Children of the Raj by Vyvyen Brendon, Orion, £20 Their pale little faces gazed in fear as their ships rounded Cape Horn and the great waves must have further drowned their hopes as they ploughed on in their sixmonth voyage to an alien destination, far from their parents and everything they had grown to know and love. They were the children of British India bound for England and the institutional brutality of boarding school life – mandatory preparation for Imperial rule.
Why were they sent away 3,000 miles from the love and kisses of their mothers and the mature influence of their fathers? To become “responsible, honourable boys (and girls) willing to give their lives to the preservation and expansion of the empire,” as explained in this fine study by Brendon who interviewed 50 of the offsprings of India and pored through hundreds of letters from dusty attics in the most thorough study ever made. One historian notes: “For the Imperial ruling cadre, the public school was of unmistakably paramount importance; separation was a rite of passage as marked as a ritual of aboriginals.” The children would have been little saints had they approved of the system. As one novelist sees it, he was “delivered to school like a parcel”. He was just another piece of luggage: “one tin trunk, one leather suitcase, one wicker tuck-box, one boy.” Brendon allows the facts to speak for themselves and it is abundantly clear that the wish by parents that their little ones should go to England to be educated had behind it a desire that they would assume a mantle of Godgiven superiority. As Sir John Lawrence, who became Viceroy in 1864, put it: “We are here through our moral superiority ... by the will of Providence.” Over the whole period of British rule in India, the children amounted to millions and, says Brendon, almost every family in Britain has some Indian connection. Many became, or have become, household names: Rudyard Kipling, perhaps the sub-continent’s most famous son; Vivien Leigh, Spike Milligan, John Masters, George Orwell, Eric Linklater, Virginia Woolf, Tom Stoppard, Roger Moore, Julie Christie, Felicity Kendall, Joanna Lumley, Cliff Richard and broadcaster Mark Tully. Perhaps the long absence from their families introduced some steel into their personalities. “Ruthless, relentless, remorseless” were the watchwords of Jacky Fisher, who became an orphan of empire when he was sent to England from his father’s failing coffee plantation in Ceylon aged six. Jacky joined the Navy as soon as he could and clawed his way up the ranks, becoming Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet then First Sea Lord – a veritable whirlwind responsible for building the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought and the awesome Grand Fleet which fought the Germans at Jutland in 1916.
Reading Brendon’s study, it seems the parents of the children of the Raj faced a difficult choice: to become, in effect, good wives but bad mothers and good husbands but bad fathers. Fiercely ambitious, their main drive the reason they had became colonialists – was to improve their positions and their finances. Those children who did stay in India would obviously be closer to their parents, their most important formative relationship. Yet they would often be in the care of servants as mother and father pursued a hectic social round or were away because of the demands of career in government, engineering, commerce and the military. Some schools in India were excellent but pupilled by Indians and Anglo-Indians. It was feared that stay-at-home children would begin speaking with the unmistakable sing-song accent known as chi-chi. And as they came to relish the beauty of India – and avoid its fevers and venomous snakes – they would grow to like its curries and sweet tea and, most important, contact with its people. In short, they would lose the exclusivity and innate superiority – some might say the arrogance – effortlessly imbued by an English public school.
This fascinating account begins in the 18th century with the nabobs of the East India Company and ends in the post-war period with families who stayed on after India’s independence. Until the introduction of air travel, children were often parted from their parents for so long, that they failed to recognise each other when they met. For children of mixed race the heartache of separation was compounded by the fear that they would be rejected by both communities. And there was always the risk of bullying and sexual abuse at boarding schools and holiday homes. The author shows how they adapted to often cruel circumstances by dreaming of their Indian home, dreaming of mother; it is recorded in all those countless letters, tied up neatly and stored in thousands of attics.
The book, then, is a lament for the void in the soul of many thousands – many still with us – caused by institutionalised neglect. And it is still with us. Today, the author reminds us, family separations continue, with all their complex social and psychological consequences. Many still send their children to boarding schools and those with jobs abroad don’t see them for months at a time, leaving them emotionally deprived.
“In the competitive modern world,” she points out, “fathers and mothers are just as preoccupied with their parallel careers as their Imperial forbears were with tours of duty and social functions.” Suffer the little children, indeed.