It was after her marriage to Anglican clergyman, Frank Besant that Annie Besant developed a political bent of mind. Her friendship with English radicals and Manchester Martyrs of the Irish Republican Fenian Brotherhood shaped much of her political thinking.
Post marriage, Besant explored her writing skills and started penning short stories, articles and books for children.
Over the course of her marriage, she became more and more radical in her views. She began to question her faith and stopped attending the Communion as she no longer believed in Christianity.
The conflicting opinion between Annie and Frank led the couple to part ways in 1873. Eventually, she left for England with her daughter Mabel. She undertook part-time study at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution.
She became widely recognized for her radical views, as she openly expressed her support for freedom of thought, women’s right, secularism, birth control, Fabian socialism and worker’s rights
She became a leading member of the National Secular Society (NSS) and the South Place Ethical Society along with Charles Bradlaugh. Soon enough, she began questioning conventional thinking as a whole.
Besant started penning articles that attacked the Church. She openly condemned the status of Church citing it as a state-sponsored faith. In 1870s, she began writing a small weekly column in the NSS newspaper, National Reformer. Both NSS and Besant had singular goal – to establish a secular state and end the special privilege enjoyed by Christianity.
Being blessed with excellent oratory skills, she became a public speaker. She travelled far and wide, giving lectures and speaking on day-to-day issues. Through her public speeches, she demanded for improvement, reform and freedom from the government.
While Besant had gained a popular status through her write-ups and public speeches, it was when she published a book on birth control, in association with Charles Bradlaugh that she became a household name. The book argued the need to limit the number of children in a working class family in order to stay happy. Highly controversial, it was condemned by the Church. The duo was sent on a trial for obscenity but was eventually acquitted.
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Besant political thinking drifted as she became more and more influenced by the Socialist organizations. She developed close contact with Irish Home Rulers, speaking in favour of Irish peasantry and rebuking landowners. During this time, she befriended George Bernard Shaw, an Irish author. Eventually, she started writing and giving public speeches on Fabian socialism.
In 1887, she appeared as a public speaker at the protest held at Trafalgar Square held by London unemployed group. The day is recorded in history as Bloody Sunday, as it led to death and arrest of hundreds of people.
In 1888, she became actively involved in the London matchgirls strike. The strike came into effect, following poor work conditions and meagre pay being provided to young women in Bryant and May’s match factory. The protest earned great public support and eventually led to improved working condition and heightened pay.
In 1888, Besant joined Marxism and eventually became its best speaker. Same year, she was elected to the London School Board. During this time, she also became actively involved in the London Dock Strike. Much like the matchgirls strike, it too gained much public support.
In 1889, she converted to Theosophy. As a member of the Theosophical society, she travelled to India in 1893. She actively supported the Theosophical movement in addition to supporting Indian freedom struggle and independence.
In 1908, she served as the President of the Theosophical Society. Under her leadership, she stressed on the teachings of the Aryavarta. She also opened a new school for boys, The Central Hindu College.
In 1916, together with Lokmanya Tilak, she launched the All India Home Rule League. Modelled on the lines of Irish nationalist practices, it became the first political party of the country that demanded a governmental change. Unlike the Indian National Congress, the league worked all through the year.
She worked relentlessly with Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, to establish a common Hindu University at Varanasi. Thus, Banaras Hindu University was established in October 1917, with Besant’s initiated Central Hindu College as its first constituent college.
Alongside her theosophical activities, she served as the first woman President of the Indian National Congress in 1917. She became the editor of the ‘New India’ newspaper and voiced against the British rule in the country.
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In 1917, she was arrested for protesting against British rule. Interestingly, different Indian nationalist groups from all over the country protested against her arrest which eventually led to her release. Her release strengthened Indian belief of freedom from British Raj and self-governance.
Till the last days of her life, she actively promoted and campaigned for Indian independence and for the causes of theosophy
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1867, Annie married an evangelical Anglican, Frank Besant. Frank was employed as a clergyman.
Following Frank Besant’s appointment as the vicar of Sibsey, the couple moved to Sibsey, Lincolnshire. They were blessed with two children, Arthur and Mabel.
Annie and Frank’s marriage did not last long due to their polarized opinions. The two had major conflicts over finances, political and religious beliefs and freedom. They separated in 1873.
Post the publication of the scandalous book on birth control, she lost custody of her children as Frank Besant proved in court that she was unfit to take care of them.
After her divorce, Besant developed a close friendship with prominent politicians including Charles Bradlaugh, George Bernard Shaw and Edward Aveling.
During her Presidency of Theosophical Society, she served as the legal guardian of Jiddu Krishnamurti and his younger brother Nityananda. Her bond with Jiddu Krishnamurti grew so strong that he eventually considered her as his surrogate mother.
In 1931, she became severely ill. She breathed her last on September 20, 1933 in Adyar, Madras Presidency, British India. Her body was cremated.
Posthumously, a neighbourhood near the Theosophical Society in Chennai is named after her, Besant Nagar. A school started by her contemporaries has been renamed Besant Hill School in her honour.