HARKING BACK: ‘Bosom friends’ of the British Raj in Punjab

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 22, 2015

While studying the role of the East India Company in Punjab, it seems that even though men like Lawrence and Montgomery stand out, the man who really laid the foundations of British rule, Charles Theophilus Metcalfe, is seldom mentioned.

My interest in the man who Maharajah Ranjit Singh opined was “the brains of the English” was triggered while reading through the Amritsar Treaty that the Company signed with the Lahore Darbar on the 25th of April, 1809. This treaty in reality consolidated Ranjit Singh, for he was now able, within the confines of the area not covered by the treaty, to expand his empire. By the same stroke he learnt to respect the skills of the Company soldiers. The British signed this out of an unfounded fear of the French and the Russian Treaty of Tilsit and was, in essence, a defensive mode of consolidation. But that is another story. My interest lay in a document that Metcalfe had commented upon, titled ‘British Guidebook for India’, or ‘a complete guide to gentlemen of the Honourable East India Company’.

The origin of this document is said to be a ‘gent’ by the name of Henry Roberdeau of the Bengal Presidency, who in 1801 was alarmed over the ‘private lives’ of British officials, civil and military, in Mymen Singh who were found to have made “bosom friends” with ‘native’ women, mostly those working in their houses and barracks. The resultant children born of such alliances needed special attention. One comment on this situation was that “the men, far away from home, found it much more economical to have concubines than to afford to have a European bride”.

Such a situation naturally whetted my interest and I went on to research how they ended up while at Lahore, and Punjab. But though Metcalfe himself ended up with three sons from a ‘native’ lady, he disapproved of the manner in which General William Palmer (1740-1816) had married a princess of the Mughal court, Princess Faize Bakhsh. Metcalfe had written to the Company that Palmer was conducting himself in ‘a manner that runs against Company interests’.

During the Governorship of Lord Wellesley a ‘crackdown’ on inter-racial relationships was undertaken. An ‘intelligence note’ (OIOC, Mss Eur F228/18) issued by the Company termed such relationships ‘criminal, highly improper and demeaning’ affecting the morale of Company officers and soldiers’. But such a stipulation did not prevent the career of a man like Metcalfe from advancing rapidly.

He rose to become one of the Directors of the East India Company. The irony was that as Lord Wellesley’s ‘protégé, Metcalfe sent his own three sons born to a ‘native’ women to England under the care of Wellesley to be ‘educated and cared for by an aunt’. Charles Metcalfe was to rise to become Governor of Jamaica (1839-42) and Governor-General of Canada (1843-45) and made a peer. As none of his sons were ‘legitimate’, the peerage lapsed on his death in 1846. The interesting thing was that when he was Resident of Delhi, the three senior-most officials under him all had children from “native bosom friends”.

As my research progressed it made sense to see just how had such a lifestyle unfolded by the time the East India Company faced the events of 1857 in Lahore and Punjab. On the 13th of May, 1857, Her Majesty’s 81st Foot had managed to disarm three native infantry regiments (the 16th, 26th and 49th) and 8th Cavalry. A detailed investigation of the events of Lahore (Military Report, OIOC, pun/1848, p43) suggests that the reasons for the mutiny were the “greased cartridges, bad pay, delayed pay and rations, and British soldiers’ relationship with native women”. This assertion was ‘looked into’(NAI, Mlty Dept proceedings, nos 23-25/09/P/1858) and it was found that a fifth of the soldiers of HM 81st Foot had ‘relationships with native servants’ and that seven of them had British-Indian children.

Let me make clear, lest your imagination flies off at a tangent, that having ‘native bosom friends’ did not in any way influence the events of 1857. It was an acceptable way of life, and if we look into the life of the clerks of the Company who worked in Anarkali Cantonment before 1851, having a ‘native companion’ was an acceptable way of life. The Kipling character Kim could be construed as being a British-Indian. One of the reasons a new cantonment was built at Mian Mir was “to ensure that the British military is guarded against native influence”. After 1857 the Wellesley Policy was aggressively pursued.

If we look at foreign military soldiers of fortune who worked for the Lahore Darbar of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, we see that invariably all of them had Indian wives and concubines, not to speak of the Italian general Paolo Avitable’s huge harem, from which he had seven children. If anything the maharajah encouraged such alliances, for it made sure they had Punjab’s interest at heart. Avitable left Lahore (abandoning his Indian wives and children) when the maharajah died and once in Italy married his young niece, who poisoned him and inherited his massive wealth.

But then the role of ‘native bosom friends’ and the racial discrimination they faced is a subject that has been rarely studied. A few books on the subject suggest that in the early colonial period native women served as slaves, concubines, companions and wives to a very large number of officials, soldiers and traders. It is also true that they greatly assisted the colonial power to understand society and its norms, which assisted them in consolidating their power.

How did the Indian sons of Metcalfe fare? The three sons grew up in England, all going to Eton. All of them married English women and lived on an estate in Yorkshire which Charles had purchased for them, for the Metcalfe’s originally belonged to North Yorkshire. One branch of the seventh generation of the Indian side of Charles Metcalfe’s family runs a huge British food company. One great-grandson set up a fashionable eatery on London’s Regent Street, which he sold at a huge profit. One of them was, in 2014, awarded the OBE. That would surely reassure Charles Metcalfe that all is in order.



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