Sahib, p.18Richard Holmes
a certain affinity in size and shape to a cathedral. One for each company. Long and wide and spacious, they were cut off in the middle by a transept-like messroom fitted with tables and forms where the whole company could sit down at table at one time. The two halves for sleeping accommodation consisted each of an airy, high space, forty feet to the roof and twenty feet wide, the walls interspersed with aisles. The stone slabs of the floor added to the effect of cloistered coolness. The necessary shelves, cots and kit-boxes were fitted between an arch at the side …
Outside there was a verandah of the same width, supported by a row of pillars on the outer edge, and beyond this was a plinth of five steps running right round the building.117
Purpose-built dining rooms for soldiers started appearing towards the end of the period, but for most of it men ate in their barrack rooms, with food carried across from the kitchen by orderlies. A soldier was entitled to two meals a day, breakfast and dinner (in practice a late lunch), after 1840, when a ‘tea meal’ of bread and tea was added. In India a man was entitled to a pound of bread and a pound of beef or mutton a day, but the latter included fat, bone and gristle in the weight. It was almost invariably cooked by being boiled in large coppers to which assorted vegetables had been added, with potatoes boiled separately, producing what the twentieth-century soldier would term an ‘all-in stew’. There were increasing efforts to make the food more interesting by producing ‘baked dinner’ on Sundays, which involved sending the meat to the barrack’s bakery. There were occasional attempts to make what the cooks termed ‘curries’, but these were generally the same all-in stews with curry powder added.
Those who ate Indian food outside barracks were astonished to discover just how different to army curry it really was. Albert Hervey thought that even an officers’ mess curry had little to recommend it: it was simply ‘a stew highly flavoured with spices and other condiments’. He grew increasingly fond of Indian food, observing that in his (largely high-caste Hindu) regiment, culinary arrangements were ‘very clean’.118
There were both officers’ and sergeants’ messes in barracks, but their members generally only ate and drank in them, with officers living in bungalows and sergeants living in ‘cabins’ in the barrack rooms. The mess John Fraser lived in as a sergeant in the 5th Fusiliers at Agra had a dining room, billiard room and ‘refreshment bar’, and once a month it was the scene of a ‘quadrille party’ when the mess entertained the wives and daughters of the families living in the civil lines. Sergeants were generally expected to eat in their mess, under the gimlet eye of the sergeant major, ‘Sir’ to all his subordinates, although with the bandmaster and schoolmaster, his fellow warrant officers, he unbent to the comfortable informality of ‘Mr’.
As far as unmarried officers were concerned, Albert Hervey thought that their habit of ‘giving tiffin parties, grog parties and other parties’ in their bungalows kept them away from mess, inducing them to keep up an establishment they could not afford, and encouraging them to stray into ‘a state of indolence, when they get into all sorts of bad practices, drinking, smoking, gambling, and so forth … ’. He argued that an officer acquired ‘an air of gentility … and … a degree of polish’ by associating with his comrades in mess. ‘At mess,’ he wrote, ‘an officer sits down to dinner properly dressed … At home, he is generally by himself, and there he eats in his shirt-sleeves, long drawers, slip-shod, and otherwise uncomfortable.’119
Civilian gentlemen were often invited to dine in officers’ messes. In the Calcutta of the 1790s, the officers of the affluent 12th Regiment might sit forty or fifty strong, and sometimes had three times as many guests. George Elers remembered that:
We had, of course, our regimental plate. We found two black men, brothers, who agreed to find us an excellent dinner, a desert, a pint of madeira each man for ten pagodas a head monthly; also twice a week, Thursday and Sunday, a better dinner, consisting of European articles, such as hams, tongues, cheeses, etc.120
William Hickey was often a guest when the HM’s 33rd Foot was in garrison at Calcutta: ‘They lived inimitably well, always sending their guests away with a liberal quantity of the best claret.’ The regiment was replaced by HM’s 10th, whose mess was ‘fully equal if not superior’ to that of their predecessors. It also had the advantage of ‘the finest Band of Music of any corps in His Majesty’s service’, so good, indeed, that the Governor-General kept poaching its members for his own band.121 In the 1830s Albert Hervey’s regiment of Madras native infantry had a weekly guest night, ‘and the expenditure of wines and other high priced articles, is enormous. Everything is public, and each has to pay so many shares, according to the number of guests he invites.’122
CALLING CARDS AND DRAWING ROOMS
OFFICERS, SOLDIERS AND THEIR FAMILIES fitted into a social environment increasingly determined by the colour of their skin. The divide between Britons and Indians would deepen as time went on, and by the mid-nineteenth century British social life in India became wholly distinctive, differing not only from the gentler co-existence of the eighteenth century, but from prevailing social trends in Britain too. It existed on several levels, each subject to elaborate stratification.
At the top, and very much in the minority, came officials of the covenanted Indian Civil Service (appointed in Britain) and commissioned officers of the British and Indian forces, with the upper echelons of the commercial class nudging their way in. Uncovenanted civil servants (appointed in India) were in a lower stratum. Although civil servant Thomas Kavanagh earned a VC for his courage in taking a message to the relieving force from besieged Lucknow, correspondent William Russell observed that, ‘those grand covenanted folk who did not mention him in their report regard him as “not one of us”’.123
Next came what was briskly referred to in the eighteenth century as the ‘Low Europeans’ – a small but growing middle class of junior employees of the Indian Civil Service and the utilities, such as railways, highways and bridges, many of them ex-soldiers, together with serving senior NCOs and warrant officers working for the commissariat or ordnance departments. This was the world of ‘Rundle, Station Master, An’ Beazley of the Rail, An’ ‘Ackman, Commissariat, An’ Donkin of the Jail … ,’.124 Respectability was its keynote, and a fall from grace profoundly unsettling to all. Julia Inglis recalled a particular tragedy at Lucknow when:
The sergeant major of the 7th Cavalry had a quarrel with the riding master Eldridge upon some trifling matter, when the former, Keogh, drew his revolver and shot the latter. He died in a few hours, but before his death he said: ‘You are a good fellow, Keogh, and I am sure never intended this.’ They were both steady, respectable men with large families and liked by their officers. The sergeant major was, of course, put in confinement and his poor wife was nearly distracted.125
Keogh was released during the siege, but ‘a power higher than any human tribunal did not allow him to go unpunished’.126 His leg was smashed by a bullet, and he died from the effects of the amputation.
The middle stratum of society included the largest body of Europeans aside from those in the army and Civil Service, the planters. Indigo planters had begun to arrive in the late eighteenth century, and soon established a thriving industry on their rural estates. They tended to live in patriarchal style (of which the historian Michael Edwardes tersely wrote ‘usually in more senses than one’), enjoyed close contact with other British of the non-official community, and had a strong influence on the English-language press, especially in Calcutta. They were loud in their condemnation of Lord Canning’s ‘clemency’ towards the mutineers, and most of them rigorously opposed attempts to liberalise race relations or give Indians a greater hand in the Civil Service or judiciary. Many behaved brutally towards the peasants who grew their indigo, buying it for the lowest possible rate and beating up those who sought to raise more lucrative crops. As new chemical dyes replaced indigo from the 1860s, planters diversified into tea and coffee, and new immigrants from England quickly took on post-Mutiny
Many planters served in volunteer units during the Mutiny. The behaviour of regular troops, inflamed by stories of massacre and rape, was bad enough, but the locally raised ‘moss-troopers’ were often worse, going off on self-authorised hanging sprees that left sights dreadfully reminiscent of Jacques Callot’s engravings of the Thirty Years’ War, with bodies dangling from trees like ripe fruit. ‘I saw one of the most remarkable sights I ever in my life beheld,’ wrote Octavius Anson; ‘no less than twenty men hanging naked on one tree, besides three or four others hanging to different trees close by. I thought for a moment I was in Madame Tussaud’s wax exhibition in Baker Street.’ He found fundamentally unsoldierly qualities amongst some of these irregulars. ‘A trooper of ours happening to kill a 1st L[ight] C[avalry] man with three medals on his breast,’ he wrote, ‘an Agra volunteer immediately tore the medals off and showed them as the trophies of a man he had killed.’128 Arthur Lang wrote angrily that: ‘Luckily I didn’t meet the Agra Volunteer Horse, who seeing the enemy’s cavalry fled so precipitately that they smashed men and horses of our side and spread wild alarm.’129
Not all volunteers were either brutal or unreliable. It is hard not to admire people like kindly Signor Barsotelli, an alabaster dealer in Lucknow, who went on duty with his musket, double-barrelled rifle and large sabre, ‘with his ammunition pouch hung round his neck like an Italian organ-grinder’.130 A fellow volunteer was uneasy about how to present arms to a visiting field officer doing his rounds, but Barsotelli assured him that nobody could see them in the dark, and they should just make a little noise with their rifles. After the Mutiny many planters joined the Indian Volunteer Corps, part-time units with adjutants and sergeant majors furnished by the regular army. The Eurasian community was strongly represented in the railway battalions, raised to defend stations and the track against terrorists and to help protect cantonments against rioting mobs. The Raj was sparing in granting the right to bear arms, and: ‘These railway units of the Volunteer Force gave the Anglo-Indians some satisfaction at being given the chance to defend their homes and livelihoods against “the natives” who were not allowed to join.’131
At the very bottom of the pyramid came the private soldier and junior NCO, eventually shoved together under the glacial acronym ‘BOR’ for British Other Ranks, living the communal life of the barrack room and wet canteen, aware that they enjoyed a lifestyle they could never expect in Britain but equally conscious that it was the colour of their skin and the trade they plied that set them apart from the labouring millions around them. Until 1833 the Company exercised a rigid control over European immigration, and generally prohibited the arrival of working-class civilians, and so there were few outsiders with whom private soldiers could feel much affinity. For some soldiers, especially those who, before the introduction of short service, had served in India for many years, the place became a habit hard to break. When the 16th Lancers returned to England in 1846 after twenty-four years in the subcontinent, many troopers transferred to the 3rd Light Dragoons, as John Pearman recalled:
There was one man went home who came out with the regiment. We got 200 horses from them, and 240 men. These men received 30 rupees to volunteer. The 14th Light Dragoons got only one man (named Self). This was because they had to do their own work, or part of it, and they were very tight in the Canteen rules. The men were marked off when they had three drams each of rum – quite enough, three-quarters of a pint nearly. I thought it a very good rule. The men were more sober than our men; but in those days drink was the rage in India.132
Pearman added that when his own regiment was about to return from India some men wanted to stay on. Private Walker received £100 from another man ‘to change regiments, which they got done. Walker had a black wife and wanted to stay in the country.’133
Just as serving soldiers often transferred to other regiments in order to remain in India, ex-servicemen often stayed on when their time was up, sometimes soldiering on in one of the companies of pensioners or invalids maintained by the Company to help garrison places like the arsenal at Allahabad, and sometimes living, as civilians, on the fringe of military communities. Their pensions went much further, and many had local wives whose status might have caused difficulties in England. Albert Hervey thought that ‘these well-tried soldiers’ were worth knowing for ‘the anecdotes by flood and field’ that they told, although sadly they were ‘much addicted to drinking, and are the means of corrupting the young soldiery … ’. He added that:
I have myself witnessed many distressing scenes among the poor pensioners … Men and women lying drunk in the same house; children rolling about with filth and dirt crying with hunger; husband and wife fighting with each other under the influence of liquor; men lying in ditches or on the roadside, or reeling home in a disgraceful state of intoxication.134
But many had the wit to gravitate towards the non-official middle class. Frank Richards was on good terms with an ex-soldier in one of the Company’s European regiments, whose name, the Bacon-Wallah, reflected his new trade, supplying bacon and ham to the army. He, in the common way of old soldiers, thought the army had gone soft: not enough drinking was done, and Indians were treated far too indulgently. The Bacon-Wallah had married a woman, ‘the daughter of a couple of half-castes’, whose dowry had enabled him to start his piggery. The fact that he was sixty had not deterred him from siring four children: Richards thought him ‘a sparky old sinner’.135
Women were required to be social chameleons, taking on the status of their husbands, for better or for worse. In November 1835, William Deas told John Low that: ‘A Miss Hunter of Blackness, an aunt of the present family, thought fit to marry a common soldier, consequently was thrown over by the family.’ She may, though, have had the last laugh, because her daughter became Lady Panmure and so trumped them all.136 One of the many embarrassments in the siege of Lucknow, according to one commentator, was that it inevitably swept together ‘ladies with children, soldiers’ wives, crannies’ wives’, and it was sometimes hard to be quite clear who was who.137 In the 1880s a young sentry in the Northumberland Fusiliers demonstrated that he did not quite know how the system was meant to work.
He would not let a woman pass his post, and she was not at all pleased.
‘Don’t you know that I am Major—’s lady?’
To which the stubborn sentry replied: ‘I’m sure I’m very sorry, mum, but if you was the Major’s wife, it wouldn’t make any difference.’138
There was never much doubt that the army was, as John Lawrence put it, ‘infinitely inferior in every respect’ to the Civil Service in status and reward. But to anyone near the bottom of his level the upper echelons, uniformed or not, could be chilly indeed. Albert Hervey complained that in the 1830s:
The society of Madras is very stiff and formal, composed of civil and military residents there, who hold the principal appointments. I mean not by this observation to say that there are not exceptions. But those individuals called ‘big-wigs’ are rare birds of their sort, and give themselves many airs and fancy themselves great people.
At home we are all upon a par, as it were; but in India it is entirely a different order of things. Every person holds his place by rank and precedence. Birth, talent and refinement of character and mind, give way to situation and amount of salary, so that frequently we find the rich and ignorant parvenu jostling his poorer though better born neighbours; because the former holds superior rank, receives superior pay, and lives in a better house than the latter! Rank carries the palm everywhere, both amongst the military as well as the civilians.
If an unfortunate ensign, or lieutenant, dining at a friend’s table, challenges
Hervey very much enjoyed the hospitality of regimental families, but declared that he would ‘ten times rather have gone on main guard twice a week’ than to have endured a grand soirée in Madras.
Lieutenant Philip Meadows-Taylor, an officer in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s little army, recalled that in 1830:
The adjutant of my regiment, having completed twelve years’ service, was promoted to the rank of captain. I was next in seniority, and my claims were recognised by the Resident, Colonel Stewart … My pay increased considerably; and I was much amused when I asked a young lady to dance at a ball one night, to overhear her ask her mother’s permission, ‘as I was now an adjutant!’. ‘Are you quite sure, dear?’ said mamma; ‘if you are, you may do so. He is quite eligible now.’
I could not repress a smile as I led the young lady out to our dance. Are mammas still so watchful?140
There were elaborate rules about new arrivals in a cantonment or station calling on all those in their new social circle to leave their visiting-cards, and those who failed to observe them were tossed into outer darkness. ‘In India it is the rule that new comers call upon the residents,’ wrote Major Bayley of the reception accorded to him and his wife at Umballa in 1854.
Sahib by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes