Travel Journal: Among the Savages

Emily Eden’s classic account of her travels in India is full of colonial disdain and hauteur, says William Dalrymple. It’s also waspish and witty – and an album of lithographs based on her drawings is exquisite.

One of the great surprises of the Raj was that it produced so little truly great literature. While Russia’s colonial history in Central Asia produced some of that country’s finest fiction, including Tolstoy’s Cossacks and his greatest short story, Hajji Murat, India was never central to British literature during the period when it was most important to Britain’s imperial self-image. The 350 years of contact between Britain and India resulted in a string of door-stopping monumental histories such as Orme’s History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan as well as at least two very fine novels – Kipling’s Kim and E.M. Forster’s Passage to India: a respectable, but still surprisingly slight body of work. The British came to India first to trade, then to rule; literary pursuits were never high on the agenda. Instead India is notable in its absence from the great British novels of the period. Indian characters flit through the pages of Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre and The Moonstone, but there is almost no mention of South Asia in the works of, say, Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Eliot or Hardy. Whatever the importance of India to Britain, the attention of British novelists, like that of the British public, was more inward-looking.
One great literary legacy the Raj did leave behind was acrop of very fine travel books, diaries and journals – notably the works of William Hickey, Fanny Parkes, Aldous Huxley and Robert Byron. Yet the jewel in that particular crown has always been awarded to Emily Eden’s journal of a journey from Calcutta to Simla in the winter of 1837 entitled Up the Country. The book was illustrated with a few of her own drawings, and these images became so popular that Emily later decided to publish an entire book of 24 lithographs of her sketches entitled Portraits of the Princes and People of India. An album of these was sold at Bonhams New Bond Street.
The irony is that while Emily Eden wrote one of the most waspish, witty and widely read accounts of Indian travels ever penned, and produced some of the most popular images of the period, she did not choose to come to India of her own volition, and never really liked or felt much sympathy with the country to which her name is now indelibly connected. Up the Country is, in many ways, the most exquisitely written record of colonial disdain and hauteur to come down to us. Yet the odd thing is that it is so well done that it is impossible not to laugh out loud while reading it: a guilty post-colonial pleasure.

Emily Eden came out to India in 1836 with her sister Fanny, two unmarried sisters to act as hostesses for their brother, George Eden, Lord Auckland, the newly appointed Governor General of India. A few months after their arrival, they planned a major expedition up the Ganges to the Himalayas, and it was this trip that Emily recorded with her sketches and observations. She travelled in state: “We went down on our elephants to see the advance guard of the camp pass over,” she wrote in a letter in England. “It was a red Eastern sky, the beach of the river was deep sand, and the river was covered with low flat boats. Along the bank were tents, camel-trunks, the fires by which the natives were cooking, and in the boats and waiting for them were 850 camels, 140 elephants, several hundred horses, the Body Guard, the regiment that escorts us, and the camp followers. They are about 12,000 in all.”

Emily Eden was effectively British India’s first lady and perfectly positioned to record the internal machinations of the British Empire at the very peak of its power: Queen Victoria had just come to the throne and Britain controlled a large proportion of the world’s economy – about 40 per cent – than it had ever done before, or would ever do again. It was a crucial moment in Britain’s imperial history. In the snows of the Himalayas and the deserts of Central Asia, the Great Game was just beginning as Britain and Russia squared up for control of the Himalayas; the opium trade was at its peak and a collision with Imperial China about to take place. In India itself, a major famine was starving much of the north.

Yet for all the attendants, the spectacle, the beauty of the Ganges and the monsoon-washed Bengali countryside, Emily was anything but happy with her situation. She had not wanted to come to India in the first place, feeling “a savage despair” when she first set sail, and she disliked her new home from the day her ship turned into the Hooghly River from the Bay of Bengal, and found itself becalmed. “I thought we should be coming home with our fortunes made by this time,” she wrote in irritation even before sighting Calcutta for the first time, “but… at last, by dint of very great patience and very little wind, we have arrived… We are surrounded by boats manned by black people, who, by some strange inadvertence, have utterly forgotten to put on any clothes whatsoever.” Later she was horrified by the elaborate ceremonial of Government House, as well as the vast number of attendants who followed her around, writing home about “the utter bewilderment in which I live… [it feels like] a constant theatrical representation going on around me…”

Lord Auckland was not much happier than his sister. George Eden was a clever and capable but somewhat unimaginative Whig nobleman. A confirmed bachelor of 51, he made little secret of how bored he was with the bourgeois civil servants and obsequious rajahs he was forced to mix with. Too diffident for politics in England, and a bad public speaker, he took the job of Governor General as it was the best administrative job available, though he knew or cared little for Indian history or civilisation. The trip Up the Country records did not change his mind: “G is already bored to death,” reported Emily after only a week. “Disgust is turning him yellow.” “George, cut off from his papers and office-boxes has a sort-of deposed Governor General feel which makes him impatient,” agreed Fanny. “He is growing rabid with his tent life, and scolds me every morning because the view is not prettier.”

Both the Eden sisters, meanwhile, were already irritated by Sir William Hay MacNaghten, their brother’s Political Secretary, and by his tiresome wife. In her diaries Emily depicts MacNaghten as a tiresome pedant, even by the standards of the British government in India. When Auckland asked the boat to stop at Buxar so he could jump ashore and take a look at the sight of the battleground where the British first defeated the Mughals, MacNaghten was reported by Emily to be “half mad… actually dancing about the deck with rage” at the breach of protocol. The following day in Ghazipur, the Edens “gave another shock to Mr MacNaghten’ constitution by going ashore without a single aide-de-camp or any other badge of a Governor General about George. When we get to camp we mean to reform and behave better, though as it is, it seems to me that we are always going to sailing about in a cloud of peacock’s feathers, silver sticks and golden umbrellas.”

Mrs MacNaghten, meanwhile, was busy trying to stop her Persian cat eating her parakeet – one ayah was employed solely to guard the bird – while worrying about being robbed by footpads creeping aboard the boat at night: “the previous year they broke into Mrs MacNaghten’s tent and stole all her clothes so that MacNaghten had to sew her up in a blanket and drive her to Benares for fresh things”.

The highlight of the trip for the entire Viceregal party was the great durbar held at Ferozepur that was organised to celebrate the launching of the First Afghan War which George had absent-mindedly decided to declare in August, soon after reaching Simla. The durbar brought together the elite regiments of British India and those of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Khalsa in a magnificent spectacle that was perhaps the closest thing the Raj managed to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. It also produced some of the most observant passages of Emily’s writing as well as what are undoubtedly her finest portraits, of the handsome Sikh soldiers and princes.

For once Emily was impressed: “Behind there was a large amphitheatre of elephants belonging to our own camp, or to the Sikhs, and thousands of Runjeets followers, all dressed in yellow or red satin, with quantities of their led horses trapped in gold and silver tissues, and all of them sparkling with jewels. I really never saw so dazzling a sight. Three or four Sikhs would look like Astley’s [Circus] broke loose, but this immense body of them saves their splendour from being melodramatic.” Compliments were exchanged by the leaders of both sides, and as Fanny reported to her sister in England, in response to a panegyric by Ranjit, “George made a most splashy answer, about their united armies conquering the world. You will be much taken aback, I guess, when they march hand in hand and take Motcombe.”

The following day, the army departed. The Army of the Indus consisting of 21,000 troops, accompanied by some 38,000 Indian camp followers, marched off to war with more than 30,000 camels: one brigadier needed 50 camels to carry his kit, while the ranking British army general took 260. Leading the way, were the Bengal division, which marched towards Afghanistan with its own pack of foxhounds. Next came Shah Shuja escorted by the newly enobled, Sir William MacNaghten, whom Auckland had chosen to lead the expedition and govern Afghanistan. It did not bode well for its success: “Poor MacNaghten should never have left the secretary’s office,” wrote one officer. “He is ignorant of men, even to simplicity, and utterly incapable of forming and guiding administrative measures. The judicial line would probably have best suited him, and then only in the court of appeal, judging only written evidence.”

Nor were the British troops much cause for optimism. According to General Nott, a farmer’s son who had had to work his way up without the benefit of patronage, “many young officers would as soon have thought of leaving behind their swords and double-barrelled pistols as march without their dressing cases, their perfumes, Windsor soap and eau de Cologne. One regiment has two camels carrying the best Manila cigars, while other camels carry jams, pickles, cheroots, potted fish, hermetically-sealed meats, plate, glass, crockery, wax-candles, table linen, &c.”

On the way in, the British faced only token resistance from Dost Mohammad, the Emir of Afghanistan. But after less than three years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers and Afghanistan exploded into violent rebellion. In the winter of 1841-2, MacNaghten was assassinated in Kabul. After a two-month siege, 18,500 cold, hungry and leaderless East India Company troops retreated through the icy passes in the middle of winter. One by one, they were shot down by the Afghans. Out of the 18,500-strong party that left Kabul, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison in Jellalabad. A handful of British officers and their wives were taken hostage; the rest were shot. Meanwhile, the Indian sepoys who made up the bulk of the army were either sold en masse into slavery in Central Asia, or disarmed, stripped naked, and left to perish in the snow. It was a denouement far removed from the glorious display at Ferozepur that had so impressed Emily Eden.

William Dalrymple’s new book, The Return of a King: Shah Shuja, the birth of the Great Game and the First Battle for Afghanistan will be published by Bloomsbury next spring.

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