Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The English in India

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VI
The English in India. As they are, and as they are represented
by E. West

The author, credited in the magazine’s account book as E. West, remains otherwise unidentified.


Notwithstanding the number of years that had elapsed since India became, to use the common stilted phrase, the brightest jewel in the crown of England, and notwithstanding the astounding amount of oriental knowledge displayed at times by honourable members during debates, that country with its varied inhabitants is still, to all intents and purposes, a terra incognita to the majority of Englishmen. The constitutional, skinny Frenchman, attenuated to the last degree by his diet of soup maigre and frogs, but still full of dancing jerking life, and compounded of shrugs and grimaces, has almost deserted the stage, but the conventional yellow nabob, with "half a heart, and little more than half a liver," is still typical to no small portion of our countrymen of their brothers and cousins in India Occasionally we are pourtrayed in darker colours, as when a popular play-writer represents systematic seduction and wide-spread immorality as the main features of Anglo-Indian society. This ignorance and misrepresentation is not likely to be removed by the attempts of recent travellers to describe things as they are in India. Indeed, Mr. Minturn's book "New York to Delhi," is almost the only lately published work of the kind that can be recommended as containing at all a fair or trustworthy account. For the most part other writers seem to have gone to India with fixed ideas and prejudices, that influenced-perhaps unconsciously-the point of view from which they regarded what went on around them. Such men have no idea of the amount of harm they do, and the pain they give by their careless misrepresentations.

The popular idea of Anglo-Indians, partly gleaned from various books of travel, partly the result of traditions dating from the time of Warren Hastings' trial, and in a great measure the result of recollections of the Arabian Nights, is that they live in Bungalows (generally supposed to be palaces), surrounded by all the accessories of oriental splendour. Fountains with pleasing murmur scatter cooling spray over the marble pavement, while troops of dusky white-clad servants stand near with watchful regard awaiting the nod of their master, who, buried in a pile of yielding cushions, gently breathes forth the fumes of perfumed tobacco from a jewelled hookah. At a sign from him cool sherbet and "the weepings of the Shiraz vine" are brought by the ready attendants, and when in the evening he issues forth, gilded palanquins and a proud array of noble Arabian horses await his languid choice. Some such idea as this, though never perhaps expressed in so many words, have numbers of people at home formed of the mode of live of their countrymen whose lot it is to pass their lives in India. Let us in the interests of truth and reality describe a subaltern's bungalow as it really is, and let those whom our picture offends by its pre-Raphaelite ugliness, reconcile themselves to it by the reflection that it is faithful as a general typical representation.

Imagine then a low two-roomed cottage, with a verandah in front, in which in an American chair, with his legs resting on the arms, sits a gentleman placidly smoking a cheroot and reading. If you go inside you find in the first room a table littered over with magazines, books, writing materials, cheroot cases, and a Hindustani dictionary. Two chairs and a hard sofa complete the furniture of the room, unless a gun in the corner and some deer or tiger skins on the matted floor may also be comprehended under that designation. On entering the other room you see some three or four boxes arranged along the wall, a low bedstead in the middle, a large copper basin in the corner on a triangular stand, and a chest of drawers "contrived a double debt to pay," the top of which has been ingeniously converted into a toilet table, and support a small looking-glass and a pair of brushes.

Around these wonders as you cast a look

you are probably astonished by a shout from the verandah of "Bo—o—o—oy," which is again and again repeated with startling energy. On going out to see what the matter is, you find that the owner of the palatial residence just described wants a light for his cheroot, or perhaps a bottle of soda water, and is endeavouring to rouse up a servant. As all the domestics are fast asleep in small huts at some distance from the bungalow, with doors and windows tight shut, this is a task of no little difficulty, and cannot be accomplished without a considerable expenditure of breath. Perseverance is however rewarded at length, and a very sleepy looking servant comes up with his turban all awry, and brings what is required, on which his master returns to his former occupation with unruffled composure.

The chief divisions of Anglo-lndian society are two, the official and non-official classes. The latter find their position now very different from what it was in the days when John Company was a first-class trader, as well as prince, and was more jealous of his monopoly than of his seignorial rights. No longer scouted and hunted down as "interlopers," merchants and other gentlemen unconnected with the government service take their proper place in society, on which they are beginning to exercise a good deal of influence, though petty jealousy is not yet quite extinct. There will be no small debt of gratitude due to them, if, by their instrumentality, the spirit of officialism (if we may use such a word) is shattered; for that spirit has hitherto been the bane of Indian society. Where the majority are in one particular service they naturally endeavour to make the members of that service the aristocracy, and to consider rank in it as giving a claim to equal rank in society, just as in "Pickwick," Lady Clubber, whose husband was, as commissioner, head of the dock-yard, took telescopic views of the inferior officials' families through her eye-glass, while they in their turn "stared at Mrs. Somebody else, whose husband was not in the dock-yard at all." This feeling has been carried to a most absurd extent in India, especially by the fair sex. It will hardly be believed that we have heard of one lady deliberately cutting another in government house, though she knew her well, and was ready to meet her on intimate terms elsewhere; but in the sacred precincts of the Gubernatorial residence rank has its duties, which must be performed at any cost, and conversation with the wife of a gentleman of lower (official) rank would, in the eyes of this grande dame, lower her position Such a lady, after queening it in Indian society, must experience an awful change when she goes home and finds herself looked on as plain MArs. ——, whom hardly anyone knows, and among people in whom her husband's title of collector merely excites a vague reminiscence of a not very respectable-looking individual, who gives single knocks at doors, and demands income-tax, or water-rate! A good deal of bickering and heart burning is often created by this petty spirit, especially where rival claims come in contact, and she who arrogates to herself the dignity of being the head of the society in some station finds a rival contesting her right to the proud position.

But to see the Anglo-Indian society flourishing in all its purity, it is necessary to go up country to some station where the English inhabitants are confined to the civil, military, and uncovenanted. In such a place the virtues and defects of the several classes may readily be perceived by even an ordinary observer. Continually thrown into contact, as all the denizens of the place are, they get to know each other intimately, and the foibles of each are known and discussed. It is impossible to deny that an extreme love of gossip and scandal prevails, and is by no means confined to the weaker sex. Each station has its "Scandal Point," where almost every one assembles on those evenings when there is no band. At such meetings even grave elderly gentlemen are not ashamed to indulge in the veriest tittle-tattle; and comments on dress, character, and actions are freely bandied about. But while acknowledging and deploring the prevalence of such a contemptible habit, we must confess that there are many circumstances which may be adduced in extenuation. Shut out from communication with the outer world, except when the anxiously expected mails bring a budget of English news and letters from home, the inhabitants of a distant up-country station have really very few topics to talk about, if they avoid personalities. In the daytime all have work of various kinds. Civilians their cutcherry, and military men parades, regimental work, courts martial, and committees (and in this last word is comprised a large amount of heterogeneous labour); the Indian papers rarely contain any news of much interest; and. to crown all, from constant interchange of ideas, each knows the other's opinion on almost every subject. It is simply human nature, as Sam Slick would say, that under such circumstances men should seek to render conversation interesting and exciting by a slight admixture of scandal. Love of gossip has ever been considered an essential characteristic of provincial society, and surely life in an up-country station in India is, Hibernia ipsis Hibernior, still more devoid of topics of interest than the smallest village community in England, where every-day news is received from all parts of the world, and the newest books, pamphlets, and periodicals can be obtained almost as soon as published. It must not be supposed, however, that conversation is invariably of this trivial nature. Most men in India are well acquainted with the literature of the day, and many go much higher. At messes and elsewhere it is no uncommon thing to hear discussions on literary and scientific questions, in which considerable knowledge of the subject discussed, and much general information, are displayed. In such a conversation every one almost joins in the interest, for there are few who do not read more or less. The history of the country too, and the customs of the natives, attract no little attention, and the old Company's officer is characterised by a profound acquaintance with, and ardent desire to learn more of, these subjects. The languages of the country, too, are very generally studied; and all these pursuits prevent men from being entirely dependent on "gup" (as gossip is called in Anglo-Indian slang) for topics of conversation.

Old officers, whose memory reaches back forty or fifty years, bear witness to the great improvement that has taken place in the tone of Indian society since steam, the telegraph, and the over land route have brought England so much nearer. In the old days a white woman was rarely seen out of the Presidency towns, and few even there. Now, wherever there is a station, no matter how remote, ladies are found, humanising all within their influence, and preventing that degeneration from courtesy and delicacy of feeling that would infallibly ensue without their presence. To them we all owe much; and who that has read the narrative of the siege of Lucknow, and other episodes in the dark drama of the mutiny, will dare assert that ladies in India fall behind their sisters in any other part of the world, in generous courage and unselfish devotion! But besides the wonder-working presence of women, to the constant and rapid intercourse with home, we owe the breaking up of that mental stagnation and moral degradation that at one time was settling on so many Englishmen in India. Men in those days, on leaving the shores of Britain, severed all the ties that bound them to their country, and made up their minds to live and die in that land in which their lot was cast. When it took upwards of a year to get an answer from one's friends, none cared much to write. Twice a year the fleet used to arrive with English stores and news, but the latter possessed little interest for men who were thoroughly Indianised. So they went on, working well indeed, but morally sinking lower and lower, till at last death, of whose approach they were reckless, mercifully took them away.[1] It is painful to think of the lives such men led, devoid of hope, without any ambition that would lead them to aim at higher things, and who were finally laid in an obscure grave by men of the same stamp, or else by natives whose religion they had adopted. To turn from such a past to the consideration of the present is indeed a relief. Once a week in Bengal and Madras, and twice a month in Bombay, the Peninsular and Oriental steamers arrive with a load of passengers freshly imbued with English ideas, and divested of old prejudices and narrow-mindedness, by intercourse with men of a different stamp from themselves; or depart, taking with them men and women worn out by the tropical climate, and pining for the fresh breezes of their native land, and who will return invigorated and improved, not only bodily but mentally.

Ah! people at home little know the greatness of the blessings they enjoy! A few years' exile would make them see in a new light what they now regard with the indifference produced by familiarity. Those who look on the Anglo-Indian as a being who has but few thoughts apart from the country in which he is doomed to spend the greater part of his life, little imagine with what ardent yearning he looks towards home, and how precious is everything that reminds him of its pleasures. How often does one of those passages that crop out so frequently in our literature, breathing a rural sweetness and domestic tenderness, so peculiarly English, recall to mind happy days spent in our "ain countrie," when life seemed a bright vista, and we were surrounded by all we loved. None but those who have experienced it can tell what delight a description of Nature in her most charming aspect, as beheld in some country parts at home, gives to those who never see her but in extremes, either endued with a brilliant gorgeousness that palls from its very splendour, or presenting a dreary monotony that inevitably saddens a mind at all susceptive of her influence. Those at home see the defects as well as the beauties of those scenes we recall so fondly; we have no such drawbacks, for memory tinged by imagination leaves in the background all that would detract from, and brings into strong relief all that enhances, our enjoyment. Often has the writer of these pages sat in his tent in the midst of a jungle spreading apparently illimitably around, with an Idyll of Tennyson's, a hawthorn breathing poem of Herrick's, an essay by Kingsley, or the "Country Parson," open before him, bringing before his mental vision the verdant fields and heather-covered hills of his own green island, and recalling vividly to his mind the beauty of those "summer days" concerning which one of the above-mentioned authors discourses so charmingly—one of those days when there is an exquisite, ineffable happiness in the mere sense of existence, when the birds sing their blithest lays, and the skies look their brightest. Often has he been awakened from such a reverie—

That sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind,

by the howl of the jackal or the mournful boom[2] of the monkey. Never did he realise so thoroughly the exquisite beauty of that sweet poem of Marlowe's—

Come live with me, and be my love,

as when in the midst of forests whose hills were the habitation of bears, and in whose thickets lurked the snake and the wolf, the hyena and the tiger. Not that the poem and the works alluded to would not delight at any time, but in the position described the sharp contrast between the ideal and actual scenery lent a new beauty to the former, whilst the reminiscences excited of "days that are no more" gave a pleasure with which pain was strangely intermingled. Just as the untravelled heart of the Indian exile is over turning towards home, and even those who are supposed to be most devoted to the country and its pleasures (such as they are) never cease to look forward with impatient longing to the day when they may sit at the fondly-remembered hearth with those whom absence has but made dearer.

The views of politics taken in India are generally broader and more liberal than those one hears in England. Here we stand at a distance from the scene of conflict, and can discern the faults and merits of both sides far more clearly than those who are mixed up in the scuffle. An uncompromising advocate of any particular party is very rarely found in this country; for as there is no inducement to gain one side in preference to another, an independent stand is taken, and a measure is never condemned out of sheer opposition to the party in power. General politics are thus surveyed with a calmness that almost wears the appearance of indifference, though, in fact, it is far removed from it; but every measure relating to India. and every word spoken about that country in Parliament, is discussed and commented upon with the utmost keenness. Indeed the tendency is to judge of a Ministry by the Secretary of State for India. If he is popular and respected, the Ministry is thought much of; but if he is disliked, its speedy downfall is longed for. Great will be the exultation when Lord Palmerston's Government falls, for a more unpopular minister than the present Secretary of State for India never held a portfolio.[3] His name is never mentioned without an execration, and all classes unite in looking on him as the deadly enemy of themselves and the country. Even the natives on this point agree cordially with the Europeans.

A notice of the character of the English in India would be incomplete without some reference to their relations with the natives, with regard to which there has been an immense amount of misrepresentation. As a rule, Anglo-Indians (we speak more particularly of those in the service of Government) are kind to their servants and to those natives with whom they are thrown into contact. Intimacy there cannot be: the difference of race, colour, religion, character, and last, not least, the omnipresent system of caste forbid that. Even where Europeans make advances, the natives for the most part draw back, partly from innate dislike, and partly perhaps from a vague suspicion, which is widely spread, that we wish to destroy their cute by underhand means. Add to this the fact, that it is impossible for an ordinary native to understand the motives and springs of action of an English gentleman, and it will be seen how impossible it is for the two to be on intimate friendly relations. We acknowledge candidly that the manner of Europeans towards their dusky fellow-subjects is often not very conciliatory; but we can hardly wonder at it when we see so many natives displaying the very vices and failings that are calculated to excite the disgust of an Englishman. We see men continually indulging in gross debauchery of the vilest kind, ill-treating women, and yet crying like children themselves for the least hurt, cringing to and fawning upon their immediate superiors, but insolent to all others, and utterly regardless of the claims of honour, truth, and gratitude, and we cannot be surprised that those who hold such weaknesses and such vices in peculiar contempt and abhorrence, should allow their sentiments to be seen in their conduct.

We by no means, however, mean to assert that all natives are as described above, but it is a melancholy truth that no small portion of those who come most into contact with Europeans are thus, more or less, morally disfigured; and it is but natural that the gulf, before existing, should be widened by the mutiny and its attendant horrors. Many of the accusations brought against Anglo-Indians by travellers who scamper through the country, are manifestly absurd, as when (ex uno disce omnes) they are censured for not saying, "if you please," and "thank you," to their servants—expressions which it would be impossible to translate into Hindustani, so as to convey any definite idea to any but a highly-educated native. It is true, the heinous crime of talking of "niggers" is not unfrequently committed, but that Europeans in India do not systematically hate and ill-treat the natives is proved by the conduct of those officers who, during the mutiny, in spite of warning and even evidence, refused to believe in the treachery of their men, and fell victims to their trust," and to this may be added the testimony of many high in power, who enjoy opportunities of forming a judgment on the subject, not possessed by those flippant tourists who are so anxious to prove the rule by the exception. The conduct of such writers is the more open to censure, inasmuch as the dissemination of slanders is but a poor return for the kind treatment they are sure to have received; for hospitality, like that practised at home in the good old days, is one of the most conspicuous virtues of the English in India.

On arrival at a place, if the traveller has a slight acquaintance with any resident, or bears a letter from a common friend, and often indeed without any such claim, he is sure of a warm reception. No matter how small the bungalow, or how limited his entertainer's means, room is made for him. His host gives him of his best while he remains, and "speeds the parting guest" on his way, laden with provisions for the journey. The whole proceeding is marked by a freedom from restraint, and an innate politeness, more characteristic, according to received notions, of a Frenchman than of a Briton. There is very little of that cold formalism for which Englishmen are proverbial in India. Men are thrown together more, and when one meets another hundreds of miles, perhaps, from any place inhabited by Europeans, he is only too glad of a companion, to be restrained from intercourse by the consideration that there has been no introduction. There is no fear, as at home, that the casual acquaintance, with whom you have struck up an intimacy, may turn out a travelling tailor or bootmaker, for, at a distance from the Presidency, one rarely meets with any but members of the different branches of the Government service.[4] This common bond of interest naturally binds people together, and makes them more friendly than they would be otherwise. Every man's social position is known, and he has only to "call" on arrival at a new place to be received at every house. Society-especially at a small station—is so free from the restraints of formality, that a stranger would be almost inclined to think all around him mutually related; and, we believe, it is a misunderstanding of this natural intimacy that has caused so much scandal and misrepresentation. Indian society is considered at home most lax, and even immoral. Seduction and elopement are considered to be every-day occurrences, and some go so far as to look on Indian ladies as hardly "proper." A most unfair view this, and one which there are no grounds for adopting. Anglo-Indian society, as far as regards morality, will bear comparison with English society, and the comparison may even prove in favour of the former. Levity and flirting may, and undoubtedly do, prevail to a t extent, while now and then a great esclandre in the shape of an elopement or crim. con. case takes place (though happily such cases are rare now-a-days), but it must be recollected that in a limited society every such instance is universally known and commented upon, while in a more extensive society it would perhaps remain hidden, or at least known to a few only. The revelations made in Sir Cresswell Cresswell's court, leave our friends at home little to boast of. In India our faults and vices cannot remain concealed, and the worst of us is known to all—while in England, on the other hand, such vices often lie hid under the garb of severe propriety, festering and cankering at the very heart of society. We do not pharisaically profess to be better than our neighbours, we simply deny that we are so very much worse than they, and demand, what is our due, an impartial and unbiassed judgment. "Audi alteram partem" is a motto often quoted, but seldom acted on.

But we have said enough, for Indian topics are apt to weary Englishmen. It will be ample reward for us if this slight sketch causes even one at home to think more kindly and more justly of their exiled friends and relations. Every year, for the last half century, has been drawing India nearer to Great Britain, yet the people of the latter country hardly know more of the former than they did fifty years ago, and, apparently, care just as much about it as they did then, "What will they say in England?" is the mental ejaculation of everyone out here when anything noteworthy takes place. Too often the answer is that given by the learned world to George Primrose's paradoxes—just nothing, and we find that what has been exciting us, and filling our minds for months, is scarcely considered worthy of a cursory notice in a corner of the "Jupiter." But we do not protest on the misapprehension and indifference that prevails on the subject of India, for sentimental reasons alone, though they are, we think, sufficiently cogent, but we take our stand on other grounds also.

When India was transferred to the direct government of the crown, the people of England promised, by their representatives in parliament, to attend to the interests of the country, and to see that it was governed constitutionally. They were warned at the time that they would soon get weary of the task they had undertaken, but they indignantly repudiated the suggestion, and took the irrevocable step. Since then, how has the promise-inferred if not directly given—been fulfilled? Have the members of the House of Commons studied India, and tried to make up by zeal and attention for their want of knowledge of the subject? Have they been guided by the advice of experienced men, of whom there were numbers available? Has a proper check been kept on the proceedings of the Secretary of State for India? Unless the parliamentary reports given in the papers are false, none of these things have been done. Sir C. Wood is, to all intents and purposes, an arbitrary despot, and the mention of the word India, in the house, acts as a dinner-bell to all except a few members whom conscientious motives or a sense of duty induce to remain. Every one is believed but those most worthy of credence, and fictions obtain the credit due to fact. Surely we have a right to complain of such a state of affairs. It is not our part to discuss the best mode of obviating the failures that take place and overcoming the difficulties that arise. We have pointed out the disease, the remedy is in the hands of every one.

  1. This refers more to the last century than to this, though the traces of European demoralisation were plainly visible thirty years ago.
  2. This is perhaps the best word that can be used to convey an idea of the cry of the monkey in its wild state. The cry consists of a single note, repeated at intervals, and somewhat resembles the sound produced by striking sonorous wood.
  3. We have no wish to animadvert upon the conduct of Sir C. Wood. We are simply storing a fact to illustrate our position.
  4. A few years ago this rule was without exception, almost. Now the various railways have brought a number of engineers and others into the country, who turn up everywhere.