Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Meerut—Anglo-Indian Society

Meerut is a large station for military and civil establishments; it is the residence of a civil commissioner, a judge, a magistrate, a collector of land revenue, and all their assistants and establishments. There are the Major-General commanding the division; the Brigadier commanding the station; four troops of horse and a company of foot artillery; one regiment of European cavalry, one of European infantry, one of native cavalry, and three of native infantry.[1]

It is justly considered the healthiest station in India, for both Europeans and natives,[2] and I visited it in the latter end of the cold, which is the healthiest, season of the year; yet the European ladies were looking as if they had all come out of their graves, and talking of the necessity of going off to the mountains to renovate, as soon as the hot weather should set in.

They had literally been fagging themselves to death with gaiety, at this the gayest and most delightful of all Indian stations, during the cold months when they ought to have been laying in a store of strength to carry them through the trying seasons of the hot winds and rains. Up every night and all night at balls and suppers, they could never go out to breathe the fresh air of the morning; and were looking wretchedly ill, while the European soldiers from the barracks seemed as fresh as if they had never left their native land.

There is no doubt that sitting up late at night is extremely prejudicial to the health of Europeans in India.[3] I have never seen the European, male or female, that could stand it long, however temperate in habits; and an old friend of mine once told me that if he went to bed a little exhilarated every night at ten o'clock, and took his ride in the morning, he found himself much better than if he sat up till twelve or one o'clock without drinking, and lay abed in the mornings.

Almost all the gay pleasures of India are enjoyed at night, and as ladies here, as everywhere else in Christian societies, are the life and soul of all good parties, as of all good novels, they often to oblige others sit up late, much against their own inclinations, and even their judgements, aware as they are that they are gradually sinking under the undue exertions.

When I first came to India there were a few ladies of the old school still much looked up to in Calcutta, and among the rest the grandmother of the Earl of Liverpool, the old Bēgam Johnstone, then between seventy and eighty years of age.[4]

All these old ladies prided themselves upon keeping up old usages. They use to dine in the afternoon at four or five o'clock—take their airing after dinner in their carriages; and from the time they returned till ten at night their houses were lit up in their best style and thrown open for the reception of visitors.

All who were on visiting terms came at this time, with any strangers whom they wished to introduce, and enjoyed each other's society; there were music and dancing for the young, and cards for the old, when the party assembled happened to be large enough; and a few who had been previously invited stayed supper.

I often visited the old Bēgam Johnstone at this hour, and met at her house the first people in the country, for all people, including the Governor-General himself, delighted to honour this old lady, the widow of a Governor-General of India, and the mother-in-law of a Prime Minister of England.[5]

She was at Murshīdābād when Sirāj-ud-daula marched from that place at the head of the army that took and plundered Calcutta, and caused so many Europeans to perish in the Black Hole; and she was herself saved from becoming a member of his seraglio, or perishing with the lest, by the circumstance of her being far gone in her pregnancy, which caused her to be made over to a Dutch factory.[6]

She had been a very beautiful woman, and had been several times married; the pictures of all her husbands being hung round her noble drawing-room in Calcutta, covered during the day with crimson cloth to save them from the dust, and uncovered at night only on particular occasions.

One evening Mrs. Crommelin, a friend of mine, pointing to one of them, asked the old lady his name. 'Really, I cannot at this moment tell you, my dear; my memory is very bad,' (striking her forehead with her right hand, as she leaned with her left arm in Mrs. Crommelin's,) 'but I shall recollect in a few minutes.'

The old lady's last husband was a clergyman, Mr. Johnstone, whom she found too gay, and persuaded to go home upon an annuity of eight hundred a year, which she settled upon him for life. The bulk of her fortune went to Lord Liverpool; the rest to her grandchildren, the Ricketts, Watts, and others.

Since those days the modes of intercourse in India have much altered. Society at all the stations beyond the three capitals of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, is confined almost exclusively to the members of the civil and military services, who seldom remain long at the same station—the military officers hardly ever more than three years, and the civil hardly ever so long.

At disagreeable stations the civil servants seldom remain so many months. Every newcomer calls in the forenoon upon all that are at the station when he arrives, and they return his call at the same hour soon after. If he is a married man, the married men upon whom he has called take their wives to call upon his; and he takes his to return the call of theirs. These calls are all indispensable; and being made in the forenoon, become very disagreeable in the hot season; all complain of them, yet no one forgoes his claim upon them; and till the claim is fulfilled, people will not recognize each other as acquaintances.[7]

Unmarried officers generally dine in the evening, because it is a more convenient hour for the mess; and married civil functionaries do the same, because it is more convenient for their office work. If you invite those who dine at that hour to spend the evening with you, you must invite them to dinner, even in the hot weather; and if they invite you, it is to dinner. This makes intercourse somewhat heavy at all times, but more especially so in the hot season, when a table covered with animal food is sickening to any person without a keen appetite, and stupefying to those who have it.

No one thinks of inviting people to a dinner and ball—it would be vandalism; and when you invite them, as is always the case, to come after dinner, the ball never begins till late at night, and seldom ends till late in the morning. With all its disadvantages, however, I think dining in the evening much better for those who are in health, than dining in the afternoon, provided people can avoid the intermediate meal of tiffin.

No person in India should eat animal food more than once a day; and people who dine in the evening generally eat less than they would if they dined in the afternoon. A light breakfast at nine; biscuit, or a slice of toast with a glass of water, or soda-water, at two o'clock, and dinner after the evening exercise, is the plan which I should recommend every European to adopt as the most agreeable.[8] When their digestive powers get out of order, people must do as the doctors tell them.

There is, I believe, no society in which there is more real urbanity of manners than in that of India—a more general disposition on the part of its different members to sacrifice their own comforts and conveniences to those of others, and to make those around them happy, without letting them see that it costs them an effort to do so.[9]

There is assuredly no society where the members are more generally free from those corroding cares and anxieties which 'weigh upon the hearts' of men whose incomes are precarious, and position in the world uncertain. They receive their salaries on a certain day every month, whatever may be the state of the seasons or of trade; they pay no taxes; they rise in the several services by rotation;[10] religious feelings and opinions are by common consent left as a question between man and his Maker; no one ever thinks of questioning another about them, nor would he be tolerated if he did so.

Most people take it for granted that those which they got from their parents were the right ones; and as such they cherish them. They remember with feelings of filial piety the prayers which they in their infancy offered to their Maker, while kneeling by the side of their mothers; and they continue to offer them up through life, with the same feelings and the same hopes.[11]

Differences of political opinion, which agitate society so much in England and other countries where every man believes that his own personal interests must always be more or less affected by the predominance of one party over another, are no doubt a source of much interest to people in India, but they scarcely ever excite any angry passions among them.

The tempests by which the political atmosphere of the world is cleared and purged of all its morbid influences burst not upon us—we see them at a distance—we know that they are working for all mankind; and we feel for those who boldly expose themselves to their 'pitiless peltings' as men feel for the sailors whom they suppose to be exposed on the ocean to the storm, while they listen to it from their beds or winter firesides.[12]

We discuss all political opinions, and all the great questions which they affect, with the calmness of philosophers; not without emotion certainly, but without passion; we have no share in returning members to parliament—we feel no dread of those injuries, indignities, and calumnies to which those who have are too often exposed; and we are free from the bitterness of feelings which always attend them.[13]

How exalted, how glorious, has been the destiny of England, to spread over so vast a portion of the globe her literature, her language, and her free institutions! How ought the sense of this high destiny to animate her sons in their efforts to perfect their institutions which they have formed by slow degrees from feudal barbarism; to make them in reality as perfect as they would have them appear to the world to be in theory, that rising nations may love and honour the source whence they derive theirs, and continue to look to it for improvement.

We return to the society of our wives and children after the labours of the day are over, with tempers unruffled by collision with political and religious antagonists, by unfavourable changes in the season and the markets, and the other circumstances which affect so much the incomes and prospects of our friends at home. We must look to them for the chief pleasures of our lives, and know that they must look to us for theirs; and if anything has crossed us we try to conceal it from them.

There is in India a strong feeling of mutual dependence which prevents little domestic misunderstandings between man and wife from growing into quarrels so often as in other countries, where this is less prevalent. Men have not here their clubs, nor their wives their little coteries to fly to when disposed to make serious matters out of trifles, and both are in consequence much inclined to bear and forbear.

There are, of course, on the other hand, evils in India that people have not to contend with at home; but, on the whole, those who are disposed to look on the fair, as well as on the dark side of all around them, can enjoy life in India very much, as long as they and those dear to them are free from physical pain.[14]

We everywhere find too many disposed to look upon the dark side of all that is present, and the bright side of all that is distant in time and place—always miserable themselves, be they where they will, and making all around them miserable; this commonly arises from indigestion, and the habit of eating and drinking in a hot, as in a cold, climate; and giving their stomachs too much to do, as if they were the only parts of the human frame whose energies were unrelaxed by the temperature of tropical climates.

There is, however, one great defect in Anglo-Indian society; it is composed too exclusively of the servants of government, civil, military, and ecclesiastic, and wants much of the freshness, variety, and intelligence of cultivated societies otherwise constituted.

In societies where capital is concentrated for employment in large agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing establishments, those who possess and employ it form a large portion of the middle and higher classes. They require the application of the higher branches of science to the efficient employment of their capital in almost every purpose to which it can be applied; and they require, at the same time, to show that they are not deficient in that conventional learning of the schools and drawing-rooms to which the circles they live and move in attach importance.

In such societies we are, therefore, always coming in contact with men whose scientific knowledge is necessarily very precise, and at the same time very extensive, while their manners and conversation are of the highest polish. There is, perhaps, nothing which strikes a gentleman from India so much on his entering a society differently constituted, as the superior precision of men's information upon scientific subjects; and more especially upon that of the sciences more immediately applicable to the arts by which the physical enjoyments of men are produced, prepared, and distributed all over the world.

Almost all men in India feel that too much of their time before they left England was devoted to the acquisition of the dead languages; and too little to the study of the elements of science. The time lost can never be regained—at least they think so, which is much the same thing.

Had they been well grounded in the elements of physics, physiology, and chemistry before they left their native land, they would have gladly devoted their leisure to the improvement of their knowledge; but to go back to elements, where elements can be learnt only from books, is, unhappily, what so few can bring themselves to, that no man feels ashamed of acknowledging that he has never studied them at all till he returns to England, or enters a society differently constituted, and finds that he has lost the support of the great majority that always surrounded him in India.[15]

It will, perhaps, be said that the members of the official aristocracy of all countries have more or less of the same defects, for certain it is that they everywhere attach paramount or undue importance to the conventional learning of the grammar-school and the drawing-room, and the ignorant and the indolent have everywhere the support of a great majority. Johnson has, however, observed:

'But the truth is that the knowledge of external nature and the sciences, which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions.[16]

Prudence and justice are virtues and excellences of all times, and of all places—we are perpetually moralists; but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary and at leisure.

Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one may know another half his life, without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostatics or astromony; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears. Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians' (Life of Milton).