Sahib, p.55
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       Sahib, p.55

           Richard Holmes

  Everything possible was done to prevent venereal disease. Each girl had a couple of towels, Vaseline, Condy’s fluid and soap; they were examined two or three times a week by one of the hospital-doctors, who fined them a rupee if they were short of any of the above requisites … There was also a small lavatory in the street, which had a supply of hot water; it was for the use of any man who was not satisfied with the washing he had done in the girl’s room.

  By 1899, however, there was a real crisis. Rates of infection of VD had risen from 361 hospital admissions per thousand men in 1887 to 438 per thousand in 1890–93 (comparative rates were 203 per thousand for British soldiers at home and 77 per thousand for the German army). A combination of measures began to reduce this. The proportion of wives allowed to go to India was increased. Lord Kitchener instituted prizes for the best infantry battalion and cavalry regiment in India, with low rates of venereal disease being one measure of success. He warned commanding officers to keep their men busy and asked his soldiers to imagine what their mothers, sisters or friends at home would think of them. Where inducement might fail, fear was deployed. Syphilis contracted from Asiatic women, they were told,

  assumes a horrible loathsome form … the sufferer finds his hair falling off, his skin and the flesh of his body rot, and are eaten away by slow cancerous ulcerations, his nose falls off, and eventually he becomes blind … his throat is eaten away by foetid ulcerations which cause his breath to stink. In the hospitals, and among suicides, many such examples are found.157

  This comprehensive approach meant that, by 1909, venereal disease was down to just 67 cases per thousand men in India.

  Such aspects of British social life in India have received scant attention from historians, but for every genteel bungalow on the cantonment, with its punkahs and tatties, there were a dozen young men, denizens of a wholly different world, crossing the cultural divide every night.


  IF BUSY COUPLINGS in the lal bazaar were about sex at its most brusque and demanding, most other relationships were far more complex, though some still were viewed as being functional. ‘I cannot tell you,’ wrote Herbert Edwardes to John Nicholson, ‘how good it is for our purposes to be helped by a noble wife, who loves you better than all men and women, but God better than you.’158 Though Nicholson never married, many of the great men of British India owed much to wives who put up with discomfort and danger, watched their children die in India or sent them away to school in England and, like their husbands, often found early and forgotten graves. If, on the one hand, the memsahibs brought with them small-mindedness and insularity, so too the best of them had a strength laced with gentleness without which the Raj would have been the poorer. In her study of British Women in India, Maud Diver described how wives and children:

  became camp equipment, jolted in bullock-carts and on the backs of camels, exposed to dust, sun, heat, cholera and malaria, moving always from tent to bungalow and back again, gypsies without a home, hearth beneath the stars. They must expect hard wear and a short life, and, if they survive that, years of anxious, deadening separation.159

  In 1869 when 104th Foot (Bengal Fusiliers) was attacked by cholera, with twenty-seven cases in one night, Mrs Webber Harris, wife of the commanding officer, organised a nursing service for the regimental hospital, and served there herself amongst the brimming bedpans and emaciated corpses. The officers of the regiment subscribed to buy her a gold replica of the VC ‘for her indomitable pluck’, and Major General Sam Browne, a VC-winner himself, presented it to her. In the horrible slaughter in the Bibighar at Cawnpore, with the killers remorselessly plying their swords in the blood-spattered room, the squarely-built Mrs Jacobi, a gunner’s daughter, knocked down one of her assailants with a single blow, and her friend Mrs Probert, another soldier’s lass, also counter-attacked her murderers: they had to tie her up before they could kill her.’160 Harriet Tytler, married to a captain in 38th BNI, escaped from Delhi in the last stages of her pregnancy, and was too near her time to leave Delhi ridge with the other women. She gave birth to a son in an ammunition wagon (the circumstance helped give him the unusual forename ‘Delhi force’), and so gave the regiment’s morale an unexpected fillip. ‘Now we’ll be alright,’ said a private, much encouraged. ‘We’ve had our first reinforcement.’

  The Company granted pensions to the widows of its officers, with a colonel’s widow receiving 238.6 rupees for every year spent in India, and a lieutenant’s widow 71.3 rupees, so it can be seen that lieutenants did marry, despite official discouragement. The problem was, of course, finding a wife. Lieutenant Kendall Coghill, who joined 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers in 1850, recalled that:

  Wives were difficult to find in India in those days. If a man died his widow was allowed to find either a fresh husband or fresh quarters. She rarely had to wait that time for the former. Men married to ensure better feeding and comfort than in single barracks. Officers did not much marry – perhaps feeling that they got fed better in the Mess than by a wife. The consequence was that every woman was surrounded by single men and comforted by learning that if in the war she lost her husband plenty more would take her. Most of them were engaged two or three deep ‘on the off chance’.161

  It was hard for a girl not to have her head turned by the volleys of admiration. Sophie Goldbourne wrote from eighteenth-century Calcutta that:

  the attention and court paid to me was astonishing. My smile was meaning and my articulation melody; in a word, mirrors are almost useless in Calcutta and self-adoration idle, for your looks are reflected in the pleasures of every beholder and your claims to first-rate distinction confirmed by all who approach you.162

  If unmarried ladies were perhaps the most promising targets, widows were certainly snapped up fast. Susan, William Hodson’s childhood sweetheart, had married a man twice her age, and came out to India where he died. Hodson at once rushed to Calcutta and married her. He was a devoted husband, crying out ‘Oh! My wife!’ when he was fatally hit. His last words were: ‘My love to my wife. Tell her my last thoughts were of her. Lord, receive my soul.’

  The future Bessie Fenton married Niel Campbell of HM’s 13th Light Infantry in 1826 and, very much in love, went to India with him that year. He died in April 1827, after a sudden illness: ‘he who saw the sunrise in health and hope was, before the next morning, to be numbered with the dead’. Campbell’s doctor did not improve matters by bleeding him profusely, and he died after telling his wife that ‘Bessie, we have been too happy for this world’.163 Less than a year later she married Captain Fenton, her late husband’s best friend.

  The swiftness of another officer’s marriage brought out the worst in Emily Eden. ‘Do you remember my writing to you about poor Mrs Beresford’s death?’ she asked a friend.

  He is here now with a second wife, twenty years younger than himself, to whom he engaged himself three months after his first wife’s death; never told anybody, so we all took the trouble of going on pitying him with the very best pity we had to spare! Such a waste.164

  Officers with children were under pressure to remarry as quickly as they could. Some wed the sisters of other officers or their wives, and it was not uncommon for several sisters to have husbands in the army. The shortage of suitable wives in India encouraged many officers to go home on leave at the earliest opportunity with the specific intention of finding a wife, and this arrangement suited the Company well, as most would be senior lieutenants or even captains by this stage. Leave regulations changed over the period, although less than one might imagine: Army Regulations, India, 1912 quoted the leave warrants of 1796, 1854 and 1865, all of which retained some relevance. By the 1912 regulations, after nine years in India an officer was entitled to two years’ furlough in Europe, with another two years after fourteen years’ service. An officer who completed twenty years’ service without taking furlough at home was entitled to four years. While on furlough an officer drew the pay of his rank, as well as half-pay for any extra appointment he held. All
officers were entitled to sixty days ‘privilege leave’ a year, and could apply for extra leave on a variety of grounds.

  During the Company’s time an officer who overstayed his leave in Britain could not be arrested as a deserter, for the Company’s legal authority over him evaporated once he was west of Suez. In 1827, Captain John Low, who was to become one of the most distinguished political officers of his generation, rather firmly told his mother:

  I observe that you are not aware of the rigid rules of the Company’s service. The privilege of remaining at home with rank going on belongs exclusively to those who have obtained the rank of Commandant of a regiment.

  Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Captains are compelled to decide in two years after reaching England if they mean to retire from the service or to return to it. If the former, they are struck off the lists, if the latter, they sometimes, as a favour, are allowed to stay one year or two years before returning to this country.

  Their rank goes on provided they return to India to confirm it.165

  By rank in this context Low meant seniority, that all-important index of promotion in the Company’s army. An officer who obeyed the leave rules could enjoy his time in Britain and continue to amass seniority and, if he enjoyed some interest in Leadenhall Street, he might even extend his entitlement of two years’ leave to four. However, General Orders are punctuated with notifications of officers struck off the list for absence, like Lieutenant David Alston, dismissed in 1787 for ‘not returning in time’ and Lieutenant James Lindesay, dismissed in 1821 ‘having been from India five years’.

  Soldiers of the Company’s service were not entitled to leave, which made their pursuit of the recently widowed all the more zealous. And while it was relatively easy for officers to marry, at least once the first raw shine of griffinness was off them, things were infinitely harder for soldiers. The government sought to kill two birds with one stone by using Lady Moira’s orphanage, in Calcutta, as both a refuge for soldiers’ orphans and a nursery for their future brides. Private George Loy Smith, not long arrived in India, had chummed up with a man named Smith, of the Governor-General’s band, and the two of them went off to inspect the ‘merchandise’:

  Soldiers in the Company or the King’s service, having obtained leave to get married, could select a wife from those that were deemed eligible. It was a splendid building, a few miles from Calcutta. At the main entrance stood a sepoy sentry. Smith knowing some of the officials, we were admitted to a large room where there were from 12 to 15 girls, most of them marriageable.

  One or two were Europeans, the remainder half-caste, three-quarter caste, and so on, in fact there was every shade from white to nearly black. Some of them were rather pretty, and, I have no doubt, put on their best looks for perhaps they thought we were looking for wives. We conversed with them for a short time and then left.166

  When the well-respected Quartermaster Sergeant Blackford of HM’s 32nd died in 1850, soon after his wife, he left a young daughter. ‘The little girl was brought up by the regiment,’ related Robert Waterfield,

  And as soon as she attained her 16th year she was married to a Colour-Sergeant who was 34 years of age. She had been forced into forming this contract, I believe, too much against her inclination for she had always shown a preference for a very smart young man, formerly belonging to the band. But I really think that some women belonging to the army would marry the devil himself if he had a scarlet jacket with three stripes on the sleeve. It was the woman she lived with that brought about the marriage. There are plenty of men in India who would marry the ugliest hag in the world, let her character be what it may.167

  A soldier was only allowed to marry with his commanding officer’s permission, with only a small proportion of men being permitted to keep their wives ‘on the strength’ of their regiment. A wife on the strength received half-rations (children were entitled to quarter-rations) and was allowed a space, usually screened by a curtain, in the communal barrack room. When one of HM’s regiments was ordered on foreign service, it was allocated a limited number of vacancies for wives, who drew lots to see who should go. There were usually vacancies for twelve wives per hundred men, increased to one to eight soldiers in the 1870s. Sometimes the lottery took place on the very quayside. Private Buck Adams of the 7th Dragoon Guards described the scenes that occurred as ‘a disgrace to the name of England’. One soldier’s wife walked all the way from Edinburgh to Folkestone only to draw a ‘left’ ticket. She and her newborn child both died before her husband embarked, and he had no time even to bury them.168

  Alfred Wilson already had a wife and child when he decided to enlist in the Company’s artillery in 1818. There was no chance of their accompanying him to India, and no sooner did he arrive there than he tried to desert to make his way back to England. However, he told his wife that ‘I might well easier have attempted to leave Newgate … ’. His discharge would cost him £100, ‘unless I had some friends in England that could make Interest with one of the East India Company’s Directors’. He was sure that he could get a job as an officer’s servant for the voyage home, and make £40–£50, but he needed a discharge first. Wilson admitted that there were some very pretty women at Dum Dum but assured her that ‘they invariably chew the Beetle which would deter anybody that had not the stomach of a horse … ’. He then fades from the written record, asking his wife to give his love to his parents, and to kiss their son Philip, ‘whom I hope is doing well … ’.169

  If her husband died or was killed, a regimental wife was struck off the strength three months after his death. It was a matter of practicality (for their husband’s death had created a vacancy for an ‘on the strength’ marriage) and of regimental pride not to let widows fall outside the tribe. When the 3rd Light Dragoons returned to barracks after the First Sikh War they had some fourteen or fifteen widows: ‘Most of them were married in a month after our return to quarters,’ wrote John Pearman. ‘Soon forgot the dead one. Some of them had 3 or 4 husbands.’170 In February 1844, Corporal Thomas Newnham of 2nd European Light Infantry assured his mother that he was immune to female blandishments: ‘Mother there is a great many young girls here [in Madras] that want Husbands but none that can come round me, there was a young Widow tried it on with me but it was no go, her husband was killed in China … ’.171 General Sir Neville Lyttelton described what seems, at least to this writer, to be a record for brief bereavements:

  In India burials follow death very rapidly, and in one instance at all events a widow’s re-engagement was equally hasty. She attended her husband’s funeral the day after he died, and on the same day the Colour Sergeant of the Company proposed to her. She burst into tears, and the NCO thinking perhaps that he had been too hasty, said that he would come again in two or three days. ‘Oh, it isn’t that,’ said the bereaved one, ‘but on the way back from the cemetery I accepted the Corporal of the firing party,’ by no means so good a match.172

  Women, regardless of the status of their husbands, became physically worn out by repeated pregnancies. In May 1836, Isabella Fane described Mrs Shakespeare: ‘She has got eleven children, looks ninety and you would not know her from a corpse. Yet she is about another.’173 At least Mrs Shakespeare knew what she was about, which is more than could be said of Emily Bayley, whose husband Clive was under-secretary to the Foreign Department in the Government of India. In 1850 she was declared ‘very unwell’ by her doctor, who advised that she should return to England immediately. The very night before she left Simla ‘we were startled by the birth of our first child’. Her husband did not help matters by fainting when the doctor told him what had just happened.174 She went on to have another twelve children, so perhaps such events became less of a shock. But we cannot be wholly certain, for Captain John Butler and his wife, travelling by boat through Burma in the early 1840s, ‘were unexpectedly surprised by the birth of our second son James’.175

  Many officers’ children enjoyed an indulgent lifestyle. Walter Lawrence thought that the affection of Indi
an servants for their British charges was ‘beautiful and wonderful. They will play prettily for hours with the baba log, never reproaching them for their … crying moods, and they have infinite capacity for inventing new games.’ He saw his own son playing happily with the tailor’s razor-sharp shears, and was told: ‘The Baba Sahib cried and I was helpless.’176 William Russell saw an officer on the march with his family in February 1857:

  A luxurious little baby was carried forth for a walk under the shade of the trees; it was borne in the arms of a fat ayah, beside whom walked a man, whose sole business it was to whisk away the flies which might venture to disturb the baby’s slumbers. Another man wheeled a small carriage, in which lay another lord of the Indian creation, asleep with his human flapper by his side, whilst two ayahs followed the procession in rear; through the open door of the tent could be seen the ladymother reading for her husband; a native servant fanned her with a hand-punkah; two little terriers, chained to a tree, were under the care of a separate domestic. A cook was busy superintending several pots … a second prepared the curry-paste, a third was busy with plates, knives and forks … I was curious to know who this millionaire could be, and was astonished to learn that it was only Captain Smith of the Mekawattee Irregulars, who was travelling down country with the usual train of domestics and animals required under the circumstances. The whole of this little camp did not contain more than eight or nine tents; but there were at least 150 domestics and animals connected with them.177

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