Sahib, p.19
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       Sahib, p.19

           Richard Holmes

  Of these we were unaware, and were, besides, busily employed looking for houses. It was, therefore, very unsatisfactory to learn, at the end of a week, that we had given great offence in not having called on the ladies of the station. On our part, we thought them somewhat unreasonable to expect us to ride about making calls before we were properly housed; but the mischief had been done, and we never went much in society there.141

  Equally rigid rules governed precedence. Lady Falkland, whose husband was Governor of Bombay in the 1840s, observed that women ‘going into and leaving the dining room, take precedence according to the rank of their husbands, as they do in Europe: but I was, at first, surprised that at the end of the evening no one moved to go away till she whose husband held the highest official position rose to depart’. She saw a lady:

  far from well, after a dinner party at Government House and wishing very much to go home; who, on my urging her to do so, hesitated, because another person in company – the wife of a man of higher official rank than her own husband – does not seem disposed to move. I took the opportunity of impressing on the poor sufferer, that the sooner this custom was broken through, the better of it. However, she did not like to infringe it, and so sat on.142

  Isabella Fane, acting as hostess to her father, General Sir Henry Fane, Commander in Chief, India, held a large dinner party at Calcutta in 1836:

  We thought Mrs Thoby Prinsep was the lady for my father to take into dinner, instead of which here were two who ought to have gone in before her. You may suppose my feelings towards Mrs Thoby. Nothing but stupid ignorance would have led me to commit this faux pas. Unfortunately the injured lady they tell me is a great stickler about her rights, and is very likely to take it amiss. I must do Mrs Thoby the justice to say she was very uncomfortable at the mistake, and also that she behaved herself all the evening with more propriety than usual … In consequence of this error of etiquette we thought the party would have to spend the night with us, for you may remember my telling you that no one can stir to go home until the lady of the party makes the move; and as poor Mrs Thoby had, contrary to her wishes, become the great lady for the night, the right one did not choose to stir; and as she again did not wish to extend further her usurped rights, nothing would induce her to stir either.143

  The difficulty of obtaining divorces meant that Miss Fane’s life was complicated by the fact that her father was not married to her mother. The latter styled herself Lady Fane despite this inconvenience, but thought it wisest to remain in England rather than risk sharp tongues in Calcutta or, indeed, Meerut. This misfortune made Isabella no more sensitive to the feelings of others. At Fategargh, in December 1836, she admitted that:

  We have got into a horrible scrape about the wife of the colonel commanding here, about whom we were told all sorts of improper tales, viz that she was as black as my shoe and that she had lived for five years with this man before he married her. We were informed that she meant to call, and were told that we ought not to receive her. She did call, and we acted as directed. It afterwards came out that she was received by all the ladies of the station, although the tongue of slander did talk of her. Upon finding out all this, I took the most ladylike and proper manner of retrieving my error, viz by writing her a very civil note, besides desiring a message to be given to her husband. They have behaved like vulgarians and have taken no notice of either note or civil message, so they are at liberty after this display of bad taste to think of us as they like …

  Isabella Fane was infuriated to discover how her treatment changed when she was not travelling with her father, and how she slipped in status from Commander in Chief’s hostess to a private lady. Escorted back to Calcutta by one of her father’s aides-de-camp, Raleigh Yeo (who made it very clear that he would rather be going off to war in Afghanistan than escorting women about India), she noted that there were ‘no official receptions, and hardly a nod from the ladies in up-country stations who had clamoured for introductions when she passed their way before’. Meerut folk were, she concluded, ‘toadies, as they only take notice of us when we are with the great’.144 Emily Eden, as a viceroy’s sister, was in an altogether happier position, but even she found it all rather heavy going:

  It is a gossiping society, of the smallest macadamised gossips I believe, for we are treated with too much respect to know too much about it; but they sneer at each other’s dress and looks, and pick out small stories against each other by means of the Ayahs, and it is clearly a downright offence to tell one woman that another looks well …

  It is a very moral society, I mean that people are very domestic in their habits, and there are no idle men. Every man without exception is employed in his office all day, and in the evening drives. Husbands and wives are always in the same carriage. It is too hot for him to ride or walk, and at evening parties it is not considered possible for one to come without the other. If Mr Jones is ill everybody knows that Mrs Jones cannot go out, so she is not expected …

  I believe in former days it was a very profligate society, as far as young men were concerned, the consequence of which is that the old men of this day are still kept here [in Calcutta] by the debts they contracted in their youth. But the present class of young men are very prudent and quiet, run into debt very little, and generally marry as soon as they are out of college.145

  This was a society in which the number of servants reflected the power and status of the employer. But setting oneself up in British society in India was not as cheap as many newcomers imagined. In 1850, Fanny Parkes lamented that:

  The number of servants necessary to an establishment in India, is most surprising to a person fresh from Europe: It appeared the commencement of ruin. Their wages are not high, and they find themselves in food; nevertheless from their number, the expense is very great.

  The Parkes family employed a total of fifty-seven servants at a cost of 290 rupees (£29) per month – 3,480 rupees (£348) per year. Their rent was another 3,900 rupees a year, and so they were spending 7,380 rupees (£748) a year simply on running the house.146 By the turn of the twentieth century Flora Steel reckoned that a British household in Bengal would need a bearer (a ‘head of house, valet’) at 8–14 rupees; a cook at 14–40 rupees; a khitmagar (to wait at table) at 10–14 rupees; a khansamah (‘housekeeper and head waiter’) at 10–20 rupees; a musolchi (or scullery-man) at 6–9 rupees; a mehtar (sweeper or under-maid) at 6–7 rupees; a bhisti (to carry water) at 7 rupees; an ayah (nurse and lady’s maid) at 6–10 rupees; a dirzi (or tailor – happily ‘not kept in Calcutta’) at 10 rupees; a dhobi (washerman) at 10 rupees for a couple and 12 rupees for a family; a syce (or groom) at 6–8 rupees; possibly a grass-cutter (to provide fodder for the horses) at 5–6 rupees; a gardener at 5–30 rupees, and a cow wallah (or cowman) at 6–8 rupees.147

  In a land where labour was cheap most soldiers and their families could afford to employ servants, however.148 Infantrymen had folk on hand to polish their boots, pipe-clay their equipment, and wash their clothes; cavalry troopers had grooms and tack-cleaners, while in Britain they would only be servants of their steeds. From his barrack room John Fraser recalled how his day began with a whispered ‘Shave, sahib?’ as the barber, or nappy, came in, and if we wished we were shaved for four annas (sixpence) a month. We felt like lords, for all the interior tasks, sweeping out of the rooms and verandahs, and carrying water from the wells, was done for us by natives.149


  IT WAS A WORLD where almost all Europeans had time on their hands, and there was a constant need for ‘entertainment’. Those of the appropriate status, and there were of course various local definitions of precisely what that might mean, were eligible to join ‘the club’. There were several clubs in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, a couple in large provincial centres, and one in most big towns. W. H. Russell was elected an honorary member of the Bengal Club when he arrived at Calcutta in 1858, and was glad of his guest bedroom and the adjoining ‘dark latticed room in which stood many large red earthen pi
tchers of water and a glorious tub’. Dinner was at ‘a kind of table d’hôte, very well served. A battalion of native domestics in the club livery in attendance, almost one behind each man’s chair.’150 What proved home from home for a war correspondent at the height of his powers might not have done for a subaltern: Albert Hervey complained that the Madras Club was impossibly expensive. In 1897, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Thomsett thought the club was ‘one of the institutions of Peshawar’, but feared that, like clubs all over India, it had become ‘much more unsociable than it was twenty years ago’. ‘Well,’ he wrote:

  I have come to the conclusion that the first reason is that the journey home is so much quicker than it used to be, and consequently people are now less dependent upon each other for society and friendships. Then again the establishing of clubs in almost every society that can support them, and thereby a more economical means of entertaining, has practically done away with regimental entertainments.151

  A long-standing feature of British regimental life is that some deeds that might be reviled as vandalism if carried out by private soldiers are often applauded as high jinks in the officers’ mess. In the 1870s young, university-educated civil servants were advised to keep a second-best suit of dinner clothes for dining in messes, for sometimes their airs and graces offended bullet-headed subalterns. Francis Yeats-Brown found himself at a dinner night the day he joined his own regiment, and one thing led to another:

  Well-trained servants appeared by magic to remove all the breakable furniture … replacing it with a special set of chairs and tables made to smash. Senior officers bolted away to play bridge; the rest of us, who were young in years or at heart, began to enjoy ourselves according to the ancient custom.

  Somebody found an enormous roll of webbing and swaddled up a fat gunner subaltern in it. A lamp fell with a crash. Wrestling matches began. A boy in the Punjab Frontier Force brought in a little bazaar pony and made it jump sofas …

  Hours afterwards, I left the dust and din and walked back under the stars to the bungalow in which I had been allotted a room. I was extraordinarily pleased with myself and my surroundings. Everyone in my regiment was the best fellow in the world – and that first impression of mine has not been altered by twenty years of intimacy.152

  Rudyard Kipling loved dining in the mess, and was guest of 5th Fusiliers, 30th East Lancashire and 21st East Surrey in the cantonment at Mian Mir. He was able to use his contact with officers to gain admittance to the men’s lines, and his characters Terence Mulvaney, the Irishman, Jack Learoyd, from Yorkshire, and Stanley Otheris the Cockney, were drawn from life. Some of his stories, like Snarleyow and Danny Deever, were firmly based on fact, and if it is less easy to place the regiment in The Drums of the Fore and Aft, its two heroes, Jakin and Lew, bold bad drummer-boys who swore, drank and fought in barracks but died as heroes, shaming their comrades back into battle as they marched to and fro with fife and drum, might have been found kicking their heels round any cantonment, with devilry in mind. It is to Kipling’s credit that, much as he loved the world of polished mahogany and gleaming silver, he also understood that other world, with:

  the red-coats, the pipe-clayed belts and the pill-box hats, the beer, the floggings, hangings and crucifixions, the bugle calls, the smell of the oats and horse piss, the bellowing sergeants with foot-long moustaches, the bloody skirmishes, invariably mishandled, the crowded troop-ships, the cholera-stricken camps, the ‘native’ concubines, the ultimate death in the work-house.153

  Private soldiers and NCOs gambled and drank as far as their funds allowed. ‘Our time was spent very idly,’ admitted John Pearman,

  as all drill was in the morning and dismounted drill in the evening. As it was very hot in the day, we sat on our charpoys or bedsteads and played at cards, backgammon or chess or anything that took our taste. At other times I would read books or set at the needle.154

  Just as sailors worked at scrimshaw to while away the boredom of long voyages, so soldiers turned to needlework, and embroidered panels with regimental colours were their favourite product. Robert Waterfield noted that when his own 32nd Foot lay alongside HM’s 24th, ‘having very little to do, the men of both corps were continually drinking and cock-fighting and gambling. Although prohibited by the Articles of War it was carried on to a great extent.’155 Many regiments responded to this threat to health and discipline by opening reading rooms, coffee shops and libraries. At Amballa from 1846–48, the 3rd Light Dragoons had a good coffee shop where ‘you could get anything to eat you might want’. There was also a library which, in John Pearman’s view, ‘had a good effect and in a few months half the men belonged to it. They were allowed to take the book to their own beds where they could lay and read.’156

  Most soldiers enjoyed walking out, and were often able to do so in plain clothes, which was not the case in Britain where men lived and died in their uniform. Many Englishmen dressed for the town with little regard for the climate. In the eighteenth century, kneebreeches and stockings, long coats and waistcoats were worn, and although breeches disappeared and coats grew shorter with the new century, stocks, wound warmly around officers’ necks, remained de rigueur. Albert Hervey went shooting near Madras in kit that, save, perhaps, for the hat, might have served him well in Hampshire:

  As regards attire, I always wore a good thick flannel shooting-jacket (with skirts covering the hips), under which there was a woollen waistcoat. These are excellent coverings for the upper body, and sufficiently resist the hot winds, and prevent their penetrating to the skin, so as to check perspiration. Thick corduroy, or fustian trousers, fitting loosely to the body, and coming down to the ankles; worsted socks, and thick, strong shoes or laced-boots, completed the costume with the exception, by-the-bye, of the hat or cap. I always preferred the straw-hat, with a broad brim and covered with white linen or some sort, slightly padded with cotton. Inside I had some fresh plantain or cabbage leaves, which offered a tolerable resistance to the heat of the sun, and kept the upper part of the head pretty cool.157

  The damage done to such finery by the climate was considerable. Some garments were washable, but others were not, and in the pre-dry-cleaning age the consequences were sometimes unpleasant. Isabella Fane reported that she had ‘got on famously’ with the Eden sisters:

  They are both great talkers, both old, both ugly, and both s—k like polecats! Sir H. Chamberlain informed some of our young gentlemen that on board ship they were so dreadful in this respect that those who were so lucky as to sit next to them at dinner had their appetites much interfered with.158

  The problem generally stemmed more from overworn clothes than unwashed bodies. Daily bathing – which began with Europeans following the Indian practice of having water tipped over them, the bath itself becoming general in the early nineteenth century – was widely regarded as essential. Ensign Wilberforce thought that going without a bath from Sunday to Friday during the siege of Delhi was a shocking and unusual deprivation.

  Lieutenant Colonel ‘Dirty’ Gordon of HM’s 75th was remembered by his adjutant as ‘a queer fellow, an eccentric, perfectly useless at regimental interior economy, but he was a capital horseman and most gallant soldier, who could, if allowed his own way to do it, do good service … ’. However, his fondness for baths led to markedly odd behaviour.

  Another of his peculiarities was to stand in front of his tent stark naked as the day he was born talking to the orderly sergeants, flapping away the flies which buzzed about him with a towel. This was while he was preparing for a bath, which he sometimes forgot to take after all, but which consisted, when he did have it, in an alfresco ablution with water from a mussak, after which, arrayed in a green choga with a scarlet comforter made into a sort of cap and his feet in native slippers he walked from tent to tent.159

  Having lots of clothes helped: one eighteenth-century lawyer, for instance, was able to ring the changes by owning seventy-one pairs of breeches and eighty-one waistcoats. When George Elers’s commanding officer, Colonel He
rvey Aston, was killed in a duel in 1798 Elers reported that:

  His stock of clothes etc that he had bought in England was immense; I have heard from fifty to one hundred pairs of boots. I remember on the passage out I had a painful boil on my arm … He lent me a loose jacket to wear. I said I was afraid I should deprive him of it, as there were no laundresses on board ship. He said: ‘Never mind, I have two hundred more.’ His tailors made for me when I returned home – Croziers, of Panton Square – and they assured me that they used to take him home thirty coats at a time, and if they did not fit exactly he would kick them out of the room.160

  Elers himself rubbed along with ‘six regimental jackets, besides dress-coats, great-coats, shirts about twelve dozen, and everything in the same proportion’. In November 1757, Major James Kilpatrick’s inventory included:

  4 pair scarlet breeches, 4 pair black breeches … 47 pair breeches (Gingham), 97 pairs stockings, 58 Old Shirts, 161 new shirts, 37 Neckcloths, 3 pair long drawers, 79 waistcoats, 3 Quilted Banyan coats, 42 Handkerchiefs … 12 sneakers … Many Gold and Silver Joys.161

  It was recognised that even private soldiers needed more clothes than their counterparts in Europe: in 1804 the men of the 1st Madras European Regiment were allocated four shirts apiece, and three ‘White sleeved waistcoats of nankeen with red and green wings to distinguish the flank companies’.162 A British soldier, in contrast, got two shirts and one red coat.

  Until the Mutiny men went on guard, marched and fought in red, with gunners and some cavalry regiments in blue. But the sheer misery of wearing red broadcloth in hot weather, and the way jackets were literally sweated to destruction, meant that in camp or barracks more comfortable alternatives were available. John Pearman, a cavalryman, recalled that:

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