THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts categorized "Africa"

06 April 2017

English settlements on Madagascar – a tale of disaster

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East India Company ships regularly called at Madagascar for water and firewood, and bartered with the local people for supplies of beef and fresh provisions. But in the 1630s and 1640s there were English ambitions to establish a plantation on Madagascar.  The East India Company declined to become involved, saying all resources were fully committed to normal trading operations.

Madagascar 1655 Map of Madagascar 1655 from Gabriel Gravier, La Cartographie de Madagascar (Paris, 1896) 010095.g.13 BL flickr

In 1644 the Courteen Association sent 140 men, women and children as planters to Madagascar.  A settlement was established on the south side of St Augustine’s Bay.  But crops failed, there was not enough grass to pasture cattle, the settlers lacked proper supplies, and fever and dysentery struck. Faced with starvation, the survivors sailed for the Comoros in May 1646.

In the spring of 1649 an all-male group of planters set out. They planned to settle on one of the islands off the north-west coast of Madagascar. The East India Company was persuaded to reach an agreement with the merchants backing the venture, and in February 1650 sent two ships to drop more men and supplies at the plantation.  Presents were taken for the King of Assada – a small chariot which had belonged to Queen Anne, a sword, and a looking glass. But again death from disease and the hostility of the local people caused the planters to give up.  They sailed for Surat on 20 August 1650.  Most entered East India Company service as seamen, and the rest were sent home.

Bearblock journal

Extract from the journal of James Bearblock concerning his voyage to Assada and Bantam in the Supply  6 October 1650 - 16 March 1650/51 IOR/E/3/22 ff.29-36 (OC 2173)  Noc

This is what East India Company captain James Bearblock discovered when he arrived in the Supply at Madagascar in early October 1650:
‘As soon as the ship was moored, I sent the boat well manned ashore to Antifia, who when they came aland, found the town ruinated, and the most part burnt & not any inhabitant there, neither by my conjecture had been (for I went ashore presently after) of a long time.  But there we found scattered many bones and skulls of dead men to the number of 30 or thereabouts, and in the ruins of one great house, a piece of an English feather bed tick, with some feathers, and a piece of a rug, such as our company of planters were accommodated withall, with some shoes and slippers part burnt.  We also found in the same house, many great and small beads of glass striped, some whole and some melted.  Also hauling the seine in the river wee drew up at one draught one of the Company’s ammunition swords, just such a one as we had for the plantation.  This made me doubt more, having sad appearances of a tragic scene acted in that place.  I knew not suddenly what to conjecture of it, nor which way to apply myself to gain a real knowledge of this sad accident.  The natives were so shy, that it was impossible to have speech with them’.

Bearblock made repeated efforts to find the settlers before sailing to the Comoros where he learned what had happened.  Because of the inevitable time delay in news reaching London, the Company continued to send ships and planters to Assada, and the ships continued to search for the settlement before giving up and proceeding to India. The experiment was not attempted again.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
East India Company records: IOR/B Minutes of the Court of Directors; IOR/E/3 Correspondence with Asia
Alison Games, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (Oxford University Press, 2008)
William Foster, ‘An English settlement in Madagascar in 1645-6 ‘, English Historical Review, Vol.27, No. 106 (April 1912), pp.239-250

 

20 December 2016

Exploring emotional worlds: Indian soldiers’ letters from the Second World War

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“I have written to you many times but God alone knows why I don’t get your letters.  You say you write regularly.  Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us.”
- Written in Urdu by an Indian sepoy from Tunisia on 16 May 1943.

© IWM (E 7180) Indian forces in North Africa during the Second World War
An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk -Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 7180)

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War.  Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire.  And yet military censorship reports from the Second World War, archived at the British Library’s India Office Records and containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, bear witness to this counter-narrative.  What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?

   © IWM (E 5330)  An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941
An Indian soldier guarding an Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery in Persia, 4 September 1941 - Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 5330)

Letters were written in Indian languages – Hindi, Gurmukhi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil – and often dictated to scribes by Indian sepoys who were illiterate.  They were then translated into English for the censor, who compiled selected quotations from the letters into a report testifying to the spirit or ‘morale’ of the soldiers.  Soldiers’ names have been anonymised in these reports, and so it is virtually impossible to trace the letters to their writers.  All that remains are evocative textual shards – a portal into the soldiers’ emotional world.

The letters forge a material and emotional connection between the home front and the battlefront.  In the sentence, “Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us” with which this post begins, the unknown Indian sepoy links the letter’s affective impact – its “consolation”, assuaging loneliness, homesickness and longing – to its inherent physicality – “half meetings”.  An intimate moment is captured between the home front and the battlefront, a negotiation between distance and proximity created by the act of letter writing.

Letter writing is foregrounded again in the only love letter among the censorship reports.  Written in Urdu by an Indian Lieutenant – part of the rising Indian officer class making inroads into the Indian Army – the extract is addressed to the soldier’s beloved during the Allied invasion of Italy: “Here I am penning this to you in the middle of one of the biggest nights in the history of this war.  Love, I am sure by the time you receive this letter you will guess correctly as to where I am. … You would feel that the whole world were shaking with an earthquake or probably the sky were falling over you…Yet in the midst of this commotion, I sit here, on my own kit-bag and scribble these few lines to my love for I do not really know when I will get the next opportunity to write to you.”

Here, writing itself becomes an source of solace amidst the frenetic sounds and activity of the war.  It also embodies presence.  With the image of the soldier sitting on his kit bag and scribbling, this wartime love letter becomes a remarkable testament to the forgotten experiences of the Indian soldier, and the articulation of his complex inner life, during the Second World War.


Diya Gupta
PhD researcher, Department of English, King’s College London

Further reading:
Middle East Military Censorship Reports: Fortnightly Summaries Covering Indian Troops, April-October 1943, IOR/L/PJ/12/655

We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

The ‘Kashmir of Europe’ and other exoticisms: Indian soldiers’ tales of travel in the Second World War

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