Untold lives blog

14 July 2016

The high cost of life in India

Whilst attempting to research a general who had died in India in 1812, and whose death was allegedly attributed to the eating of radishes, I came across two pages of the burial register for Bombay covering 26 March 1812 to 9 July 1812. These two pages, as a sample of the burials occurring in India at this time, provide a stark reminder of the high cost of life for Europeans living and working there, including those serving in the Army or on the East India Company’s ships.



Old Cemetery tombstones from Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto (1894) BL flickr  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This seems to have been particularly the case for His Majesty’s 47th and 2/56th Regiments.  Inspection of two pages of the Bombay Burial Register, covering 26 March-9 July 1812 reveals nineteen entries for burials of individuals connected with the 47th Regiment, and a further 15 for the 2/56th Regiment.

These numbers are particularly stark when you consider the fact that there are only 77 burials listed on these two pages of the register, meaning that the burials for the 47th Regiment account for over one quarter of all the burials at that time, and that both regiments together account for just shy of half of all the burials for that three-month period.

Of the 34 burials for the two regiments, fourteen were for infants or children, four for women and a further fifteen for men serving as private soldiers. The women and children were mostly the families of the soldiers, although some appear to have been camp followers too.

The most tragic appearances in this index however relate to the Quarter Master of the 47th Regiment, Sergeant Underwood. His name appears twice in less than two months: first on the death of his infant son James on 22 April 1812, and subsequently on the death of his wife Mary on 20 June 1812.

Life as a seaman at this time could be equally dangerous, with an additional eleven names on the burial register being for those employed on the East India Company’s ships. Of these, six were seamen from the ship Doris, all of whom died within an eleven-day period between 3 and 14 May 1812.

These records also highlight the lack of information sometimes available about individuals, and the way in which lives could be viewed. This can be seen from two particular entries:

19 May 1812 “A Child from H. M.’s 65th Regiment”


7 July 1812 “The housekeeper of Mr Charles Whitehill”

It seems tragic that either no-one knew the names of these two individuals, or worse, the possibility that no-one deemed it important enough to record them.

Karen Stapley,
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
Bombay Burial Register:  IOR/N/3/4, p. 510 available online via findmypast


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