Thinking of England

Thinking of England

Mallinson, Allan

What happened in May 1857 was more than a mutiny but a lot less than a war of independence. It is as well that Jane Robinson has chosen largely to steer clear of this debate, however, for to have talked only of ‘rebellion’, or whatever, would have been to miss a potent element of the drama of this infamous episode. There is an especial evil in murder by mutinous troops the betrayal of trust, the taking advantage of power meant only to be exercised under discipline. Discipline is the soul of an army and, when it mutinied, the Army of the Presidency of Bengal (those of Bombay and Madras were largely unaffected) lost its soul. To high-Victorian England suppression of the Mutiny was a spiritual imperative therefore, a crusade, no less.

But there was another dimension. In the author’s words:

The memsahib neatly symbolised national purity . . . Britannia’s virgin daughter, an angel of Albion whose sacrilegious violation at the hands of the mutineers became a metaphor for the violation of the Empire. British soldiers fought the Indians in bloodrevenge, calling on the spirit of their murdered country-women to inspire them to unsurpassed heights of valour.

Yet this image of the memsahib does not do her full justice. Jane Robinson confesses to having regarded the memsahibs a little derisively when working on a previous book about lady travellers, but reading of their impassiveness during the Mutiny changed that. In Agra she came across a Moslem tradition which clinched it: the marble monuments in the Itimad-uddaulah (or `Baby-Taj’) have either a carved figure of a writing-slate or else of a penbox. When asked their meaning, her guide explained that they signified whether the tomb was of a man or a woman: `Women are the slates, memsahib, on which men write the history of the world.’

The women of the Mutiny are not all of a piece. Some are by no means ladies, or even gentlewomen. There is Charlotte Canning, wife of the Governor-General, first lady of India, `burra memsahib’, who keeps up her intelligent and enlightened correspondence with Queen Victoria throughout from the safety of her Calcutta residence. There is Kate Bartrum, a silversmith’s daughter from Bath, married to an assistant surgeon in the remote station of Gonda in Oudh province, whose story, with her toddler son, is as harrowing as any. There are the officers’ wives, as one memsahib puts it,

curiously different from the civilians. The civil ladies are generally very quiet, rather languid, speaking almost in a whisper, simply dressed, almost always ladylike and commeil-faut, not pretty, but pleasant and nicelooking, rather dull, and give one very hard work in pumping for conversation . . . The military ladies, on the contrary, are always quite young, pretty, noisy, affected, showily dressed, with a great many ornaments, mauvais ton, chatter incessantly from the moment they enter the house, twist their curls, shake their bustles, and are altogether what you may call ‘Low Toss’.

But there is lower toss still, and not just the wives of the rank and file soldiery the `gora log’. There are women who had come out to India with the `fishing fleet’ to find a husband but, having failed, were making ends meet as best they could – in some cases following the oldest profession in the local bazaars. Then there are the Eurasians who might fall foul of both sides. Amelia ‘Bonny’ Byrne is one, a captain’s daughter and an ensign’s wife who becomes mistress of the Nawab of Farrukhabad, escapes the massacre of Cawnpore but is then nearly hanged by the British. Some find the Mutiny a relief from boredom – at least until death becomes a real possibility. Others, like the Marchioness of Sligo, brought up in India to the age of six, ‘finished’ at school in England, and then back in Patna with a husband and baby at 21, regard the affair with insouciance, contempt even.

From letters and journals smuggled through the lines or found posthumously by relief columns, and from numerous other accounts, Jane Robinson recalls the horror of it all. There is the misery of sieges like Cawnpore — privation followed by coldblooded butchery. There are fugitives in the jungle enduring heat, cholera, snakes, treacherous villagers – and pregnancy. There is the relative comfort of the residency at Lucknow where, in the initial stages at least, a much-straitened but formal existence is maintained. There is fortitude beyond belief, sustained in no small measure by absolute trust in God.

One thing, surprisingly, there is not rape. It was a potent fear among the women themselves, and saving them from this fate was a powerful spur to the relief columns. But Jane Robinson maintains there was not a single authenticated case despite thorough contemporary investigation. There was, of course, little that forensic science could reveal from bodies piled in wells, as at Cawnpore, but anecdotal evidence too seems to have been lacking. To kill a woman was one thing, but rape would have meant loss of caste for a Hindu and defilement for a Moslem. There was one exception, it seems, though the case of Miss Ulrica Wheeler is unusual to the point of being bizarre.

In St James’s church, Delhi, built in the likeness of St Paul’s cathedral by the legendary Eurasian adventurer Colonel James Skinner, there are plaques to the memory of those who died there in the first days of the Mutiny. Two in particular stand out. One records the death of the manager of the Delhi branch of a London bank, together with his wife and three daughters. Another commemorates the life of the sole survivor of that family, the son (presumably at school in England at the time), who returned subsequently to become manager of that same branch. To see these plaques is to wonder what mutiny was like for the memsahibs and children when it came to their homes, and what it was that made life go on as it did after it was put down. Jane Robinson tells us, engagingly and movingly.

Copyright Spectator Oct 5, 1996

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.