Extract from After the Raj: The Last Stayers-on and the Legacy of British India by Hugh Purcell.
THE LAST STAYERS-ON
In All Souls church, Kanpur (Cawnpore in British times), a monument of fourteen tablets stands behind the altar and on them are carved over 1,000 names. There is a grim, not to say grisly, inscription: ‘Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth, but mine eyes are unto thee 0 God, the Lord.’ The monument commemorates the worst atrocity in the history of British India, the slaughter of almost the entire British and Anglo-Indian population of Cawnpore in the Indian Mutiny between 6 June and 15 July 1857. The names of the dead were collated by Jonah Shepherd, one of a handful of survivors, and the clerestory windows of All Souls bear the names of all the officers who perished bar one, Major Edwin Wiggins, who was considered a coward.
All Souls itself is a memorial church, because it was built on the site of the Entrenchment, in 1857 a scrub of open ground with two small barracks surrounded solely by a 1-metre-high mud wall. Old General Hugh Wheeler chose the site for the British community of Cawnpore, about 700 civilians and 300 soldiers, to make their last stand against the mutineers. He made a disastrous mistake, for about 350 persons perished during the constant bombardment of the Entrenchment between 6 and 25 June. During the day one cannon ball on average every two minutes ploughed into the defenders, who were huddled in ditches under the blazing sun. Jonah Shepherd, an Anglo-Indian, was the only one to escape. Today the outline of the defensive positions may just be seen, and the well where many were shot risking their lives to obtain water remains intact.
The survivors of the Entrenchment believed that the rebel leader Nana Sahib had given them safe passage down the Ganges River about 2 kilometres away. They were mistaken. When they boarded the boats at Satichaura Ghat on 27 June, the mutineers opened fire and slaughtered a further 300 people. A pretty Anglo-Indian teenager, Amy Home, cowering in the bottom of her boat watching the carnage, ‘was sure the hour was not distant when we [she and her little sister] should have to stand before His dread presence’. She was saved by a sowar (rebel cavalryman), who abducted her. She eventually escaped but lived the rest of her life in ignominy among the British in Calcutta for choosing dishonour rather than death. Nana Sahib went down in British history as ‘the perfidious Nana’. One boat managed to pull away from the ghat and from it four British soldiers escaped to tell the tale. The rest were recaptured and returned to Cawnpore, where they were shot, as were all the men who had survived the earlier massacres. A memorial in the Entrenchment commemorates some of them: ‘these are they that came out of great tribulations’. Satichaura Ghat today remains much as it was, but the monument commemorating the massacre there has disappeared.
The remaining 180 or so women and children were imprisoned by Nana Sahib in the infamous Bibigarh, so called because at one time an Englishman had housed his Indian mistress there. They were slaughtered in the third massacre on 15 July. The next morning their bodies were thrown down a nearby well, some still alive, and this time there were no survivors. An advanced party of Highland soldiers from the relieving army of General Havelock arrived soon after sunrise on 17 July and viewed ‘with wet eyes and quivering lips’ the terrible scene. One found a chilling note in a girl’s handwriting on the floor of the Bibigarh that summarised the Cawnpore Massacres:
Entered the barracks May 21st
First shot fired June 6th
Aunt Lilly died June 17th
Uncle Willy died June 18th
Left barracks June 27th
George died June 27th
Alice died July 9th
Mama died July 12th
Caroline Lindsay herself and her sister Frances must have been killed three days later.
It was the deaths of women and children — the Angels of Albion — that so consumed the British with guilt and vengeance. The catchphrase ‘Remember Cawnpore!’ became a self-admonishment as well as a threat. Queen Victoria declared a Day of Humiliation on 7 October 1857, when, preached the vicar of All Souls, Langham Place, ‘a wail came across the ocean from the well of Cawnpore’. It was widely, and wrongly, believed that British women had been attacked sexually, so that rape became a sort of imperial anxiety, as exemplified in the great novels of British India, A Passage to India and The Raj Quartet. Soon a Memorial Garden was landscaped around the scene of the worst massacre at the Bibigarh and a white marble memorial screen placed round the well itself. Count Carlo Marochetti designed the centrepiece, a marble angel holding palm fronds in her crossed arms which was placed over the well. A contemporary guidebook tells us: ‘Her arms are folded, denoting resignation; she holds in her hands the martyr’s palm.’ Marochetti’s angel became the most hallowed shrine in British India, visited more frequently than the Taj Mahal. ‘The Ladies’ Monument [as it was called] is approached by visitors from many lands with sad thoughts and respectful steps’ says an old guidebook.
For several years the guide to the Ladies’ Monument was Private Murphy of the 84th Regiment, one of the four survivors from the boat that got away from Satichaura Ghat. The two young officers who swam away, Lieutenants Henry Delafosse and Mowbray Thomson, both became generals and have separate monuments in All Souls church. Thomson lived until 1917 and said he owed his life to Holborn Baths, where he learnt to swim as a lad. The fourth soldier, Private Sullivan of the 1st Madras Fusiliers, died soon after from cholera. That left one other, mysterious, survivor. Fifty or so years after the massacres a missionary doctor and Catholic priest were called to a Muslim house in the Cawnpore bazaar. There an old lady received the last rites and confessed that she was General Wheeler’s Anglo-Indian daughter, Ulrica, who had also been abducted at the ghat. Her sowar had been kind to her, and until her deathbed she was too ashamed to come out of hiding.
On Independence Day 1947 Marochetti’s Angel was damaged by over-enthusiastic young Indians and so removed to the grounds of All Souls church, where it stands today. Subsequently the mound on which it had stood was flattened so as not to attract attention. In 1952 the new Indian district magistrate of Cawnpore ordered a statue of Tatya Topi, the rebel leader during the First War of Independence (as Indians called the mutiny), to be erected on top of the well to replace Marochetti’s angel. He claimed he did not know what lay underneath. After protest, Tatya Topi was removed and placed some distance away. Now Indians play cricket in the area oblivious to what happened 150 years ago. The nearby Hanging Tree, from which the mutineers were strung by the British after they had recaptured the city, has recently fallen down and been removed.
Many other memorials in Kanpur to the British dead of 1857 have disappeared altogether. There used to be several graves near the Ladies’ Monument. Just outside the pathetic Entrenchment was a second well down which the survivors threw the bodies of their comrades at dead of night. It, too, remains, but monuments next to it have been removed. The Government Harness Factory and the Experimental Farm that once had graves nearby have passed from view altogether. Some graves remain in the churchyard of Christ Church, which used to be in the Civil Lines.
Of course, Cawnpore had several peacetime cemeteries where the British were buried, from their arrival in the town in the late eighteenth century until their departure in the 1960s. First came Kacheri Cemetery (1781-1865), which contains over 700 graves, nearly 300 of them with inscribed headstones according to an inventory of them collated in 1985. It is one of the very few British cemeteries to be maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Then came Mirpur Old Cantonment Cemetery, abandoned in 1969 and now built over. The New Cantonment Cemetery (1818-1943), now closed, must have been a vast place, because between only 1883 and 1898 some 550 British dead were buried there in seventeen plots; all their names and epitaphs are preserved on file. Concurrent with it were Hiraman Ka Purwa Cemetery (1796-1918) and Subadar Ka Talao Cemetery (1910-17), both abandoned in the 1960s. Finally, there is the New Cemetery, which includes forty-eight graves from the First World War. It is not a war cemetery run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, of which there are many in India dating mostly from the Second World War, but a civilian cemetery that belonged to a past, foreign government — the British. In other words, today it is the responsibility of no one, unless the local Indian Christian community cares for it. This applies to hundreds of old British cemeteries throughout India, the repositories of so much history. After Independence the British High Commission classified them as ‘open’, ‘closed’ and, later, after deconsecration, ‘abandoned’. The Indian government issued a decree that ‘abandoned’ cemeteries were to be protected until they ‘reverted to nature’, but that decree has little effect.
That we know so much about the cemeteries and memorials of Kanpur is due to Theon Wilkinson and his sister Zoe, who were born in Cawnpore in 1924 and 1922. Zoe became the historian of British Cawnpore. It is from her book Traders and Nabobs 1765-1857 (volume 2 is called Boxwallahs 1857-1901) that I took the story of Ulrica Wheeler and it was she who wrote A Guide to Kacheri Cemetery. Zoe also recorded that her cousin had lived in a garden cottage near the Ladies’ Monument and used to observe her dogs behaving oddly. They became agitated when they looked in the direction of the marble screen, as if dreadful things were happening behind. On one occasion, she said, she saw the ghosts of ‘two blond boys running this way and that around the mouth of the well as if desperately trying to find somewhere to escape’. Ghost stories about the Mutiny are common, which shows, if nothing else, how indelibly the events were stamped on the collective memory of British India.
Theon, too, was influenced by the memorials of Cawnpore, for he is the founder of a remarkable organisation called the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA). He began it in 1976 and he is still the inspirer, the mai-bap (father figure), of the organisation. His working assumption, which, of course, cannot be proved, is that up to 2 million Britons left their bones in the lands of the former East India Company. BACSA’s mission is to preserve a few of the historically important cemeteries, turn the abandoned ones in cities to ‘social uses’ and collate all sources of all sources of information for historical and genealogical purposes. BACSA’s files are neatly arranged in the India Records Office of the British Library, and six of them cover the cemeteries and memorials of Cawnpore — a stack of photos, maps, pro-forma surveys and memoirs collated and added to by BACSA members over the last thirty years. It will be the final record of the last stayers-on. (BACSA will be Theon’s final testament too, for he died on 26 November 2007, when this book was with the publisher.)
Theon Wilkinson MBE worked in a cubby-hole behind the reception desk of the Asia and African Studies Reading Room of the British Library, which contains the former India Office records. Here BACSA, supported now by a small staff, maintains its papers and online services. For some time Theon carefully and helpfully supplied me with flagged-up pieces of paper about BACSA, as he must have done to hundreds of researchers over the years who were anxious to trace a relative’s grave in south Asia. Owlish is the word that comes to mind about Theon, as he looks at you over his half glasses someway down his nose under a thatch of whitening hair; a wise and kind old owl, retiring about himself but unstoppable about BACSA. He could be a retired professor, though he spent his careers in the colonial service in Kenya and as a senior member of the Institute of Personnel Management; first African chiefs and then trade union officials. Like others with a lifelong fondness for India, his home is full of memorabilia. Here is an original Charles D’Oyley watercolour from the early nineteenth century showing two ‘griffins’ (newcomers to the East India Company Army) at mess; there a portrait of an Anglo-Indian descendant of a survivor of the Black Hole of Calcutta painted on the lid of a wooden sherry cask; upstairs two pictures, side by side, of Nana Sahib on mica, one painted by an Indian showing him as hero, the other by a British artist showing him as ‘perfidious’.
Theon spent the first six years of his life in Cawnpore. He remembers his parents’ large, old white house on the bank of the Ganges, with its high rooms, flat roof and Greek columns supporting the veranda and imposing porch, but his main memory is of the gardens, where he would play with the children of the staff. Then there were large servants quarters. These housed a veritable community of different faiths and castes who were bound to the Wilkinsons in a sort of feudal relationship in which the burra sahib was part responsible for health and welfare in return for services given. In some cases this had pertained through generations. Theon flew kites with the son of his father’s bearer, who in turn was the grandson of the original family bearer, a connection of at least sixty years. When Theon married Rosemarie, whose family had been in India for three generations, his bearer came to the wedding in England. Theon’s father was the Director of the Elgin Mill and eventually the Managing Director of its owners, the agency Begg Sutherland. This was the biggest managing agency in Cawnpore, having under its control cotton mills, an electric power station and sugar plantations in Bihar. One hundred years ago Cawnpore was the supply base for the British Army in India and in the Empire too. The Elgin Mill, founded in 1864, turned out khaki for the troops and police, everything from tents to army uniforms and blankets. Down the road was Cooper Allen, where leather was fashioned into army boots and saddlery. Cawnpore was and is today an unlovely town, where the judder of the looms and the stench from the tanneries are part of daily life. Zoe Yalland (her married name) said that she grew up in ‘a filthy, overcrowded, smoke-belching city’. She had one particularly vivid memory:
When I was a small girl in Cawnpore, I woke every morning to hear the hooters of the Elgin Mills calling the men of the first shift to work. As the sound drowned away with a downward note, suddenly running out of puff, the hooters sounded from Muir, New Victoria, the Lalimli, Cooper Allen — all the great mills of Cawnpore vying with one another to call their men to work. When they called, the men set out from overcrowded lanes in the bazaar, from modest brick and concrete quarters in mill estates and outlying villages some ten miles away. They converged in thousands towards the mill gates, their heads in winter wrapped against the chill air, some carrying bags of food or a black umbrella.
No wonder Cawnpore was called the Manchester of the East.
The British arrived in numbers only from 1770. The first to march across the sun-baked, flat brown plain beside the sluggish Ganges was a detachment of soldiers, who had taken probably six or seven wearisome weeks to march from Calcutta up the Great Trunk Road. Then followed the merchants, who preferred to come by boat from Calcutta, a two-month journey over 800 river miles. At the time of the Mutiny, Cawnpore was established as a communication centre and the largest military cantonment in north India. The railway had almost reached town. When it did soon after the Mutiny, the reviving prosperity of the town was assured, and its second life as an industrial city began.
The heyday of Cawnpore came with the climax of empire. Less than half a century after the town had been laid waste and the British community wiped out, it rose again as a mighty industrial centre. The South African War meant boom time for army supplies. For every 100,000 pairs of boots, 60,000 were made in Cawnpore. Tents made in Cawnpore covered the South African veldt. It was the first city in India to boast electricity and trams. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, all work stopped — and then recommenced to build a huge statue in Queens Park.
Fifty years later, after Independence, the statue was removed by crane during the night and replaced by a statue of Gandhi. When that happened, the Managing Director of the British India Corporation (BIC), which had taken over Begg Sutherlands, John Christie, suggested as a joke that Queen Victoria should be reassembled in the middle of the Ganges River. She would be submerged during the monsoon but emerge from the river when the water was low as a goddess of fertility. His sense of humour would have been sacrilege in 1901, when the Chamber of Commerce expressed ‘deep grief and heartfelt sorrow at the death of their never-to-be-forgotten Sovereign’.
Theon left Cawnpore for education at Home in 1930 but returned nine years later on the last steamer through the Suez Canal, the SS Strathnaver, to be with his parents during the war. He remembers soon after his return watching Gone with the Wind at a Cawnpore cinema. The Europeans sat in armchairs on the balcony with the rest of the audience below. ‘This was the time to meet the different groups of Brits, because the mill folk, many from Lancashire and Yorkshire, lived separately from the railway community, who were separate from the army and so on. They had their own clubs too.’ He was sent to St Paul’s School in Darjeeling, and then he became a junior officer in the 3rd Gurkha Rifles, the Queen Alexandra’s Own, and was sent off to Italy just before the end of the war.
When he returned to Cawnpore with the rank of captain, he was aware of a new, more aggressive mood in a town that has always been troubled by riots. `There were crowds shouting things at you like “Quit India”. I would wave back and shout: “Yes, I’m going!” Partition was a terrible time, temporarily relieved by the euphoria of Independence. Such was the tension that the police were forced to impose a twenty-three-hour curfew for several consecutive days, a form of punishment when most houses had no lavatory nor running water. Senior Superintendent George Boon left a graphic account for Chowkidar, the BACSA magazine, in a special edition that asked the question ‘Where were you in August 1947?’
Late one stifling night, the atmosphere was supercharged. One could feel it. I was on the roof of the Kotwali, the central police station, and I could sense the evil silence hanging over the city. And then the people seemed unable to contain themselves any longer and swept out into the streets, defying the curfew order, looting and burning down the other side’s houses. Every time a shot was fired an eerie wail of terror arose from the city to reach me on the roof. I have never heard anything like it before or since; the crescendo of sound was positively frightening.
My good friend Krishan Chand, the District Magistrate, was with me. We sent out orders to the armed motor patrols to shoot to kill anyone attacking, looting or starting fires. There came a sudden crash of controlled gunfire. And immediately all was quiet and still; there was not a sound from the whole city. I have no doubt that we saved Cawnpore that night from veritable carnage.
Theon had left Cawnpore a few months before. In 1946 he had been given `accelerated release’ from the army to go up to Worcester College, Oxford University. His parents followed Home shortly afterwards. Zoe, however, remained in Cawnpore until 1959, starting a school and marrying the Deputy Managing Director of BIC. So Theon kept in touch with India, but he did not return until 1972, when the idea for BACSA became a gleam in his eye.
The last years of the British in Cawnpore make a sorry story. Despite its resurgence as the Manchester of the East, the infamous massacres cast an unwelcome shadow over the town. The guidebooks have always conditioned the visitors’ mood, though the language has softened with the years. Murray’s in 1882 said dolefully: ‘There are no buildings worth visiting, the sole interest attaching to the place being from the frightful massacres which took place here.’ India through the Stereoscope (an American publication of 1907) dripped with sanctimonious misery: ‘If I were asked to name the saddest and most pathetic spot in the entire world, I would say that over which over the pure and brooding angel stands.’ Murray’s of 1962 gave a brief warning: ‘Mournful associations for those of British birth’ and Lonely Planet of 2006 was only slightly less sad: Poignant reminders of the brutal tragedy of 1857.’ With this information to hand, who could blame tourists for giving it a miss?
More conspicuous, however, particularly for those who have managed to close their minds to the events of 1857, is the industrial decline. Elgin Mill and others remain, but the tall red-brick chimneys and the factories where the looms juddered back and forth seem little more than crumbling industrial archaeology rising above polluted and congested streets.
The 1950s house magazine of the British India Company has tales to tell. Undoubtedly the war and Independence loosened up relations within Begg Sutherland. Before the war, when Theon’s mother organised social occasions, the wives of Indian staff would have their own tea party behind a screen on the lawn, ‘not exactly in purdah but away from prying eyes, which was how their husbands wanted it’. Now the screens were removed and club dances, amateur dramatics and so on appear in the magazine as fully integrated occasions. But there are lengthening paragraphs headed ‘Departures’. These culminate in the 1959 edition with an article headed ‘End of a Chapter’. The Managing Director of the BIC Group, John Christie, is resigning and the magazine is closing down too. His valedictory speech asks to be read between the lines: ‘The BIC has tremendous reserves of strength but anything I now say would have to be prefaced by too many “ifs”. I cannot pretend that everything in the garden has been lovely, but I have made many friends I shall always value.’
With him went his Deputy, Ron Powell, who was married to Zoe Wilkinson. A photograph shows the Christies, garlanded with flowers, being seen off from Kanpur station, an iconic tableau of these last British years. Under the article, in italics, is printed a prayer that in the circumstances seems to be a coded message as well as catching the melancholia of Cawnpore: ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do now, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’
In fact, the recently mighty BIC was in receivership. John Christie, a former ICS officer whose very appearance spoke rectitude and probity, had spent the previous eighteen months trying to protect it from its new Chairman, a charming, clever but crooked Marwari businessman called Haridas Mundhra. It was a confrontation of opposites.
The previous Chairman, Sir Robert Menzies, had longed to go Home and spent much of his time in England. Carelessly, he had sold his shares to Mundhra, who then acquired a majority shareholding by, in Christie’s words, ‘duplicating, nay multiplying share certificates of various companies he controlled and using the worthless paper as security for large overdrafts with a number of banks. He would move the deposits round, not leaving them long enough in one place for the fraud to be detected. It was a simple confidence trick.’ Having become Chairman, Mundhra tried to use the BIC for his own advantage. He attempted to plunder the mills, appoint his own friends to jobs and get rid of Christie and Powell. The climax came when Christie, who realised that his movements and his house were being watched by Mundhra’s men, made a clandestine visit to the BIC strongroom at dead of night, removed a batch of forged share certificates for court evidence and took them round to the local Bank of India manager, whom he got out of bed in the early hours of the morning and swore to secrecy. After a long series of trials, in which the determined Christie spent thirty hours in the witness box, sometimes catching the eye of his adversary, who would wave to him cheerfully from the back of the court, Mundhra was sent to prison for forgery and cheating. Eventually the government replaced the Receiver with a nominated Indian Board. ‘The transfer of industrial power in Kanpur [wrote Christie in his autobiography Morning Drum] was less than an edifying experience. It was time for our drums to beat retreat. We boarded a P&O ship in Bombay. I did not throw my topi over the stern: I had no topi to throw. It was the symbol of a vanished age.
Six years later, in 1964, the travel writer Eric Newby and his wife, Wanda, spent Christmas in Kanpur while sailing Slowly down the Ganges (his book on his voyage). Like other tourists, they visited Kacheri cemetery:
With its crumbling temples, obelisks, truncated pyramids and columns symbolically broken it was like the ruins of ancient Rome in microcosm. But the small boys playing cricket among the tombs, saying ‘Ullo, Ullo, ‘ow are you’ and ‘Very well thank you’, the nim and banyan trees whose leaves dappled their cricket pitch with shadows and the anaemic-looking cows nuzzling the outer wall left one in no doubt that this was a long way from the Imperial City. The Newbys became increasingly depressed in Kanpur; by its ugliness, its history and the knowledge that they would spend Christmas on their own. One afternoon:
in a desperate attempt to exorcise suicidal feelings we walked mile after mile, in the ghastly atmosphere of Sunday-afternoon Aldershot: through deserted military lines; past old, pre-Mutiny bungalows with white-columned porches and tiled roofs and contemporary ones not yet finished, whose owners picnicked proudly outside them in tents; past what had once been the Church of Scotland, which was now the US Baptist Church where some elderly, sad-looking Anglo-Indians were clustered on the porch. Eventually we arrived at the Memorial Church.
It obviously did not lift their spirits, as they found the church ‘the colour of pink salmon’ and Marochetti’s angel `sickly-looking’. They sensed that the British community, now in its last days, was avoiding them. The remnants had withdrawn into their lines, whether from suspicion, defensiveness or depression they did not know. On Christmas Day the Newbys returned to All Souls:
The congregation consisted of about twenty of the British colony and a number of Anglo-Indians who made brave efforts to look their best; but although we sang lustily and smiled benignly when we thought anyone was looking in our direction, it was no passport to the British colony and although, as the bank official had told Wanda previously when he had cashed her cheque, everyone knew who we were and where we had come from, we walked out of the church without anyone saying a word to us.
`If they behaved like this with the Indians then they deserved to be massacred,’ Wanda said. It was an unseasonable thought, but it was difficult not to agree with it.
Theon Wilkinson returned to India in 1972 to show his son where three generations of his family had spent a good part of their lives. Naturally enough in the circumstances, they visited British cemeteries, as many tourists do, but the reasons for so doing surely go beyond the search for family or general history. What exactly is the appeal of these melancholy places?
In the first place, you cannot mistake the British cemetery. It is now the most ubiquitous British architecture in India. The famous early cemeteries like South Park Street in Calcutta or Kacheri in Kanpur appear as grotesque cities of the dead, a dense mass of stone pyramids, obelisks, catafalques, urns and pavilions visible over a wall from the street outside, so completely separate from modern India. Then there are the instantly identifiable Christian cemeteries that date from the Victorian period. If they are maintained by the local Christian community, then visible through a red-brick Gothic porch are the familiar vertical or horizontal white slabs marked with a cross or angel and laid out in rows. If they are abandoned, given up to nature and vandals, then visible through a broken wall or across barbed wire is a wasteland of monumental masonry, stone slabs poking out from encroaching undergrowth, tombs broken into by vandals. Sometimes the grave top has been removed altogether for its flat surface, useful for a fashionable coffee table or for grinding curry powder perhaps.
British burial grounds are not quite the same as cemeteries, because they are defined as unconsecrated plots of land, though to the secular mind this surely makes little difference. More important is that the monuments therein often tell of violent death and hasty burial away from home. This adds to the drama of seeking them out and then spotting them, sometimes in an incongruous location, like the tomb in Delhi vegetable market to Lieutenant Alfred Harrison of the Gordon Highlanders, who was killed in the skirmish of Badli-ki-Serai in 1857. Sometimes you find them at the side of the road, and these may be ‘marching cemeteries’, where the casualties of heat stroke were buried when the column halted for the night, or ‘cholera cemeteries’, where a unit buried its dead and carried on marching from camp to camp until there were no more cases. Frequently an isolated gravestone shows where a traveller died, a ‘griffin’ perhaps journeying up country having just landed at Calcutta — always a vulnerable time for catching disease — or where British fugitives died in flight or were killed by their pursuers; markers of a wayside death with power to stir the passer-by:
What is the world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, with-outen any companye
In 2006, BACSA investigator Sandy Lall rediscovered the graves of two infants, Elliot Markillan and Laetitia Domina, whose sad deaths in 1857 linger in the mind. They had been in hiding with their father, the Collector of Fatehgarh, at a farm nearby, enduring the extremes of heat and the fear of discovery and death at the hands of the mutineers. After three months they died and were quietly buried. Later, reported the villagers of Khasaura in the Hardoi District of Uttar Pradesh, the British had erected a monument over the spot, with iron railings, a low wall and a gate. But after 1947 it had been vandalised and eventually disappeared altogether, the iron stolen and the stone removed to sharpen agricultural implements:
I walked along a footpath, with a talab or water tank on the right, and towards a neem tree fifty yards ahead. Near the tree is a small raised triangular bit of earth. There was no trace whatsoever of a pukka tomb, but a local man dug down a few inches and revealed part of a large stone slab. We poured water on it and revealed a reddish sandstone. Only a very small portion was visible and I could see no inscription, it could have been face down or part of the plinth. I was satisfied, however, that this was the memorial to the unfortunate mites caught up in the ‘Devil’s Wind of ’57’.4
It is not unknown in the files of BACSA for a complete cemetery to come to light. About five years ago someone stumbled upon an eighteenth-century British cemetery south of Calcutta that was not marked in any records. The name of the location had been Kedgeree in British days but is now Khajuri.
Wherever the British trod they left graves of their dead. Once again Kipling catches the spirit of imperial adventure:
The ports ye shall not enter
The roads ye shall not tread
Go make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.
BACSA lists over 850 ‘cemeteries’ in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. I have chosen three for illustration from different points of the compass: three cemeteries — one that contained the grave of the gentle missionary scholar, another that simply reveals a continuity of quiet worship going back 300 years, and a third dedicated to the final resting place of an ostentatious merchant — that say so much about the British in India.
At remote Sibsagar in Assam there was a cemetery, now abandoned, containing but two graves: Dr Ward, a missionary who translated the Bible into Assamese and died in 1873, and his first convert, Levi Nidhi, who died the same year. Dr Ward had an epitaph:
His Earnest Labours
Sweet Hymns and Translations
Of Portions of Scriptures
Perpetually Fragrant Memory
CHRIST ALL IN ALL
The cemetery has now vanished from sight, but BACSA has removed the two memorials to Dibrugarh cemetery nearby, a rescue of last resort but sometimes necessary.
Then at the other end of India is the cemetery of St John’s church at Tellicherry in Kerala. The East India Company built a fort here in 1708 but long since deserted. The old church remains and is worshipped in by a small group of local Christians who maintain the graves that date from 1759 until 1919: `Sacred to the memory of Robert Richmond who departed this life on 6 March 1860 aged —’. The rest is illegible.
One of the earliest British cemeteries is on the west coast of India at Surat, where the British first landed (1608) and built a factory. A huge 15-metre-high tomb here commemorates in language from the age of merchant adventurers the factory manager, Christopher Oxinden. The epitaph appears to be addressed to his East India Company ‘masters’ more than to the Almighty:
Here he brought to a termination his undertakings and his life. He was able to enter in his accounts only days, not years, for death suddenly called him to a reckoning. Do you ask, 0 my masters, what profit you have gained, or what loss you have suffered? You have lost a servant, we a companion, he his life; but on the other side of the page he may write ‘Death to me is a gain’.
Melancholy, of course, is a pleasurable sensation not to be underestimated. There are far worse places to go on a baking, claustrophobic, day in India than a British cemetery. Gazing at the graves, I, for one, feel a sense of identity, a rising of a collective memory. Although I never had forebears in India, the first time I went I felt I had been there before. And so the questions, out of some sense of wanting to share the history of the dead: what were they doing there so far away from home? were they happy or unhappy? I assume, based on the suddenness and sadness of many deaths, that the answer is usually unhappy – but that is not the prerogative of British India. Above all, why did so many die so young? The `woefully short’ lives of the British buried in Kacheri cemetery depressed Eric and Wanda Newby:
Sophie, second wife of Wm Vincent Esq of Nudjuffughur,
who departed this life on the 9th February, 1845,
aged 36 years, 1 month and 19 days
and of their four children
Marie-Helene, Eugene, Marie-Lise and Maria,
who departed this life respectively, on the 14th June, 1841,
the 19th January, 1844, the 7th June 1844, and the 4th February, 1845.
Since the Newby visit this tomb has disappeared.
The chief killer was the water-borne disease of cholera, and it remained so way into the twentieth century because doctors persisted in thinking it was not water-borne but airborne. Death was incredibly sudden: ‘We have known two instances of dining with a gentleman [i.e. at midday] and being invited to his burial before supper time,’ wrote a resident of Madras in 1805. There is a monument in Agra dated in the 1890s that tells of 146 men of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment who died from cholera within two days of the appearance of the disease. Other killers were typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, plague, malaria, heat-stroke and rabies.
The first goal of the ‘griffin’ was to survive two monsoons (`two mussouns are the age of man’ was the almost biblical saying), because in some places the annual mortality rate was 50 per cent. In the healthier areas like Madras, Europeans were considered ‘salted’ or acclimatised after five years, and if they lived until they were fifty then, according to London insurance companies, their life chances were greater than at Home. Nevertheless, I wonder that any life insurance company was prepared to do business in India. Among the soldiery in the nineteenth century the chances of returning home were seven to one against. Excluding infant and child mortality, the average age of death was well under thirty for men and twenty-five for women. Even in the late nineteenth century, in Kipling’s time, death was so commonplace that the deceased was soon forgotten:
Ay, lay him ‘neath the Simla pine —
A fortnight fully to be missed,
Behold, we lose our fourth at whist,
A chair is vacant when we dine.
So why did they come? Fear of death does not seem to have put people off. They were lured by the opportunity for fame or fortune. Merchants wished to emulate the nabobs of the East India Company who came home and bought huge estates. Robert Clive made £234,000 out of his victory at Plassey in 1757 and bought 10 square miles of rural Shropshire for only £70,000 and a house in Berkeley Square for the even cheaper £10,000. Young soldiers wanted to follow in the footsteps of the sun-baked veterans who yarned about faraway frontier wars and showed off their campaign medals:
Doth he curse Oriental romancing,
And wish he had toiled all his day,
At the Bar, or the Banks, or financing,
And got damned in a common-place way?
The title of this poem is ‘The Land of Regrets’ by the old India hand Alfred Lyall (1835-1911), and it became the exile’s lament. The truth is that nostalgia for Britain was a constant feature of British life in India, a mild illness perhaps but a very prevalent one. Lyall himself confessed to a sort of rage that he had `left the pleasant lands which should be his habitation by birthright’. He became particularly homesick in the summer, when letters from Home were ‘redolent of flowers, hay and innumerable babies’. It does not take much reading between the lines of epitaphs to sense the homesickness rising from the graves. Returning home was not the answer. Exile became a permanent state. Retired to Chipping Norton, the old India hand now replaced nostalgia for pubs and Cotswold meadows by a yearning for ‘the smell of wood smoke in the early dawn and the ride before breakfast’. Kipling felt this nostalgia after leaving India aged only twenty-three:
It’s Oh to see the morn ablaze
Above the mango-tope,
When homeward through the dewy cane
The little jackals lope,
And half Bengal heaves into view
New-washed — with sunlight soap.
Theon Wilkinson returned to the disappearing cemeteries in 1974 and 1975, increasingly concerned that more should be done to preserve the memory of those who had endowed the British heritage in India. He saw himself rather like an archaeologist surveying Roman Britain with the mission of rescuing evidence of that era. He found out that until 1947 the military cemeteries had been maintained by the Military Engineering Services (MES) and the civilian cemeteries by the Public Works Department (PWD). The new Government of India had inherited all these cemetery lands but passed them back to the new British High Commission for upkeep. To this end an Act of Parliament in 1948 had voted a sum of money to be administered by Provincial Cemetery Boards in India (now defunct). They had deemed it sensible to distinguish ‘open’ cemeteries from ‘closed’ ones. When the latter could not be maintained by the Christian community, they were deconsecrated and defined as ‘abandoned’. An exception was made of a few cemeteries and monuments of particular historical significance, such as the Lucknow Residency and Kacheri cemetery in Kanpur. These were on a list compiled by the early TV archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler and placed in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, which agreed to `protect’ them.
Whatever the state of British cemeteries and burial grounds in India, there is a long history of written records, and they now underpin the BACSA filing system. The most extensive record is the Provincial Series of Lists of Inscriptions of Tombs and Monuments that was compiled by the ICS between 1896 and 1935 as an ongoing exercise. The two most contrasting volumes were written by Julian Cotton (Madras) and Miles Irving (the Punjab, Kashmir, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province). As it happens, their grandchildren are members of BACSA.
Julian Cotton’s opening quotation is another haunting verse of Alfred Lyall:
Hath he come now, in season, to know thee,
Hath he seen, what a stranger forgets,
All the graveyards of exiles below thee,
O Land of Regrets?
Madras was the first European presidency and its territory covered much of southern India. Cotton tells us that the oldest Christian tomb in India is the ‘Cochin slab’ of a Portuguese merchant dated 1524. Incidentally, the inscription on the tomb of the first Englishman known to have died in India, John Mildenhall, who was buried at Ajmere in 1614, was originally written in Portuguese. Cotton points out that the Armenian cemeteries in Madras dating from 1666 are the best evidence of the history of that virtually extinct community (he wrote in 1910), and the cemetery in Tranquebar is the sole evidence of the extinct Danish community. It was the Dutch, he continues, who were the most ostentatious adherents to the culte des morts. They exported their matselaars or stonemasons to India to carve elaborate bas-relief such as the piper playing on a recorder and dressed in a long-flapped coat over the tomb of Matthys Pfeiffer in Parangipettai near Pondicherry. A Dutch sculptor carves the hope that his words will endure to the ‘laaste opstaanding’; and presumably many of them have. As for the British cemeteries, Cotton writes that ‘the history of old Madras is written upon its tombstones’ — a settled history since 1639 with greater life expectancy than most other places because of the healthier climate.
Irving’s volume covers the wild frontiers of British India and is therefore very different; death on the onward march of Pax Britannica. His introductory verse Finally, recorded sets the mood of maudlin patriotism:
Never the lotus closes, never the wildfowl wake,
But a soul goes out on the East Wind that died for England’s sake —
Man or woman or suckling, mother or bride or maid —
Because on the bones of the English the English flag is stayed.
He writes that ‘we may follow by the tombstones of the dead the advance of the British flag’. So we do, from the capture of Delhi (earliest tomb inscription that of Sergeant Walker 1808) and then the Gurkha war to the First Afghan campaign, the two Sikh wars in the Punjab, the Indian Mutiny and then the Second Afghan campaign. The inscriptions honour death in battle, deplore death by ‘the hand of the assassin’ and lament Sir Henry Durand, who died in Tonk when his elephant tried to squeeze through too low a gateway. A tomb in Peshawar commemorates George Hayward, who was immortalised by Henry Newbolt’s high Victorian melodrama He Fell Among Thieves. Captured by bandits Hayward is given until dawn to live:
He flung his empty revolver down the slope,
He climb’d alone to the Eastward edge of the trees;
All night long in a dream untroubled of hope He brooded, clasping his knees.
And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
And strode to his ruin’d camp below the wood.
He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
His murderers round him stood.
Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
The blood-red snow-peaks chill’d to a dazzling white.
He turn’d, and saw the golden circle at last,
Cut by the Eastern height.
`0 glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore Thee.’
A sword swept.
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.
Finally, recorded by Irving, are the inscribed tombs from the jihadist frontier wars at the end of the century. Here, in Waziristan and Swat and Buner, expeditionary forces engaged with the Taliban of their day, the so-called ‘Hindustani fanatics’. `So from Delhi to Kabul and from Gilgit to Rajanpur’, Irving concludes, ‘we have sown the bones of our bravest and what the harvest will be we still know not’ — an epitaph that could be written today in the midst of another Afghan war against Hindustani fanatics.
In fact the British began publishing records of their cemeteries as early as 1803. It was The Bengal Obituary, however, that made the subject popular. This unique memento mori was published in Calcutta in 1848 and reprinted due to popular demand three years later. Theon Wilkinson calls it ‘that great lexicon of death in the east’ and BACSA has reprinted it too. The Bengal Obituary is exactly what it says it is:
A record to perpetuate the memory of
such as have pre-eminently distinguished themselves in the History of British
India since the formation of the European Settlement to the present time
A compilation of tablets and memorial inscriptions from various parts of the
Bengal and Agra Presidencies.
Within this compilation of obituary notices, epitaphs and biographical notes about the ‘departed worth’ we see what the British of the time valued — a belief in British progress, a tough self-reliance and Christian virtue. ‘These were their achievements,’ it is saying; let us remember them and think about our own deaths.’
Today it is of interest because of the social history it reveals, not least about the attitudes of the age towards women. Pride of place must be taken by the famous `Begum’ (Hindi for ‘lady of high rank’) Johnson, whose tomb may still be seen in St John’s churchyard in Calcutta. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen she married four times and had six children, three of whom survived infancy. She lived until she was eighty-seven, the oldest British resident in Bengal, ‘universally beloved, respected and revered’. She was given a state funeral with a bodyguard to accompany her mortal remains to St John’s. Not surprisingly she must have been a garrulous old lady, which is hinted at by her very human epitaph: ‘she abounded in anecdote, possessing easy affability of communication, her conversation was always interesting, without any tendency to fatigue the bearer.’
This makes a pleasant change from the many protestations of piety about worthy women. Mrs Hill, for instance, ‘was converted to God at the age of fourteen’ and died hearing the Heavenly Choir: ‘am I dreaming or is it music I hear?’ The assumption that the wife’s role was subordinate to her husband’s could not be more clearly expressed than in this epitaph to the daughter of Captain P. Crawford, who was buried in Shergati cemetery in Bihar: ‘she became the wife of G.J. Morris Esq., once Judge of this District, to whose happiness she was permitted by God to contribute for nearly thirteen years. He resigned her to the Lord on 26th December 1831, in her 31st year.’ A wife’s duty was to her husband and her function to rear a Christian family, yet her ideal virtues were often expressed in more elevated epitaph: ‘Her form was elegant, her deportment noble. Possessed of every virtue, every grace that could adorn her sex, she was religious without superstition, prudent without meanness, generous without prodigality, the sweet companion and the steady friend’ (Mrs Woodhouse, Cuddalore, 1777). The reality was often grim, so the sweet, sentimental language about this child-bride on a tomb in Azamgarh, in the United Provinces, may have been a comfort: ‘Sacred to the Memory of Mrs Sarah Ammaun and her stillborn son who departed this life on 29th June 1820.’
Just fifteen years she was a maid
And scarce eleven months a wife
Four days and nights in labour laid
Brought forth and then gave up her life.
Ah! loveliest of beauties
Whither art though flown?
Thy soul which knew no guile
Is sure to heaven gone
Leaving this friend and thy kindred
Thy sad exit to mourn.
For sheer pathos I prefer the plainer language of later years: ‘she had no fault, but that she left met (a colonel in the Murree hills, of his wife). Or this inscription by a bibi (native woman) at Chunar on the Ganges: ‘Lucy, his woman, erected this tomb in memory of them’ (Private Snape and infant son, died in 1808).
Theon held the first meeting of his new society in London on 13 October 1976. Six months later BACSA was registered as a charity, and so was born what Theon describes as ‘the liveliest society in Britain for the deadliest subject’. It struck a chord, largely among the generation that had lived and worked in the subcontinent over the period of Independence in the 1940s and 1950s, both British and Indian. Its members come from the British and Indian armies (the first chairman was Major-General ‘Moti’ Dyer), politicians and ambassadors (the late Rt Hon. Peter Rees and Lord Gore-Booth), ex-members of the ICS and IAS, planters, businessmen and church people. It was and is inclusive and representative of the once stratified society of the subcontinent. Theon began to lobby governments for support and he wrote Two Monsoons to publicise the cause, from which I have gathered much of this material. He said he felt ‘rather like the paddler of a small canoe following a distant star through unknown waters and being unexpectedly escorted by vessels of all sizes going in the same direction’.
The first of BACSA’s aims is to bring together as much information as possible — photos, surveys, accounts of visits — about as many cemeteries as possible in all the lands once administered by the East India Company and the British Government of India, from Muscat to Macao. At first the information was stored at the India Office Library and Records then in Blackfriars Road, London: now it is in the African and Asian Department of the British Library. Much of the work done by Theon and his volunteers collates existing material and then adds to it in a systematic way. Cross-references are made to other reference books like the Provincial Series 1896-1935 and to other institutions like the National Army Museum and the Society of Genealogists. The Ecclesiastical Records of European Christians in India 1700-1947 (births, marriages and deaths) are nearby in the British Library for those keen to trace a forebear on the subcontinent. One by one the larger town cemeteries have been researched and monographs published; in the case of larger towns like Calcutta, Cawnpore and Quetta, monographs have become booklets. Between 1979 and 2004 BACSA members carried out surveys in almost 100 towns on the Indian subcontinent.
Probably the most indefatigable, even obsessive, cemetery researcher in the history of BACSA is Sue Farrington, who collects inscriptions as others do old coins or stamps; or, as she puts it: ‘people remember routes and towns by the pubs and hotels they have visited; I use the cemeteries in Pakistan.’ In 1981, when working at the British High Commission in Islamabad, she gave herself the daunting task of recording all the surviving gravestone inscriptions in Pakistan. It took her fifteen years. She had as references Miles Irving’s volume in the Provincial Series compiled seventy years before and a list of 184 sites that had been handed over by the British government in 1947. By the time she had finished she had expanded this list to more than 350 locations, including battle monuments, regimental memorials and about eighty churches. Many were the adventures and hardships experienced by this middle-aged lady from Somerset as she trekked the dangerous border lands of the North-West Frontier searching for signs of the British dead. Strange was the knowledge she accumulated along the way:
It may sound a gloomy way to spend your time, but, had I not been studying the cemeteries, I would never have known about peshqabzs [a Persian-style dagger], and the Frontier Corps, battle monuments and the Heatstroke Express, the Faqir of Ipi [a desert prophet worshipped by the Pathans, who admired the Fascists in the 1930s] and the Quetta Earthquake, mule trains and gricing [train spotting] . .
She found, not surprisingly, that many headstones had been stolen, covered by leaves or mud or washed away entirely. Others were illegible or never had inscriptions because there was no one to carve them. Entire cemeteries had been abandoned long before 1947, and some individual graves had not been maintained by the PWD or MES. It was a daunting task that required luck too. One morning in Lahore, at least half a mile from her destination, she was approached by a young man on a motorbike who offered help. I’m looking for Kapurthala House, please.’ They got talking and, ‘rather sheepishly’, she told him she was looking for the tomb of a young girl who had died in 1827. ‘Oh, that is no longer in the grounds of Kapurthala House. A building has been built in the garden, but I know exactly where to find the grave’: proof indeed that a tomb is also a memorial.
Sue Farrington finished her task just before BACSA’s 20th anniversary:
I am pretty confident that 99.9 per cent of all surviving inscriptions have now been recorded, and these number between 16,000 and 17,000. It would be pure guesswork, but if I had to put a figure on it, I would estimate that this probably represents about 50-60 per cent of actual burials.
Archaeologists struggle to interpret life from fragments they unearth generations later — I was in a unique position to capture an unrepeatable period of British history before it too disappeared.
Theon estimates that BACSA members may have added possibly 100,000 tomb details to the total previously recorded. Ironically, Sue first came across BACSA when she was searching for her great-great-great-uncle’s tomb at Half Way House on the old road from Dehra Dun to Mussoorie. She found it, but by the time she had finished her epic research it had disappeared in a road-widening scheme. Only her photo of it remains in the BACSA files.
The main aim of BACSA is to provide as full a record as possible of the cemetery, even if it is doomed to disappear. Sometimes, however, BACSA raises an appeal to donate money for specific repair purposes, but only if the local will is there to carry out the work. I found a good example in the file on the cemetery of St John, at Tellicherry in Kerala, mentioned earlier. In the file are assorted photos, a map and two pro-forma reports. The first, on a visit in 1989, says: `the graveyard is completely overgrown and neglected. Many gravestones are invisible under a carpet of creeper.’ The writer doubts whether it is worth BACSA remedying this, because the Revd Joseph is ‘charming but thoroughly ineffectual’. Obviously someone at BACSA had faith, because a small grant of 350 rupees was made and the next report, in 1991, says: ‘a substantial effort has been made. Two thirds of the graveyard is now free of jungle.’
After repair comes maintenance. BACSA encourages the employment of a chowkidar or watchman not by paying him but by helping him grow produce in a cemetery garden that can be sold for his livelihood — an English solution that, says Theon, seems to work:
In St Sepulchre’s Cemetery in Pune, for example, there’s a big rose garden, and the roses are sold for a profit. In part of South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta we let off a corner of the land to a man who grows potted plants that he then hires out for parties so you can liven proceedings with chrysanthemums and palm trees and so on. Now there’s more money around in India than there used to be, we’re trying to encourage endowments whereby the capital stays where it is but the income is used for a twice-yearly spring clean, for example. This will perpetuate the upkeep of the cemeteries, which is what we try and do.
From time to time a major project is undertaken. The first of these was the renovation of South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. It was known as ‘The Great Cemetery’, presumably because of the size of its monuments, but according to historians of funerary architecture its importance is less for its ostentation than for its seminal influence on graveyards in the UK. The necropolis or city of the dead in South Park Street, Calcutta, was begun in 1767 at a time in the eighteenth century when there were no public cemeteries in England, when city churchyards were squalid and vandalised and the dead were buried ‘under Ailes and under Pews in churches with Tawdry Monuments of Marble stuck up against Walls and Pillars’. South Park Street cemetery was necessitated by the need for quick burial away from the city centre, and it was inspired by the beautiful Mughal tombs often built in a garden setting. The monumental style is an exotic blend from different cultures and continents, an extraordinary Elysium built with geometric shapes set in stone — squares, rectangles, circles, polygons, pyramids and domes.
The trouble with this Elysium was human disease, the virulence of the ‘sick season’ in Calcutta. Already by 1812 the necropolis of South Park was so packed that a garden setting had become a city centre. Whether the result is like walking through the streets of a town ‘as old as Herculaneum or Pompei’, as Kipling thought, or like visiting ‘a salvage yard of outsize masonry’ (according to Joe Roberts in A Celebration of Calcutta) depends on a point of view. For the architectural historian, ‘the size and richness were not equalled in Europe until the great necropolis of Pere Lachaise [in Paris] and its successors were laid out after 1804 . . . So it was that the first great Classical cemeteries of modern times were realised in British India and not in France.’
By 1978 South Park Street cemetery had become less an overcrowded Elysium than an overcrowded and squalid Calcutta. The cemetery was in a state of dilapidation, the home of vagrants and feral dogs, and unless it was rescued the only answer was to pull it down altogether. BACSA set up a sister organisation, the Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India (APHCI) and contributed £5,000. After clearing, landscaping, planting and repairing, the necropolis rose again, not to life but once more to a glorious afterlife. Now it is maintained and publicised as a major tourist attraction of British Kolkata.
The very first name of BACSA was the ‘Indo-British Association’ and in some ways this is still the more appropriate. BACSA is far more than an association to befriend cemeteries. It is a coming-together of those interested in preserving the memory of the Raj and East India Company. That it is such a thriving organisation is due not only to Theon but to Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, the Editor of its magazine, Chowkidar. Rosie used to live in Lucknow and writes about its glittering history with authority and a fluency in Urdu. Now she lives with a retired Indian general in south London and has edited the annual two editions of the BACSA magazine since the beginning in 1977.
Members were asked ‘what should it be called?’ Answers displayed British humour — ‘Grave News’, ‘Among the Tombs’. Then Rosie had an inspiration:
I recalled the old habit of India’s watchmen, who would patrol the urban streets, crying out the hours and guarding the sleeping town. Chowkidar, of course, the watchman. BACSA was to patrol the Asian cemeteries, report back where something was wrong and provide the means to put it right. It was also to ‘cry out the hours’, thus opening people’s eyes and ears to the urgent needs of the cemeteries.
Over 1,500 copies are distributed, mostly to members of BACSA in the UK, but also to South Asia, Australia, the United States (the libraries of Congress and Yale subscribe) and Europe. In fact Chowkidar is the recruiting sergeant for BACSA, which now, says Rosie, has 1,574 members, of whom 300 or so live abroad. She is particularly proud of the Indian membership:
Well, we’ve got Ruskin Bond, the author. We’re very fond of Ruskin. He’s done a lot on the Mussoorie cemetery and he acts as an unofficial guide. Also in Mussoorie we’ve got Hugh Gantser, who is an author and travel writer. He’s done a lot.. He took me round the Camel’s Back cemetery. We’ve got Admiral Dawson in Bangalore. He’s very useful. In Kolkota we’ve got Cedric Spanus, the Secretary of APFICT, and he’s reasonably influential . . . The people who have played no part at all are the government representatives in India like the High Commission.
Theon is quick to add that BACSA is a conservation movement irrespective of religion or race: ‘We have an orthodox Brahmin at Sibpur and a Muslim benefactor at Dhaka for instance.’
Apart from Chowkidar, BACSA publishes its own books written by members. Of the thirty published so far, some are autobiographies such as Morning Drum by John Christie and Merchant Prince by Owain Jenkins, from both of which I have quoted. Others are biographies and some of these are scholarly studies. At a time when university presses are retreating into restricted areas, BACSA is filling a need at a fraction of the cost. Rosie has also commissioned fiction from established writers who are members of BACSA such as Gillian Tindall, Ruskin Bond and Lee Langley. All their books, The Great Eastern Adventure, Of Tigers, Tombstones and a Coffin and The Sugar Palace respectively, have since been republished elsewhere or broadcast.
Not surprisingly, the annual meetings of BACSA attended by 130 members or so are lively occasions followed by a talkative lunch. Then there are outings: to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, for example, or to the private British in India Museum in Colne, Lancashire, which houses in an old mill the collection of a BACSA member. Noting down memorial inscriptions must be an acquired enthusiasm, because BACSA members also record tomb inscriptions with British India connections in UK cemeteries. Well over 2,000 are on file.
Is all this simply recording the Raj or attempting some kind of resuscitation? Is it simply tracing family roots or indulging in imperial nostalgia? It does not matter, of course. It is all proof that, whatever may be the fashion of political correctness, many of us are proud of our nation’s history on the subcontinent. As Lord Radcliffe, who mapped out the controversial borders that partitioned British India, said in 1947:
In all recorded history up to the present, no people has ever so mixed its dust with the dust of the wide world . . We have been such wanderers that the mud of every country is on our shoes. Eccentric, tiresome, interfering, if you like, but surely too, adventurous, ingenious, courageous and enduring. And yes, for better or worse — very remarkable.
‘Earth’s proud empires pass away’ leaving behind the remains of those who built them until they too are covered by the everchanging landscape. Meanwhile it is Theon’s hope that these last remains become Indianised, to conclude with a theme of this book, so that in the end they are part of a common history:
In the long run, I want the local Indians to be sufficiently interested in the history of the place that they regard the British remains as we regard the Roman remains in this country. The British built the roads. they built the canals, just like the Romans, and if the local people can regard them as part of their heritage and not our heritage, then that is really my aim.