The British Empire Library

Last Children of the Raj: British Childhoods in India: Vols 1 and II

by Laurence Fleming

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Alastair MacKeith (India 1918 - 1921 and 1937 - 1948, Soloman Islands and Somaliland 1950 - 1960)
This book is a collection of childhood reminiscences contributed in later life by nearly 130 men & women, who spent their childhood, or part of it, in India or Burma during the last 30 years or so of British rule. It is in two easily handled volumes, which is just as well, because the best place to read it is in bed. It is not to be swallowed whole and is best dipped into a chapter at a time.

The stories told by the contributors illustrate the great diversity of climate and conditions in the sub-continent, ranging from accounts of sailing the lagoons of Kerala to tobogganing in Kashmir, seeing an egg fried on a pavement in Baluchistan, a mother bear walking upright in a central Indian jungle with a baby bear walking beside her ''holding mother's hand", and fearing an encounter in Assam with a mating elephant, which might want to challenge a train engine to a duel. The contributors are drawn from all layers of a society stratihed by background and occupation, but many of them shared similar experiences, and reading about them repeatedly does bring home to the reader some of the distinctive features of life in British India, which were shared by most European children brought up there, although not all. These were the contrasting features of a comfortable or even luxurious life-style, cushioned by numerous, well-trained servants, and acceptance as normal of phenomena like earthquakes, life-threatening diseases, prickly heat, mosquitoes, snakes, leopards and tigers, and, above all, people who were different from themselves.

Very few of the contributors to the book in fact went on to live and work in other parts of the Empire, but one who did wrote that "India made me proud to be British, and aware that history and circumstances had given us a special role in the world. The public service ethic I acquired there, plus the family tradition of imperial service, led me naturally into the Colonial Service". However another (female) contributor who found herself in Britain after the Second World War instead of elsewhere in the Empire, wrote that she couldn't even boil an egg. Had her future lain in another colony instead of Britain she might have been grateful that her Indian experience had made her tolerant of heat and dust and earthquakes and snakes and people who were "different". She, like the few who did join the Colonial Service, would not have found the exercise of authority unusual, but would have been taught to respect "different" people's various beliefs and ways of life and, in her case, would have been accustomed to speak to them in their own language. Unless forbidden to do so by British nannies, who were rare, many of the contributors to this book, as children, spoke Indian languages which they had picked up from doting servants as well or better than they spoke English.

In order to give his book some shape, Laurence Fleming has chopped up the contributors' stories so as to set the scene, province by province, in the first volume, while the second tells how the contributors fared during the Second World War and shortly after it, with accounts of perilous voyages out to India, unaccompanied by parents, schooling in India, escaping from Burma, the 1942 Bengal famine, the last charge of the Calcutta Light Horse, father arresting Gandhi and the horrors which attended partition.

British Empire Book
Laurence Fleming
350 each Volume
Radcliffe Press