Sahib, p.50Richard Holmes
Hamish McGregor McPherson of Scotland
Killed in battle at the head of his Regiment
While fighting against the Dewan Mool Raj
At Siddhoosam, near Multan, on the
1st July, 184854
Relationships between European men and Indian women of one sort or another were inevitable, especially given the small numbers of European women in India, though one acid-tongued observer described those ‘memsahibs’ in India as ‘underbred and over-dressed’, and that the men were ‘in general what a Hindoo would call a higher caste than the women’.55
In 1808, the genial Dr Josiah Ridges, surgeon to 2nd Battalion 2nd BNI (Jansin ki Pultan, Johnson’s Regiment, to its friends), told a subaltern that abstinence was bad for him and ‘local arrangements’ were therefore essential. He himself lived with his bibi, Lutchimai, and was grateful for
a good rough—and a fat a—e – an old man like me needs something to stimulate him into action. She will I fear be getting too fast hold of my attachments by and bye, but never such a torment as Begum was, this I am determined to guard against.56
In the last twenty years of the eighteenth century it had been regarded as entirely normal for one of the Company’s officials or military officers to maintain his own zenana, and in his East India Vade Mecum, published in 1810, Thomas Williamson helpfully told youngsters just what they might expect such an establishment to cost them. In 1810 it took about 40 rupees per month to keep a bibi while a truly spectacular night with a nickee or dancing-girl, who for this sort of expenditure might be expected to show a good deal more than a few deft steps, could cost as much as 1,000 rupees. One major ended up with a zenana of sixteen Indian women, for each bibi required two or three attendants, with an allowance for betel nut, tobacco, clothes and shoes.
It did not stop at zenanas. Many British officers and officials took to smoking the hookah. It became increasingly popular in the eighteenth century, partly because it required an extra servant, the hookahburdar, and was thus a visible symbol of its user’s wealth: in 1778 its use was described as ‘universal’. One contemporary tells us how:
The gentlemen introduce their hookahs and smoak in the Company of ladies and … the mixture of sweet-scented Persian tobacco, sweet herbs, coarse sugar, spice etc, which they inhale, comes through clean water and is so very pleasant that many ladies take the tube and draw a little of the smoak into their mouths.57
This sort of smoking also had gently erotic overtones, for a lady might offer a gentleman a refreshing puff from the mouthpiece of her own hookah. The company relaxing after dinner would be entertained by nautch-girls, and British affection for the spectacle continued even after there were enough European women in India to permit mixed dancing. And if the hookah could be mildly erotic, nautch-girls went a good deal further, with ‘languishing glances, wanton smiles, and attitudes not quite consistent with decency … ’.58 But the nautch would eventually lose its special appeal and become something of a tourist attraction, when the barriers of race went up.
While some local women were regarded as little more than what a later age would call ‘comfort girls’, others were emphatically not. It was easiest for the military adventurers to blur the cultural boundaries. Claude Martin was French by birth, and probably joined the British army after the fall of Pondicherry in 1761. He finished up running the arsenals of Oudh, enjoying the local rank of major general but the pay of a captain. However, he was well paid by the nawab, took a commission on all the arsenal’s purchases, made a good deal of money from indigo cultivation, and perhaps more by loaning money and keeping valuables in safe custody for a cracking 12 per cent per annum. He had a palace in Lucknow and a country house on the River Gumti, both full of paintings, books, manuscripts and beautiful furniture. Martin kept four Eurasian girls in his zenana, and had the usual staff of eunuchs and slaves. Most of his staggering fortune – he died in 1800 worth 33 lakhs of rupees – was used to create the two La Martinière establishments for orphans, one in Lucknow and the other in Lyons.
William Linnaeus Gardner, born in 1770, was a nephew of Alan, 1st baron Gardner, an admiral in the Royal Navy, and, after attaining the rank of captain in the Bengal army, he took service with the Maratha chief Holkar. Gardner tells us how he met his future wife.
When a young man I was entrusted to negotiate a treaty with one of the native princes of Cambay. Durbars and consultations were continually held. During one of the former, at which I was present, a curtain near me was gently pulled aside, and I saw, as I thought, the most beautiful black eyes in the world. It was impossible to think of the treaty: those bright and piercing glances, those beautiful dark eyes continually bewildered me.
I felt flattered that a creature so lovely as she of those deep black, loving eyes should venture to gaze upon me. To what danger might not the veiled beauty be exposed should the movement of the purdah be seen by any of those present at the durbar? On quitting the assembly I discovered that the bright-eyed beauty was the daughter of the prince. At the next durbar my agitation and anxiety were extreme to again behold the bright eyes that haunted my dreams and my thoughts by day. The curtain was again gently waved, and my fate was decided.59
Gardner married the princess, though she was only thirteen at the time. He refused to fight the British in 1803, and escaped execution by jumping into a river and swimming to safety. Re-entering the Company’s service, he raised the irregular cavalry regiment Gardner’s Horse. His wife bore him two sons and a daughter, and died in August 1835, just six months after Gardner. One of their sons married a niece of the Emperor Akbar Shah, and the other wed an Indian lady who bore him two daughters. One of these married a nephew of the 2nd Lord Gardner, and their son Alan Hyde Gardner succeeded to the title. In 1892 Herbert Compton wrote with evident delight that ‘the present Lord Gardner is a grandson of a prince of Cambay, nephew to a late Emperor of Delhi, and a late king of Oudh’.60 Gardner’s descendants live on as zamindars in Uttar Pradesh, though the family barony is now dormant.
Captain Henry Hearsey of the Company’s service married a Jat lady, and their son Hyder Yung Hearsey (his middle name later anglicised to Young), was born in 1782 and entered the Maratha service, leaving it, along with many of his British brother officers, before Assaye. He married a daughter of a deposed prince of Cambay, another of whose daughters had married Gardner, and had a substantial zenana into the bargain. Hearsey had a board for the game of pachesi (Indian ludo) tattooed on his stomach so that his wives could enjoy a game while he relaxed or, indeed, recovered. One of Hyder Hearsey’s daughters married her step-uncle Lieutenant General Sir John Bennet Hearsey, who himself had both legitimate and illegitimate families. It was Andrew, one of Sir John’s Eurasian sons, who had horse-whipped the editor of the Pioneer for a racially offensive article. Given a month’s imprisonment in Allahabad jail, Andrew was then insulted by the governor, a friend of the horse-whipped editor, who sneeringly used the expression ‘half-caste’.
The assault would have been puzzling a century before, there being, as Percival Spear wrote, ‘no very lasting colour prejudice in the early eighteenth century … marriage with coloured women was accepted as the normal course. Moreover, during most of that period sons of domiciled families were considered to have a moral right to employment.’61 In 1825–28 Philip Meadows-Taylor spent much of his time at William Palmer’s house at Hyderabad. His father, General Palmer,
had been secretary to Warren Hastings, had taken part in the most eventful scenes in early Anglo-Indian history, and had married, as was very usual then, among English gentlemen, one of the princesses of the royal house of Delhi … His grand-looking old mother, the Begum Sahib, blessed me, and tied a rupee in a silk handkerchief round my arm …
Meadows-Taylor married Palmer’s daughter and there were no raised eyebrows: there would be ten years later.
Whether born in Britain or in India, many officers were comfortably Indianised in their private lives, some wearing ‘banyan’ coats and ‘Moorme
There had been frequent grand dinners and ‘reciprocal arrangements’ which brought British officers and officials together with what were often called ‘native gentlemen’ on more or less equal terms. John Zoffany’s painting ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match’, executed in 1786, showed British officers mixing happily with Indians. It was one of the many terrible little ironies of the Mutiny that a copy of the picture was commissioned by the Nawab of Oudh and hung in his palace at Lucknow until 1857. Issues of caste made such intercourse easier with Moslems than with Hindus, but there was often much mutual interest, with both races sharing ‘common trades, such as soldiers and diplomatists, as members of a governing class, and common tastes in hunting, feasting, wine and nautches’.64
The Nawab of Firozpur was acclaimed as a bang-up Corinthian, ‘enthusiastically fond of hunting and shooting, and naturally of a frank and generous disposition’.65 James Skinner’s biographer suggests that both Skinner and his companion, William Fraser, did not simply have favourite wives and wider zenanas, but enjoyed camp life to the full, and in the process ‘helped to populate half the villages of his district’. A friend wrote:
I had the happiness to march over the Doab with him for nearly three months. We visited nearly every village, and the zameendars used to talk freely over their concerns and of the British rule; and all classes, high and low, used to come to our tents, and we went into their little forts and dwellings … Nothing was to me more beautiful than his great humility, to see him with the poor sitting on the floor, and conversing with them on their several cases … At the termination of our tour the zameendars came and paid the Colonel a visit of three days at his jagir of Belaspore, and were feasted in turn.66
In the late seventeenth century the East India Company started trying to address the lack of European women in India by providing free passage and ‘diet’ for a year to those women – thoughtfully classified as ‘gentlewomen’ and ‘other women’ – who were prepared to travel to the subcontinent in search of husbands. Problems inevitably arose at the end of the year for some of ‘the Fishing Fleet’ (as they were often unflatteringly termed) since no return passage was provided. In 1675 there were warnings that ‘some of these women are grown scandalous to our nation, religion and Government interest’, and the following year those who had neither gone home nor found husbands were to be ‘confined totally of their liberty to go abroad and be fed with bread and water’.
By 1809, in Bombay for instance, numbers of European women remained low, with three times as many men as women, though their numbers would increase when the shorter route to the subcontinent was fully established from the 1840s, the last leg running from Suez to Bombay by steamer. Lady Falkland, whose own husband was Governor of Bombay in the early 1850s, wrote that:
The arrival of a cargo (if I dare term it so) of young damsels from England is one of the exciting events that mark the advent of the cold season. It can be well imagined that their age, height, features, dress and manners become topics of conversation, and as they bring the latest fashions from Europe, they are objects of interest to their own sex.67
Officers strove to impress in their dashing uniforms, but members of the Indian Civil Service had the edge because they were the famed ‘three-hundred-a-year-dead-or-alive-men’ whose widows drew substantial pensions. Lady Falkland was delighted to relate that when one newly married fisherwoman heard, at a dinner party, that she was not entitled to an immediate settlement of £300 a year she shouted at her husband down the dinner table: ‘It’s a do, after all. It is a do.’ The poet Aliph Cheem summed it up in the words he put into the mouth of Miss Arabella Green:
I do believe entirely in
The Civil Service ranks
The best are worth a deal of tin,
And none exactly blanks.
But I do believe that marrying
An acting man is fudge;
And do not fancy anything
Below a pucka Judge.
Not all the women were successful in their quest, however, and unkind wags quipped that ships going back to Britain at the end of the cold season were full of ‘returned empties’.
Ladies who arrived with dowries could present somewhat different problems. Sir John Sayer, Governor of Bombay, decided that Miss Ward, with her £3,000, would suit his son very well. Unfortunately, by the time he had reached this conclusion she had married a junior clerk; but the Governor did not let that stand in the way of the family’s fortunes: the marriage was annulled and Miss Ward married the Governor’s son. The delighted Sir John then arranged for a schoolmaster ‘to teach her to write good English, but, neglecting those orders, he taught her something else, and was discovered Practising … ’. A blast of gubernatorial fury had the offender shipped home in chains, but it was not an auspicious start to any marriage.68
Albert Hervey admitted that the arrival in Madras of Amanda, the niece of a ‘gallant officer’, had driven
all duty matters out of my head. My books fell into arrears; my reports were never written; I made no enquiries as to how matters were conducted in the Company I commanded; I never went near the men; I took an utter dislike to everything connected with my profession except my red coat, and that merely because I fancied I looked well in it.
When his commanding officer heard that he had allowed his subadar to pay his company in his absence, the colonel at once told the adjutant: ‘Put Mr Hervey’s name in orders as having been removed from the command, and take that company yourself. Good morning to you; you may go!’ The fair Amanda apparently ‘cried like a child’ when she heard the news, but went up-country and got married two weeks after arriving at ‘some station’.69 Hervey recognised that he had forgotten his duty, and he blamed a woman for making him do it.
Although there was a great deal more to the memsahibs than snobbishness and racial sensitivity (as we shall see later), their growing numbers contributed to a transformation in the upper tier of British society in India in which the relative cosmopolitanism of 1750, with its bibis, the zenana and the hookah, was replaced by the racial and religious discrimination of 1850, a process which both helps explain, and would be in turn worsened by, the Mutiny. As Sita Ram described it, in about 1812:
most of our officers had Indian women living with them, and these had great influence in the regiment. They always pretended to have more influence than was probably the case in order that they might be bribed to ask the sahibs for favours on our behalf … In those days the sahibs could speak our language much better than they do now, and they mixed more with us … The sahibs often used to give nautches for the regiment, and they attended all the men’s games. They also took us with them when they went out hunting, or at least those of us who wanted to go.70
spoiling that cohesive relationship which had been so enjoyed by the sahib and his sepoys in the past. With her petty insularity, her home-grown prejudices and petulant dependence on her countrymen, she had succeeded, by the time the Mutiny broke out, in divorcing the officer from his man, the collector from his clerk: Britain, in fact, from India.71
For a time some gentlemen like Sir John Hearsey maintained two separate domestic establishments. But by the 1830s the easy ways of the past were becoming condemned. When Robert Sale was commanding HM’s 13th, Bessie Fenton, an officer’s wife, noted that:
he will not allow a soldier to marry a native woman but laments he cannot prevent the officers from disgracing themselves. There is only one half-caste lady in the 13th, and it is rumoured that she is likely to leave it shortly: it is so far fortunate.
She had herself been looking forward to seeing her cousin Frank Gouldsbury and his new wife, but was too ill to do so when she reached Patna, and by the time she recovered he had been posted away. However, she remarked that it had turned out for the best, because:
My sanguine feelings had been a good deal quenched by the finding that the lady was a half-caste, in fact a natural daughter of Mr E—’s. Of this we had not the most remote idea, and felt very unwilling to be the medium of conveying it to his family, knowing the surprise and disappointment they must feel who were so wrapped up in him. I was a little mortified, as I had not supposed that I had a single connection in the country of that colour which seemed so unfashionable.72
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