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Concubines and ‘lady wives’: the family life of the British officer in the early days of the Raj.

When many of us think of the British in India and the British Raj we imagine a culture of British army men descending upon the Indian subcontinent determined to make India English. To a certain extent this is true, and the effects of British colonialism were wide-reaching and devastating for the people resident across the area, but many British army officers sought both to impose British rule and to live an ‘exotic’ fantasy of the local lifestyle.

In a practice which Salman Rushdie has christened ‘Chutnification’, the adoption of elements of Indian dress, language, foods and practices into English culture, some officers began living an oriental fantasy. Many of these British officers were so taken with the culture that they began to dress as locals did and some even took ‘wives’ in local communities. The taking of local wives was extremely popular in the early nineteenth-century largely as a result of the fact that service in the East India Company army was more than twenty years long - during which time officers could not return home. British and Irish men filtered into India in huge numbers during this period, but women did not.

The problem was simple, these were young men, alone in a strange place for two decades and there just were not enough women. As the century progressed it gradually went out of fashion, especially as the Suez Canal was opened and the passage to India became much shorter and easier. When more women began appearing intermarriage between the British became the norm again and the Anglo-Indians were either accepted by these families or left to fend for themselves. This practice was so common that there is an etymological rumour that the phrase ‘Lady Wife’ was born out of British officers in India keeping their second families a secret from their first. The story goes that if your colleague introduced you to his ‘lady wife’ then you were being subtly told to keep your mouth shut about the second family to make sure she didn’t find out!

Probably the most famous British East India Company man to marry an Indian woman was James Achilles Kirkpatrick. Like many, Kirkpatrick arrived in India with the intention of finding glory and conquering the continent but very soon found himself enamoured by the exotic luxuries and Indian way of life that he quickly adopted Mughal customs, wearing Indo-Persian dress, smoking hookah at home and even marrying locally. His marriage to Khair un-Nissa, a descendant of the Prophet, was deeply unpopular on both sides, and doesn’t seem to have been legal. The pair had two children who Kirkpatrick acknowledged as his ‘natural children’ (another term for illegitimate) in his will. The two children were sent to England where they were baptised as Christian, renamed and lived out their lives as British citizens.

One particularly beautiful portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland is An Indian Lady (Indian bibi, Jemandee) which is believed to show the Indian ‘wife’ of an English lawyer named William Hickey. In Hindi, the term bee-bee or bibi means wife, but over time in Anglo-Indian culture the word came to mean mistress. Jemandee was known as Hickey’s bibi and locally she was considered to be his wife, but whether he classified her as such personally is another matter. Jemandee bore Hickey one son but died in childbirth in 1796. The portrait of Jemandee is so beautifully distinct from usual eighteenth century portraits that it is not hard to imagine why so many English and Irish men were so taken with the local women - though rarely so taken with them as to officially and legally marry them.

In time, a derogatory term emerged in India to describe the children born of these Anglo-Indian unions: kutcha-butcha which translated to half-baked bread. This reference to the skin colour of these children marked them out as inferior and attached a stigma on both sides, ensuring that they never truly belonged to either society because they had been tainted with the blood of the other. The children would be divided in society depending on the shade of their skin, with lighter-skinned children sometimes sent back to England for an education and darker skinned children remaining in India. Many tried to hide their Anglo-Indian ancestry out of fear of not being accepted, Vivian Leigh for example made a conscious effort to avoid speaking about her roots and claimed only to be English. Even today, skin colour remains a key marker of class and beauty in India with many young girls bleaching their skin to achieve a lighter colour with these products even marketed to children.

One local Waterford man who joined in on the fun was Abraham Roberts. Many of us are familiar with his son, the Field Marshal Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts, but know little of his other children, particularly his Anglo-Indian children. He married twice officially; firstly to Frances Isabella Ricketts and secondly to Isabella Bunbury. Sadly the name of his Indian ‘wife’ has been lost to us, and all we have of her are the names of her children: Anne and William. As his first official marriage took place in 1820 and William seems to have been worth quite a sum of money by 1842 we can assume that he had his first two children before his marriage to Ricketts and that she, like his second wife, may have accepted this part of his life:

“You did not mention whether India Will lost all his money by the failure of Cantor & Co., I feel much entrusted [sic] for him – for he was worth at least £3000 for he commd London William to make a purchase for him to that amount – when see you him, or write to him, give all our best to him – Captain Thomas Roberts - March 24th 1842”

Little evidence of their relationship with their father exists and at present all we are aware of is the scant information provided in family letters and the allowance made for them in Abraham’s will. The best source here at the museum is the collection we call the Roberts Letter, a series of letters from Captain Thomas Roberts (living on Henrietta Street in the mid-nineteenth century) to his son William who moves to India in the hopes of making his fortune. While in India William relies on his uncle - as it seems the whole family did - to use his connections to secure a good job in a strange land. Abraham did provide for his Anglo-Indian children.

It seems that Anne and William were definitely known to the family and accepted by them, possessing enough of a relationship with their Irish cousins that they sent regular gifts and letters on birthdays and other events: If you should meet India Anne, thank her in my name and Emily’s for the scarf and chain – with our love and best wishes for her ” (February 14th 1842). While it may seem as though Thomas is deliberately bothering his Indian niece and nephew by only referring to them by referring to them as ‘Indian Anne’ and ‘Indian William’, this is a practice he often uses to distinguish between members of his enormous and confusingly-named family. He personally had children named Anne and William and as did his other siblings so he distinguishes between his own ‘dear’ William, ‘London’ William and ‘Indian’ William accordingly. However in later letters he refers to her as ‘Inny’ rather than her own name, suggesting that the Indian element of her identity was more important than her own name.

Whatever relationship they might have had with Anne though did not extend to allowing her to be privvy to family pain and gossip. When an Irish cousin named Elizabeth disgraced herself for the second time by daring to have a child out of wedlock, they - including Abraham himself - were distressed to learn that someone had let the sordid details of her wholesale abandonment by the family slip to Anne:

“We don’t know how India Anne knew all about Elizabeth– but she wrote a long letter to your Sisters on the subject, her Father was displeased that any one [sic] should have sent her the history – the last accounts from India, that I have heard, William had not obtained any place – April 29th. 1845”

However it also seems that Anne’s conduct did not live up to family standards and perhaps they feared she would take Elizabeth’s example. There certainly seems to have been some tension between Anne and William themselves and her conduct in local society apparently did his relationship some harm. We do not know precisely what she did to draw the ire of the family, but we can guess from the 1850 quote: Perhaps ‘Inny’ may get spliced [married] by that time – I wonder she has not got married going about as she does”.

We don’t know what became of William and Anne after Captain Thomas’s death. They certainly outlived their father because he makes allowances for them in his will - as many British army men did - but despite efforts we have been unable to find out what became of them. It is most probable that Anne was married locally, using her status as an Anglo-Indian woman to secure a match within either community. William tried to rely on his father to secure him a position, but while Abraham dedicated concentrated efforts to get his legitimate son, Frederick, an officership in the EIC army, his seems to have confined his efforts for William within local business ventures. William eventually finds himself well placed at the court of the King of Oudh, though what happened to him after the merger of 1859 is unknown.

Read the blog here with imagery: https://waterfordtreasures.wixsite.com/wattreasuresblog/post/concubines-and-lady-wives-the-family-life-of-the-british-officer-in-the-early-days-of-the-raj?fbclid=IwAR3JYIk2SJfu8dQPX_v6I-tlTT6ZcwGqWlauNbE-DWsNoC-0hWktJ2bhTh8

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