Imperial offspring's feel-sorry history

Children of the Raj
December 23, 2005

Almost 60 years have elapsed since the end of the British Raj, but the passage of time has yet to dull the fascination for histories, novels and memoirs written about the colonial era. Within contemporary Britain, interest in colonial India (and the Empire more generally) has surged rather than diminished in recent years, with the lives of Britons who experienced the sub-continent first hand often taking centre stage.

Running alongside the profusion of personal accounts by those who lived and worked in India are the academic as well as popular histories assessing them. Sahibs' and memsahibs' stories and readings of them that range from the critical to the celebratory exist aplenty, and these are now joined by assessments of childhood.

Vyvyen Brendon uses a great many letters, memoirs and oral histories to explore the imperial lives of British children, and to a lesser extent Eurasian children, over two centuries beginning in the mid-1700s. Years in the archives, however, have yielded a disappointing work that tells us little that is new about the children of the Raj.

Families who could afford to send their young offspring "home" almost always did so because they feared for their health in the "tropics" and considered contacts with Indian and Eurasian children to be culturally and socially detrimental. As a result, children grew up rarely seeing their parents and were placed in boarding schools or with relatives or guardians, not all of whom proved kind or caring. Many remembered these years as unhappy, particularly when compared with the fond recollections of India they retained long after they left.

Such topics have been previously covered by scholarly work, from which Brendon borrows liberally, as well as by participants who have told their own stories far more engagingly. Children of the Raj jumps rapidly from one anecdote to the next, seldom pausing to reflect adequately on the wider historical contexts that render such experiences and attitudes comprehensible. Single paragraphs often briefly allude in breathless succession to countless people whose individuality becomes submerged in consequence. Seemingly fascinating stories are done little justice when merged with similar accounts, leading to a lack of depth.

By the end of the book, Brendon has belaboured her conclusions for several hundred pages: that "a Raj childhood nevertheless left an indelible mark"; that many people suffered "the psychological toll of a childhood divided between institutions and other people's houses"; and that they were "casualties of empire". She treats her readers to feel-sorry history, sacrificing analysis and historical specificity on the altar of mawkish sentiment. "Poignant" colonial childhoods could be "Dickensian" and involved constant "heartaches", "agonies", "tragic fates", "sorrow after sorrow" and "exile". Freud and other writers on child psychology predictably colour not only her readings of 20th-century lives but also of early 19th-century childhoods such as William Makepeace Thackeray's, when long separations from parents in India "must have taken a psychological toll". Upbringings that deserve to be understood within the context of their time, place and social class are all too frequently read through presentist, and speculative, lenses. "Quarrels are bad enough when a family is together, but worse when they are separated," Brendon informs us. Such simplistic statements do little to make sense of how individuals across two centuries thought about their circumstances, during childhood and retrospectively. Although many Raj children clearly had painful experiences, renditions such as these fail to do them justice.

Brendon's account insists that these children were victims of the British Empire, "shouldering the white man's burden" just as their parents did through their involvement in colonial enterprises. While children had little choice in how they were raised and were at the mercy of those into whose hands they were entrusted during their parents' time overseas, many followed in their parents' footsteps and returned to India as adults. Few diverged from the child-rearing pattern they had experienced themselves and proceeded to send their own offspring "home", even when their own childhood memories of Britain were largely unpleasant.

If children do count among Empire's "victims", their suffering was largely inflicted by their own families, usually for reasons of social and racial status. British families went to India of their own volition, often over the course of several generations, and continued to opt for imperial lives because they considered the advantages to outweigh the drawbacks. The tendency for some writers today to depict colonisers as victims provides, at best, an incomplete picture of the Empire's influence on Britons and those they ruled. At worst, it sidelines its impact on the colonised, denies Britons agency and empowerment and foregrounds the "burdens" while ignoring the benefits.

Elizabeth Buettner is lecturer in history, York University, and was a shortlisted candidate for The Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year 2005.

Children of the Raj

Author - Vyvyen Brendon
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 362
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 297 84729 5

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