Sahib, p.51
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       Sahib, p.51

           Richard Holmes

  She did, however, disapprove of an officer of the 47th Regiment ‘who left his “dark ladye” behind in India, when I called it deserting her’. The man ‘asked me, what could he do in England with a limited income, and a wife who could not wash her own face … ’ (ladies returning to England were rumoured to be so used to servants as to be unable to do anything for themselves).73

  Things moved more slowly in Burma: ‘there there was no caste and no purdah, and women of all social grades went freely whenever they liked’. Many officers and officials married Burmese wives, or had a long-term relationship with:

  a Burmese girl who kept house for him, darned his socks and looked after his money … Snooker and whist at the club would never have taught him what he learned from Ma Phyu. And surely a man who had loved a Burmese girl must at least think of the Burmese as human beings, not as columns of figures in his fortnightly returns.74

  But customs changed even in Burma. In 1881 Colonel W. Munro, Deputy Commissioner of Bassein in Lower Burma, was denied promotion because he had a Burmese wife who had borne him several children. He protested that the relationship had begun twenty years before, when such things were looked upon more gently, but although his superior conceded that the practice had lasted ‘a full generation’ longer than it had in India, Munro was not promoted. And as if to prevent further misunderstandings, in 1894 the Chief Commissioner in Burma warned that a British officer who took a Burmese mistress ‘not only degrades himself as an English gentleman, but lowers the prestige of the English name and largely destroys his own usefulness’.75

  In 1834 Albert Hervey described how some young officers had already lost the warm affection for their sepoys which had characterised his own generation:

  There was a young spark amongst the batch of cadets doing duty with the —th who was very fond of using abusive language towards the men on parade; for instance, when dressing his Company he would come out with such expressions as the following, interlarded with many oaths – ‘Dress up, you black brute’. ‘Do you hear me, you nigger?’ finishing up with epithets that must not pollute our page. This was not a matter to be passed over unobserved, so the young man received a reprimand, with a threat that repetition would be attended with severe measures.76

  In the aftermath of the Mutiny, William Russell thought that the transformation was complete. He dropped in at the railway office to get his baggage forwarded, and felt,

  obliged to confess the fears which are expressed – that the sense of new-sprung power, operating on vulgar, half-educated men aided by the servility of those around them, may produce results most prejudicial to our influence among the natives – are not destitute of foundation, if I may take the manner of the person whom I found at the chief engineer’s house as a fair specimen of the behaviour of his class … If Europeans are not restrained by education and humanity from giving vent to their angry passions, there is little chance of their being punished for anything short of murder – and of murder it has sometimes been difficult to procure the conviction of Europeans at the hands of their own countrymen.77

  But he had already seen that it was not just the ‘vulgar, half-educated’ who treated Indians with a disdain which would have shamed their grandfathers. In April 1858, Russell was smoking and reading the paper in the main office of Sir Joseph Banks’s bungalow in Lucknow when:

  A chaprassy came in and announced that Munoora-ud-dowlah, formerly a man of great rank in Oudh, an ex-minister, and related to the Royal family, craved an audience with the Chief Commissioner. He was ordered to walk in. A very old and venerable-looking gentleman entered, followed by two or three attendants, while his chief secretary paid us many compliments, expressive of delight at seeing us.

  Sir Joseph’s two aides then haggled about whose turn it was to go in to the chief commissioner, and whether it might not be simplest to say he was too busy rather than to be ‘bored by this old humbug’. Sir Joseph eventually came in and greeted his friend with courtesy, but in the meantime Munoora had been ‘the very type of misery; for to an Oriental of his rank all this delay and hesitation about an audience were very unfavourable symptoms’. The old gentleman had always, Russell continued,

  been noted for his hospitality to the English, for his magnificent sporting parties, and for his excellence as a shot at both large and small game. He had upwards of one hundred rifles of the best English make in his battery.

  Munoora must have seen his nawab’s copy of the Zoffany painting of British officers and Indian gentlemen enjoying a cock-fight together many times. But while a previous generation might have regarded him as a genial fellow sportsman, in the era of the Mutiny he was just an ‘old humbug’. He never recovered from the ignominy, and died soon afterwards.78

  There was far less change in attitudes at the bottom of the British social pyramid. Private soldiers and NCOs were always subject to a high degree of social control, although the rules in India were far more liberal than those prevailing in Britain because desertion, that leech of the redcoat army, was never as prevalent there. They were less inclined than their officers to speculate about local religions or to try to bridge cultural gaps in other ways. They could relate to Indian fighting men and, as we have seen, were capable of forming very strong bonds with Indian units they fought alongside. ‘The 17th Foot always called us bhai (brother – a polite term of address amongst equals),’ remembered old Sita Ram. ‘The 16th Lancers never walked near our cooking pots or polluted our food, and we served with them for years.’79

  One perhaps surprising social and cultural mixer in India, albeit on a small scale, was freemasonry. In 1728, George Pomfret, ‘a Member of the Grand Lodge and brother to one of the gentlemen who signed the petition’, presented a petition to the Grand Lodge in London that the masons at Fort St George should be constituted into a regular lodge. In 1731, Captain Ralph Farr Winter was appointed provincial grand master for the East Indies, and lodges followed in Madras in 1752 and Bombay in 1756. The Royal Scots had a regimental lodge in 1732, and eventually most of HM’s regiments had their own regimental or ‘ambulatory’ lodges. In 1896, Captain J. H. Leslie observed that these were ‘fast dying out, but stationary lodges, which restrict their membership to persons in either the land or sea services, some examples may be presented. Thus the Royal Artillery take their choice between the Ubique and the Ordnance.’80 By 1919 there were eighty lodges in Bengal, forty in Bombay, thirty-one in Madras and thirty-one in the Punjab.81

  Officers and NCOs played an important role in freemasonry in India: between 1828 and 1914 four out of the twenty-eight district grand masters in Bengal, and ten out of eleven in the Punjab, were military men. Captain Leslie thought that in the Punjab as a whole: ‘The largest element of the European population consists of the military element, and of this only the commissioned and non-commissioned ranks are permitted to take part in masonry.’

  An analysis of Masonic membership shows an interesting spread of status and race. The District Grand Lodge of the Punjab had twenty-nine officials, and of these eight were officers, five warrant officers or NCOs, and four were Indian. In one Peshawar lodge, eight out of ten officials were military: two of these were officers and the others warrant officers or NCOs. In another Peshawar lodge, with only seven masons, Sergeant D. Bridgeman reigned supreme. Indian masons included the Mararaja of Cooch Behar, and, inasmuch as names are any guide, more Moslems than Hindus for whom, presumably, the risks of ritual defilement were present. It is also likely that a Moslem would find the monotheistic aspects of freemasonry less difficult than a Hindu might. Amongst the military masons were a succession of Commanders in Chief, India, including Kitchener, O’Moore Creagh and Power Palmer. Garnet Wolseley became a mason in 1854, ‘raised to Master’s degree under age by special permission’. One of his brother officers, Captain Herbert Vaughan, had been badly wounded in the Crimea, but was treated kindly by a Russian officer to whom he identified himself. ‘The officer said to him in French that he regretted that he could not himself go with hi
m,’ wrote Wolseley, ‘but he could send some men to carry him to the great hospital in rear.’82

  From the information in Masonic yearbooks it is clear that freemasonry in India certainly had the effect of bringing together men who, in the normal way of things, would seldom have met off duty. It was certainly taken very seriously by George Carter, whose diary, normally as regimental as a button stick, became remorselessly Masonic from time to time. Thus on 11 August 1856 he wrote:

  TB met for 1st time. Prest. Bros. Wood, Carter, Monk, McDowell, Lake, and Guthrie: joining members balloted for successful Bros Lord Wm Hay, Graham & Tapp of Simla, & Harding & Campbell of Kussowlie.83

  One of Richard Purvis’s comrades told him that: ‘We have no news of any kind except that the Masonic body are to give Lord M[oira, the Governor-General] a dinner on St John’s day at which Cock and I will have the honour of being present having become Masons.’84

  It is always hard to assess the practical impact of freemasonry, which is probably understated by its supporters and overemphasised by its critics.85 Ensign Wilberforce was in Calcutta in 1857, when his attention was attracted by a commotion:

  The reasons of the disturbance were soon disclosed: they were pursuing a man, a sailor, who had been detected, almost red-handed, in the murder of a woman in a low part of the town; the enraged crowd were about to lynch the man, whom they had overtaken just outside our windows, when suddenly the culprit made a Masonic sign; it was immediately recognised, a large number of men in the crowd began shouldering their way to the man, got to him, surrounded him, kept off the others, and finally got him away in safety, handed him over to the police to be tried and punished in the regular way.86

  And according to the businessman turned volunteer soldier L. V. Rees, there were enough masons in besieged Lucknow to hold an excellent dinner on St John’s Day.

  We sat down about twenty, the worshipful master, Mr Grennan [uncovenanted service, civil dispensary] presiding, and his senior warden, Bryson [uncovenanted service] acting as croupier. Seeing everyone happy and delighted with the present, all philosophically forgetful of the future and the past, the thought suddenly came over me, ‘How many of us now enjoying the champagne and claret, which is profusely passing round will be alive three months hence?’ It was an ominous thought. Before the beginning of October, nine of our party were killed and three lying grievously wounded in hospital. There were no songs sung, but speeches delivered without number … If good wishes could have preserved life and given prosperity, what calamities would have been averted.87

  Freemasonry oiled the wheels of social intercourse, gave something of an alternative chain of command, with a network which softened the normal hierarchy, in regiments that took it seriously, and, even astride the great scar of the Mutiny, enabled Europeans and Indians to meet as equals.

  In a broader sense, however, there existed a profound conviction that what had been won by the sword could only be kept by the sword. No sooner had Frank Richards arrived in India in 1902, than he saw an old soldier order an Indian sweeping round the tents onto another job:

  The native replied in broken English that he would do it after he had finished his sweeping. The old soldier drove his fist into the native’s stomach, shouting at the same time: ‘You black soor, when I order you to do a thing I expect it to be done at once.’ The native dropped to the ground, groaning, and the old soldier now launched out with his tongue in Hindoostani and although I did not understand the language I knew he was cursing the native in some order. The native stopped groaning and rose to his feet, shivering with fright: the tongue of the old soldier was evidently worse than his fist. He made several salaams in front of the old soldier and got on with the job he had been ordered to do.

  The old soldier then said: ‘My God, it’s scandalous the way things are going on in this country. The blasted natives are getting cheekier every day. Not so many years ago I would have half-killed that native, and if he had made a complaint afterwards and had marks to show, any decent Commanding Officer would have laughed at him and told him to clear off.’88

  Richards wrote that he believed it was particularly dangerous to strike an Indian in the stomach because many of them suffered from enlarged spleens, and the sort of blow that might be exchanged between two soldiers in the canteen might easily prove more serious. He was not alone in this belief, and in a handbook published just before the First World War, Royal Engineers officers were warned that: ‘Natives should never be struck, as a very large number suffer from enlarged spleens and other complaints, and a blow, or sometimes even a shove, may be fatal.’89

  Such attitudes had undoubtedly been case-hardened by the Mutiny. In the 1870s, two British soldiers trudging through the Deccan began talking about the Mutiny, and got so worked up about it that they swore to kill the next ‘nigger’ they saw. They duly murdered an innocent tradesman on his pony, bragged about the deed, and died on the gallows. Extreme cases like this generated little concern amongst British residents in India, but when the Ilbert Bill of 1883 threatened to allow a few qualified Indian barristers who had already become district magistrates and session judges to try cases involving Europeans as well as Indians there was an uproar, with non-official whites indulging in hysterical denunciation of a government which apparently sought to hand over their womenfolk to leering Indian lawyers. The uproar did not simply wreck the Ilbert Bill, but, more widely, it discredited the reforms introduced by the progressive Lord Ripon, Viceroy from 1880–84.

  The future Edward VII, who visited India in 1875–76, was appalled by the ‘rude and rough manners’ of many Britons he met, and found it particularly offensive that they often referred to Indians, ‘many of them sprung from great races, as “niggers”’.90 Continuing official concern about treatment of Indians underlay Curzon’s attempt to change attitudes and this led him into direct conflict with the army. In 1899 men of the Royal West Kents gang-raped a Burmese woman in Rangoon, but the witnesses were threatened and they were acquitted. However, the facts pointed clearly to all-day drinking in an illegal establishment and to an official cover-up. Curzon announced his ‘profound sense of horror and outrage’ and had the battalion posted to Aden, the most uncomfortable garrison within his dominions. The following year a private of the Royal Scots Fusiliers beat a punkah-wallah over the head with a dumb-bell. He was awarded a long term of imprisonment, and Curzon insisted that the case was widely publicised. ‘Punishment,’ he declared, ‘is not a sufficient deterrent, unless known: publicity given to punishment is.’91

  The most celebrated clash came in 1903 after two soldiers of the headquarters squadron of the 9th Lancers, which had just reached Sialkot, their new garrison, beat up an Indian cook, after a night’s heavy drinking, when he failed to provide them with a woman. The cook made a deposition to the cantonment magistrate, and died a week later. The first court of inquiry consisted of two captains and a subaltern of the 9th, none of whom spoke Hindustani, and only four witnesses were called, all of them natives. The commanding officer then reported that ‘owing to the evidence being entirely native’ it was impossible to identify the soldiers concerned. The district commander ordered a fresh inquiry, in which officers outside the regiment heard a much wider range of evidence, but too much time had passed for anything new to be uncovered. A short time afterwards, one Private Munton of the 9th killed a punkah-wallah. General Sir Arthur Power Palmer, Kitchener’s predecessor as Commander in Chief, India, sent Major General Boyce Combe to enquire into both cases.

  The report of the new inquiry was forwarded to Curzon with a covering memorandum from Lieutenant General Sir Bindon Blood, commanding in the Punjab, which makes uncomfortable reading. Blood declared that the unlucky cook was probably drunk, and thought that he had something to conceal. He could not understand how it could be possible for the men to have got so drunk so soon after their arrival, and, as the regiment had just returned from South Africa, where natives were ‘ready to defend themselves’, it was not likely that its men would ventur
e on such assault. And as for Private Munton, why, he had administered only one kick, and that ‘a slight one with the bare foot’.

  It was not just Curzon who was exasperated with Blood. Combe had already suggested that the experience of South Africa – ‘rough service in a country where the lives of black men are not held of much account’ – was part of the problem, and Power Palmer added that: ‘It is not perhaps surprising that the officers of a regiment coming from a country where blacks are knocked about somewhat indiscriminately did not at first take much notice of the occurrence.’ The commander in chief and the military member of council recommended collective punishment: all officers and men of the 9th on leave should be recalled, there should be no more leave for six months; the regiment should be given a severe private reprimand, and it should not be allowed to parade at the forthcoming Coronation Durbar. Edward VII initially balked at the punishment, but, after the facts had been explained to him thought that the regiment had got off lightly. And although the affair was soon to be over-shadowed by the coming clash between Curzon and Kitchener, this was about authority and organisation: Kitchener made it clear to his chain of command that such incidents were intolerable.92

  Curzon actually ameliorated the punishment by allowing the regiment to appear at the Durbar, only to find it cheered enthusiastically by civilians who at the same time accused Curzon of being a ‘nigger-lover’. He wrote bitterly that: ‘Anyone who dares touch a British regiment – even though it contains two murderers – is looked on as though he laid hands on the Ark of the Covenant.’93 As far as the army was concerned the truth of the matter was quickly obscured. Frank Richards, a private soldier in India at the time, reported that:

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