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.

Additional Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
These are handsomely produced volumes with ample photographs. Their contents are briefly summarised on the dust jacket as 'Details of family traditions with deep roots in the Indian subcontinent, of going to school in India and Britain, of deep friendships between British and Indian children and with those who served the Raj. There are accounts of huge journeys and adventures available only in Indian childhoods. There is so much to be gleaned about fathers' careers, including the 'Heaven-born' - the Indian Civil Service - or members of the professional and technical services, fathers in the Army, in commerce and industry.' It is inevitable in a work of this nature that there would be some repetition as the domestic arrangements of British families in India were broadly similar. There is much, however, that describes unique and exciting experiences that range over the subcontinent. As an anthology to be dipped into from time to time it would make excellent reading and an invaluable historical witness.

What is striking is that these children of the Raj, almost without exception, adored life in India and were devastated when they had to return home to the much more spartan life of family and school in their mother country. Their sense ofloss was palpable and their subsequent return to India a joyful and even ecstatic experience. Mark Tully typically voices this nostalgia: 'The very first day that I returned to India twenty years after leaving as a child, the scent of winter flowers in my hotel garden, the smoke from the malis' cow-dung stoves, the pungent aroma of the food they were cooking, suddenly brought back my childhood.' Patrica Banham also relates 'my fond memories of early childhood when British, Anglo-Indian and Indian children grew up together: we learned to be natural with each other, oblivious to ethnic origins, treating each other happily as equals...we did not know what racial prejudice was.' This devotion was reciprocated, as Zoe Wilkinson records: 'When I came back in 1970 and the servants came to garland me and the tears ran down their faces, I sensed that they wept for the lost security, the pleasant orderliness of the servants' compound, for the help with their children and the hope for the future, as much as affection for me.'

One gets the strong impression that most children were taught to respect servants by their elders. Maeve Kelly's parents told her in no uncertain terms never to speak roughly to servants: 'they work with us - and you treat everyone with respect.' Patricia McCoy testifies that 'two of our servants worked for my parents from 1923 to 1944. They married and had their family and to this day I am friends with their younger son and their daughter who became a nun.' The vignette I most enjoyed comes from Zoe Wilkinson: 'Among our servants, Babu Lal (the chief bearer), had a pension fund and by the time he left, he had built a very nice house and was a member of the Provincial Legislative Assembly for the Scheduled Classes, as was my father for the Europeans . They went off for meetings to the Assembly in a car together, Burra Sahib and servant.' In Cawnpore Theon Wilkinson's father introduced a welfare centre for his employees, organised the RSPCA locally and enjoyed an excellent relationship with a Hindu holy man whose temple he had saved from the progress of main drains. Pujas are still said for him on the anniversary of his death.

That discrimination between all races existed in India is undeniable but some of its worst aspects were directed towards Anglo-Indians and Domiciled Europeans by British expatriates. It was, moreover, wholly inexcusable, particularly as Patrick Stevenage points out, the former 'served the government in many reserved occupations in the post and telegraph departments and on the railways and their ancestors had formed the backbone of the regiments, both British and Indian, which had conquered India and fought in so many of the wars of the Empire with more than a little distinction'. I found Volume I more interesting than Volume II as it describes the normative period of British life in India before the Second World War. Volume II, however , contains graphic eye- witness accounts of the terrible internecine strife amongst Indians and the revolting scenes of carnage that marred the last days of the Raj.

It is not easy, after perusing all these varied experiences, to form a definitive judgement on British life in India, nor on the larger question of the success or failure of the British Raj. Mark Tully's Introduction to Volume I attempts a balanced appraisal and his ultimate opinion is, I think, sage: 'We did lay the foundations of the largest democracy the world has ever known. What is more, we did it in partnership with Indians which is perhaps why we left behind great goodwill. In more than thirty years of living in India it has always been an advantage to me, not a disadvantage, to have been born a child of the Raj.

Additional Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This book, edited by a BACSA member, was first published in two hardback volumes in 2004, and was given an enthusiastic review in the Spring 2005 Chowkidar. This was not surprising since a number of BACSA people had been interviewed for the book, including our founder Theon Wilkinson and his sister Zoe Yalland. Both had been brought up in Cawnpore where their father was manager of the Elgin Mills. Volume One covers the period 1919 to 1939 and the second up to 1950. Sir Mark Tully, himself a child of the Raj, wrote the introduction. With the passage of time since the original publication, many of the contributors are now gone and their memories with them, so this is an important book that recaptures an unique era in colonial history. Usefully there are brief biographies of all those interviewed, and it is interesting to trace their careers in later life. Many worked in Britain or its remaining colonies - Kenya and Australia were popular choices - and a handful returned, or chose to stay in independent India. A nostalgic read but none the worse for that.
British Empire Book
Laurence Fleming
350 each Volume
Radcliffe Press


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