Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

23 September 2021

Landscape in law

Archives on the environment appear in unexpected places.

Under the Permanent Settlement of 1792, India’s British rulers fixed the taxes which land-holders in certain regions paid on their land.  But land itself was not permanent.  Across the Sub-continent, rivers and their tributaries were constantly changing the landscape.   They flooded, dried up, and changed course.  They submerged some areas and exposed others; they created bogs, swamps and marshes which were neither land nor water.  Little wonder that colonial officials, intent on extracting revenue from the land, described India’s rivers variously as ‘mischievous’, ‘unruly’ or ‘evil’.

If a change in the river created more land on your land, should you pay more tax?  This was the question facing the Maharajah Jagadindra Nath Roy Bahadoor in 1892, after the great Brahmaputra had changed course and new land had emerged on his estates in Bengal.  No, said the Maharajah: the land, although under water before, had always been there.  Yes, said the government: new land above water was just that - new.

The Maharajah took the government to court.  By 1902 the case had escalated through the High Court of Bengal to the final court of appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.  Archives about the case survive in the records of the Legal Adviser to the India Office, who acted for the Secretary of State for India.  The Committee found in the government’s favour: you can read the judgment here.

On points of law, the case attracted a certain interest; it is summarised in Indian Appeals.  But what draws the attention now are the maps prepared for the earlier hearings.  Twenty maps show the disputed land at different times in the 19th century.  Some are prepared from old survey maps; others are composites, telling the story on a single sheet like this example below.  It shows the river’s course in 1892 [A] superimposed on its course as measured out in 1852 [B].  The new land is marked out in yellow, with patches of jungle and sand drawn in.

Map of Mouza Garamara, 1895. Map of Mouza Garamara, 1895. Map no 18 in IOR/L/L/8/78 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Bengal the Maharajah had also called witnesses, and their recollections fill out the scene.  'The lands were washed away by the river in eight or nine years.  The river remained current on the spots for a year or two, then receded towards the north.'  ' have seen jute, aus [rice], paddy and mustard being grown upon the land.'

We are currently cataloguing the Legal Adviser’s records and have found other lawsuits arising from changes in river courses.  This is a map from an Appeal of 1928 (for parties and judgment see here).

Comparative Map of Kalaran Chandipur, 1919Comparative Map of Kalaran Chandipur, 1919. Map no 5 in IOR/L/L 26G (210) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These maps and testimonies must have given a diverting glimpse of the natural world to the Privy Councillors while they sat in their Council chamber at no 9 Downing Street.  Today, the documents catch the eye again, especially for anyone interested in the historical river-scape of the Bengal delta.

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, India Office Records


Further reading
IOR/L/L/8/78; IOR/L/L (Box 26G (210))
For the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and related British Library holdings, see here
Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History (London: Penguin Books, 2018)
Rohan D'Souza, “Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals: the English East India Company and the Colonial Resource Regime”, in The East India Company and the natural world ed. by Vinita Damodaran, Anna Winterbottom and Alan Lester (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
The Law Reports. Indian Appeals: being cases in the Privy Council on appeal from the East Indies. Reported by W. Macpherson, vol. 30 (London: Council of Law Reporting, 1903)

 

21 September 2021

Indian soldiers protest about the loss of extra pay

In December 1841 Indian private soldiers of the Madras Army stationed at Asirgarh and Secunderabad refused to receive their monthly pay.  The sepoys were protesting at the removal of their allowance, or batta, which had been paid to troops stationed at a distance from their home Presidency to cover extra expenditure.  They claimed that the amount of pay without batta was insufficient to maintain their families.

European officers and Indian officers and NCOs tried in vain to persuade the men to accept their pay without batta.  They warned that refusal would be regarded as mutiny.  At Secunderabad nearly 300 privates of the 32nd Regiment of Native Infantry persisted with their protest but obeyed when told to ground their arms.  They were then taken prisoner by a party of Europeans.  A similar situation developed with the 48th Regiment of Native Infantry.

Military General Orders  Choltry Plain  27 January 1842Military General Orders ,Choltry Plain, 27 January 1842 - British Library IOR/F/4/1952/84995 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The most prominent men in the protest were selected for trial by Court Martial.  Good conduct pay was forfeited by those who had taken part but an amnesty was granted to the main body of offenders.  However native officers and NCOs were punished for having failed in their duty, either through ‘ignorance of any plan of insubordination so settled and matured’, or from having allowed it to proceed because they also stood to lose out from the removal of batta.  There were demotions and blocks on future promotions.

Military General Orders Fort St George 12 April 1842Military Department General Orders by Governor in Council, Fort St George, 12 April 1842 - British Library IOR/F/4/1952/84997 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

General James Stuart Fraser, the Resident in Hyderabad, was sympathetic to the soldiers’ complaint and promised to recommend an enquiry into what they alleged about the cost of living.  Fraser collected data which he hoped would enable the government to judge whether the soldiers were justified in protesting.  Was pay without batta sufficient to maintain them and their families?

An estimate of monthly expenses was drawn up for food and clothing for three categories of Indian soldiers at Secunderabad living with a wife and two children: a ’Man of the Talinga or Malabar Caste’; a ‘Musselman’; and a ‘Native of Bengal’.  Costs were given for rice; inferior grain; meat; ‘dholl’; salt; lamp oil; ghee; firewood; betel nut and tobacco; ‘masalah’; vegetables; ‘goodaccoo’; cholum flour; and clothing.

Living expenses for different categories of Indian soldiers at SecunderabadAn estimate of monthly expenses for food and clothing for Indian soldiers at Secunderabad  - British Library IOR/F/4/1952/84995 p.430 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Other East India Company officials also recorded sympathy for the Indian soldiers.  John Bird of the Council of Fort St George expressed his regret that it had been found impracticable to issue pardons to the offenders, instead dismissing all the prisoners of the 4th Regiment.  He would have preferred the adoption of Fraser’s recommendation to transfer the men to other regiments. Bird also thought the treatment of the officers was too harsh and that innocent men would be punished.

Sir James Law Lushington, Chairman of the Court of Directors in London, also believed the punishments to be misguided.  The Court wrote to Madras in August 1842 stating that the directors would approve if men of previous good character could safely be shown leniency.

Lord Elphinstone, Governor of Madras, wrote of the bond of union between the sepoys and the European officers being cast aside in recent years.  At the same time as batta was being taken away from native troops at stations where it had long been in place, it was given to European officers based away from their home Presidency.  Elphinstone said the chasm between the officers and the native soldiers had widened.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Papers relating to the batta protests and the cost of living for native soldiers - British Library IOR/F/4/1952/84995-84998, IOR/F/4/1973/86723.
Hastings Fraser, Memoir and Correspondence of General James Stuart Fraser of the Madras Army (London, 1885)

16 September 2021

Breakfast in British India

In 1810 Captain Thomas Williamson, a retired Bengal Army officer, published The East India Vade-Mecum; or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military or, naval service of the East India Company.  It is a fascinating book to dip into and this caught my eye:
’A breakfast in India bears a strong resemblance to the same meal in Scotland, with the exception of whiskey; the introduction of which, (if to be had,) or of any other spirits would be considered both nauseous and vulgar’.

After this surprising revelation about Scottish breakfasts, Williamson moves on to detail the bill of fare.  Breakfast for Europeans in Williamson’s India was generally a substantial meal: tea, coffee, toast, bread, butter, eggs, rice, salt-fish, kitcheree (kedgeree), sweetmeats, orange marmalade, and honey.  Sometimes, following hunting and shooting expeditions, cold meat and accompaniments were served.

Breakfast In India - A young married couple (an East India Company civil servant and his wife) breakfasting on fried fish, rice and Sylhet oranges, with servants in attendance..'The Breakfast' from William Tayler, Sketches illustrating the manner and customs of the Indians and the Anglo-Indians (London, 1842) British Library shelfmark X42 Images Online

European gentlemen rose at daybreak and, before breakfast, either went on parade or to their ‘field diversions’, or rode on horses or elephants, enjoying the cool morning air.  Williamson recommended wearing the clothes worn on the previous evening for exercise and then changing into a clean suit on return, sitting down to breakfast in comfort.

Williamson cautioned against eating eggs at breakfast, believing that they aggravated bilious conditions.  Eggs were ‘innocent’ in the climate of England for people with a robust constitution, but in Asia, ‘where relaxation weakens the powers of digestion, they are a pernicious article of diet’.  He also believed that salt-fish should be banned from the breakfast table, as eating it caused ’thirst, heat, and uneasiness’.

Newspaper announcement of a public breakfast, Calcutta 1785Calcutta Gazette 3 February 1785 British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast

In the late 18th century it had been customary for the Governor General and members of Council to have weekly public breakfasts: ‘persons of all characters mixed promiscuously, and good and bad were to be seen around the same tea-pot’.  The breakfast was considered as ‘merely the preface to a levee’.  When Lord Cornwallis arrived, these public breakfasts were replaced by open levees.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Thomas Williamson, The East India Vade-Mecum; or complete guide to gentlemen intended for the civil, military or, naval service of the East India Company (London, 1810) 
Owain Edwards,’ Captain Thomas Williamson of India’, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 14, No. 4 (1980), pp. 673-682

 

In the mid-19th century, there was a selection of marmalades available in India. As well as orange marmalade, there was mango, citron, lemon, and ginger.

Marmalade types from Bombay Gazette 1863Bombay Gazette 3 February 1863 British Newspaper Archive - also available via Findmypast

What would Paddington Bear think of that?

Paddington – The Story of a Bear


Paddington Bear - advert for exhibition at British Library