ENTERTAINMENT

Adventures of the early spice girls


HISTORY

Traders, privateers and gentlemen: British women in India

by Katie Hickman (Virago £ 20, 400 pages)

A great spectacle was seen in northern India in 1838: exotic figures on elephants and horses, followed by around 12,000 soldiers and servants. They traveled through India and the entire tour took leisurely 18 months.

At the head of the column, not a Mughal prince rode with a golden umbrella, but a George Eden – an old Etonian who was now Lord Auckland, the governor general. Because this was British India now, and the British wanted India to know it.

The reason we know everything about the trip in such detail is that George Eden's mischievous sister Emily rode an elephant with him and wrote some of the most brilliant, funniest and sometimes simplest bitchy letters about the British in India. (She was a big fan of Jane Austen). In a letter, she sardonically described how some of the visiting Rajas at a British ball think that the ladies who dance "are absolutely not good for anything, but seem more pleased to see so much vice".

A great spectacle was seen in northern India in 1838: exotic figures on elephants and horses, followed by around 12,000 soldiers and servants. They traveled through India and the entire tour took leisurely 18 months

Katie Hickman has resorted to rich sources like this to give us this colorful, funny and elegantly written new perspective on British India through the eyes of some of the women who were there.

The merchants of the title were those enterprising women who went to India like men to work hard and make their fortune. Many have established themselves as fashion designers and tailors, retirees, nurses and plant collectors.

By the end of the 18th century, more than 16 percent of East India's shares were held by female shareholders who had the full right to attend and vote at general meetings.

There was a character called Poll Puff who was a common sight on the streets of Calcutta in the 1760s and sold the "exquisitely light apple puffs for which she was famous", a shop she had "over 30 years" to run. .

When she was too old to make a living, her regular English customers got together and set up a fund to keep them old.

Other newcomers from England found it more difficult to settle in and be successful. One wrote about the servants she saw in Ceylon: "They have nothing on them at all but a small piece of rag around their waist, which at first seemed very shocking to us."

Another said: "The almost stark nudity of the lower classes is disgusting." But the English women, for their part, might find disapproval from wealthy Indians for not showing enough jewelry and fine clothing.

In contrast to the lively shades of green, scarlet, yellow and gold of the Indian style, the simple, dressed appearance of the English women only indicated to the Indians that "their husbands and fathers held them in low esteem".

Some British women were less conventional and even smoked spiced shisha pipes.

Merchants, privateers and gentlemen: British women in India by Katie Hickman (Virago £ 20, 400 pp)

Merchants, privateers and gentlemen: British women in India by Katie Hickman (Virago £ 20, 400 pp)

An unquestionable traveler, Fanny Parkes, who was never happier than "vagabonding" over India like a 21st century backpacker in the 1830s, remarked, "The behavior that shocked us was our eating with men, not ours Relatives, even with their faces uncovered. & # 39; She added that "a woman who goes out on horseback is monstrous".

Indian women would never pay a social visit without having at least two or three of their own slaves in tow.

The British men could of course also be quite adventurous. The subcontinent was Britain's "wild east," says Hickman, where ambitious young men who often fled bankruptcy made their fortune.

They traveled to India quickly, often exchanging their clothes for a loose-fitting Indian style and even becoming vegetarians.

Many took several Indian lovers or "Bibis" with them: wills of men from the East India Company show that no less than one in three donated money to either a companion or their illegitimate descendants.

Later, however, Hickman notes with regret, Bossier types came out "not to indulge in the Orient, but to improve it".

In 1857 Indian mutiny showed the British that not everyone in India was happy with their presence – although many Indian regiments remained loyal to the British when mutineers raged through the streets and "Allah-i-Allah, mare Feringhee!" (Let God kill the foreigners according to God's will!). They slaughtered white men, women and children in terrible mob violence.

75,000

The number of flowers it takes to make a pound of saffron

Hickman spared us no details of the mutiny or the violent British reaction. It was a tragic episode that showed the profound differences between the two races, with a lot of suspicion and misunderstanding on both sides.

Hickman gives us a wealth of entertaining details of domestic life: In the 18th century Calcutta, an English household ate a soup, a roast poultry, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a quarter of lamb, a rice pudding, good cheese, fresh butter, fine bread and excellent Madeira. It was not surprising that a siesta followed.

Alcohol consumption was consistently high. A Charlotte Hickey, a beautiful prostitute from London whom a wealthy lawyer adopted as his wife, treated her fever at sea by pouring a glass of red wine into her throat every ten minutes until she got through a bottle and a half. Not surprisingly, she soon went into a deep sleep. The next morning, however, her fever was broken. & # 39;

A useful tip for the next time you have quartan fever somewhere off the steamy coast of Coromandel. . .

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