Known as the “champion of human freedom”, Annie Besant is the dauntless Irish lady that defied all social norms and lived her life unapologetically. A philosopher, social reformer, women’s rights activist, prolific writer, and orator, she continued to challenge the conservative and conventional norms of the society, vociferously voicing her mind and demanding reforms. Throughout her entire life, she experienced the realms of Christianity, Atheism, Socialism, and Theosophy, in her journey to find the ultimate truth of religious transformation. She is a prominent figure who played a tremendous role in India’s freedom struggle against the imperialistic rule of England. Let us take a look into the life of this beacon of resistance and how she managed to break all odds and live life on her own terms!
“This was a lady with a powerful will whose energy and courage was of an extraordinary order”- Rosemary Dinnage
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Annie Woods was born on 1 October 1847, in Clapham, London. Her father William Woods, passed away when she was only 5 years old, leaving her and her mother with a life of penury. Annie was brought up by the affluent Ellen Marryat, upon her mother’s persuasion, due to which Annie received a good education and traveled a great amount across Europe.
In 1867, when she was 19 years old, she married 26 years old clergyman, Frank Besant and gave birth to 2 children, Digby and Mabel. However, the marriage was a disaster, due to a conflict of interests. Annie was set on her anti-religious and radical views while Frank was a conservative man, which led to their separation in 1873, with Frank getting full custody of both the children.
Her philanthropic ventures began during the course of her marriage. When Annie Besant moved to Sibsey, Lincolnshire, along with her husband, she carried out humanitarian work such as nursing the sick people in the town. She states in her autobiography that she was “filled with the passionate desire for the bettering of the world”.
Dock Strike of 1887
In the early 1880s, Annie shifted her attention to the Socialist movement. She got acquainted with George Bernard Shaw, a struggling Irish writer, and joined the Fabian Society to advocate the rights of the unemployed and demand social justice. 1887 saw protests against unemployment held in Trafalgar Square, at which Annie Besant was a key speaker. This day infamously came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and brought into focus the plight of the working class and their rights.
Annie’s most notable victory in this period was perhaps her involvement in organizing a strike of the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in East London, who complained of terrible wages and inhumane working conditions leading to industrial illnesses like Phossy Jaw. She relentlessly articulated their demands for better wages which led to the successful establishment of the Matchmakers Union.
Quest for Truth
In 1868, Annie Besant started writing short stories to supplement the family income, which was very unconventional at that time for a woman to earn. It was also during this time that she began to question her faith and went to see Edward Bouverie Pusey, leader of the Catholic wing of the Church of England to get closer to the ‘truth’. In 1873, she stopped attending the Communion and no longer called herself Christian. This was the last straw in her marriage and she was legally separated from her husband Frank in 1873.
After the end of her marriage, Annie Besant moved to London and started advocating for various social and political issues, like freedom of thought, women’s rights, secularism, birth control, and the rights of the working class, while continuing her quest for finding the ultimate religious truth. She even challenged the Church of England and its critical ways of controlling people’s lives.
National Secular Society
In 1894, Annie Besant began earning a small wage by writing a column in the National Reformer, a newspaper of the NSS, voicing her opinions on various important issues and raising demands for reform and freedom. During this time, she became acquainted with Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the NSS, who shared the same ideology as her and they both practiced atheism. NSS (National Secular Society) stood for the abolition of the superiority of Christianity and establishing a secular state.
The Obscenity Trial
On 24 March 1877, Annie and Charles published Charles Knowlton’s Fruits Of Philosophy, which was a forbidden pamphlet advocating the use of birth control that led to the duo’s arrest on 6 April 1877 for transgressing the Obscene Publications Act 1857. However, their arrest was overturned due to a technical issue. It was due to her involvement in the Obscenity Trial and her atheism that Frank was granted the sole custody of their daughter Mabel, who was earlier residing with Annie.
Theosophy and Arrival in India
In 1889, Annie Besant reviewed The Secret Doctrine by H.P.Blavatsky – a leading Theosophist, which accumulated her interest in the Theosophist movement. Theosophy is a religious movement introduced in 1875, based on spiritual ideas of reincarnation and karma. Her theosophical beliefs led her to India where she campaigned for the rights of women, advocated for Indian Home Rule, and became involved in the Indian Nationalist Movement.
After Blavatsky passed away, Besant became the leading figure in Theosophy. She also became the International President of the Theosophical Society in 1907. The original society is known as the Theosophical Society Adyar which still functions in Chennai.
She started newspapers like New India and Commonweal to raise the demand for Swaraj.
Campaigned for the Rights of Women
By being a part of the women’s association, Annie Besant has worked relentlessly for women’s upliftment and education in India. She fought for Freedom of thought, women’s rights, secularism, birth control, worker’s rights in her quest to bring a radical change in the social conditions of women in the country.
Setting up the Central Hindu University
Annie Besant set up a new school for boys at Varanasi called Central Hindu College (CHC). On 1st October 1917, the CHC merged into the Banaras Hindu University. The school was aimed at building new leadership for India and encouraging youth to participate in the freedom movement.
Member of Indian National Congress
Besant was a prominent member of the India National Congress and was also the first woman president of the party. She also advocated for the voice of the middle-class community in the affairs of the government. Annie Besant played a major role in the unification of the split Congress and fighting foreign rule.
Home Rule League
Annie Besant launched the Home Rule League in association with Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1916 that was based on the propaganda of self-government within the British Empire for all of India. In June 1917, Besant was arrested and kept in custody and was released in September 1917, on the demand of Mahatma Gandhi.
In the late 1920s, she traveled to the United States along with her protégé and adopted son Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she claimed to be a Messiah. Krishnamurti later turned into a philosopher of the modern age. Annie Besant passed away on September 20, 1933, on account of age-based maladies, in Adyar, Chennai.
Through her fearless participation in the various dimensions of education, politics, and social conditions; Annie Besant influenced and inspired the Indian society to unify and fight for Independence. She acted as a role model and as a true leader who further laid the stage for mass leaders like Mahatma Gandhi to come and fight British rule. For more blogs on the lives of such influential figures, stay tuned to Leverage Edu!