Source : Google photo of a painting showing the 1857 rebellion in India.
Synopsis : Few people remember the colonial period of the British empire so most people pass by the forgotten cemeteries all over the empire where the British lay but that was the price they paid to rule the world in the distant past. The blog recounts their achievements and their sacrifices that most people have forgotten.
In my home town there is a cemetery for the British who died there since they arrived in India. There are many such cemeteries in my home town and all over India. One day I was passing by the cemetery and just out of curiosity went in because the beautiful monuments carved in pure white marble some with angels and others also decorated attracted my attention so I started reading the epitaphs of some of them.
The cemetery was full of weed and not maintained at all. Many epitaphs were broken and fallen down while the others had cracks in them so I was wondering what might be hiding in the grass and weeds that choked the monuments. Still I went in and was literally shocked to read some of the epitaphs.
One read “ In loving memory of Agnes, age 2 , who died in 1872 “ The other read “ in loving memory of Sarah, age 18 months , died in 1851 etc. There were so many of these graves where small children who died were buried and forgotten. I wonder if the living relatives of these children ever visited the grave site or knew about it because it happened so long ago.
I also wondered why and how so small beautiful British children died in India but the answer was staring at my face. They died of cholera, small pox, dysentery, malaria, simple heat exhaustion and many other causes that their tiny bodies could not cope with. Some were born in India and others had arrived with their parents from England.
Just across the street, there was another cemetery that was also for the British where many who served in India in the British colonial period died for one reason or other and are buried there. Cemeteries always depress me because no matter how much time passes, it always reminds you who is buried there, their names, their regiment, their home in Dorset or some other parts back in England and at what age they all died.
Many years later I passed by that road and noticed that the cemetery was clean and with a new decorative steel fence. There was a new drain by the side of the fence so the whole place looked better and well managed. May be there was someone in the municipal office who thought that it should be put to order even if the descendants of the dead have long forgotten them. I was happy to see the change.
The British came to India to do trade so they set up a company called East India Trading Company that got the permission to trade from a king several centuries ago so they set up trading posts in various parts of the huge country.
I heard the story that goes something like this. A Moslem ruler’s daughter was very sick and the traditional hakims had done all they could but the princess got worse so a British doctor offered to help cure the princess. At first there was opposition to it because no foreign man could enter the palace doctor or not but the king was desperate so the doctor was allowed to see the daughter. With his medicine and care the princess soon got well making the king very happy.
He said that the doctor could ask anything he desired and his wish will be granted but the doctor only asked king’s permission to trade in India. This was granted.
The British came to India to trade but stayed on to occupy most of the country in the name of the British Queen. They recruited locals into their army and trained them well to fight numerous wars that they always won and gradually expanded their hold on the country. They also created the huge civil service that recruited young British men from England to serve in numerous capacity throughout the country and as officers to organize, train and open up many military posts.
They are still called cantonments and can be found in the outskirts of any major city in India. They also needed numerous Indians to serve under their British officers as clerks, accountants etc. My father thus served as an accountant and was posted in many parts of India.
This blog is not about the colonial history of India but I wanted to write about the price the British paid to stay in India for so long. Very few people write about it or even look at those cemeteries because it is a forgotten chapter in the Indian history. It may even be a forgotten chapter in the British colonial history back in England because it was so long ago. All the principal actors of that period are dead so people in England and India have moved on since the independence.
I have written earlier that all the statues of British people have been removed and all the British names have been changed that I used to see as a child on road signs. There is hardly any trace left of their long history and presence in India except the roads, railway bridges they built, the institutions and universities they set up, the judicial system that they patterned after the English system , the laws they enacted, the modern medicine they brought in, the medical colleges they set up, the telegraph posts that you see along the rail lines for thousands of miles all remind you of their legacy today.
Kolkata that was called Calcutta in those days became their capital where they built wide boulevards, brought in trams and gas lamps to light the streets and made it the grandiose well planned city that became the seat of the British Empire.
But Bengal had a ruler called Siraj Ud Daula who had a huge army that gave the British a fight in the field of Plassey where a lot of blood was spilled on both sides. Siraj Ud Daula was defeated at that battle due to the treachery of his general Mir Jafar at the last moment who had connived with the British. But what led to the battle of Plassey was the incident in Fort Williams in Kolkata where 147 British who were imprisoned by the Nawab died of suffocation in the dungeon that was called the black hole. The year was 1757.
The British blood had already started to spill but the worst was yet to come.
The 1857 mutiny and general uprising:
One hundred years later the British faced their first great challenge to rule India. This time the challenge came from the soldiers in the British Army who were all Indians .Only the officers were British. The uprising against the British rule started in Kolkata and rapidly spread to Allahabad, Meerut, Kanpur, Lucknow, Delhi and other cities which took the British completely by surprise. They were not prepared to face such a great challenge.
The Lucknow Residency :
In this place in Lucknow , thousands of British men , women and children took shelter but they were completely surrounded by the rebel troops who bombarded the building from all sides and killed hundreds of British inside.
I have been to the Residency (governor’s palace) in Lucknow and showed my wife the ruins. It gives you chills to even look at that building where so many British people died. Those who hid there soon ran out of food, water and medicines. The wounded died of their wounds but the shelling continued until practically nothing was left of the grand palace. You can stare at the bullet scarred walls today and imagine what took place there in 1857.
The propaganda that India got its independence through nonviolent means of Gandhi was a lie that the world still believes in but the fight for independence had started long ago and continued violently throughout the colonial period culminating in the formation of the Indian National Army by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in 1938 in Singapore that put the final nail in the British coffin. Gandhi had nothing to do with it.
The British reprisal that eventually put down the mutiny or uprising was brutal. They hanged scores of people everywhere while mourning the loss of their countrymen and women. No one really knows how many British died in that war in 1857 but the numbers were high judging from the siege of the Residency in Lucknow. One well in Kanpur was stuffed with the bodies of British people.
This is the price they paid to stay in India for another 90 years and finally left in 1947. Atlee confirmed that it was the pressure from the INA of Bose that made them leave and not because of the hunger strikes of Gandhi. World War II was catastrophic for England so they could not face such a challenge from Bose at that time so cut their losses and left.
But the long stay of the British in India laid the foundation of a modern state so that legacy can’t be denied. They did it to enrich their country is a fact but they spent heavily on infrastructure development and brought the country into the modern word of the 19th century with the technology they had at that time.
In the process they made sacrifices and died in large numbers like in the dungeon of Fort Williams in Kolkata and in the Residency of Lucknow or elsewhere.
The young British men served in India either as civilians or in the army as officers but it was never easy for them to acclimatize in the sweltering heat and mosquitos of India so they developed hill stations like Musoori, Darjeeling and Shimla in the north where they stayed during the summer months. Those who stayed in the plains suffered the heat and diseases that caused those cemeteries to be filled up everywhere. I think women and children paid the highest price as is evident in those epitaphs I read.
Coming from England, they found India to be an utterly bewildering country that took some time for them to adjust to so they took comfort in staying with their own kind and not mixing with the locals. They formed their own clubs for social activities and they established their own church and schools. The movie Passage to India shows the trouble the British had in India and is worth seeing.
India was a feudal country before the British arrived. There were so many independent kingdoms whose kings and queens built huge forts all over India because of the threat of war from their neighbors. The fort in my home town is massive but there are hundreds of more massive forts built all over the country.
The British subdued these kings and collected taxes from them. These kingdoms were eliminated only after the independence in 1947 by the new government of India but their palaces and forts remain as a testament to India’s glorious past.
What no one writes or talks about is what price the British paid to come to India and make it the jewel in their crown. What is sad is that not a single monument or name remains now anywhere in India of all those British who lived and many who died except in the broken epitaphs in a forgotten cemetery somewhere that no one visits or cares for. Is that all their long occupation amounted to?