Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cast Across the Sea: 18th c. Children Born in India, Raised in Britain

Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Isabella reporting,

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.


Hels said...

It was often said that the terrible pain of separation would occur whenever the father was moved from country to country because of his work in: a) the army, b) the church or c) the diplomatic service. While dad was serving his nation and mum was loyally standing beside him, the children would be packed off back home to go to boarding school for most of the year. At 7!

Your case where the children were forbidden to write to their Indian mother was even more unbearable.

Chris Woodyard said...

What a dreadfully sad story about Kitty and her brother!

Rudyard Kipling and his little sister were also sent back to be educated in England. Their foster-mother was not congenial or kind, according to Kipling, who wrote the story "Baa Baa, Black Sheep," about the tortures suffered by the children and the relief they felt when their mother came to claim them. I was also reminded of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden--a "sickly, yellow child" born in India to a society-belle mother who wanted her ugly daughter kept out of sight until sent back for schooling in England.

Katja said...

Loved the article! White Mughals IS exceptional. Coincidentally, I was challenged recently by a family friend to research his British-in-India family and was very happy that I did; he's descended twice over from John Palmer, son of James Kirkpatrick's close friend William Palmer. I'd read White Mughals ages ago but immediately set about reading it again before lending our friend my copy. I owe William Dalrymple a huge debt of gratitude!

Sharlene said...

So sad, and especially that the girl could still remember from when she was 3 years old.

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