The Road to Chandrapore

Eric Stokes

  • Race, Sex and Class under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and their Critics by Kenneth Ballhatchet
    Weidenfeld, 199 pp, £9.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 297 77646 0
  • Queen Victoria’s Maharajah: Duleep Singh 1838-1898 by Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand
    Weidenfeld, 326 pp, £9.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 297 77656 8

It is a commonplace assumption among modern historians that minority rule has always had to rely on devices to preserve social distance. These have usually consisted of distinctions of dress, comportment and speech, and of restrictions on commensality and connubium. In Western societies they have operated within the cultural framework of class. Kenneth Ballhatchet takes the equally familiar notion that in colonial societies alien minority rule translated class distinctions into those of race. In India he sees the social aloofness of the ruling white minority as being reinforced during the 19th century by a growing taboo against sexual intercourse across the colour line. Half a century ago, Percival Spear, in his delightful book The Nabobs, traced the transformation from the 18th-century ménage of the European merchant, with his harem and upper-class Indian habits, to the 19th-century world of the civil lines, in which the monogamous British official and his marble-white family led a wholly segregated existence. Spear put the change down to the psychological needs of the conquering élite to distance itself from its subjects, to the arrival of a large number of European women, and to the ascendancy of Evangelical attitudes of contempt and superiority towards Indian culture. The great merit of Ballhatchet’s book is to have brought the subject back under serious academic scrutiny, while the freedom now permissible because of changes in public taste has enabled him to pry into the seamier details.

Although alert to the danger that social psychology in the hands of the historian renders him peculiarly vulnerable to artificial stereotypes, Ballhatchet has not escaped unscathed. His treatment displays a remarkable mixture of precise scholarship and sweeping generalisation. His leitmotiv that racialism marched hand in hand with sexual taboos leads him to argue that racial feeling among Europeans attained it apogee during Curzon’s viceroyalty (1898-1905). This is odd, for nothing could exceed the mood of racial savagery that overtook British and even American opinion during the Mutiny outbreak of 1857. But this was seen as the crude and brutal assertion of superiority by ‘civilisation’ over ‘barbarism’ – or what Macaulay liked to call the strength of civilisation without its mercy. By racialism Ballhatchet means, in fact, something different. At the end of the century much of the so-called Western ‘civilisation’ or the modern way of life had come to be shared by many Indians, and the pattern of racial sensibilities had altered in consequence. There was now an enlarged European community that felt much less secure psychologically and materially. Drawn in part from the British lower-middle classes, it found itself thrust into positions of unaccustomed authority and affluence, and yet compelled to live in conditions of legal equality and growing competition with an often highly-educated Indian élite. The assertion of European superiority had steadily to renounce the rough hand (or boot) of the master-servant relationship and resort to the quieter and deadlier psychological warfare of preventing social mixing by excluding Indians from clubs and inflicting other such snubs. E.M. Forster’s Chandrapore was just around the corner. In these circumstances, alien rule which before the Mutiny had consorted perfectly readily with Europeans keeping Indian mistresses, like Sir Charles Metcalfe, or Indian wives, like General Wheeler of Cawnpore fame, had now to bow before the dictates of sexual apartheid. It was a sign of the power stucture under threat and in the first stages of decline. Even so, there were remarkable lacunae. Ballhatchet omits to notice Kipling’s engaging tale ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’, set in the Lahore of the 1880s. In Burma, however, the practice of officals taking concubines continued to be so prevalent that in 1894 the vermilion pen of the Chief Commissioner was still indicting a confidential circular of reproof to his subordinates. What worried Curzon was the number of officials who were marrying Burmese women. Men who surrendered to the East in this way would in time be prepared to surrender power into popular hands. It was the institutionalisation of racial mixing in marriage that appeared to aim a blow at the heart of the Raj.

Yet it is precisely at this point that the validity of the whole argument concerning the internal conditioning of the Raj by psychological influences comes seriously into question. How far is it true that considerations ‘for the preservation of the structure of power’ demanded racial separation in the sexual sphere? Ballhatchet has to acknowledge the incongruousness of the situation in the 1890s, when the authorities were clamping down on the peccadilloes of white officials while putting up a last-ditch fight to preserve the redcoats’ social comforts. More than half of this short book is taken up by the sex problems posed by the British garrison. From the late 18th century these had been met by two institutions – the lal bazaar, or supervised red-light quarter of the regimental bazaar, and the lock hospital, built out of public funds for the forcible detention of prostitutes until they were passed as free from infection. Venereal disease remained, however, a persistent scourge, incapacitating from a quarter to a half of the European force on whose bayonets British rule in the last resort depended. In the 1830s Lord William Bentinck’s economy-conscious administration and a more censorious European opinion stirred by Evangelical religion led to the discontinuance of many lock hospitals and to an attack on what Bishop Daniel Wilson called the ‘licensed brothels’ which made ‘sinning safe’. The health of the troops aroused renewed concern after the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny had resulted in large numbers of men being sent overseas. Florence Nightingale’s demonstration that the casualties from sickness exceeded those from battle some threefold was instrumental in setting up the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army in 1857 and a similar one for the Army in India in 1859. The findings of the latter were broadcast by her little red book, Observations on the Sanitary State of the Army in India (1863). If the death-rate among civilians in Kensington was 3.3, in the Knightsbridge barracks it was 17.5, but in India the death-rate of the British Army had for years been 69 per 1000. ‘It is at that expense that we have held dominion there for a century; a company out of every regiment has been sacrificed every twenty months.’ The Mutiny threw an increased burden on India’s finances and necessitated strengthening the expensive white garrison. Florence Nightingale championed Chadwick’s argument that sanitation spelled economy, but on one issue the Commission refused to follow her. They rejected her contention that money could be saved and the scourges of drink and venereal disease countered by abolishing lock hospitals, increasing the proportion of troops 12 – per cent – allowed to marry and live in married quarters, and by building extensive recreational facilities for the single men. In the 1860s the prevalent view was that they ordered these matters better in France. In 1864 Parliament passed the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts, providing for state regulation of prostitution in certain seaport and garrison towns in Britain. India followed suit with a similar Act in 1868, and for the protection of British troops the lock hospital came back strongly into favour. The worldly-wise had reckoned, however, without the Nonconformist conscience and the nascent women’s movement. From 1869, Josephine Butler and the Repeal Association battled against the British Act until, in 1883, they secured its suspension, and, in 1886, its abolition.

Successful in Britain, one section of the reform movement turned its attention to India. It was not enough for the Viceroy, the high-minded Lord Ripon, to suspend the Contagious Diseases Act in India. Alfred Dyer, a Quaker and publisher, went out on a visit of inquiry and published the results in the Sentinel. His damning evidence was accompanied by a sketch-map of the East Kent Regiment’s encampment at Bareilly, showing the tents of the ‘licensed harlots’ neatly positioned between the European soldiers’ lines and the native Christian church. Dyer also unearthed an indiscreet document of the officer commanding the Second Cheshire Regiment, suitably headed in military jargon ‘Requisition for Extra Attractive Women for Regimental Bazar (Soldiers)’, in which the Ambala cantonment magistrate was told of the plight of the 400-strong regiment having only six women and the need for six more – preferably young and attractive. The military authorities were seriously concerned at the way in which the Indian Government was bowing before pressure from home. Cardwell’s short-service scheme had meant a more rapid turn-round of the garrison and a higher proportion of young single men. From the 1870s the VD rate appeared to rise in response. As the authorities sought to continue control of prostitutes, under the subterfuge of the powers to control infectious diseases provided by the Cantonments Acts, they found themselves fighting a desperate rearguard action. In 1897 the Onslow Commission supplied them with ammunition by showing that the VD rate had risen to some 44 per cent of British troops – more than twice as high as for those stationed in Britain. Correspondence in the press signalled alarm about mortality rates from the disease among the civil population of Britain. The highest medical men must have been aware that in January 1895 it had claimed Lord Randolph Churchill among its victims. In the panic even Florence Nightingale put her signature to a petition to secure effective protection for the British soldier. After 1900 the issue quietly died down, doubtless aided by the remarkably rapid fall in the VD rate Ballhatchet considers that this was probably due to a down-turn in the epievele of the disease. One might also suggest that the much higher class of man who enlisted for the Boer War and stayed on in the Army afterwards had something to do with it.

Dyer’s mission was not exhausted. In 1888 he settled down as editor of the Bombay Guardian, and turned his attention to the life of the sahibs. He leagued with the Bombay Midnight Mission in a direct assault on European participation in vice, whether by rooting out the white slave traffic or pursuing Europeans in Kamathipura, the roaring brothel-quarter of the city. The missionary picketing was far from being always peaceful. Great exception was taken to Malcolm Moss advertising Major Murchison’s presence in a house of ill fame by standing outside singing a hymn while the major was engaged within; the latter afterwards took his boot to the missionary in no uncertain fashion. The Bombay Guardian found the fracas excellent copy. Missionary zeal also led Moss to acquire a tricycle as a means of chasing after ‘the carriages of some of the aristocratic official frequenters of the great European vice market of Bombay’.

Despite the hilarious overtones that relieve at times this tale of infinite sadness, the nature and direction of moral pressure scarcely support Ballhatchet’s argument that racial segregation of the sexes originated as a political imperative from within the Indian situation. The clamour for moral reform did not come from the diehard upholders of British supremacy who administered India: it stemmed from outside, and from precisely those circles of liberal opinion Britain which were critical of the Raj and most ready to lend a sympathetic ear to the Indian demand for home rule. They were insistent that British rule in the East should conform to the Christian standards of respectability attained in the West. There was nothing racial in the demand that sexual relations outside marriage should neither be condoned not openly practised by British officials, officers of soldiers. Imperialists like Kipling were roused to stinging contempt for what he saw as the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the liberal pressure groups in Britain:

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’
                   Tommy, ’ow’s yer soul?’
But it’s ‘Thin red line of ’eroes’ when the drums begin to roil.

Yet such groups stood in a historic tradition that assured their ultimate ascendancy. For the British in India were never more than expatriates: they drove shallower roots into tropical soil than other European nations, whose colons often intermarried and took up permanent abode under the palm trees. It was an empire of the middle classes, who made no attempt to naturalise themselves as a local aristocracy but always looked to an eventual return into the bosom of British society. Hence their sensitivity to external criticism and their eventual readiness to heed the dictates of British fashions in morals as in dress. The history of European social mores in India is the history at one remove of social mores in Britain, and not the product of some special internal psychological adjustment to the conditions of a conquering élite. The transformation of nabob to sahib simply mirrored the transformation of Regency buck into Victorian gentleman. Likewise, every step in Kenneth Ballhatchet’s story followed British precedent and was indeed taken in response to British pressure.

He says in his Preface that his personal experience confirmed the transposition of class superiority into race superiority. An RAF officer colleague in Britain incurred official displeasure for wishing to marry a woman non-commissioned officer, because this threatened the social distance thought necessary for the officer class. Another European colleague on an Indian military station who announced his intention of marrying a Eurasian girl incurred similar disapproval, but in this case Ballhatchet believes the motive to have been the threat such a marriage posed to the social distance between the ruling race and the peoples of India. Yet why should the British alone of colonial powers have made such an issue of this question? Neither the Spanish, Portuguese, French, nor even the Dutch, a Protestant people, insisted on any such strict sex barrier for the maintenance of empire. There seems to be a more plausible explanation. The British Army was rotated between Britain and India, serving comparatively short periods overseas. The officers of the Indian Army took their social tone from the crack British regiments. The criterion of behaviour was whether it would find acceptance at home. Curzon might have to administer a sharp reminder to the Ninth Lancers when they tried to hush up the murder of an Indian cook, since home opinion would be slow to stir on such a matter. But the test of marriage was whether the lady would be acceptable at the dinner tables of Camberley. It was the closer and more frequent contact with middle-class England through the steamer and furlough that progressively raised the sex barrier, not some mysterious mystique of empire.

Two social groups were slow to heed the barrier or obey the ground rules of middle-class morality – the working classes, represented by the Tommy, and the aristocracy. The equivalent of the latter in India were the princes. When the Maharaja of Patiala determined on marrying Miss Florry Bryan, the Viceroy, Lord Landsdowne, communicated his disapprobation. Yet one may venture to think that his motives were not racial, as Ballhatchet suggests. In taking a working-class woman the Maharaja was marrying beneath him. In marrying her into a polygamous household he was creating a maharani to whom European ladies would need to defer but whom they would refuse to admit to their society. A more illustrious example of a similar problem is provided by Duleep Singh, the deposed Sikh ruler of the Punjab who in 1854 at the age of 15 was brought to England and became a favourite of Queen Victoria. The attractiveness of his youthful person, the fervour of his proselytism to Christianity, and the fact that he had once been the possessor of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, all aroused Victoria’s keen interest. He soon became a regular visitor to Osborne and Windsor and an intimate member of the Royal Family circle. Victoria wanted him to marry her Indian princess godchild, Victoria Gouramma, daughter of the deposed Raja of Coorg, but Duleep confessed his desire to obtain an English wife. The flirtatious Gouramma, who compromised herself seriously by falling in love with an English under-butler, was found a husband in Colonel John Campbell, a widowed brother-in-law of Dr Login, who had been placed in charge of Duleep in India and brought him up. Login owed his entire advancement to this connection, being invited to Court and given a knighthood. Yet good middle-class Lady Login was distinctly cool when Duleep asked if he could pay his addresses to one of her husband’s young relatives, and when her brother-in-law married Gouramma the Logins received the news ‘without enthusiasm’. In contrast, the Queen thought it was Gouramma who was marrying beneath her, but contented herself that ‘a quiet and comfortable, though not brilliant home was secured for her.’ Aristocracy cared for rank not race.

Yet by the 1860s the growing embourgeoisement of the English aristocracy had left the old contrast in attitudes blurred and uncertain. Duleep found that his shy advances to English ladies evoked no response. At the age of 26 he caused consternation by suddenly deciding to marry a young girl whom he saw in a mission school in Cairo while he was en route for India. She was the illegitimate daughter of a German merchant by an Abyssinian Coptic mother. The explanation offered to the Palace by Colonel Oliphant, who managed Duleep’s finances, is revealing: ‘What we all desired for him was that he might find a nice English wife, yet this was no easy matter. Often and often have he and I talked on the subject and it was, I may say, continually in his thoughts, but, poor fellow, I have reason to think that he had come to the conclusion that (as he termed it) a “foreigner like himself” was distasteful to our Country women, and it was not impossible that some such feeling urged him on so hastily to the step he has taken.’ The Queen was not in the least troubled by the girl’s lowly origins, and, like a true aristocrat, kissed her as an acknowledgment of her rank when the couple came to stay at Windsor.

If Duleep could not have an English wife, at least he would now set up as an English nobleman. He bought Elveden in Suffolk, with its splendid sporting estate, and entertained the Prince of Wales and the great peers in lavish style. Yet when he found that his allowance could not sustain his grand way of life and that for all her importunity, the Queen could not persuade her ministers to raise the allowance, he slowly began to repent him of the surrender of his Indian personality, his religion and his sovereign rank. Losing all sense of reality, he renounced Christianity, revived extinct claims to land and jewels, and threatened to stir up political trouble in India. The Queen rightly thought that he had gone off his head. When he attempted to return to India, he was detained at Aden; when he ‘defected’ to Russia and was received by the Czar, it soon became evident that St Petersburg also did not think him an asset worth the charge of upkeep. He was forced to eat humble-pie and return to his English paymasters. The remaining brief period of his troubled existence was spent wandering among Continental spas and the Riviera resorts. Victoria’s compassion for a fallen king arid personal protégé rose superior to racial or political differences. On a private visit to Grasse in 1891 she invited Duleep to meet her. When the now obese invalid, half-paralysed from a stroke, broke violently into sobbing, Victoria ‘stroked and held his hand, and he became calm and said: “Pray excuse me and forgive me my faults.”’ Duleep was hurt that she would not receive his second wife, an Englishwoman at last, but of humble origins. Yet the Queen’s objection was that she had been his mistress and borne him children while his first wife was still alive. As Victoria noted, ‘the Queen has the strong impression that this Maharani has not been correct. Her being an actress wd. not raise any objections.’

This gracefully-written biography of Duleep, replete with fascinating quotation, is a far more superficial work than Professor Ballhatchet’s academic study, but it demonstrates unawares that race and class operated much more subtly in the Victorian consciousness than he is ready to allow. Ballhatchet’s book is fired by one of those flashes of creative imagination that in an auspicious hour can illuminate a whole new terrain for the historical understanding. It is a pity that he has not allowed the forked lightning greater play, instead of resorting to the drier light of scholarship and electing to pursue the sequence of minute, dispatch and decision in the policy-making process. The suppressed passion and wit that occasionally escape give one the sense of a much warmer and livelier grasp of the underlying stuff of humanity from which his story is composed. But then historians, like soldiers or missionaries, are subject to their own special occupational hazards.