The British Empire Library

A Caper as High as the Moon: one family and a century of the Raj

by Sue King-Smith

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The 'caper' of the title was the response George Peppé anticipated from his sister in 1843 on the announcement of the news that he and his brother were to be sent to north India to set up a sugar factory. And good news it proved to be for a Scottish family of modest means who depended on sons and brothers for financial support. The estate which was subsequently established at Birdpur, near the border with Nepal, remained in the family's hands till well after Independence. Author and family member Sue King-Smith has chosen to present the Peppé history in a particular format. She was advised by a publisher to avoid a commercially produced book, on the grounds that this would have necessitated a stand on 'woke' issues such as empire. Instead, she has self-published a compilation of family history, incorporating numerous family accounts and letters, with references to web sites, and illustrated by contemporary drawings, sketches, maps and photographs. The authorship of various contributions, including the compiler's linking sections, is indicated by different colour type. The resulting mix does not always make for an easy read by the general public. Material is often duplicated, the plethora of names is sometimes confusing, while much of the anecdote and gossip is only of interest to the family itself. A more tightly constructed narrative and a firmer editorial hand would have been helpful.

Nevertheless, much of the material is fascinating. Most narratives of the British in India involve those in the military or civilian administration, who returned to Britain on retirement. The Peppé family were neither. They were the economic migrants of their era, who committed themselves to India over generations, and for whom India was truly home.

George and his brother William, who sailed to India in 1843, worked extremely hard clearing wild and previously undeveloped land, planting sugar, putting up factories which had been transported from Britain, and involving the local population in the creation of a rural economy which later spread to indigo, lac, tea and horse-breeding. Rice was also planted, dependent on an irrigation system which took fifty-three years to complete, illustrating the family's long-term commitment to India. An interesting account of life on the Birdpur estate in the years before Independence shows the family not only as economic managers, but administering justice, and fully integrated in the life of the community. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the so-called 'exploitative' role of the British.

Equally interesting are contemporary accounts of key historical events such as the Uprising of 1857. While one of the family contributors blames the British for the outbreak of violence, its details nevertheless make for chilling reading. The terror is palpable - though the aggression of many Indians was matched by the loyalty of others who saved numerous individuals. But in time bitter memories died away. An account by Stan Scovell - great granddaughter of the original George - of her childhood in the early days of the 20th century reflects a deep happiness in the rural life of the estate, and the household where English was rarely spoken, even by the children to their parents.

British women had a mixed life. Death in childbirth, and disease which killed numerous children, were afflictions which all suffered, no matter their background. But women like Delia Gibbon were challenged in other ways, when in the late 1840s she had to take over the running of the Birdpur estate, which posed huge administrative not to say physical demands. Ladies of the official cadres never had to fend for themselves like the amazing Elizabeth Boyson. Born in India in the early 19th century and educated in an orphan asylum, she used her only asset - her womanhood - to assure her survival through formal and informal unions with a series of five men by whom she had numerous children.

Apart from fascinating glimpses into the social hi story of the time, the account provides information about the family's particular interests in the culture of India. Chief among these was the Buddhist stupa at Piprahwa on the Birdpur estate, which was excavated by William Claxton Peppe in 1898, revealing relics of the Buddha and other remarkable artefacts. The finds attracted great attention at the time, and William's account in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society is reproduced, as well as other popular and scholarly reports. Meanwhile the record of the peoples of India, which was a particular concern of the Victorians with their passion for scientific classification, was assisted by George Tosco Peppé, son of the original George.

A talented photographer, he made his mark by recording the Juang tribe of south India, the images appearing in a publication in Calcutta in 1872. The artistic abilities of the family extended further. The book is illustrated by the sketches and drawings of Annie Larpent in the 19th century, and Elfie Peppé in the 20th. This was a type of activity which women made their own in India, contributing enormously to the record of the country. It would have been interesting to know where they were taught - at home, or possibly in the art schools growing in Britain and India - and whether they contributed to the many exhibitions organised in India. The raw material of the book raises many questions like this, and readers may be encouraged to pursue their interests further. Those who are concerned with organising and publishing their own family history will be interested to see the way it has been done here in one particular format.

British Empire Book
Sue King-Smith
High Appin,
Review Originally Published
Spring 2022 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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