Calcutta in the Cotswolds

David Gilmour

  • Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India by Elizabeth Buettner
    Oxford, 324 pp, £25.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 19 924907 5

‘Certain families,’ Kipling wrote in his story ‘The Tomb of His Ancestors’, ‘serve India generation after generation as dolphins follow in line across the open sea.’ It was common indeed for three generations of the same family to spend their careers in India; often it was four, sometimes five, occasionally six. A number of Britons (or Anglo-Indians as they were called) could boast that both sides of their family had been in India for more than a hundred years. For the Scottish Wedderburns, the Indian Civil Service had become ‘a sort of hereditary calling’ in the 19th century, replacing the hereditary calling of the previous century, which had been to fight for the Jacobites and be executed for treason. Not that the ICS was a much safer choice: William Wedderburn joined it in 1860 shortly after his brother and sister-in-law and their child had been killed in the Mutiny. Later in his career he responded to another Scottish ‘calling’, joining the band of radical civil servants who supported Indian nationalism and serving two terms after retirement as President of the Indian National Congress.

Another civil servant who became President of Congress was Sir Henry Cotton, whose family followed Indian careers for six consecutive generations in a direct male line. His great-grandfather was a director of the East India Company, his grandfather, father and son were in the Madras Civil Service, he himself served in Bengal, and his grandson joined the Political Service.

There was nothing cosy, sentimental or particularly rewarding about sons following fathers in India; it wasn’t like inheriting an estate or entering the family firm, where they could be groomed by their parent. An Indian career meant that sons hardly saw their fathers once they were no longer infants. As Elizabeth Buettner observes in Empire Families, Sir Adelbert Talbot, the Resident in Kashmir, retired in the same month that his son Addy came out to start his own career in the ICS. Henry Cotton’s grandfather served in Madras from 1801 to 1830, retiring the year before his son went out to the same province, where he remained from 1831 to 1862. The few years when two generations of Cottons were in India at the same time, they were living at opposite ends of the subcontinent, Henry in Assam and his son in Madras. The family epitomised ‘The Exiles’ Line’, the poem in which Kipling portrayed ‘the soul of our sad East’ as it was carried back and forth between Britain and India on P&O ships:

Bound on the wheel of Empire, one by one,
The chain-gangs of the East from sire to son,
The Exiles’ Line takes out the exiles’ line
And ships them homeward when their work is done.

Families did not operate only across generations. Siblings were often working in India at the same time in a variety of services. One brother might be in the ICS, another in the army, a third in the Indian Medical Service, and their sisters might be married to missionaries, planters or boxwallahs. Five Dennys brothers were in the Indian army, a sixth in the Indian police and a seventh in the Public Works Department, while their sister married two civil servants in succession. John Lawrence, the future viceroy, was one of five brothers working simultaneously in India; John Nicholson, the hero of the siege of Delhi, was one of four brothers who died there.

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