The Raj and Us
Words and Meanings
Western Europeans (Portuguese) became directly involved in India half a millennium ago --a few years before the Moghul Empire began. Britain became deeply involved in India three hundred years ago and was clearly the ruler of much of India more than 200 years ago. For nearly 500 years Europeans have had to embrace Indian concepts for which there was no European equivalent, and to make up laws and operating rules for themselves (and their subjects) for which there were no European precedents.
Tens of thousands of pages have been written on the effect of the British on India since the 17th century. Almost nothing is known about the effect of Indians on Britain in the same period. Those histories are only now being written -- one of the recent books on this subject is summarized here in a fascinating series of lectures.
The English language, in particular, has been deeply influenced by this long association. Words were made up as they were needed, changed meaning as necessary, and fell out of use as conditions changed. Many of the "colonial" words I used as a child have changed meaning. Most of them have disappeared with the disappearance of the Raj and Anglo-Indians. And those last two nouns themselves have a host of meanings to those of us steeped in "The (British) Raj". I have attempted to stay away from colonial jargon. However these two nouns pervade the memoir so I will describe them here.
"The Raj" refers to the rule of Britain in India. It was pervasive enough to spawn fashions in architecture, governance, language and in virtually every aspect of British life.
The Raj was the centerpiece of the British Empire. Officially, The Raj ended in August 1947 when India achieved Independence. In reality it's influence is still felt in India and Britain and wherever the old British Colonial Service made the laws and Britons influenced customs. The timing of the beginning of The Raj varies with historian. For our purposes we can say The Raj began in Eastern India around 1760 somewhat before the American revolution, and was clearly flourishing in Eastern India by 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, signaling the victory of the "settlers" of America over the parent country.
Beginning in the 1770's, Britons were collecting taxes from Indians, making laws for Indians to live by, ruling large parts of India through Indian proxies, and engaging in wars of expansion using Indian soldiers. Britons who had spent most of their lives in India returned to Britain to retire, bringing much of their "Anglo-Indian" wealth and culture and some of their servants with them. In the late 18th and early 19th century "Anglo-Indians" were (usually wealthy) male Britons who returned from a lifetime of trade in India and retired to a life of country leisure in Britain. By the mid 19th century the "wealthy Anglo-Indian nabob" riding to hounds was a stock caricature in the London press. The first item in the side bar illustrates the lavish lifestyle of these early denizens of the Raj.
In the century between about 1780 and 1880 The Raj gradually morphed from the loose (and financially corrupt) rule of British merchant adventurers interested almost totally in trade, to a more tightly controlled, highly structured, hierarchical organization run by The Raj Indian Civil Service. The members of this once world famous model of incorruptibility became interested almost exclusively in increasing tax revenues, in reducing corruption, in expansion and defense of Empire, in systematizing the acquisition of cheap raw materials for Britain and in creating markets for British manufacturers. They were banned from any personal involvement in private "for profit" business. Nevertheless the early extraordinarily ornate trappings of a Briton's life in India became a characteristic of the Raj. Imperial Raj architecture was developed for all manner of buildings from Railway Stations to the New Delhi capital of India. Indian army uniforms were redesigned to emulate the ostentation of oriental potentates. Pomp and Ceremony and class distinctions and racial rankings became trademarks of the Raj..
I have not said much about the "feel" of the Raj in other parts of the memoir so I have italicized an extract from an article by the travel writer Jan Morris to try to give an idea of what the Raj was like. No way can I write like Morris - it was indeed as he says! The full article is here
My grandfather William Blanchette was one of those "engineers in their cab". My father Eugene Blanchette was one of the manufacturers of the cab. The two pictures below give some idea of the fashions of the Raj
A relatively small number of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who served in India during the European involvement elected to remain in India. Generally, by the early 19th century the descendants of these Europeans (mostly British) were prevented from returning to Britain even if they elected to return. By the end of the 19th century these "Residents of India", these "Domiciled Europeans" of varying European backgrounds, together with the "British" in India, numbered in the region of 100,000. By the end of the 19th century, the word "Anglo-Indian" gradually changed meaning to refer primarily to this community of India born, European descended, residents of India who maintained a European life style. They identified with Britain, felt British, and at various times lived under different "laws" from those under which Indians lived. Our family was part of this Anglo-Indian community.
In 1947 when India attained independence, the community numbered in the region of 300,000 to 400,000 souls, living mostly in railway towns in Northern India, embedded in a country of 400 million Indians -- less than one tenth of one percent of the population. In the half decade between 1947 and 1952 the Anglo-Indian community in India all but disappeared. Almost all the Anglo-Indians who were able to, left India for England and for countries of the old British Empire. There are now small, ageing Anglo-Indian communities in Australia, Britain, Canada and the US. In some instances their children have begun to write Ph. D dissertations on the history of this little known, and quite unique community. I refer to some of these dissertations in the body of this memoir.
The Raj and Us-- A Summary
A private British East India Company was formed in London in 1599. This company, the Honorable East India Company (HEIC), was given an exclusive charter by Queen Elizabeth 1 to engage in trade in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Until 1813 when certain changes were made in its charter, HEIC had the exclusive right to conduct all trade and all travel by British nationals in all of the East.
In the 17th century it was normal for merchants to retain militia to guard their premises from attack and if necessary to attack rivals. By 1800 the HEIC Indian militias had grown into three very large armies (Bengal, Madras and Bombay) numbering in the region of 100,000 personnel. Thomas Blanchette sailed to India in 1817 to join the Bengal European Regiment of the HEIC army. He married in India, retired from the HEIC army and raised a family in India. He died in 1863.
Excise duties on HEIC goods (particularly tea to the American colonies) was an important part of Britain's revenue. The massive smuggling of tea into the Atlantic colonies by Dutch, French and rogue British traders caused the British Parliament to attempt to enforce the excise tax in the colonies. It was these attempts which led to the "Boston Tea Party" and which united the colonists in their demands for "no taxation without representation". It was HEIC tea which was dumped overboard
After the American Revolution of 1776, HEIC trade became an even more important source of revenue for Britain. The British Army (the Royal Army) had already been sent out in small numbers to help the HEIC in the 1750's, but after 1776 and the French-British wars from 1793 onwards, large numbers of Royal Army troops were sent to India. Robert Roberts was one of these soldiers. Roberts went to India in 1805 with the 53rd Shropshire Regiment. He too married in India and produced at least one son. He was killed in India in 1817 while campaigning in Southern India.
Between about 1820 and 1857 major attempts were made by the British masters to change (improve!) Indian ways. Massive and rapid changes were made in law, land use, taxation, land expropriation, education and use of English as the official language. Christian missionaries who had been banned from India until 1813 were now encouraged to establish English language schools and to "convert the heathen". These rapid changes led to the seminal event in Raj history which British historians called "The Indian Mutiny". Robert Robert's son Edward, my great grandfather, and one of his grandchildren were killed in this uprising fleeing from the "Mutineers". The mutiny changed everything. Indians and Britons became deeply suspicious of each other. Britain's Parliament took over the management of India from the HEIC in 1858. HEIC essentially ceased to exist. The pace of social change was slowed to a crawl and virtually halted. India was rapidly converted into a massive raw material supplier for British manufacturers. Massive infrastructure projects to increase and transport Indian agriculture were undertaken. In particular, railway construction was accelerated all over India. The railways became the symbol of Empire and career of choice for most Domiciled Europeans. Nearly all my direct male forbears worked for the railway between 1860 and 1949.
Fun Books on The Raj
The best short fiction book on India and the Raj is Kipling's "Kim". I vouch for its accuracy and atmosphere. Another book much more in the pot boiler category but quite accurate in its evocation is MM Kaye's "The Far Pavilions". Her book's location is disguised, but the desert scenes are, in fact, set in the desert areas around Rajputana where I grew up. I consider "The Far Pavilions" of the same genre as Clavell's "Shogun".
Both Kipling and Kaye spent many years in India and know it well. Kipling's view is clearly "Imperial". His view is leavened by his respect for many of the characteristics of India. I smell and feel "India" when I read Kipling. Since we are descended from a pair of British soldiers, here is a link to Kipling's poem "Tommy". Tommy Atkins was the generic name given to British soldiers. And here is Kipling's "If" -- one of my teenage favorites. And one more, Gunga Din, another of my favorites.
Kaye's family is one of those 19th and 20th century military Anglo Indian families which spent several generations in India, but kept their roots firmly in England. The children grew up in England during school terms and in India during "the hols". Most of their adult lives they spent in India as "covenanted" employees with the military or the Indian Civil Service (ICS).
The most recent and to me most fascinating book is Dalrymple's "White Moghuls" published in 2002. It is a serious non fiction work replete with (thousands of!) footnotes and references. For any one seriously interested in British India in the19th century and willing to plow through a historical love story there is no better book. When Dalrymple began researching "White Moghuls" he discovered he had two hidden Indian ancestors, Begum Moti Dalrymple and Sophia Pattle. Dalrymple's book "Delhi -- City of Djinns" is a wonderful description of the current and historical Delhi.
Don't bother with EM Forster's A Passage to India --he spent a month in India and wrote a book. It is inaccurate and misleading. On to India