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Mad Tales from the Raj
Colonial Psychiatry in South Asia, 1800â"58
By Waltraud Ernst
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2010 Waltraud Ernst
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION: COLONIZING THE MIND
Some 'mysterious transformation' is said to have affected Westerners once they proceeded East of Suez. The view that experience of life in an alien Eastern country set travellers and expatriates apart from their fellow countrymen was common amongst those who reflected upon the effect on generations of Europeans of life in the Orient. So much was the East — West encounter perceived as leaving its mark on people's personality that those who had lived in the Orient for some time were regarded as a 'distinct species'. Their peculiar views, attitudes and behaviour were both excused and explained by reference to life abroad and on return to Europe they were treated 'either with awed bewilderment or humorous ridicule'. What sparked off this 'mysterious transformation' has since the eighteenth century been subject to speculation. Some assumed that it was the alien environment that was to blame, in that polite manners and sociable behaviour were 'jungled out' of those exposed to prolonged life in the tropical forests and arid plains of the Indian peninsula. Others were inclined to see the lack of 'restraint of parents, relatives and friends' as upsetting the mental balance and emotional inhibition of a number of those young, predominantly male, griffins, or green newcomers who, being 'thrown together' with others of their age, became 'violent and intractable'. Yet others went so far as to deny that anybody who lacked first-hand experience of life in the East could 'ever really understand what it was like' – thus pre-empting any attempt by the uninitiated to come to grips with the factors that are said to have made all expatriates 'members of one great family, aliens under one sky'.
A variety of explanations have been advanced for the European's alleged character change under conditions of 'heat and dust' in the Orient's plains and hills, but one has commonly been agreed upon: travellers, merchants, diplomats and soldiers from a variety of different lands were susceptible to it. The psychological metamorphosis of the English has, nevertheless, been characterized as quite distinct from the process of cultural adaptation incurred by members of other European nations. It was the 'insularity of the English character' (said to have been as marked in the eighteenth as in the nineteenth century), which made the English 'persist on their customs and habits of life even in most unfavourable circumstances'. The melancholic traits to which the 'inhabitants of England were doomed by geographic accident' were said to have made it difficult for them to endure solitude or 'the ordinary misfortunes of existence' – let alone unfamiliar circumstances 'in a clime so remote from their own'. The upshot was the exacerbation of those character traits which in the British Isles were merely looked upon as signs of eccentricity or a sensitive or nervous disposition. In India, so it has been suggested, they turned into 'an exaggerated and vulgarised edition', 'modified by climatic conditions' and more visibly and literally out-of-place because of the lack of 'the tradition and continuity of English society'.
Despite variation in emphasis, these images of what made the English in the Orient a 'species apart' have been reproduced time and again during the last three centuries. Such popular speculations, taken up and dwelled on by many a scholar, may contain a grain of truth. Exposure to unfamiliar cultural conditions can have psychological consequences characterized by a variety of emotional and behavioural coping strategies, of which anxiety, anger or depression are the most common, usually followed by a tendency to either over-adapt or respond aggressively to the alien environment. It is certainly the case that British government officials and military officers in India remained in most circumstances aloof from their Indian subjects. The observation that, unlike the English, the French and the Portuguese cultivated a less detached and socially inhibited stance towards Eastern people may indicate existing differences in the way in which members of different nations react to unfamiliar situations.
However, the flaw in these hackneyed images of the nature of British colonial rule in India is that they are redolent of an Anglo-centric ideology. Most British accounts of the alleged 'mysterious transformation' of character during the British Raj are in fact limited to the English, ignoring the contribution of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh to British — Indian policy and social life. The possibility of highly diverse impacts of the 'alien' on Britons of different regional backgrounds and diverse behavioural responses to life in the East is neglected. The omissions are not merely the result of an imprecise use of language. They indicate a tendency in the fictional, biographic and historical literature to present the British — Indian encounter in an almost exclusively English light and from the point of view of those 'who ruled India'.
Apart from a few authors such as the ubiquitous Kipling, most widely-read accounts of the British in India have conveyed the myth that colonial society was differentiated simply into an English ruling elite, on the one hand, and an amorphous (though reputedly gorgeously colourful) mass of 'native' subjects, higgledy-piggledy subsumed under the label of 'Mohamedans', on the other. Such oversimplification has served a still lingering imperial ideology, fixed on the idea of a homogeneous ruling class, united by a noble vision and devoted with supreme self-confidence to the colonizing duty. This ethnically and socially discrete ruling class in India emerged, so the story has it, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the time came for
the flowering, the highest peak perhaps in the lofty range of what the English have done, when a handful of our countrymen, by the integrity of their character and with not much else to help them, gave to many millions for the first time for some centuries the idea that a ruler might be concerned with their well-being.
Oversimplification is however not a monopoly of imperial ideology and 'heat and dust' fiction. A number of anti-imperialist accounts have in their turn been based on the similarly sweeping assumption that colonial society could simply be dichotomized into the white colonialist elite on the one hand and exploited 'natives' on the other. In fact, the European community in areas administered by the East India Company by the end of the eighteenth century consisted of people with an English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh regional background, interspersed with people of mixed race and nationals of European countries who had been taken on in recruiting depots on the Continent, as well as a large number belonging to what could be called the poor or lower classes. For people of such a variety of cultural and social backgrounds life in India not only had different meanings, but also affected them in many different ways. For a start the decision to sign on for a passage to India in the service of the East India Company would in the case of lower-class soldiers most typically have been induced by harsh economic necessity and the guarded hope that some of the recruiting sergeants' promises might come true. Members of the upper or middle classes, in contrast, while not devoid of material motivation, would at least potentially have been in a position more socially advantageous to reflection on the East's serendipitous material bounties as well as its spiritual and cultural offerings and mysteries. Lacking interest in the latter, they could indeed be free – to the extent of snobbish ennui – to engage in social activities characteristic of decadent upper-class life at home.
An ordinary lower-class man of 20, with the optimistic name of John Luck, for example, who left his native Lincolnshire during the trade recession of 1838 for military duty in the East India Company's artillery, as he was 'not happy trayiling in the contry for work', admitted after three years of service in Bengal: 'i ham so ancious to se my dear native home agane ... as i know too well this country would soon kill me', imploring his mother 'if for ever o a due, sell not my ole close'. He would clearly have experienced the East quite differently from, say, Lord Auckland, governor-general from 1835 to 1842, who was according to his sister mainly 'bored' by the splendid extravaganzas and ceremonial spectacles put on for his amusement while touring North India.
Such a comparison of the experiences of selected lower-class persons with those of particular gentlemen is not meant to imply that social class was the only factor affecting people's varied responses to life in a foreign land. It certainly is important to point out that the popular image of life in the East tends to concentrate on the whims and woes of the upper classes. Such colonial myths need to be refuted by reference to historical accounts reflecting the variety and complexity of responses to the politics of colonial rule and the alien Indian environment and culture. However, whilst being 'to the manner born' will have made a satisfying experience and successful career in the East more probable, it certainly did not guarantee it. On the other hand, there are examples of ordinary soldiers who, contrary to popular opinion, appreciated Indian ways of life and preferred residence in India to that in the British Isles. Some members of the higher classes too seemed attracted to Eastern ways of thinking and living, while others failed utterly to gain fame or fortune.
Take the case of Richard C., on military duty in South India from 1856 to 1858. He often felt 'quite desperate and ill', confessing that he was 'so very very lonely' and 'heartily sick of the Army'; in fact he was sure that he would 'never do any good in it'. Yet he also emphasized that he liked India 'amazingly' and thought it a 'glorious country'. Similarly, seven soldiers petitioned the Madras government to be allowed to stay on after between 12 and 26 years service in the King's or the Company's troops. They argued that they would feel like aliens with no economic future back in England. They also wished to stay with their Indian wives and the children borne by them. Captain Thomas Williamson, author of the famous East-India Vade-Mecum; or, Complete Guide to Gentlemen intended for the Civil, Military, or Naval Service of the Honorable East India Company, expressed his positive view of Indians in 1810 when he pointed out that they were a 'race whose intellectual qualities, whatever may be said by ignorant or designing men, are at least on a par with those of Europeans'.
Clearly, sentiments towards 'natives' were varied. Similarly, life in India stood for many different things for people who planned to spend some time in the East. For some it was the land of mysteries or of regrets, of unfulfilled hopes, the El Dorado of their dreams, the land of milk and honey, where a prosperous career could easily be made, or else an escape from economic hardship or professional failure at home, a self-imposed punishment for past personal wrongdoings, a challenge or a place where passions and predilections could be uninhibitedly expressed. In the face of such great variety of individual dreams, expectations, hopes, longings and projections it seems vital to resist any temptation to judge all expatriates' perceptions and experiences of India alike, or in consideration of their class background alone.
Any account of the way in which mentally ill members of the European community in British India were treated during the days of the East India Company will consequently have to go beyond the idealized and one-sided popular image of British social life during the Raj. It will also have to open up the narrow and myopic 'medical gaze' and attempt to lend a voice to the people hidden behind mental institutions' 'silent inmate inventories', by squarely locating medical and psychological treatments and patients' life stories within their wider, socio-cultural and economic context.
What then were the features characteristic of British social life in India? The social context within which, say, the young writer, or clerk, from Europe would have found himself on arrival in one of the ports of entry in India towards the middle of the eighteenth century was that of a small, closely-knit and hierarchically-organized expatriate community, living in quarters separate from Indian society. In Bengal the European community in the 1750s mounted to no more than 76 civil servants of the Company, 500 officers and soldiers, and about 100 non-official Europeans. At the top-end of this enclave of Europeans would be the president or governor who was, according to one historian
a being poised midway ... between heaven and earth, to the settlement a sort of tutelary deity, to Indian ambassadors and durbars the representative of the Britannic Majesty, and to the Directors [of the Company] an inveterate object of suspicion ... he kept up considerable state; he never went abroad without being attended by eighty armed peons as well as English guards, with two Union flags carried before him and 'country musick enough to frighten a stranger into belief the men were mad'.
Close behind the governor, with less regal splendour but still high social status, followed the members of his council and other senior Company officials, military officers, merchants and planters. The next social layer of the European settlement consisted of soldiers, sailors and minor Company servants who lived a life apart from the civilian and military elite and spent their time off-duty, so it is reported, amongst their own kind, frequenting the nearby punch-houses. The professions would be sparsely represented with but a few chaplains, surgeons, barristers and teachers. Similarly, European women would be scarce. This lack was compensated for by the then widespread and socially accepted practice of 'domiciling' Indian women. Although the British kept aloof from Indian society even during this reputedly open-minded century of the Enlightenment, they were willing to adopt those Indian customs that made life more comfortable and luxurious. The maintenance of Indian mistresses was one such example of the Europeans' 'Indianization'; it was generally approved of until early in the nineteenth century and had obvious financial advantages.
European wives were costly to keep, so that it was much cheaper to support 'a whole zenana of Indians than the extravagance of one English lady'. The small sum of between £2 and £4 per month attendant upon concubinage was considered to have been more compatible with the financial means of an average civil servant or officer. A British wife, in contrast, would require dressmakers, hairdressers, ladies' maids and other major expenses, which could add up to about £300 per year. This tidy sum, it was held, pressed hard even on a husband in respectable circumstances who would in addition have to spend about £600 per annum for a middle-class establishment in Calcutta, even without the luxury of a garden-house in the cooler suburbs and exclusive of a carriage and frequent parties. Given the small official salaries of £27 for a writer and £132 for a council member, most civil and military servants would not have been able to keep a European woman in any style.
Financial considerations alone could, however, not have accounted for the attraction of Indian wives. Even the cost of an average household that allowed a young bachelor to live, if not in luxury then at least, in reasonable style, would exceed by far his regular income. But then, at this early period hardly any Company servant relied on the small salary afforded to him by the Company's directors. After all, the second part of the eighteenth century was the time when really big fortunes could be made in the East and Company officials, military officers or free merchants, traders and planters would return to Britain as 'nabobs'. The 1750s and 1760s in particular were considered the heyday of 'unbridled corruption and bribery'. Although not all members of the European community shared in the acquisition of the East's bounty (and could therefore afford to engage in excess and merrymaking), an ostentatious lifestyle that would have made the dazzling entertainments of Vauxhall and the Brighton Pavilion appear as mere side-shows was characteristic of the nouveaux riches in the East.
Although it might seem that such conspicuous parading of one's riches copied Oriental rulers' extravagance and splendour, this lifestyle was not dissimilar to that of the upper classes in late eighteenth-century England. William Hickey, a man of 'amorous disposition' and familiar with the 'nocturnal dissoluteness' in London and Calcutta, travelled India during the reign of King George III and depicted in knowledgeable detail orgiastic banquets (and subsequent hangovers). In his Memoirs he pointed out the striking similarity between the entertainments of polite and moneyed society in London and Calcutta, describing both as 'frivolous, unscrupulous, immersed in fashion, addicted to heavy eating, hard drinking, gambling, and duelling'. A crucial difference between the grandee in London and the 'nabob' in India was, however, that the latter was typically middle class in origin and upper class only in manners. This fact may have contributed to some of the sneering on the part of refined English society at the 'nabob' who returned to England and bought himself into parliament and upper-class social circles.
Excerpted from Mad Tales from the Raj by Waltraud Ernst. Copyright © 2010 Waltraud Ernst. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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