I've already heard from a couple of readers who have wondered why the sickly young heroine of my new book, A Sinful Deception, was sent all the way from India, where she was born, to relatives she'd never met in London. Considering the perils (shipwreck, pirates, war) of a voyage that took the better part of a year in the 18th c., wouldn't it have been safer for her to remain in India?
Perhaps. But India, too, was an unhealthy place for Europeans, and it was notoriously true that many failed to survive two monsoons, or two years. Yet for English parents of means living in India, the strongest reason for sending their children half a world away was an almost desperate desire that they be raised as English, attending English schools with English customs and friends.
This was a serious (and costly) step. Often the parents never saw their children again, or at least not for many years. But despite how deeply my heroine's father had embraced India, he still wished her to return to London and ultimately marry an English gentleman.
One of the saddest (to me, anyway) examples of a family torn asunder in this way is described in William Dalrymple's wonderful history, White Mughals: Love & Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India. At the core of this book is the love story of an unlikely couple: James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the beautiful, high-born Khair un-Nissa, niece of the Nizam's prime minister. Love at first sight swiftly gave way to seduction, scandal, outrage, and finally marriage. (It really is an amazing story, and I can't recommend this book enough.) Yet as thoroughly immersed as Kirkpatrick became in his wife's Mughal way of life - he even converted to Islam for her sake – he still insisted that their two young children be sent to England to be raised by his family.
Their portrait, above, by George Chinnery, was painted in Calcutta, shortly before the children sailed in 1805. Shown in the elegant, rich clothing of the Mughal court, they are achingly young for such a journey: the boy, Sahib Allum, is around five, while his sister, Sahib Begum, is only three. In the care of attendants, they left behind a father who was dying of hepatitis, and a grief-stricken mother who could not understand why her children must be sent away. They never saw either parent again. Kirkpatrick died soon after; his broken-hearted wife died ten years later at 29.
Once in England, their grandfather swiftly had them baptized as Christians. They were put into English clothes, and addressed by their English names of William George and Katherine Aurora. They were told to speak only English, and forbidden to write to their mother or her extended family. Their old lives were done, and their new ones were the only ones that mattered.
I cannot imagine the anguish that all of them, parents and children, must have suffered from what to us today seems an unspeakably cruel decision. Yet somehow William and Kitty survived, as children do, and both grew to adulthood, although William died young at 29. Kitty lived until 1889, the wife of an English army captain and the mother of seven children.
When Kitty was nearly 40, she finally was able to locate her Indian grandmother and write to her. Decades after she'd sailed from Calcutta as a child, the pain of that separation was still fresh:
"When I dream of my mother, I am in such joy to have found her again that I awake, or else am pained in finding that she cannot understand the English I speak. I can well recollect her cries when we left her and I can now see the place where we sat when we parted, and her tearing her long hair – what worlds would I give to possess one lock of that beautiful and much loved hair! How dreadful to think that so many, many years have passed when it would have done my heart such good to think that you loved me, and when I longed to write to you and tell you these feelings that I was never able to express, a letter which I am sure would have been detained, and now how wonderful it is that after thirty-five years, that I am able for the first time to hear that you think of me, and love me."
How could I not be inspired by that?
Above: The Kirkpatrick Children, by George Chinnery, 1805. Collection, Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.