, means. It is best known for its initial ground-breaking work beginning late in the 19th century and continuing up to World...

 and the Marxist Social Democratic Federation
Social Democratic Federation
The Social Democratic Federation was established as Britain's first organised socialist political party by H. M. Hyndman, and had its first meeting on June 7, 1881. Those joining the SDF included William Morris, George Lansbury and Eleanor Marx. However, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's long-term...

 (SDF). She was elected to the London School Board
London School Board
The School Board for London was an institution of local government and the first directly elected body covering the whole of London....

 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
Theosophy
Theosophy, in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy developed since the late 19th century. Its major themes were originally described mainly by Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the Theosophical Society...

 grew while her interest in secular matters waned. She became a member of the Society and a highly successful lecturer in Theosophy. As part of her Theosophy-related work, she travelled to India where in 1898 she helped establish the Central Hindu College
Central Hindu College
Central Hindu School, formerly known as Central Hindu College, is one of India's largest schools which is situated in the heart of the city at Kamachha Varanasi in India. This school provides the education to all societies of people having highly qualified faculties and aboratory and a SARGA HALL...

, and in 1902 she formed the International Order of Co-Freemasonry in England. Over the next few years she established lodges in many parts of the British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

. In 1907 she became President of the Theosophical Society
Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society is an organization formed in 1875 to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy. The original organization, after splits and realignments has several successors...

.

She also became involved in politics in India, joining the Indian National Congress
Indian National Congress
The Indian National Congress is one of the two major political parties in India, the other being the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is the largest and one of the oldest democratic political parties in the world. The party's modern liberal platform is largely considered center-left in the Indian...

. When World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 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. After the war she continued to campaign for Indian independence and for the causes of Theosophy until her death in 1933.

Early life



Annie Wood was born in 1844 in London into a middle-class family of Irish
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 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
Harrow School
Harrow School, commonly known simply as "Harrow", is an English independent school for boys situated in the town of Harrow, in north-west London.. The school is of worldwide renown. There is some evidence that there has been a school on the site since 1243 but the Harrow School we know today was...

. 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 nineteen she married 26-year-old clergyman Frank Besant, younger brother of Walter Besant
Walter Besant
Sir Walter Besant , was a novelist and historian who lived largely in London.His sister-in-law was Annie Besant.-Biography:...

. 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
Manchester Martyrs
The Manchester Martyrs – William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien – were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland. They were executed for the murder of a police officer in Manchester, England, in 1867, during...

 of the Irish Republican Fenian Brotherhood
Fenian Brotherhood
The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish republican organization founded in the United States in 1858 by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny. It was a precursor to Clan na Gael, a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Members were commonly known as "Fenians"...

, as well as with the conditions of the urban poor.


Soon Frank became vicar of Sibsey
Sibsey
Sibsey is a civil parish and village on the A16 road and B1184 in the English county of Lincolnshire, north of Boston in the district of East Lindsey. At the 2001 census, it had a population of 1,996. Sibsey Northlands is to the north of the village...

 in Lincolnshire
Lincolnshire
Lincolnshire is a county in the east of England. It borders Norfolk to the south east, Cambridgeshire to the south, Rutland to the south west, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire to the west, South Yorkshire to the north west, and the East Riding of Yorkshire to the north. It also borders...

. 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
Tory
Toryism is a traditionalist and conservative political philosophy which grew out of the Cavalier faction in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It is a prominent ideology in the politics of the United Kingdom, but also features in parts of The Commonwealth, particularly in Canada...

 and sided with the landlords and farmers. The tension came to a head when Annie refused to attend Communion
Eucharist
The Eucharist , also called Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Blessed Sacrament, the Lord's Supper, and other names, is a Christian sacrament or ordinance...

. 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
Edward Bouverie Pusey
Edward Bouverie Pusey was an English churchman and Regius Professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement.-Early years:...

, leader of the Catholic wing of the Church of England
Church of England
The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...

. 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
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

.

Birkbeck


For a time she undertook part-time study at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution
Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is...

, 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
Freedom of thought
Freedom of thought is the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others' viewpoints....

, women's rights, secularism
Secularism
Secularism is the principle of separation between government institutions and the persons mandated to represent the State from religious institutions and religious dignitaries...

 (she was a leading member of the National Secular Society
National Secular Society
The National Secular Society is a British campaigning organisation that promotes secularism and the separation of church and state. It holds that no-one should gain advantage or disadvantage because of their religion or lack of religion. It was founded by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866...

 alongside Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh was a political activist and one of the most famous English atheists of the 19th century. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866.-Early life:...

), birth control
Birth control
Birth control is an umbrella term for several techniques and methods used to prevent fertilization or to interrupt pregnancy at various stages. Birth control techniques and methods include contraception , contragestion and abortion...

, Fabian socialism and workers' rights.

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
Church of England
The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...

 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 NCS. The NCS 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
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

 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 Society's leader, Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh was a political activist and one of the most famous English atheists of the 19th century. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866.-Early life:...

. It seems that they were never lovers, but their friendship was very close. Bradlaugh, a former seaman, 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
Northampton
Northampton is a large market town and local government district in the East Midlands region of England. Situated about north-west of London and around south-east of Birmingham, Northampton lies on the River Nene and is the county town of Northamptonshire. The demonym of Northampton is...

.

Besant and Bradlaugh became household names in 1877 when they published a book by the American birth-control campaigner Charles Knowlton
Charles Knowlton
Charles Knowlton was an American physician, atheist and writer.-Education:Knowlton was born May 10, 1800 in Templeton, Massachusetts. His parents were Stephen and Comfort Knowlton; his grandfather Ezekiel Knowlton, who was a Captain in the revolution and a longtime state legislator...

. 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
Malthusian League
The Malthusian League was a British organisation which advocated for the abolition of all penalties against public discussion of contraception and the education of the public about the importance of family planning. It was established in 1877 and was dissolved in 1927...

 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.

Bradlaugh's political prospects were not damaged by the Knowlton scandal and he got elected to Parliament in 1881. Because of his atheism, he refused to swear the oath of loyalty. Although many Christians were shocked by Bradlaugh, others (like the Liberal leader Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone FRS FSS was a British Liberal statesman. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served as Prime Minister four separate times , more than any other person. Gladstone was also Britain's oldest Prime Minister, 84 years old when he resigned for the last time...

) spoke up for freedom of belief. It took more than six years before the whole issue was sorted out (in Bradlaugh's favor) 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
Michael Davitt
Michael Davitt was an Irish republican and nationalist agrarian agitator, a social campaigner, labour leader, journalist, Home Rule constitutional politician and Member of Parliament , who founded the Irish National Land League.- Early years :Michael Davitt was born in Straide, County Mayo,...

, 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.

Political activism


For Besant, politics, friendship and love were always closely intertwined. Her decision in favour of Socialism came about through a close relationship with , a struggling young Irish author living in London, and a leading light of the 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.in India

Unemployment was a central issue of the time, and in 1887 some of the London unemployed started to hold protests in Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square is a public space and tourist attraction in central London, England, United Kingdom. At its centre is Nelson's Column, which is guarded by four lion statues at its base. There are a number of statues and sculptures in the square, with one plinth displaying changing pieces of...

. 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
Bloody Sunday (1887)
Bloody Sunday, London, 13 November 1887, was the name given to a demonstration against coercion in Ireland and to demand the release from prison of MP William O'Brien, who was imprisoned for incitement as a result of an incident in the Irish Land War. The demonstration was organized by the Social...

. 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
London matchgirls strike of 1888
The London match-girls’ strike of 1888 was a strike of the women and teenage girls working at the Bryant and May Factory in Bow, London.-The strike:...

. She was drawn into this battle of the "New Unionism" by a young socialist, Herbert Burrows
Herbert Burrows
Herbert Burrows was a British socialist activist.Born in Redgrave, Suffolk, Burrows' father Amos was a former Chartist leader. He worked for the Inland Revenue and briefly studied at the University of Cambridge....

. He had made contact with workers at Bryant and May
Bryant and May
For the Bryant and May series of crime mystery books, see the author Christopher Fowler.Bryant and May was a United Kingdom company created in the mid-nineteenth century specifically to make matches. Their original Bryant and May Factory was located in Bow, London...

's match factory in Bow, London
Bow, London
Bow is an area of London, England, United Kingdom in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It is a built-up, mostly residential district located east of Charing Cross, and is a part of the East End.-Bridges at Bowe:...

, who were mainly young women and were very poorly paid. They were also prey to industrial illnesses, like the bone-rotting Phossy jaw
Phossy jaw
Phossy jaw, formally phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, is an occupational disease of those who work with white phosphorus, also known as yellow phosphorus, without proper safeguards. It was most commonly seen in workers in the match industry in the 19th and early 20th century...

, 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
Edward Aveling
Edward Bibbins Aveling was a prominent English biology instructor and popular spokesman for Darwinian evolution and atheism. He later met and moved in with Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and became a socialist activist...

, 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
Eleanor Marx
Jenny Julia Eleanor "Tussy" Marx , also known as Eleanor Marx Aveling, was the English-born youngest daughter of Karl Marx. She was herself a socialist activist, who sometimes worked as a literary translator...

, daughter of Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

. 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 SDF and then the Socialist League
Socialist League (UK, 1885)
The Socialist League was an early revolutionary socialist organisation in the United Kingdom. The organisation began as a dissident offshoot of the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman at the end of 1884. Never an ideologically harmonious group, by the 1890s the group had turned from...

, a small Marxist splinter group which formed around the artist William Morris
William Morris
William Morris 24 March 18343 October 1896 was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement...

.

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
London School Board
The School Board for London was an institution of local government and the first directly elected body covering the whole of London....

. 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
Tower Hamlets (UK Parliament constituency)
Tower Hamlets was a parliamentary borough constituency in, Middlesex, England from 1832 to 1885. It elected two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom...

, 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 (1889), in which the dockers, who were employed by the day, were led by Ben Tillett
Ben Tillett
Benjamin Tillett was a British socialist, trade union leader and politician. He was born in Bristol and began his working life as a sailor, before travelling to London and taking up work as a docker....

 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.

Theosophy


Besant was a prolific writer and a powerful orator. In 1889, she was asked to write a review for the Pall Mall Gazette on The Secret Doctrine
The Secret Doctrine
The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy, a book originally published as two volumes in 1888, is Helena P. Blavatsky's magnum opus. The first volume is named Cosmogenesis, the second Anthropogenesis...

, a book by H.P. Blavatsky. After reading it, she sought an interview with its author, meeting Blavatsky in Paris. In this way she was converted to Theosophy. Besant's intellectual journey had always involved a spiritual dimension, a quest for transformation of the whole person. As her interest in Theosophy deepened, she allowed her membership of the Fabian Society to lapse (1890) and broke her links with the Marxists. When Blavatsky died in 1891, Besant was left as one of the leading figures in Theosophy and in 1893 she represented it at the Chicago World Fair
World's Columbian Exposition
The World's Columbian Exposition was a World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1492. Chicago bested New York City; Washington, D.C.; and St...

.

In 1893, soon after becoming a member of the Theosophical Society
Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society is an organization formed in 1875 to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy. The original organization, after splits and realignments has several successors...

 she went to India for the first time. After a dispute the American section split away into an independent organization. The original Society, then led by Henry Steel Olcott
Henry Steel Olcott
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer and the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society....

 and Besant, is today based in Chennai
Chennai
Chennai , formerly known as Madras or Madarasapatinam , is the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, located on the Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal. Chennai is the fourth most populous metropolitan area and the sixth most populous city in India...

, India, and is known as the Theosophical Society Adyar
Theosophical Society Adyar
The Theosophy Society - Adyar is the name of a section of the Theosophical Society founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and others in 1875. Its headquarters moved with Blavatsky and president Henry Steel Olcott to Adyar, an area of Chennai in 1883...

. Following the split Besant devoted much of her energy not only to the Society, but also to India's freedom and progress. Besant Nagar
Besant Nagar
Besant Nagar is one of Chennai's well known neighbourhoods, named after the famous lady theosophist Annie Besant, and adjoins the Theosophical Society. The Theosophical Society Headquarters is located here. It was founded in 1875, and is a worldwide body whose primary objective is Universal...

, a neighborhood near the Theosophical Society in Chennai, is named in her honor.

Co-freemasonry


She pursued freemasonry with equal vigour when it was mentioned to her that there was a masonry that "accepted women as well as men". She saw freemasonry, in particular co-freemasonry
Co-Freemasonry
Co-Freemasonry is a form of Freemasonry which admits both men and women. It began in France in the 1880s with the forming of Le Droit Humain, and is now an international movement represented by several Co-Masonic administrations throughout the world...

, as an extension of her interest in the rights of women and the greater brotherhood of man and saw co-freemasonry as a "movement which practised true brotherhood, in which women and men worked side by side for the perfecting of humanity. She immediately wanted to be admitted to this organisation", known now as The International Order of Co-Freemasonry, Le Droit Humain.

The link was made in 1902 by the Theosophist Francesca Arundale, who accompanied Besant to Paris, along with six friends. "They were all initiated, passed and raised into the first three degrees and Annie returned to England, bearing a Charter and founded there the first Lodge of International Mixed Masonry, Le Droit Humain." Besant eventually became the Order's Most Puissant Grand Commander, and was a major influence in the international growth of the Order.

President of Theosophical Society



Besant met fellow Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater
Charles Webster Leadbeater
Charles Webster Leadbeater was an influential member of the Theosophical Society, author on occult subjects and co-initiator with J. I. Wedgwood of the Liberal Catholic Church...

 in London in April 1894. They became close co-workers in the Theosophical Movement and would remain so for the rest of their lives. Leadbeater claimed clairvoyance
Clairvoyance
The term clairvoyance is used to refer to the ability to gain information about an object, person, location or physical event through means other than the known human senses, a form of extra-sensory perception...

 and reputedly helped Besant become clairvoyant herself in the following year. In a letter dated 25 August 1895 to Francisca Arundale, Leadbeater narrates how Besant became clairvoyant. Together they clairvoyantly investigated the universe, matter, thought-forms, and the history of mankind, and co-authored several books.

In 1906 Leadbeater became the centre of controversy when it emerged that he had advised the practice of masturbation to some boys under his care and spiritual instruction. Leadbeater stated he had encouraged the practice in order to keep the boys celibate, which was considered a prerequisite for advancement on the spiritual path. Due to the controversy, he offered to resign from the Theosophical Society in 1906, which was accepted. The next year Besant became President of the Society and in 1908, with her express support, Leadbeater was readmitted to the Society. Leadbeater went on to face accusations of improper relations with boys, but none of the accusations were ever proven and Besant never deserted him.

Until Besant's presidency, the society had as one of its foci Theravada
Theravada
Theravada ; literally, "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching", is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It was founded in India...

 Buddhism
Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 and the island of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a country off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent. Known until 1972 as Ceylon , Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, and lies in the vicinity of India and the...

, where Henry Olcott did the majority of his useful work. Under Besant's leadership there was more stress on the teachings of "The Aryavarta", as she called central India, as well as on esoteric Christianity.

Besant set up a new school for boys, the Central Hindu College
Central Hindu College
Central Hindu School, formerly known as Central Hindu College, is one of India's largest schools which is situated in the heart of the city at Kamachha Varanasi in India. This school provides the education to all societies of people having highly qualified faculties and aboratory and a SARGA HALL...

 (CHC) at Benares which was formed on underlying Theosophical principles, and which counted many prominent Theosophists in its staff and faculty. Its aim was to build a new leadership for India. The students spent 90 minutes a day in prayer and studied religious texts, but they also studied modern science. It took 3 years to raise the money for the CHC, most of which came from Indian princes. In April 1911, Besant met Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya
Madan Mohan Malaviya
Madan Mohan Malaviya was an Indian educationist, and freedom fighter notable for his role in the Indian independence movement and his espousal of Hindu nationalism...

 and they decided to unite their forces and work for a common Hindu University at Varanasi. Besant and fellow trustees of the Central Hindu College also agreed to Government of India's precondition that the college should become a part of the new University. The Banaras Hindu University
Banaras Hindu University
Banaras Hindu University is a public university located in Varanasi, India and is one of the Central Universities of India. It is the largest residential university in Asia, with over 24,000 students in its campus. BHU was founded in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya under the Parliamentary...

 started functioning from 1 October 1917 with the Central Hindu College as its first constituent college.

Blavatsky had stated in 1889 that the main purpose of establishing the Society was to prepare humanity for the future reception of a "torch-bearer of Truth", an emissary of a hidden Spiritual Hierarchy
Spiritual Hierarchy
Spiritual Hierarchy is a term often used in Neo-Theosophy, and the Ascended Master Teachings, a group of religions based on Theosophy. It represents the concept of a group of self-realised Masters of the Ancient Wisdom, referred to by those adherent to the Ascended Master Teachings as Ascended...

 that according to Theosophists guides the evolution of Humankind. This was repeated by Besant as early as 1896; Besant came to believe in the imminent appearance of the "emissary", who was identified by Theosophists as the so-called World Teacher.


The World Teacher Project


In 1909, soon after Besant's assumption of the presidency, Leadbeater "discovered" fourteen-year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti
Jiddu Krishnamurti
Jiddu Krishnamurti or J. Krishnamurti or , was a renowned writer and speaker on philosophical and spiritual subjects. His subject matter included: psychological revolution, the nature of the mind, meditation, human relationships, and bringing about positive change in society...

 (1895–1986), a South Indian boy who had been living next to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, and declared him the probable "vehicle" for the expected World Teacher
Maitreya (Theosophy)
Maitreya or Lord Maitreya is described in Theosophical literature of the late 19th-century and subsequent periods as an advanced spiritual entity and high-ranking member of a hidden Spiritual Hierarchy, the so-called Masters of the Ancient Wisdom...

. The "discovery" and its objective received widespread publicity and attracted worldwide following, mainly among Theosophists. It also started years of upheaval, and contributed to splits in the Theosophical Society and doctrinal schisms in Theosophy. Following the discovery, Jiddu Krishnamurti and his younger brother Nityananda ("Nitya") were placed under the care of Theosophists and Krishnamurti was extensively groomed for his future mission as the new vehicle for the "World Teacher". Besant soon became the boys' legal guardian with the consent of their father, who was very poor and could not take care of them. However, his father later changed his mind and began a legal battle to regain the guardianship, against the will of the boys. Early in their relationship, Krishnamurti and Besant had developed a very close bond and he considered her a surrogate mother – a role she happily accepted. (His biological mother had died when he was ten years old).

In 1929, twenty years after his "discovery", Krishnamurti, who had grown disenchanted with the World Teacher Project, repudiated the role that many Theosophists expected him to fulfil. He dissolved the Order of the Star in the East
Order of the Star in the East
The Order of the Star in the East was an organization established by the leadership of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, India, from 1911 to 1927...

, an organization founded to assist the World Teacher in his mission, and eventually left the Theosophical Society
Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society is an organization formed in 1875 to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy. The original organization, after splits and realignments has several successors...

 and Theosophy at large. He spent the rest of his life travelling the world as an unaffiliated speaker, becoming in the process widely known as an original, independent thinker on philosophical, psychological, and spiritual subjects. His love for Besant never waned, as also was the case with Besant's feelings towards him; concerned for his wellbeing after he declared his independence, she had purchased 6 acres (24,281.2 m²) of land near the Theosophical Society estate which later became the headquarters of the Krishnamurti Foundation India.

The Home Rule movement


Along with her Theosophical activities, Besant continued to actively participate in political matters. She had joined the Indian National Congress
Indian National Congress
The Indian National Congress is one of the two major political parties in India, the other being the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is the largest and one of the oldest democratic political parties in the world. The party's modern liberal platform is largely considered center-left in the Indian...

. 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
Sydney
Sydney is the most populous city in Australia and the state capital of New South Wales. Sydney is located on Australia's south-east coast of the Tasman Sea. As of June 2010, the greater metropolitan area had an approximate population of 4.6 million people...

, Australia.

In 1914 World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 broke out, and Britain asked the support of its Empire in the fight against Germany
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

. 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
British Raj
British Raj was the British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947; The term can also refer to the period of dominion...

 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 Home Rule League
Home Rule Movement
The All India Home Rule League was a national political organization founded in 1916 to lead the national demand for self-government, termed Home Rule, and to obtain the status of a Dominion within the British Empire as enjoyed by Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Newfoundland at the...

 along with the Indian Lokmanya Tilak, once again modeling 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
Hill station
A hill station is a town located at a higher elevation than the nearby plain or valley. The term was used mostly in colonial Asia , but also in Africa , for towns founded by European colonial rulers as refuges from the summer heat, up where temperatures are cooler...

, 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 to great welcome from 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
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

. Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru , often referred to with the epithet of Panditji, was an Indian statesman who became the first Prime Minister of independent India and became noted for his “neutralist” policies in foreign affairs. He was also one of the principal leaders of India’s independence movement in the...

, Gandhi's closest collaborator, had been educated by a Theosophist tutor.

The new leadership was committed to action that was both militant and nonviolent, 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


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. Besant died in 1933 and was survived by her daughter, Mabel
Mabel Besant-Scott
Mabel Emily Besant-Scott was a Theosophist, Co-Freemason and Rosicrucian....

. After her death, colleagues J. Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley
Aldous Leonard Huxley was an English writer and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel...

, Dr. Guido Ferrando, and Rosalind Rajagopal
Rosalind Rajagopal
Rosalind Edith Rajagopal, was a long-time director of the Happy Valley School in Ojai, California, United States, which she founded with Jiddu Krishnamurti, Guido Ferrando, and Aldous Huxley in 1946....

, built Happy Valley School, now renamed Besant Hill School in her honour.

Descendants


The subsequent family history became fragmented. A number of Besant's descendants have been traced in detail from her son Arthur Digby's side. One of Arthur Digby's daughters was Sylvia Besant, who married Commander
Commander
Commander is a naval rank which is also sometimes used as a military title depending on the individual customs of a given military service. Commander is also used as a rank or title in some organizations outside of the armed forces, particularly in police and law enforcement.-Commander as a naval...

 Clem Lewis in the 1920s. They had a daughter, Kathleen Mary, born in 1934, who was given away for adoption
Adoption
Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting for another and, in so doing, permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities from the original parent or parents...

 within three weeks of the birth and had the new name of Lavinia Pollock. Lavinia married Frank Castle in 1953 and raised a family of five Besant's great-great grandchildren – James, Richard, David, Fiona and Andrew Castle
Andrew Castle
Andrew Nicholas Castle is an English retired tennis professional, former British No. 1, and now television presenter.-Biography:...

 – the last and youngest sibling being a former British professional tennis player and now television presenter and personality.

Selected works

  • The Political Status of Women (1874)
  • My Path to Atheism (1877)
  • The Law Of Population (1877)
  • Marriage, As It Was, As It Is, And As It Should Be: A Plea For Reform (1878)
  • Autobiographical Sketches (1885)
  • Why I became a Theosophist (1889)
  • The Devachanic Plane. Theosophical Publishing House, London, ca 1895.
  • The Ancient Wisdom
    The Ancient Wisdom
    The Ancient Wisdom is a book by Annie Besant published in 1898.In this book, Besant introduces and explains the Physical plane, Astral plane, Mental plane and other planes of existence....

     (1898)
  • Thought Forms
    Thought Forms
    Thought-Forms is a book by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, which is a study on the nature and power of thoughts. It has been translated into more than five languages....

     (1901)
  • Bhagavad Gita (translation) (1905)
  • Study in Consciousness
    Study in Consciousness
    Study in Consciousness is a book by Annie Besant that was written in ca. 1904.Besant intended this book to be a contribution to the science of psychology.She writes that the seed of consciousness is the tri-atomic Atma-Buddhi-Manas, the Jivatma....

     - A contribution to the science of psychology. Theosophical Publishing House, Madras, ca 1907.
  • Introduction to Yoga (1908)
  • Australian Lectures (1908)
  • Man and his bodies. Theosophical Publishing House, London, 1911.
  • Man's life in this and other worlds. Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1913.
  • Occult Chemistry
    Occult Chemistry (book)
    Occult Chemistry: Investigations by Clairvoyant Magnification into the Structure of the Atoms of the Periodic Table and Some Compounds is a book written by Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater and Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa, who were all members of the Theosophical Society...

     (With Charles Webster Leadbeater
    Charles Webster Leadbeater
    Charles Webster Leadbeater was an influential member of the Theosophical Society, author on occult subjects and co-initiator with J. I. Wedgwood of the Liberal Catholic Church...

    )
  • Initiation: The Perfecting of Man (1923)
  • The Doctrine of the Heart (1920)
  • Esoteric Christianity.
  • The Future of Indian Politics (booklet), Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1922
  • The Life and Teaching of Muhammad, Madras, 1932
  • Memory and Its Nature, Theosophical Publishing House, Madras, ca 1935. (With Helena Blavatsky).

Further reading

  • Chandrasekhar, S. "A Dirty, Filthy Book": The Writing of Charles Knowlton and Annie Besant on Reproductive Physiology and Birth Control and an Account of the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial. University of California Berkeley 1981
  • Grover, Verinder and Ranjana Arora (eds.) Annie Besant: Great Women of Modern India – 1 : Published by Deep of Deep Publications, New Delhi, India, 1993
  • Kumar, Raj Rameshwari Devi and Romila Pruthi. Annie Besant: Founder of Home Rule Movement, Pointer Publishers, 2003 ISBN 81-7132-321-9
  • Manvell, Roger. The trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. Elek, London 1976
  • Nethercot, Arthur H. The first five lives of Annie Besant Hart-Davis: London, 1961
  • Nethercot, Arthur H. The last four lives of Annie Besant Hart-Davis: London (also University of Chicago Press 1963) ISBN 0-226-57317-6
  • Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1991 (also US edition 1992) ISBN 0-19-211796-3

External links



University Library Historical Monographs Collection.