Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

DEPARTURE FROM SIKHIM

Under the rules of the Public Works Department to which I was originally appointed when I came to India, I had to retire, on reaching the age of fifty-five, in October 1908. In many ways I was glad to return to England, and looked forward to the prospect of enjoying a little leisure after my thirty-two years of almost continuous service, as, during that time, I had only been on leave for one year and five months. Again, in other ways I would have been glad to remain for a short time longer, as the time was a critical one for both Sikhim and Bhutan, and required some one at the head of affairs with an intimate knowledge of the various outs and ins, and side-issues inseparable from the administration of a native State. I had not even the satisfaction of knowing I was leaving matters in the hands of an officer whom I had trained to the special necessities of the case, as I have never had an officer deputed as my general assistant, although for years I have corresponded with Government on the subject. The assistants I did have, Messrs. O’Connor, Bailey, and Campbell, were each in turn placed in charge of Tibetan and Trade affairs and had nothing whatever to do with Bhutan and Sikhim. Quite apart from the fact that, as the work and responsibility had increased so enormously, it was impossible for one man to carry it on properly, it was bad policy not to have some one ready to fill my place should I wish to go on leave or in case of illness or breakdown. If you consider that single-handed I had to deal, in Sikhim alone, with the various departments which in other districts are placed, each in charge of a special officer and staff, Police, Revenue, Forests, Education, Excise, Agriculture, Public Works, Judicial, Administrative, in addition to the whole of the Tibetan and Bhutan correspondence and negotiations, it is not surprising I applied for an assistant officer, but the Government of India considered my request superfluous, and I had to manage as best I could with my office staff under Mr. Hodges the superintendent and the services of a State engineer. Mr. Hodges served under me for eighteen years, and the office was always in a state of efficiency and good order, while I was exceptionally fortunate in my two engineers, Mr. Dover, who accompanied Mr. Douglas Freshfield on his journey to the snows, and later Mr. Hickley, than whom one could not find a more energetic and painstaking officer.

The time was critical for Sikhim in several ways: the industries I had introduced, apple growing, cloth weaving, carpet manufacture, still required careful fostering, while the mining industry was barely in its infancy. The Maharaja and Maharani had at last been aroused and were keen to improve their country, but perhaps the most serious matter was the approaching return of the Maharaj Kumar, who had spent a couple of years in England and part of the time at Pembroke CoUege, Oxford. Relations had never been quite satisfactory between him and the Maharaja, partly, I think, owing to his jealousy of the influence exercised over his father by his stepmother, the present Maharani, and at this juncture more than ever a strong hand was needed in addition to full sympathy with the lad and an intimate knowledge of former events, and I fear my successor has a difficult task before him.

In Bhutan new relations, which, at the risk of being considered conceited, I must I am afraid put down as greatly personal to myself, had been opened up after many years of complete isolation, and the Maharaja was full of schemes for the improvement and betterment of his country, and I would have given a great deal to see him put on his way before leaving.

As soon as they realised the time for my departure was drawing appreciably near, the Maharajas and people of both countries sent petitions signed by all members of the community to the Viceroy, praying for an extension of my services, and when the first petition was rejected, they appealed more than once against the decision, and the Maharaja and Maharani of Sikhim travelled to Calcutta and personally made their request to Lord Minto.

Had the Viceroy’s answer to the petition been favourable, I might have remained on for a year or two more, but my health had begun to fail, and the hard work and exposure to tell on me, and I was really anxious to return to England, so in April, 1908, I took leave preparatory to retirement, and was succeeded by Mr. Bell, I.C.S.

For weeks before my departure the house was besieged by the people from far and near, all anxious to bid me goodbye, or to ask some special favour before I gave up the reins of office. I knew them all and their affairs, their family histories, their small quarrels, and their ambitions, and they always came freely to me for advice and redress, knowing I was always accessible and would not refuse to see any one, Lepcha, Bhutia, or Paharia. I knew their ways and they trusted and liked me, and never thought of withholding anything from me, and in consequence a mutual confidence and affection had sprung up between us which made the parting hard. I was leaving a people I loved, and in whose service I had spent the best years of my life, and they felt they were losing a trusted friend on whom they had learnt to rely.

At last the time came for my final departure, everything was packed and despatched to England, and the house stood bare and dismantled, but the garden and flowers were more beautiful than usual. But we were not to leave even that behind us, for on the last afternoon a terrific hailstorm came on, the worst I have ever experienced in these hills, and before nightfall not a vestige of blossom or leaf was left. It sounds an exaggeration, but many of the hailstones were the size of golf-balls and weighed two and three ounces. When morning came the trees stood up bare and wintry against the sky without a leaf; tree-ferns, rose-bushes, everything, were nothing but leafless stems where twenty-four hours before there had been a wealth of blossom. Even the lawns were pitted all over by the force of the hailstones. The conservatory, built of ¼-inch-thick ribbed glass, which had stood all former storms, was smashed to atoms, and so were the lights in the verandahs. The Maharaja and Maharani were with us at the time, and exclaimed that the gods were showing their displeasure at my departure, an opinion endorsed by all the natives.

So it was a scene of sad desolation to which we bid good-bye next morning, as, accompanied by the Maharaja, and preceded by the pipers of Mr. Hickley’s Sikhim Pioneers, we took our way down the hill for the last time, with the whole populace lining the roads to bid us godspeed and filling the air with lamentations.

Throughout the journey the same scene was enacted, the headmen and villagers of every village we passed coming out to kiss my feet and weep over me, and I was glad when we were at last in the train at Ghoom.

The night before I left Gangtak I received no less than two coolie-loads of letters from Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk and his family, and from all the Bhutan officials, both great and small, expressing the hope that I would some day return and visit them as a private individual if I could no longer come officially. Rai Ugyen Kazi Bahadur and his sister met us below Kurseong with Bhutanese refreshments of tea and fruit, laid out by the roadside for the last time, and we parted with many expressions of mutual goodwill, while Rai Harri Das Bahadur, Lambodar, Luchmi Narain, and all the leading Paharias saw me actually into the train.

The different communities subscribed to present me with farewell addresses, which under the Government rules I was unable to accept until after my retirement, and they were sent to me in England later on.

And so ended my twenty years’ connection with the little State of Sikhim; but I still hope some day, should my health allow of it, to revisit both Sikhim and Bhutan, in which countries and amongst whose people I have spent so many happy years and whose people I have grown to love.