November 29, 2018


Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Havelock in 1857.

n. a white cloth covering for the cap, with a flap hanging over the neck, to be worn by soldiers as a protection from the sun’s heat
Oxford English Dictionary

Depending on one’s age and geographical location, havelocks are reminders of either early French Foreign Legion films or amusement-park mullet protectors. Either way, they are the namesake of a gallant and evangelical British soldier—Sir Henry Havelock.

Havelock was born the son of a wealthy shipbuilder in what is now Sunderland, England, in 1795. He became a military man by the age of twenty, as did his three brothers, and served dutifully for more than three decades, primarily in India. He was a dedicated soldier and devout Baptist who distributed Bibles to his fellow soldiers and taught Bible study classes. He fought valiantly in the Burmese and Afghan wars and, most famously, in the insurgent siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It was there that he modified a type of helmet covering used since the Crusades to protect men from sunstroke when fighting in hot climates.

Dubbed “havelocks,” they were quickly embraced by Union military brass in the American Civil War as well. The New York Times wrote in May 1861 that “British officers in India, and in the Crimea, furnished their soldiers with thick, white, linen cap covers, reflecting instead of absorbing the heat of the sun, and having a cape long enough to fully cover the back of the neck.” Early in the war, there were “Ladies Havelock Associations” in more than one hundred towns and cities across the United States furiously sewing more than 100,000 “Havelock Cap-covers” for Union troops marching across “the scorching plains of the South.” Sadly, and unbeknownst to the well-intentioned seamstresses, many soldiers reported that the havelocks from home made them even more uncomfortable by thwarting air circulation around their necks. A number of soldiers cannibalized their cap covers to strain coffee or wash dishes, and others simply discarded them completely.

As for Havelock himself, he died of dysentery in 1857 following his agonizing heroism during the Lucknow siege by Sepoy rebels. He lived long enough to accept a baronetcy for his victories, but he died before his promotion to major general. His death brought about unprecedented grieving from the British populace, and, in addition to his sunblocker, countless streets, towns, bays, and even an island were named for him in Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Swaziland.

There is also a statue of Havelock in Trafalgar Square in London, paid for by public prescription in 1861. Part of its plaque reads, “Soldiers! Your labours, your privations, your suffering and your valour, will not be forgotten by a grateful country.” Perhaps ironically, in 2003 London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, unsuccessfully lobbied to have the statue and that of General Charles James Napier replaced with “more relevant” figures, saying, “I haven’t got a clue who they are.” Perhaps it would have helped if Havelock were wearing a hat.