The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!

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The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

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According to William Dalrymple, all the problems of the world are due to Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. And no, he wasn’t talking about today – he was talking about the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  Let’s say that this isn’t the most balanced and unbiased view of events that I’ve ever read!  He makes some good points, though, and a lot of the writing is quite gripping – not always easy to achieve when writing about military events.  And he’s used some previously unpublished information which he came across whilst doing his research.

Dalrymple is also the author of White Mughals, about a relationship (a true story) between a British man and an Indian noblewoman, and he clearly feels very strongly about the changes in British attitudes towards Indian people as the 19th century went on, and links that closely to changes in religious culture.  This was something I also mentioned when I was waffling about the Who Do You Think You Are? Episode about Olivia Colman’s mixed race ancestor – welcomed into the family and British society, in the early 19th century, in a way which she sadly wouldn’t have been a few decades later.   There was definitely a change in attitudes, and it certainly wasn’t for the better.

The book’s actually supposed to be about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor – as the title suggests. Also an Urdu poet and a Sufi mystic.  You associate the Mughal Empire with the 16th and 17th centuries, and tend almost to forget that there was still a Mughal Emperor, even if his rule was confined just to parts of Delhi, until the Mutiny.  Popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims, he was, at the age of 81, proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan by the mutineers … and he dithered whilst 52 Westerners were murdered at his palace, and then pretty much took the blame.  A British major then executed two of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Many other male members of his family were also executed by the British – it reads a bit like the Bolsheviks wiping out the Romanovs – and, according to Dalrymple, many of the women ended up working as prostitutes.  Zafar was exiled to Burma.  And Delhi was wrecked.

It was not the British Empire’s finest hour – although an amnesty was proclaimed for all mutineers not actually involved in murder.  It should also be noted that the press didn’t help, by exaggerating what had gone on, particularly with false claims about mutineers sexually assaulting British women.  The press in the second half of the 19th century seem to have been very good at whipping up hysteria: they did the same in the 1870s, during the Russo-Turkish War.

And, as we all know, the rule of the East India Company was then replaced by the British Raj – although it should be pointed out that large areas of India remained under the control of local rulers, and also that a royal proclamation was issued, promising Indians under British rule the rights of British subjects.

The Mutiny’s covered in two of my all-time favourite books, God is an Englishman (retrospectively) by R F Delderfield and A Dark and Distant Shore by Reay Tannahill.   Both make it clear that there was horrific violence on both sides – and that’s where I think Dalrymple could do with seeing both sides a little more clearly.  He does follow the experiences of a number of British people, men and women, in Delhi during the Mutiny, and he does make it clear that some of them were murdered, but he doesn’t seem to express the same horror about that as he does about the atrocities committed by the British forces.  Two wrongs, especially two such horrific wrongs, do not in any way make a right; but it is important to recognise that there was wrong on both sides.  His view doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and a lot of that seems due to his conviction that relations between the British and the Indians went wrong because of Evangelical Christianity.

He does also deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, so maybe he has it in for religious extremism in general. It’s hard to argue with anyone on that score!   But his argument seems to be everything that was going wrong revolved around cultural changes in British attitudes towards India, associated with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, whereas there were all sorts of different reasons for the Mutiny.  And, yes, I know that not everyone uses the term “Mutiny”, but it’s the one I’m used to.

Going back to God is an Englishman and A Dark and Distant Shore, neither of them – and obviously they’re novels, not academic books – focus on Delhi.  Books by British authors do usually focus on Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow and the sufferings of British civilians there, but this one does very much focus on Delhi, and the Indian viewpoint.  I’m saying “Indian”, but obviously we’re talking about a subcontinent of three major religions and many different ethnic groups, and that needs to be borne in mind.

The cause I first remember reading about was the use of beef and pork fat on cartridges used to grease guns. Soldiers had to bite the cartridges open.  What a stupid, insensitive thing to do – upsetting both Hindus and Muslims, and it could so easily have been avoided by using goat or mutton fat.  But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was so much else going on.  Interference in religion and culture, yes.  Fears that attempts would be made to make mass conversions to Christianity, yes.  Economic policy – free trade is a wonderful thing, but not when it interferes with local traditional ways of doing things.  The Doctrine of Lapse, by which the British authorities helped themselves to princely states with no direct heir, refusing to recognise the traditional practice of adopting an heir in such circumstances.  And it wasn’t called the Mutiny for nothing – there was widespread discontent in the Army, over pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, and, as British holdings in India expanded, men being sent further and further afield.

So it was hardly all about religious/cultural ideas.  And it’s pushing it to suggest, as Dalrymple does, that Evangelical Christians were making all the decisions about British policy in India, and I also think it’s pushing it to say that Evangelical Christians were to blame for all the negative aspects of imperialism … even if it does make a change from the often-made suggestion that British attitudes towards Indians changed for the worse when more British women began going to India, which is very objectionable!  A lot of the trouble in China was caused by Catholic missionaries, rather than Evangelicals, incidentally.  And the people who did look at expansion and imperialism as some sort of religious thing were part of a wider culture of Western-centrism, which was about race and industrialisation as much as it was about religion.  It’s the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing.  And the American term “Manifest Destiny” goes right back to just before the Mexican War.  It’s horrible, and it’s frightening, but it went way beyond religious activism.

These people did actually mean well, I suppose. And, as much as it’s easy to criticise their ideas of cultural superiority, you can see why they thought that, for example, trying to end the practice of widows committing suicide was a good thing.   This still goes on today.  Should people be criticised for trying to end Female Genital Mutilation, which is a traditional practice in some areas? And David Cameron was accused of cultural imperialism when he quite rightly criticised the very poor record of some Commonwealth countries on LGBT rights – ironically, a subject on which Evangelical Christians would probably oppose change in the countries concerned.   All cultures can learn from other cultures. Look how many English words have come from Urdu and Hindi. We use some of them every day. Shampoo. Pyjamas. But that has to come in the right way, and that wasn’t what was happening in 19th century India.

I can’t abide preachy people who think they have the right to tell other people what to do, and who think that they’re morally and culturally superior to others. Thinking about missionaries in India always makes me think about St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, one of the most annoying characters in classic literature – and that says a lot!  And some of the stuff coming out of the US at the moment is genuinely frightening.  But I do think Dalrymple’s a bit hard on them.  It’s worth remembering that Evangelicals played an important role in Abolitionism … although don’t get me started on the subject of William Wilberforce opposing holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  And the negative side of colonialism and imperialism was scarcely all their fault.  There were a lot of other factors at play.  Power politics.  The Mutiny broke out the year after the end of the Crimean War: the two things weren’t linked, but there was always “the Great Game” to be thought about.  Money – let’s never forget money!    Well, trade.  If only everyone had stuck to thinking about trade!

We do all need to try harder to see different sides of everything.  That’s becoming more and more of a rarity: increasingly, people will shout down anyone whose views differ from theirs, and hurl insults at them.  I recently read an obituary of Senator John McCain which referred to the respect that he and Barack Obama showed for each other.  Fewer and fewer politicians show that respect towards opponents now, and it’s the same with the press, and, in many cases, with people in general.

Back to the Mutiny. Was it Niall Ferguson who said that Britain somehow ended up with “the wrong empire”?  We were supposed to be after trade, not colonies and certainly not all this “white man’s burden” stuff.  There’d been criticism in Britain for years of Spanish behaviour in Latin America, all the “Black Legend” stuff.  Was the Mutiny the point at which it changed?

There’s a lot to think about, in this book, beyond the actual events of 1857-58. Poor old Zafar himself.  The final end of the Mughal period – that great Empire, the Empire of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and, for so many years, religious harmony.  What happens to emperors after their empires have gone?  Zafar only lived a few years afterwards, and the senior Romanovs were wiped out, but spare a thought for the various Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns and others still dotted around the world.  And, finally, back to the question of Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists – and add the religious right-wing elements of Judaism, Hinduism and other religions into that as well.   One of the few good things that Oliver Cromwell did for this country was to show people that religious extremism is best kept out of politics.  It usually is, here.  It’s a great shame that that isn’t the case everywhere.

Nobody can agree on the Indian Mutiny.  Mutiny?  War of independence?  Either way, you can’t argue that it wasn’t a big deal.  However, that’s usually seen in terms of the change from the rule of the East India Company to the rule of the British Crown – and, yes, that was the main effect, but the fact that it did finally end the Mughal Empire, even if the “Mughal Empire” was by then only one part of one city, deserves recognition too, and that’s what this book was about.  Even if it did go on rather too much about religious attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Passage to Britain II, Polish refugees in India – BBC 2

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There’s been a sizeable Polish community in Manchester, as in many other parts of the UK, since the war. I’ve always been aware of that, right back to when I was at primary school and some of the other kids there had Polish names.  And I knew that there’d been Polish Displaced Persons camps in the UK, one of the largest being at Delamere Park near my mum’s home town of Northwich.  But I have to say that I knew very little about Polish wartime refugees coming to the UK via India; and I don’t think that the makers of this rather interesting series did either, until they came across this sad but fascinating story whilst looking into immigration from India to Britain in the immediate post-war era.

I got the impression that Yasmin Khan – who would be a good presenter if she didn’t seem so keen to present Britain in as negative a light as possible – was expecting to find that most of those sailing on the Asturias, the ship featured in the second programme, in late 1947 were fleeing the horrific violence associated with Partition.  That’s what I’d have been expecting too.  (I did also think we might get a few British people/families who’d spent their entire working lives in India returning to the UK to make a new start in a “home” that they didn’t really know, but we didn’t.)

There were certainly people leaving because of Independence and or Partition. Some of those featured were Sikhs: Partition was about Hindus and Muslims but, especially with most of the violence being in the north, so many Sikhs suffered terribly.  There was a rather nice reference by one Sikh man to his father having previously spent time in Britain in the 1930s and having worked as a market trader alongside Jewish market traders in the East End of London, two religious minority groups together.

There were also a number of Anglo-Indians, a community which tends to be overlooked when discussing this period of history. It’s a confusing term, because “Anglo-Indian” originally meant white British people living in India, with people of mixed heritage being descrived as “Eurasian” – but then, somehow, the meanings changed, and “Anglo-Indian” came to mean people of mixed heritage.  As with so many stories of immigration over the years, there were some sad tales of skilled workers having to take whatever work they could get, often with little relevance to the skills and experience they’d brought with them – but, alongside that, inspiring tales of building up successful businesses.

The part of the programme that most caught the attention, though, was the part focussing on the Polish people travelling on the ship, because it just wasn’t what either the presenter or the viewers would have been expecting.

After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union led to the Soviets joining the war on the Allied side, the Soviets deported large numbers of people, possibly as many as a million, from Soviet-occupied parts of Poland to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. During a temporary amnesty in mid to late 1942, many of those people were able to leave, but it was a long and arduous journey, through Persia.  Some of the young men went into the Polish Armed Forces in Exile.  Civilians, mostly women and children, were taken to various places, mostly parts of the British Empire and the Dominions; and India played a large part in this.

Within India, various authorities were involved – the British colonial authorities, the Polish consul general in Bombay/Mumbai and his wife, and the royal families of some of the princely state. The Maharajah of Nawanagar played a particularly important role: he unfortunately didn’t get a mention in this programme, but I’ve been reading a bit about him.  He set up a camp for Polish refugee children, and there’s a school named after him in Warsaw, and also a “Good Maharajah Square”.  The Maharajah of Kolhapur also set up a camp for Polish refugee children.

We didn’t hear about the maharajahs’ camps, but we did hear how Polish communities were established in India, and we saw pictures of Polish shops and Polish dancing there. Some of the Polish refugees settled in India and spent the rest of their lives there, but the programme was about people coming from India to Britain and, along with many other Poles – there seem to have been about 250,000 in all – who ended up in Britain after the war, the people interviewed had settled here, not wanting to go back to a Poland which by then was under communist rule.

There are so many little-known stories about groups of people displaced during or after the Second World War. Even now, the stories of Stalin’s deportations of the Chechens and the Crimean Tatars aren’t well-known in the West.  Then there were the Germans forced to leave the Breslau area, now Polish Wroclaw … and the repopulation of Wroclaw by Poles who left Lviv/Lvov/Lviv/Lemberg when it became part of Soviet Ukraine.  Just a few examples.  It’s thought that around 1,000 Poles came to Britain via India.

This programme’s hopefully drawn attention to their story – and it’s fascinating how historical research can lead you down paths that you hadn’t set off to go down, and teach you about something that you hadn’t been looking for. You look for stories about people fleeing the violence of Partition between India and Pakistan, and stumble across stories of people deported from Soviet-occupied Poland.  And, amid all the evils of those times, there were wonderful people like those two maharajahs who set up camps for refugee children from a faraway land.  I feel quite bad that I didn’t know about the history of Polish wartime refugees in India.  I’m glad that I do now.

A Passage to Britain – BBC 2

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about historical immigration to the UK and, with the upsurge in interest in genealogy making personalised history very appealing at the moment, the idea of tracing the lives of passengers on ships travelling from India to Britain in three different decades sounded fascinating. It would have been a lot better had it concentrated more on telling their stories and less on trying to score socio-political points; but it certainly had its moments and was well worth watching.

The first episode used the passenger lists from the voyages of the P&O ship Viceroy of India, a rather luxurious liner, in 1933 and 1935.  Immigration from India to the UK is generally associated with the post Second World War era, so this sounded like it might throw up some particularly interesting stories.  At least, Yasmin Khan, the presenter, said that she was looking for stories about Indian (which at the time would obviously have included people from the areas which are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) people settling in the UK; but only three of the six people whose stories were explored actually fitted that category, so I’m not quite sure why she said it.

Maybe she said it because, at the beginning of the programme, it was a convenient way of dismissing the many schoolchildren and university students who were amongst the passengers. Students at schools, universities and other further education institutions made up a third of the Indian population of the UK in the 1930s, and – as an avid reader of school stories! – I’d like to have heard about the experiences of some of them.  Especially the girls, given that four of the five passengers we did hear about were male.

But they were ignored on the grounds that most of them went home afterwards –which would have been fair enough had the programme actually been all about Indian people staying in the UK. Maybe I’m being unduly cynical, but it was hard not to feel that they didn’t get a look-in because most of them would have been from the royal families of the princely Indian states, which weren’t under British rule, and that the BBC didn’t think that the avocado-eaters of Islington, or whoever it is that they try to appeal to these days, wanted to hear about them.  On a posh ship like that, you’d think there’d also have been plenty of adults from princely families, heading off to enjoy a whirl of glamorous social engagements in London and maybe then the French Riviera, and (I read Hello! magazine as well as school stories) I’d rather have like to have heard about them too … but nary a mention did they get.

Oh well!   The one student we did hear about had a very interesting story, as it happened.  The idea of the programme was to trace the passengers’ surviving relatives and follow the stories with them, and the son of this man was under the impression that his dad had come to London to take the Indian Civil Service exams, failed them, and not returned to India because of the shame.  Instead, it turned out that he’d become involved with the independence movement and that his parents had sent him away because they thought they were keeping him out of trouble.  He was so angry that he never spoke to them again.  You wonder why he never told his family about this, but evidently he didn’t.

The BBC tried to make out that this was all about the evils of empire, but I don’t think that that was entirely the right angle to come at. Clearly it was about the Indian independence movement, but it was also part of a wider pattern – a story, and you can find so many similar stories in the history of pretty much every country in the world, about the people who are involved in trying to overthrow a foreign and or tyrannical regime, or to work for change within that regime; and the people, generally the older generations, who either don’t want change or are frightened of the possible consequences of working against the powers that be.  What an intriguing story – and what a shame that this man’s relatives had thought all these years that the reason he’d stayed in Britain was because he was ashamed of failing some exams.  I hope they were really pleased to learn the real story.

Next up was Mulk Raj Anand, the writer. Of course, the BBC had to make out that the focus of his writings was, you guessed it, the evils of empire, whereas he also wrote a lot of important works about the sufferings of the Untouchables under the Indian caste system.  They also ignored his journalistic work during the Spanish Civil War.  Now there is a subject that deserves a documentary series – the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War!   He was someone who was in favour of change in many ways and many places – yes, Indian independence, but a lot more than that.  We heard a bit about his unsuccessful marriage to a British woman, and there was a nice personal touch with his niece talking about his recipes for curry!

The third person discussed was the only woman of the five – an ayah to a British family. They didn’t seem to have been able to find any of her relatives, but the baby of the family for whom she’d worked was still alive.  He’d been on the ship as well, possibly the only passenger from either of those voyages still alive.  The poor ayah had had to travel third class, whilst the family had been in the posh part.  There wasn’t much information about her, though: the family had paid for her to return to India once the children were older, and the BBC tried to make out that she’d been hard done by, but surely, unless she’d worked for someone like the Earl of Grantham, a nanny would have expected her employment to be terminated once the children were all at school?   It was pretty horrible that they’d refused to pay for her to have a decent cabin on the ship, but, sadly, par for the course, whether the servants were Indian or British.

The family themselves were very interesting. I got the impression that the BBC had hoped they’d be some very snooty types, the way people usually envisage the British in India – think all those people at the club in A Passage to India – and very definitely coming from British India, but it transpired that the dad was a jockey who’d been working for a maharajah.  So we got to hear a bit about the glamorous lives of princely families after all, hooray!  (Sorry, too much Hello! magazine!)  The surviving passenger had some lovely stories to tell about the relationship between his family and his father’s employers, and the good times they’d had there.

None of this really had much to do with the establishment of Indian communities in Britain, though. No problem with that – it was all very interesting – but why make out that that was what the programme was about, when it wasn’t?!   And the next passenger certainly wasn’t Indian: he was the gloriously named Sir Lancelot Graham, the first governor of Sind.  And his grandson lives in Altrincham!  The BBC seemed keen to push the snooty angle, going on about how Sir Lancelot had been to a public school and then to Oxford, but his grandson made a point about how hard the exams were and how hard his grandfather had had to work to pass them.

I think a lot of us are guilty of thinking of the imperial service in general, not just in India, as some sort of old boys’ club where getting a top job wasn’t so much what you knew as who you knew, but it’s probably not very fair to think like that, certainly by the 1930s. Er, yes, and the last viceroy was the king’s second cousin and the uncle of the future queen’s intended!   OK, OK!

It moved into Children of the Raj territory then, with the Altrincham-dwelling grandson explaining that his father hadn’t been on the ship because he had at that time been at boarding school in Britain, and talking about the difficulties faced by families because of the system of sending children to school in Britain whilst their parents remained in India.  That possibly wasn’t what the BBC had been after, but it was a fair point.  It can be hard now to sympathise with adults who made that choice, although it’s very easy to sympathise with the children, who weren’t given any choice; but times were different then, and the separation can’t have been easy for anyone.

Finally, we did actually get back to what was supposed to be the point, Indian immigration to Britain – with the life of a man, a lawyer, who’d come from India and settled, not in an urban area of the UK, as might have been expected, but in a rural area of Essex, and had married a white British woman. We were told that there were around three thousand marriages between Indian men and white British women in the 1930s, probably more than might have been expected.  At a time when levels of racial tolerance left a lot to be desired, and when religious intermarriage even between Protestants and Catholics was frowned on, this marriage hadn’t gone down very well with either family.  Even now, there are so many cases of families being unwilling to accept someone’s choice of partner: we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

It was also sad to hear, from one of the couple’s descendants, about the abuse that the children had suffered at school, from the teachers as well as the other kids. In that area, at that time, the man who’d travelled on the ship was the only Asian person, and that must have been very difficult.  The idea was mooted last year about every council in the country being asked to take a small number of Syrian immigrants, rather than large groups of people settling in a small number of areas, and you can see where the authorities were coming from from a financial and practical viewpoint, but that sort of thing just doesn’t work.  It must have been so hard to have been the only Indian person, the only non-white person, in a community that doesn’t seem to have been overly welcoming.

Also, the family’s surname had been changed, to something that sounded English. That, in my experience, is very unusual for a family with Indian sub-continental heritage: it happens more with surnames associated with other parts of Europe. I doubt we’ll be seeing that again in the later episodes.

All in all, quite a mixed bag of stories. I’m not sure what the programme was actually hoping to show – the BBC always seems to have to have an agenda with everything these days, and it’s rather annoying –  and I’m not sure that it showed what it hoped to, but it was certainly interesting.  I suppose they don’t want to overlap too much with Who Do You Think You Are?, but I wonder if this could be done with other groups of immigrants to the UK as well – maybe go back to the 1680s (possibly not with ships’ passenger lists, but there’ll be some records available), when there were Huguenots moving to the British Isles (I can’t really say “Britain” pre-1707!) from France, and both Protestants and Jews from the United Provinces (the Netherlands), and work forward from there?

As I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about immigration to the UK – and I’m talking history, not current affairs and certainly not politics.   And this personalised history does seem to be very popular at the moment.   Great idea for a documentary series.

Who Do You Think You Are? (Olivia Colman) – BBC 1

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Some episodes of this are better than others; and this, kicking off the new series, was a particularly good one. OK, technically the series started with the Michelle Keegan episode, which was also interesting, but that was shown weeks ago!   The Olivia Colman episode not only included some fascinating “human interest” stories, about the eventful lives of the ancestors of someone who’d said that she hadn’t expected to find too much drama in her family tree, but took us back to the lives of the British in pre-Mutiny India, something we don’t hear nearly enough about.

The Victorians cast a very long shadow, and, given their achievements, rightly so. But that does mean that the attitudes of Georgian times aren’t given enough attention: there can be the idea that the views of “the past” mean the views of the mid to late Victorians.  And Georgian times were very different.  Take Jane Austen’s novels.  Lydia Bennet runs off with Mr Wickham, and lives with him before they’re married.  Maria Rushworth, nee Bertram, leaves her husband and runs off with Henry Crawford.  We hear all about Willoughby’s history of seducing young women – and Wickham wasn’t behind the door in that department either.  Emma’s friend Harriet is “the natural daughter of Someone”.  It’s a long way from the Victorians covering piano legs because even pianos weren’t allowed to show their legs in public!

Then there were attitudes on race and colonialism. It’s a controversial area, and one which it would take hours to go into properly.  But, in the second half of the 19th century, it probably wasn’t very likely that a well-to-do British family would have taken in the mixed race daughter of one of its scions.  The illegitimate mixed race daughter.  Whereas that’s exactly what happened with Olivia Colman’s great-great-great-grandmother, Harriot Slessor – born in a remote part of India in 1807, half a century before the Mutiny, to a British officer and his Indian mistress.

Sadly, her father died when she was only three, and we don’t know what happened to her mother, but Olivia learnt that Harriot’s grandmother had sent for her, paid for her passage to Britain, and given her everything she could. She was nicknamed “India Harriot”: there seems to have been no attempt to cover up her mixed heritage, as there perhaps would have been later on.  Think Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame.  OK, what happened to Harriot was only one person’s experience, but it was … well, I was going to say a lovely one, but it was actually rather sad in parts.  Although she was going to a loving family, it was to a strange country and people she didn’t know.  And then her first husband, whom she met on board a ship going back to India, died shortly after their marriage.

It was suggested that her mixed heritage made it difficult for her to find a husband in England, so not everyone was as open-minded as the Slessor family were, but she did marry twice, both to white British men. She and her second husband remained in India for many years, and then retired to the Home Counties, where they lived a comfortable life.  He presumably made money in India and was from a comfortable background anyway, and she inherited a considerable sum of money from a great-aunt.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered her family in the slightest that she was illegitimate or that she was of mixed race.  OK, this was only one person’s experience, and doesn’t necessarily typify the attitudes of the time, but I think it’s a very Georgian/early Victorian story, and I think Harriot’s upbringing may well have been very different had she been born sixty years later.   Thankfully for her, she wasn’t.

I’m not knocking the Victorians, but the image we have of the British in India tends to be that of the later Victorians, and of the first half of the 20th century, and it’s not always very positive, especially in today’s socio-political climate. Books like E M Forster’s A Passage to India perhaps have a lot to do with that.  And the pre-Mutiny British in India tend to be seen as idiots, like Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair.  Stories like that of Harriot Slessor can tell us a lot, and show us that maybe we need to rethink some of the common ideas and images about the British in India.  As the lady who showed Olivia round the area where Harriot was born pointed out, there were many relationships between British men and Indian women back then. Obviously there are books like White Mughals, about mixed race romances, about the 18th century, but it’s still the image of the clubs and the hill stations in late Victorian and early 20th century times that dominate.

There was a lot more in this programme, too. Harriot’s second husband’s father, Olivia’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, had accused his first wife of adultery, and then been granted not only a legal separation but the right to remarry – to a woman with whom he already had two children.  The two children born before their marriage were treated exactly the same as those born after their marriage – and this was in a very middle-class family.  Again, very Georgian!

We also heard about Harriot’s grandmother, also Harriot, and how she’d spent a lot of time in Porto, where her soldier husband was based.   From a human interest viewpoint, we heard – how wonderful to be able to read your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s letters! – about her sadness at leaving her elderly mother behind in Britain, and her sons at British boarding schools … something else we associate with Victorian and early twentieth century times, and which we need to remember went back well before that.  It was also a reminder of the longstanding bond between England/Britain and the very lovely city of Porto, and the very lovely country of Portugal generally.  Harriot’s husband was in the army, whereas a lot of the Brits based in Porto were there because of the port wine, but that’s another story!

Finally, we learnt that the elder Harriot’s mother had been born in Paris and come to Britain as a Huguenot refugee. That was well into the 18th century, so long after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the main wave of Huguenot emigration from France to the British Isles and elsewhere, but that just went to show that the issue of religion in France continued to be an issue even into the 1720s/1730s.  The distant relative who told Olivia about their common ancestor made the point that the Huguenots were the first group of people to be termed “refugees”.  This was right at the end of the programme, and we didn’t hear very much about this lady, but the whole subject of people moving around between England, Scotland, Ireland, France  and Low Countries, over a long period from the middle of the 16th century to the start of the 18th century – in fact, the middle of the 18th  century, if you include the people who left Scotland after Culloden – for religious and political reasons, often linked, is fascinating, and something we don’t hear enough about.

Mostly it was fairly small groups of people, but around 50,000 Huguenots came to the British Isles. Their influence on the textile and cutlery-making industries here, and the watch-making industry in Switzerland, was just immense.  Britain and Switzerland’s gain, and France’s loss.  There was quite a lot of immigration at that time – people moved from the Netherlands to Britain with William of Orange, and they included Jews as well as Protestants.  And, in 1709, 13,000 migrants from Germany – dubbed “the Palatines” as some of them came from the Palatinate – arrived in Britain, claiming that they were refugees, but it turned out that a lot of them were economic migrants, and there were social issues because most of them were poor and unskilled, many of them were Catholics when they’d claimed to be Protestants fleeing persecution.  There was a big row over immigration policy, and the difference between refugees and economic migrants …  some things don’t change!

But the Huguenot immigration does generally seem to have gone really well, and it would’ve been interesting to hear more about Olivia’s Huguenot ancestor.  However, you can only fit so much into an hour’s episode, and the story of her Eurasian (Anglo-Indian originally meant “British living in India”, with “Eurasian” being the term for someone of mixed heritage) great-great-great-grandmother and how well her life turned out was absolutely fascinating.  And Olivia had had no idea that her family had any connection with India at all.  Who knows what there might be in anyone’s family history that they have no idea about?  It’s just great when this programme can uncover something completely unexpected like that.  Wonderful episode.

Great Indian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Having watched Michael Portillo’s railway programmes from the off, I’m really chuffed (pun intended) that they’ve proved so successful. You wouldn’t believe that a series involving a garishly-dressed ex-politician going around on trains could be quite so entertaining, but it really is: he does an absolutely fantastic job.  Of course, it helps that he gets to go to such interesting places, and this time’s it’s India, with a copy of Bradshaw’s 1913 Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel.

Just as an aside, I’d quite like to see a programme about George Bradshaw himself, the man who, although he died sixty years before the publication of the 1913 guides, initiated the Bradshaw’s Guides, in 1839. He definitely sounds like my kind of person: he was born in Pendleton, was associated with the Anti Corn Law League, and did a lot of work in promoting education amongst the working-classes of Manchester and setting up soup kitchens for those in need.  Definitely deserves at least one episode about his own life!

Back to India. This first episode saw Michael travelling from Amritsar, home of the glorious Sikh Golden Temple, to Shimla (formerly known as Simla), which was the summer capital of the British Raj from 1864 to 1947.  All under beautiful blue skies!   The Golden Temple complex, which apparently received around 100,000 visitors a day, was absolutely stunning.  You rarely see a pool/lake at a religious site.  I suppose that’s because they’re usually in city centres.  What a beautiful complex – but, as Michael pointed out, the temple itself, for all that it was so gloriously golden, was actually quite small, and was reached by stepping down from the buildings on either side of it: despite being golden, it symbolised humility.  I’d never really thought of that before.  And it had an enormous free canteen, where all visitors could get a free meal.  I’ve come across places where pilgrims are supposed to get free meals, but the idea of providing free refreshments to all visitors, rather than directing them to tea rooms charging extortionate prices, was rather lovely.  I really liked that.

Of course, he couldn’t have gone to the Golden Temple without mentioning the horrific massacre which took place in the neighbouring Jallianwala Bagh garden in 1919, probably the most shameful moment in the history of the British Raj. I thought he might also have mentioned the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, but, especially given their association with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, maybe that would have been too politically controversial.

Then it was on to Ludhiana – and he got a free cup of tea on the train. Yay!!  Free cups of tea all round, please.  Mind you, if it tastes like the disgusting apology for tea that Virgin Rail provide on the Manchester to London trains, maybe not!  Hopefully the stuff on Indian trains is better 🙂 . In Ludhiana, we got to see a more positive side of the legacy of the Raj – a medical school founded by a female British missionary doctor in the 1890s, with the aim of training women to be doctors and midwives at a time when female medical personnel in India were in very short supply and cultural taboos made it difficult for women to seek treatment from male medics.  I’m afraid I don’t have a particularly positive image of missionaries, because I find it hard not to think of them as being like St John Rivers in Jane Eyre – arrogant men who were convinced that their religion was better than everyone else’s and that it was their mission to go around trying to convert people – and so it was heartening to hear about someone who had made such a positive contribution to another country and culture.  It’s not something you often hear about, in anything about the Raj.  It’s usually all romances and culture clashes!

Next up was Ambala. The town in Haryana province, not the Indian sweet shop on the Curry Mile!  As he headed from the Punjab into Haryana province, Michael discussed the horrors of partition with an Indian historian.  The horrific tales of attacks on trains are well-known, but don’t get any less horrific with each additional time you hear about them.  The historian clearly took the view that Britain should have done more, but, as has been said before, things were in such a mess by 1947 that I just don’t know what the alternative was.  The time for action was long before then.  But what a tragedy that British rule ended and independence began amid all that bloodshed.  It’s all been said before, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Ambala looked like a shoppers’ paradise. And all the signs and adverts were in English!  There are plenty of stalls on Bury Market where you can take your pick of gorgeous Indian fabrics 🙂 , but you can’t just order an outfit and have it made to measure in a matter of a couple of hours, as Michael did in Ambala. I particularly liked the jacket.  Michael was laughing at himself over his penchant for bright colours.  I wish I had the nerve to wear them in England, like he does!   I’ve got a lovely Peruvian shawl that I bought – in my best GCSE Spanish – in Cusco, but I never wear it because I’d feel such a complete prat walking round town in something quite so bright!

His next stop was Chandigarh, which is now the capital of both Punjab state and Haryana state, but isn’t actually in either. This was certainly different: it was built in the 1950s, by a French-Swiss architect, and was designed to look modernistic and futuristic.  Clean, tidy and orderly – well, OK.  But it looked so soulless.  It made somewhere like Milton Keynes look like a centre of history and culture.  It was interesting, but … well, I want India to look Indian!  Like I want France to look French, Austria to look Austrian, etc etc.  Totally beside the point, but apparently more hamburgers than baguettes were sold in France last year.  Er, what’s that about?!  Whatever next 🙂 ?

He did do some dancing, though, just to liven things up. Finally came the climax of the journey – the famous train ride through the Himalayas from Kalka to Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh province … formerly, then known as Simla, the hill station which was the summer capital of the British Raj.   I really fancied that train ride until he mentioned that it took five hours.  And I bet you can’t guarantee getting a seat facing forward and by the window.  I was OK on the Bernina Express, but I’m not sure how I’d cope with five hours on a narrow gauge mountain railway, however many travel sickness tablets I took!

Anyway, it did look spectacular, and Michael clearly enjoyed it! And, as he said, it’s incredible to think that Simla was the administrative centre of the Raj from April to October for nearly 40 years before the railway was even built.  They were shlepping the entire paraphernalia of the administration of the British Raj up the Himalayas on elephants, carts drawn by bullocks, and palanquins.  One-fifth of the population of the planet were being ruled from this little town up in the hills, with nothing to link it even to the nearest decent-sized place but a mountain path.  It’s completely mad!  But it worked!  That’s even madder!  And, up there in the Himalayas, a lot of the buildings really did look like a corner of a foreign field (well, mountain) that was for ever England.

I’m not sure where else he’s going in this series, but I’ve always really fancied the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I think it’s the thought of the tea plantations.  Plus I remember once seeing a TV programme about it, presented by the late, great, Victoria Wood, who got very excited over the fact that the oldest steam locomotives on the railway were built by Sharp, Stewart and Company, originally of Manchester.  That was so exactly what I would have done!   I think I do quite fancy the Kalka-Shimla trip as well, though.  And Amritsar.  Oh, it’s nice to see somewhere different!  I love the British, Continental and American Railway/Railroad Journey programmes, but this series is going to be a bit different; and it’s got off to a really good start.  Bring on the next episode!

Guardian of the Dawn by Richard Zimler

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This is the third of Richard Zimler’s books about the Zarco family (although it’s set in the second half of the 16th century, which is nearly 250 years before the second of the books), and covers a little-known topic, the persecution carried out by the Inquisition in Portuguese-ruled Goa.  Seeing as it’s only one and a half days until the start of the Australian Open (well, two days until the first match of the night session on the RLA, which will be the most important event on Monday!), my brain really doesn’t want to go into Leyenda Negra mode, but everyone’s familiar with the activities of the Inquisition  – which we automatically refer to as “the Spanish Inquisition” – in Latin America.  Far less well-known is that Portugal introduced the Inquisition into Goa, where, over the course of two and a half centuries, it persecuted those who’d converted (whether voluntarily or under compulsion) from either Judaism or Hinduism to Catholicism but were suspected of continuing with their former religious practices, and also persecuted those identifying as and practising as Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Syriac Christians.

On top of that, it destroyed temples and religious objects, burnt books appertaining to other faiths – including Protestant books brought into the colony by English and Dutch traders – and tried to suppress the use of the local languages.  Many of those persecuted were executed, or treated so badly that they died in prison, and, even after the Inquisition in Goa was abolished, in 1820, Hindus and Muslims were charged an additional tax.  And the person responsible for introducing the Inquisition into Goa was St Francis Xavier, who’s generally regarded as a Spanish (he was from Navarre) and Jesuit hero.  I’m very glad that the present Pope’s made it clear that he chose the name Francis in honour of St Francis of Assisi.

A lot of what goes on in this book is about the relationship between Tiago Zarco, the main character, and his adopted cousin Wadi, and apparently this is supposed to reflect the relation between Othello (Wadi being of Moorish origin) and Iago … but I didn’t really get all that, because I’m not overly keen on Shakespeare.  There’s a complex relationship between the two branches of the family – Tiago’s branch of the family, live outside Goa and are practising Jews, whereas Wadi’s adoptive parents are Catholics, his father (Tiago’s uncle) being a convert and his mother a cradle Catholic.  Tiago’s sister, whom he adores and is very protective of, becomes involved with Wadi, there are hints that Tiago and Wadi may actually have feelings for each other, and then first Tiago’s father and then Tiago himself are arrested by the Inquisition.  Without wishing to give too much away, Tiago suspects the wrong people of having betrayed them, and ends up causing the deaths of two innocent people who get caught in the middle of it all, as well as taking his revenge on some of the priests.  He then hopes to work with the Sultan of Bijapur to drive the Portuguese out of Goa.

I’m not sure that trying to rework a Shakespearean plot, especially such a complex one, in the context of a story that’s so complex in itself, was the best of ideas, but the descriptions of India and the interaction between the different religious communities are very interesting, and, if nothing else, the book’s worth reading because this subject really isn’t very well-known.  Strangely, there’s no mention of the fact that Portugal was under Spanish rule for almost the entire period covered by the book, but we are definitely talking about the Portuguese Inquisition, not the Spanish Inquisition, so maybe it’s not that relevant.

I did wonder if Portugal had ever introduced the Inquisition into Bombay/Mumbai, but, as far as I can find out, that never happened – although it did in Brazil, and in Cape Verde.  This isn’t a particularly pleasant book, but Richard Zimler’s never are.  I got the first one because I wanted books set in Lisbon, and the second one because I wanted books set in Porto, and then this one because, having read two of the three, I thought I should read the third as well!  But it’s an important reminder of what some people will do in the name of religion.  And it’s also got some genuinely lovely descriptions of India, and of a lively trading area in the sixteenth century.  I’ve read much worse.