Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Horace Alexander


Horace Alexander was a Quaker who, with Agatha Harrison, contributed significantly to the peaceful transfer of power from the British to the independent governments of India and Pakistan, and afterwards worked to limit the terrible communal violence that followed.

Horace Alexander was born into a Quaker family and educated at Bootham School in York and then King’s College Cambridge.  In 1916, when conscription was introduced, he registered as a conscientious objector and was required to take up school teaching.  In 1919, he joined the staff of Woodbrooke in Birmingham, where he taught international relations until 1944.

Alexander visited India on behalf of Woodbrooke during 1927/8 and became convinced of the need for Indian independence.  He first met M. K. Gandhi in 1928 and in 1930 acted as in intermediary between Gandhi and the viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, enabling Gandhi to participate in the Second Round-table Conference on the future of India in 1931. Afterwards, with Agatha Harrison and others, he helped to found the India Conciliation Group, which sought to improve British understanding  of India’s political aspirations.

During the 1930s, Alexander was also secretary of the Anglo-German Society, a group which, while keenly aware of Nazi barbarities, sought to change the situation by peaceful means.  During the Second World War, Alexander went with the Friends Ambulance Unit to carry out air-raid protection work in areas of India threatened by Japanese forces, and was among the first to bring relief during the Bengal famine that followed the devastating cyclone of 1942.  In 1943, he returned to England to appeal for funds for famine relief and to explain, to the public and to politicians, the thinking behind Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ campaign (which called for the orderly withdrawal of the British Administration.)

Known as a birdwatcher and a quiet listener, he was nevertheless often impatient with government attitudes to Indian aspirations, and frequently infuriated British officials in both London and Delhi. “Government will not talk while the ‘threat remains’,” he wrote, of the Quit India campaign.  “How childish statesmen are!  Do they not realise that the threat will always inevitably remain while they remain?”

After the War, Alexander returned to India with Agatha Harrison, accompanying the cabinet mission from the new Labour government, who were charged with negotiating with nationalist leaders. They both worked quietly in the background and were instrumental in persuading Gandhi of the good faith of the British delegation.

When independence was declared on 15 August 1947, Alexander was with Gandhi in Calcutta.  The violence there between Hindus and Muslims throughout the previous year had been extreme. (One member of the Friends Service Unit had described it as, “As if the Great Plague and the worst of the London air raids had coincided.”) Alexander saw at first hand how Gandhi’s actions brokered peace between the two factions.

In the months that followed, with his FAU colleague, Richard Symonds, Alexander served as an observer in Punjab and later in Kashmir, monitoring the situation of refugees on both sides of the conflict and often getting caught in the middle of skirmishes. One of their first actions was to take humanitarian relief to thousands of Muslims sheltering in the old Mogul fortress of Purana Qila.

Alexander left India in the 1950s, but remained a campaigner for Indian and Pakistani issues. He worked to promote understanding of India’s neutral foreign policy, at a time when the world was dividing between ‘communism’ and ‘anti-communism’.  He also tried to facilitate mediation between India and Portugal over the Portuguese colony of Goa, and blamed himself for failing to do so.

His time in India taught him a deep respect for other faiths.   “Christian Quakers and Quaker-minded men of the East are brought very near each other as they go deep and forsake the exterior trappings to listen to the same voice, away from names and labels,” he wrote.

Once described by Gandhi as "British in nationality but Indian in heart," he was awarded India's Padma Bhushan medal in 1984. He died in 1989 at the age of 100.

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Further Reading and Credits

Gandhi's interpreter: article, Geoffrey Carnall


Photograph reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holder The Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London