The Memsahibs

The Women of Victorian India

In 1834, George, Lord Auckland,  Commissioner of Greenwich Hospital, is appointed to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in the Whig government of Lord Melbourne. George is a bachelor, and Emily & Fanny Eden are his sisters.  The Government falls but returns to power in April 1835.

In October 1835, Auckland is appointed Governor-General of India, a position which carries with it a great deal of prestige, a high salary and supreme administrative authority over the British Presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay. He leaves Portsmouth on the the Jupiter, accompanied by his sisters, his nephew, William Osborne, and a pet dog, Chance.

In India, George would be answerable to no one; but he had two masters in England–the Whig government and the Directors of the East India Company.  In matters of political policy, he is to act in consultation with the Home Government whenever possible; in commercial matters, he was responsible to “The Company”.

Emily Eden

Emily Eden writes to her friend, Theresa Lister in London, about their arrival in Calcutta five months later on March 4, 1836. They were to spend six years in India. Auckland’s predecessor in India was Lord William Bentinck, who had instituted a number of successful and far-reaching social and legal reforms which Auckland was expected to consolidate and extend.

Auckland was considered able, with an unflappable disposition and a strong head for hard work. But he lacked imagination, flexibility and sound personal judgement. His sisters possessed some of these qualities but they were not in India to govern; they were there as top memsahibs of the country and their functions were social, decorative and ceremonial. Everyone passing through Calcutta felt they had to call at Government House–and everyone was always through.

 “They come to Calcutta on their way out to make their fortunes or on their way home because they have made them, or because their health requires a change of station and they come here to ask for it.”–

-Emily to Theresa Lister in correspondence.

Barrackpore, sixteen miles from Calcutta, and standing in a large park by the River Ganges, was their weekend retreat.

The unquestioning and prompt fulfilment of their every wish which resulted from their elevated status was a trifle startling at first, even to those of the Eden’s aristocratic background.

“The subservience of the natives to the handful of white men who have got into this country shocks me at this moment”,–

-wrote Fanny. 

Anglo-Indian society in Calcutta had been notorious for this narrow parochialism since the late seventeenth century when the first overseas trading houses were established here. The increasing wealth of the foreign community was based entirely on commerce and its aspirations on the life style of the eighteenth-century British nabob. The nabobs were famed for the size and extravagance of their households, their gargantuan appetites and the numbers of their ‘dusky mistresses’.

For in those days English women were indeed a rarity in India and those there were,  

“not in the opinion of one male resident, either in the education of intellect or heart what an intelligent, reflecting and cultivated man would select as his companion.”

Not that the ladies were short of admirers.  Sophia Goldbourne, one of the fair few, wrote home that

“the attention and court paid to me was astonishing. My smile was meaning and my articulation melody; in a word, mirrors are almost useless in Calcutta and self-adoration idle, for your looks are reflected in the pleasures of every beholder and your claims to first-rate distinction confirmed by all those who approach you.”

By the early nineteenth century more English ladies had arrived on the scene, and in the rows of mansions at Chowringhee, Calcutta’s richest quarter, no expense was spared to recreate for them the ambience of luxurious western-style comfort. Their lofty rooms were stuffed with ‘objects your only interest in which would arise from their familiar associations’, wrote the anonymous author of the Anglo-Indian Domestic Sketch Book. They boasted ‘marble halls and passages, carpeted floors, oil-clothed stairs, fireplaces with all their decorative accompaniments, window curtains, chandeliers, stained glass and, in short, a thousand and one ornamental elegance of fashionable life that would do no discredit to St James’.

The memsahibs go dancing (India Office Library)
The memsahibs go dancing (India Office Library)
The memsahibs do their shopping (India Office Library)
The memsahib in her sitting-room (India Office Library)
The memsahib weighing out the day’s supplies (India Office Library)

‘It is so very HOT, I do not know how to spell it large enough’, Emily commented.

People unused to such temperatures do very little in them unless forced. The men who had to earn enough money to bring in the butter and keep the punkahs moving, managed to continue work; the women, for whom there was little compulsion to do anything much, often lapsed into inertia and dullness.

In her drawing-room for the chief part of her day, the Anglo-Indian lady is as much a prisoner by reason of the heat as the zenana woman is by custom,’

wrote one sympathetic gentleman.

‘She is by herself all day long and thrown on her own resources of music, reading, letter-writing or sketching.’

Alone and yet not freely alone, for at ever turn servants waited to do her every bidding and encourage her indolence. Top of the service hierarchy indoors were the

  • butlers and footmen (who wore household liveries),
  • the cooks
  • valets for the gentlemen,
  • ayahs, amahs, and wet nurses for the ladies and children.
  • Each person of consequence had his own tailor who sat cross-legged snipping and sewing on the verandah all day, and
  • most of them had personal dhobies (washermen) who arrived in the morning on a donkey laden with equipment, soap board, a stick for thrashing clothes clean, drying lines and a firebox for heating the water.
  • The water was carried by the bhistie, who had also to fill the rows of earthenware jars in the bathrooms and keep the tatties wet.
  • Then there were the general domestics who carried messages or goods, cleaned or swept, filled and trimmed the lamps.

And outside in the garden and compound was another structure of service,

  • topped by the coachmen
  • elephant-drivers (mahouts
  • head gardeners
  • through the fowl keepers, cowmen, grooms, watchmen, palanquin-bearers, grass-cutters and gatekeepers
  • down to the young lads who swept the stables, cleaned the latrines and the wells, and dug the irrigation ditches round the vegetable plots.

As a lady newly arrived in Madras commented, the results of such a system was that

‘Every creature seems eaten up with laziness. Even my horse pretends he is too fine to switch off his own flies with his own long tail, but turns his head round to order the horse keepers to wipe them off for him.

It was a commonplace that, in the British establishments, the servants were often treated worse than the animals. Emily Eden mentions that the natives competed for employment at Government House because it was

‘one of the few houses in Calcutta where they are not beaten. It is quite horrible and disgusting to see how people quietly let out that they are in the habit of beating these timid, weak creatures.’

But the servants were so poor they had to bear it, and the English, even had they wished for less grandeur, could not economize by letting one servant perform several tasks because of the taboos of the caste system.

The Edens, while learning to adapt themselves to the extravagancies and deprivations of their new life, were also able to stand apart from it, strong in the knowledge that it could not last for more than six years at the worst and that everything back home afterwards would be pleasurable by comparison . . . Assuming, of course, one was lucky and lived long enough to return home, for there was no denying that the India of the period was a dangerous place for foreigners and an alarming number of men and women under forty died there of fevers and other undiagnosed  illnesses.

‘Lord Auckland has a very dry manner always. The sisters quite the reverse, extremely agreeable,’ wrote Mary Wimberley, after her first dinner at the Governor’s residence in Barrackpore. She was quite happy as the wife of Charles Wimberley, who had recently become his Lordship’s private chaplain. Charles and Mary Wimberley had spent the past twelve years shifting about the world in the Christian cause and, compared to where they had been, their ‘nice clean little cottage’ in Barrackpore park seemed a haven of comfort. They had first been assigned to India in 1816, then to the Straits Settlements at Malacca, then Java, Macao, Cape Town and then back to Fort William, Calcutta, where they lived in four stifling rooms with no running water, no nursery and no stabling for their horse and buggy.

Mary was a Scot, with the national characteristic of resilient practicality which she greatly needed, having married a man whose principal gift was for pulpit oratory, and having already borne him five children in various uncongenial habitations. However, it was her husband’s power of preaching in a manner sufficiently stirring to entice people to worship even in the heat of Sunday mid-mornings that had resulted in his Barrackpore appointment.

It was true; she (Emily) was essential to George’s equilibrium, and when Lord Auckland began to plan an extensive tour of the north-west provinces, it was taken for granted that his sisters should accompany him, though it was unusual for ladies of such elevated status to take long journeys ‘up-country’. From his point of view, it was essential to gain some first-hand experience of the real India, for he was surrounded by advisers who knew much more about it than he did, and who were full of bushy-tailed ideas of expanding British influence and authority to the various provinces of the north-west.

But George possessed a too highly developed sense of duty not to go and take a good look at the country under his governorship. Perhaps by so doing he could reassure himself that it would get along all right without too much intervention on his part in the future, for neither he nor his sisters had any urgent desire to probe very deeply into the mysteries of Indian affairs. There were rumours in August that the Whigs would lose power in which case Lord Auckland would have to go home to Kensington instead of on his planned tour Up the Country, on which the Wimberleys were to accompany him. Most of the ladies concerned including Emily Eden and Mary Wimberley, devoutly and secretly hoped for such an outcome but it was not to be. Lord Melbourne, who had appointed ‘G’ to the Governor-Generalship,  remained at Westminster.

Lord Auckland and his sisters left Calcutta on 21st October ‘for eighteen months of travelling by steamers, tents, and mountains’ Emily wrote inconsequentially hating the prospect ahead. With all their pauses en route for visiting out-stations, sketching ruins and holding durbars, it took them nearly three weeks to reach Benares.

The imperial cavalcade was twelve thousand strong with:

  • government secretaries
  • scribes
  • aides-de-camp
  • army officers, their wives and children
  • soldiers
  • sepoys
  • servants
  • servants’ servants
  • drivers
  • drummers and valets
  • guards 
  • guards’ guards
  • laundrymen 
  • loaders
  • messengers 
  • tent-pitchers
  • grass-cutters 
  • cooks
  • mahouts 
  • amahs 
  • herders 
  • grooms.

To transport this multitude and their equipment between ten and twenty miles a day overland in strictly hierarchical degrees of comfort required unspecified numbers of

  • elephants
  • oxen
  • camels
  • horses and ponies
  • tilburies
  • buggies 
  • jonpauns (sedan chairs on poles carried by four bearers)
  • hackeries drawn by bullocks
  • palanquins that were furnished with shelves, a little oil lamp and a mosquito net, rather like a steamer-berth
  • dhoolies, covered litters, lighter and cheaper than palanquins and described by one traveller as ‘a tray for women’ and by another as ‘little four-poster beds with very short legs and curtains buttoned up all round to keep out the rain’.

Relatively few women ventured to India in the first half of the nineteenth century and those who did were frequently ‘in an interesting condition’ or staying at the hill-stations. At regimental balls, therefore there might be but six dancing ladies for every twenty-five men, so that he couples had to dance from one side, then on the other in the quadrilles until the fair few were quite exhausted. It was an artificial situation for both sexes that resulted in a number of hasty and ill-considered marriages, as Emily noted.

For the Eden sisters, elevated by their rank above situations of this sort, life retained its hectic tenor, relieved by the first visit to Simla in the summer of 1838. But come autumn, they were again doomed to the road for a ceremonial state visit to the ruler of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, at the town of Ferozepore in Ludhiana. The object of this visit was to ratify the terms of a new Sikh-British alliance which Macnaghten and other advisers had been negotiating during the summer. The earlier treaty between the two nations had bee made in 1809, soon after the ‘Lion of Lahore’ came to power. He ruled with masterful ferocity, his greatest strength the well-disciplined and efficient Sikh army which he used to increase his territories by conquest-including the capture of Peshawar across the River Indus that had formerly belonged to the Afghans.

Afghanistan, that was what it was all about–a cunning, virile, poverty-stricken, cynical country which refused to accept its geographical role as reliable buffer-state between the Middle-East and British India. In 1838 the Amir of Afghanistan was Dost Mahomed, an enterprising warrior of ambiguous allegiances who had battled to the top after a turbulent series of tribal plots, fights and counter-plots that followed the defeat of the former ruler, Shah Soojah (Shuja). Early in the century, Soojah (Shuja) had signed a treaty of friendship with the British-which stated that the two countries “shall in no manner interfere in each other’s countries”– and after his deposition,  the Shah had been in exile in Ludhiana under British protection.

When Lord Auckland went to India he was burdened with a secret directive from the East India Company’s committee of directors that the slippery state of Afghan affairs was to be looked into

“either to prevent an extension of Persian domination in that quarter or to raise a timely barrier against the imperial encroachment of Russian influence”.

Once settled in Calcutta, Auckland was further burdened with a great quantity of conflicting advice from his government members on the trustworthiness of Dost Mahomed, the actual intentions of the Persians and Russians about the north-west frontier and the true feelings of the Afghan themselves. Ignoring the last, Auckland made the most disastrous decision of his political career: that the most effective way to forestall Russian encroachment and secure the stability of Afghanistan was to restore the elderly but still aspiring Soojah (Shuja) to the throne of Kabul, and to do this by sending a military expedition made up of levies raised by the Shah, supported by British and Sikh forces.

After reaching that decision in the cool hills during the summer, G. issued a ‘Declaration on the Part of the Right Honorable Governor-General of India’ that became known as the Simla Manifesto, which set out justification for the proposed invasion of Afghanistan. It was an erroneous, distorted and hypocritical document (‘the welfare and happiness of the Afghans’ was, of course, the prime British objective), and it was severely criticized by all in London and Calcutta who had a true grasp of Afghan affairs. But Auckland was determined and, as his elder sister who knew him better than anyone else explained, it was impossible

“to get out of his Lordship’s head what had once been put into it”.

So that was why, in early November, it was away from Simla and back to the tents.  The cavalcade was rather less cumbersome because ‘all the women and other superfluous baggage’ had to be left behind. The only essential females were the Eden sisters and Mrs. Macnaghten. Emily had acquired some lovely bonnets that arrived just before she left the hills. She determined to save the finest one for Ferozepore, “to give Ranjit Singh some slight idea of what’s what in the matter of bonnets”.

Ranjit Singh drawn by Emily Eden (India Office Library)

What, if anything, Ranjit thought of Miss Eden’s bonnets is not on record; what she thought of him, when she first sat at his side on a gold sofa, is.

“Exactly like an old mouse, with grey whiskers and one eye. . . no jewels on whatever, nothing but the commonest red silk dress. He had two stockings on at first, which was considered an unusual circumstance; but he very soon contrived to slip one off, that he might sit with one foot in his hand, comfortably”-

she wrote that on the 29th November, the day after the first official encounter between the Sikhs and British who had spread their great camps over the plains on either side of the River Sutlej near Ferozepore. 

During the meeting there was the customary ceremonial exchange of presents, but on a particularly lavish scale. From Ranjit, Emily most admired

  • ‘a bed with gold legs, completely encrusted with rubies and emeralds’;

from the British, Ranjit crowed with delight over

  • seven horses,
  • two howitzers ornamented with the Punjabi Star and
  • his own profile, and a portrait of Queen Victoria that Emily had painted specially for him.

In practice, all presents received were immediately whisked away by the aides-de-camp and stored in treasure chests, some for later distribution to other rajahs, for it was an inflexible rule that none of the Company’s servants should receive and keep gifts from natives.

The initial meeting signalled the beginning of two weeks of frenetic ceremonial activity, with fireworks and balls, suppers and dancing girls, and military parades for each force to show the other how fit it was, all accompanied by salutes from Ranjit’s personalized howitzers. Even the more somber rituals of the church went splendidly and Wimberley gave many sermons so stirring that Ranjit sent for him to explain why the English congregated in such numbers every Sunday. Wimberley went, armed with translations of the Lord’s prayer and the Ten Commandments, which Emily thought,

must have been a puzzle- from not worshipping graven images down to not coveting his neighbour’s goods’.

For the Lion of Lahore had done a lot of successful neighborly- goods coveting in his time–after a promising start twenty year before, when he had wheedled the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond out of Shah Soojah (Shuja) under false pretenses. His love of a large glitter was still apparent in his heavily bejewelled Sikh followers.

At last, when everyone of any consequence was utterly surfeited with food, drink and splendor and Emily had seen so many emeralds, pearls and diamonds that she had quite lost any wish to possess them, the leaders of the two armies swore eternal friendship to each other and the camps were struck. For the Edens, it was a move towards another state occasion a Lahore, the Sikh capital; for the men of the Bengal Army it was a move towards the north-west frontier and the unknown perils of Afghanistan.

Featured image: The memsahibs do their shopping

By courtesy: Excerpts from: The Memsahibs by Pat Barr, Secker & Warburg London 1976




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