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16 March 2017

Aristotle’s Masterpiece: What to expect when you’re expecting, seventeenth-century style

How would a seventeenth-century woman know if she’s pregnant? Why, by the following signs of course: “pains in the head, vertigo, and dimness of the eyes…the eyes themselves swell, and become of a dull or dark colour”.

Aristotle’s Masterpiece was the most popular manual about sex, pregnancy and childbirth from its first appearance in 1684 through hundreds of editions up to the late nineteenth century. The manual offers advice on everything from “the use and actions of the genitals” to “monstrous births, and the reasons thereof”. This is a book for the common people that would’ve been cheaply printed, sold ‘under the table’ and hidden under the mattress at home. With its advice for both men and women, it would’ve been furtively rifled through as often as we use Google (rightly or wrongly) to decipher our medical problems nowadays.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available].  Noc

In case you hadn’t already guessed, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is neither by Aristotle or, indeed, a masterpiece. Nicolas Culpeper had already written his Directory for Midwives in 1651 and other writers and booksellers sought to emulate its resounding success. Aristotle was a long-established pseudonym used when printing works about reproduction. The text itself is a peculiar mash-up of early seventeenth-century medical works and popular old wives’ tales about sex and reproduction passed down through generations.

For instance, is it a boy or a girl? Well, “male children lie always on the [right] side of the womb” and girls on the left. But if you wanted to be certain, cast a drop of milk into a basin of water. If the milk drop sinks to the bottom intact, it’s a girl. If it spreads and disperses on the surface of the water, it’s a boy. With sage advice like this, it’s hardly surprising that copies of The Masterpiece were used until they literally wore out. This means that comparatively few survive today, with the British Library being lucky to hold about thirty different early editions.

To us, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a delightfully eccentric insight into seventeenth-century sexual and reproductive lore, sometimes recognisable as the precursor to modern science and sometimes decidedly not.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available]. Noc

This manual devotes a lot of time to describing monsters, for example. These “monstrous births” are variously attributed to “maternal imagination, witchcraft, human-animal copulation or a disorder of the womb”. The crude curious woodcuts, instrumental to the manual’s appeal, feature a child with its eyes where its mouth should’ve been, a naked woman covered in hair and conjoined twins amongst others.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available]. Noc

Elsewhere there are largely sensible instructions for midwives. The basic anatomical descriptions and the large, fold out diagram of the position of a baby in the womb also occupy more familiar territory for modern readers.

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Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece. The twenty-seventh edition. [London]: printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759 [Shelfmark not yet available]. Noc

But home remedies that feature dog’s grease or even dragon’s blood soon confuse matters again.  As does the insistence that bleeding a woman, a somewhat primitive practice, is advised if she’s having difficulty during childbirth and that, during pregnancy, a woman must ensure that her home is not, for some inexplicable reason, “infected with frogs”.  Ribbet.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

14 March 2017

John Syms, Puritan naval chaplain (and librarian)

A “day-booke” kept by a Puritan minister, John Syms, has primarily been used as an historical source for studying the events of the English Civil War, especially in and around the Parliamentary stronghold of Plymouth.  The journal is also of significant importance to book historians as Syms listed the books he owned and read over the period.  A further list reveals the chaplain’s role as an early ‘librarian at sea’; Syms served as a naval chaplain aboard a Parliamentary man-of-war.

  Syms 1

"I came aboard the Providence: Aug 3 1644”, Syms listed a small collection of books he took with him. Add MS 35297 f1v  Noc

 

Naval chaplains were not ubiquitous in the Early Stuart period and prior to this time were usually only found on larger ships.  Some captains preferred to be autonomous and free of the (moral) constraints represented by a chaplain.  Why take along a (paid) chaplain when a captain or other suitably appointed person could perform religious services at sea?  In the first 60 years of voyages undertaken by the East India Company from 1601, just 40 chaplains were appointed.

Whether on long voyages across oceans or on ships operating along home coasts, the liturgical role of the chaplain expanded from leading religious services to providing pastoral care: tending to the sick, sending-off the dead, and, much as chaplains did on land, lending books.

Life at sea involves long periods of potential inactivity and frustrating idleness: time which, crucially, could be filled by a chance to read a book to oneself or participate in oral readings amongst a group of comrades.

This chaplain’s books taken aboard the Providence are, as may be expected, chiefly religious with a strong Puritan bias.  But there are also some works which show some signs of having been chosen for a particular readership: men at sea.  Puritans were quite conscious about how books can be used and it is arguable that Syms consciously selected books which would prove popular – and which would also lend some power and influence – all very expedient for someone whose constant purpose was to proselytise.

It’s hard to discern all the titles from Syms’s abbreviated ‘short-title’ list, there’s too little detail to establish particular editions but here are some of the books with editions given being those closest to 1644.

We can make out a Book of Psalmes; a Concordance and a Bible, but besides these functional, liturgical books, here are some of the more idiosyncratic books. …

  Syms 2
Syms took John Downham’s Christian Warfare, a best-seller (running to four editions).  It projects a plain message from anyone owning or lending copies. 4409.p.4 Noc

 

  Syms 3
The 'Heidelberg catechism' by Jeremias Bastingius - perhaps Syms had a copy of the 1614 edition? 3505.d.52 Noc

Syms 4
 'The Scottish history' may be John Knox’s work on the Reformation in Scotland - two editions were printed in 1644. This edition: 203.d.2.

  Syms 5
Noc

 

Syms 6Noc
Syms took copies of William Camden’s Remaines and Lightfoot’s Erubhin; or miscellanies – two quite ‘fun’ books (certainly by Puritan standards).  598.d.15 and 1020.e.12.(1)


  Syms 7
Along with an English’d edition of Heinrich Bunting’s The travayles of the patriarchs and apostles there are works chosen as books which might appeal to literate men at sea. 1481.b.50Noc

 

Syms 8
An example of a functional book taken to sea in the 17th century is, ‘A Physick book, Johannes Anglicus’ which was, ‘lent to Mr prat the surgion’. This book is Praxis medica rosa anglica by John of Gaddesden.  Syms’s copy was likely to have been printed in Augsburg in 1595.  542.a.8-9. Noc

 

Syms 9
The ‘Physick book', written in the 14th century, contains Arab renditions of the classic writers in medicine; it tells how to treat smallpox by wrapping patients in red cloths; has recipes for obtaining fresh water from sea water by distillatio, and advice on how to deal with the, ‘Evil Dead’ – DE MALO MORTVO – still in use in the 1640s.  542.a.8-9Noc

Syms’s list of books is suggestive and raises many questions: how did he choose which books to take?  Were they purposefully selected, or just what was to hand, what may have been in his trunk or on sale by local booksellers?   Further questions about the role of these books arise from Syms’s involvement in an acrimonious dispute with the captain of the Providence, John Ellison, which resulted in a dozen of the ship’s men being condemned to Marshalsea Prison by the Commissioners of the Navy for having, “much abused the Office of the Navy” and Captain Ellison.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading :
John Syms Daybook, British Library Add MS 35297
Miller, Amos. C. John Syms, Puritan Naval Chaplain in Mariner’s Mirror, May 1974
Miller, Amos. S. The Puritan Minister John Syms (IV Parts) in Devon Notes and Queries
Green, Ian. Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Smith, Waldo E.L. The Navy and its chaplains in the age of sail. Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1961.

Syms’s list of books and the unrest he played a pivotal role in aboard the Providence has been examined in more detail in an unpublished paper given by Christian Algar at a conference on  Maritime Literary Cultures, in Heidelberg in October 2016.

 

09 March 2017

Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?

When Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, her portable writing desk was inherited by her sister Cassandra. It was later passed down through her eldest brother’s family. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-niece, very generously entrusted it to the care of the British Library. Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles. According to family tradition, they all belonged to Jane Austen.

AUSTEN%20IMAGE%201

Spectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen (now British Library Add MS 86841/2-4): wire-framed pair (on left), ‘tortoiseshell pair A’ (centre), ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ (on right, with string wound around arm). 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The British Library has for the first time had the spectacles tested. Our Conservation department was involved from the start, to ensure that no harm would come to them. The company Birmingham Optical kindly supplied us with a lensmeter to measure their strength, and their specialist staff undertook the tests.

Jane%20austen%20spectacles%20testing
 Louis Cabena (left) and Deep Singh (right) from Birmingham Optical, with lensmeter and spectacles in the British Library Conservation Centre. 6a00d8341c464853ef01bb097e9917970d

The tests revealed that the three pairs of spectacles are all convex or ‘plus’ lenses, so would have been used by someone longsighted. In other words their owner needed glasses for close-up tasks, such as reading. Interestingly, ‘tortoiseshell pair B’ is much stronger than the others.

Test results

Wire-framed pair:       R. + 1.75 DS  L. +1.75 DS (PD 27.0 53.0 26.0)

Tortoiseshell pair A:   R. + 3.25 DS  L. +3.25 DS (PD 26.0 56.0 30.0)

Tortoiseshell pair B:   R. +5.00/-0.25 x 84 L. +4.75/-0.25 x 49 (PD 28.5 55.0 26.5)

We showed these results to the London-based optometrist Professor Simon Barnard. He believes there are a number of possible reasons for the variation in strength. Jane Austen may always have been longsighted, and initially used the wire-framed pair for reading and distance viewing. She later required a slightly stronger pair (tortoiseshell pair A) for reading, and used the strongest pair (tortoiseshell pair B) for extremely close work, such as fine embroidery, which would have been held closer to the face than a book.

Austen is known to have had problems with her eyes. She complained in several letters about her ‘weak’ eyes. Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem? Professor Barnard believes this is a possibility. He points out that certain systemic health problems can cause changes in the vision of both longsighted and shortsighted people. Diabetes is one such condition, because it can induce cataracts. A gradually developing cataract would mean that an individual would need a stronger and stronger prescription, over time, in order to undertake close-up tasks. However, diabetes was fatal at that time, so someone might not have lived long enough to require several different prescriptions in succession. 

If Austen did develop cataracts, a more likely cause, according to Professor Barnard, is accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies. In this situation, Austen would have switched from using the wire-framed pair to tortoiseshell pair A, then pair B, as her cataracts got progressively worse.

Jane Austen’s early death has in the past been attributed to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), cancer and tuberculosis. In 2011, the crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life – something commonly found with arsenic poisoning. Ashford’s novel The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen strays from theories of accidental poisoning into rather more fantastical murder. The variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.

We should, however, inject a note of caution at this point: although prescription lenses were in use in Austen’s day, we don’t know whether these glasses were prescribed for her by a physician, or whether she bought them ‘off-the-shelf’. We can’t be completely sure that she wore them at all. However, we are keen to publish these test results in the hope that other eye specialists will share their ideas and opinions with us. 

We know this subject is already of interest to literary scholars. Janine Barchas and Elizabeth Picherit of the University of Texas at Austin have taken a keen interest in the spectacles in the British Library, and have also been investigating Austen’s references to spectacles in her novels. Their theories will shortly be published in the journal Modern Philology. We look forward to further discussions and debate on this topic.  The spectacles themselves have just gone on display in the British Library’s free Treasures Gallery for all to see.

Dr Sandra Tuppen

Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

The British Library

Email: sandra.tuppen@bl.uk

08 March 2017

Remembering the Suffragette movement on International Women’s Day

I recently came across something in the British Library’s collections that stopped me in my tracks – Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). As soon as I saw the green, white and violet emblem of the WSPU emblazoned on the cover, I was overpowered by the feeling that I was in the presence of something that was instrumental in giving me the freedom and rights that I enjoy today.

WSPU emblem_web

Interpretations of the significance of the colours of the emblem vary. They may have been designed to convey a powerful message – Give Women Votes; it is also thought that the purple symbolised dignity, white purity and green hope.

Browsing through the editions for 1911, I was struck by the relentless and inventive daily campaigning it so vividly chronicles, and the hard work of the people producing the newspaper itself. In an article in the edition for July 14 1911, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence writes about the time that he and his wife Emmeline first met Mrs Pankhurst in March 1906 when she convinced them that activism was the way to secure women’s suffrage.

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence  Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pethick-Lawrences’ marriage in 1901 was a love match between two committed social reformers. Not only did they devote much time and energy to leadership of the WSPU until 1912, alongside Christabel Pankhurst, but they also suffered imprisonment for their cause. The Pethick-Lawrences were inspired by that first meeting with Mrs Pankhurst to support and promote the cause by publishing a newspaper, Votes for Women. They eventually disagreed with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst about the more militant tactics they later employed and were ousted from the WSPU, but continued to campaign for women’s right to vote.

The first edition of Votes for Women was launched in the autumn of 1907, by which time there was sufficient campaigning activity to fill a monthly publication. It achieved a circulation of 2,000 copies when it was first published.

Votes for Women first cover

Cover of the first edition of Votes for Women

By July 1911, when Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was writing about the history of Votes for Women, demand and activities were such that it was published weekly, with a circulation of 30,000. Despite being rather grainy, the images in Votes for Women are a testament to the commitment and continuous graft of the people who produced the newspaper and volunteered to sell and distribute it.

4 Publishing Office

The Publishing Office

5 Press cart

Press cart, ready to start from the Woman’s Press, Charing Cross Road, London

6 Champion seller Miss Kelly

A champion Votes for Women Seller, Miss Kelly

A sure sign of its success was the number and variety of advertisements it attracted by 1911, helping to fund the production of the newspaper.

1 Advert managers office

The Advertisement Manager's Office

Flako soap advert 07 July 1911

One of the many advertisements appearing in Votes for Women in 1911

Over the coming months I will post some more blogs about Votes for Women, giving further insights into the tactics used to muster support for the cause.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records

  Cc-by

Images all taken from Votes for Women, 1911

Further reading
Votes for Women
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

07 March 2017

Flying over the Himalayas: RAF Flight to Gilgit in November 1934

During the 1930s, the RAF conducted a number of flights to Gilgit. These flights served political purposes through projecting British power into this remote region of her Empire, propaganda purposes from the resulting prestige of conducting daring flights of exploration, and allowed the exploration of prospects for civil aviation.

    IOR L PS 12 1993 f. 183
Hawker Harts over Chamngarh Nala: IOR/L/PS/12/1993 f. 183

A flight during November 1934 is particularly richly illustrated by a file from the India Office Political and Secret Department records. In addition to a detailed written report, the file also contains forty-five aerial photographic prints.

The outward bound flight, comprising five Hawker Harts, departed from Risalpur at 8:05am on 5 November 1934. The flight flew via Daggar, Kandar, and Patan following the Indus Valley. It arrived at Gilgit at 10:10am. The flight proceeded smoothly, but unfortunately poor visibility limited the use of the camera; only eight exposures were taken.

IOR L PS 12 1993 f. 177
Gilgit landing ground: IOR/L/PS/12/1993 f. 177

The aircrew remained at Gilgit for three day camping at the edge of the landing ground. A programme by the local resident which included a chikor shoot, polo, and a display of dancing by men of the Gilgit Scouts kept them entertained. During their stay they undertook demonstration and reconnaissance flights; sadly due to a fuel leak in the photographic aircraft no photographs were taken.

The flight departed Gilgit on 8 November at 10:30am. The fuel leak in the photographic aircraft could not be rectified in time due to the amount of dust at the aerodrome, so only four aircraft made the return flight. Luckily the camera was transferred to another aircraft and a large number of exposures were taken during the return trip.

During the return flight a number of aerial photographs were taken of Gilgit town and the surrounding country.
 IOR L PS 12 1993 f.176

Gilgit Fort: IOR/L/PS/12/1993 f. 176

The flight proceeded down the Indus Valley and obtained pictures of a number of very high peaks including Rakaposhi, Haramosh, and Nanga Parbat. The flight then descended, circled over Chilas, then proceeded along the Darel Valley as far as Reshmal [?]. It then returned back along the Indus Valley as far as Shiwai at which point a return course was set for Risalpur.

The flight returned to Risalpur at 1:20pm. The photographic aircraft returned with a relief plane the following day.

The photographs, along with the rest of this file's content, are available to view free of charge on the Qatar National Library’s online portal.

Robert Astin
Content Specialist, Archivist British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, Coll 5/39 ‘Flights of RAF aeroplanes to Gilgit; flights of foreign aircraft over Gilgit and Chitral’ IOR/L/PS/12/1993

 

02 March 2017

The personal possessions of Thomas and Dorothy Shore

India Office Private Papers recently acquired two fascinating documents concerning the personal possessions of Thomas and Dorothy Shore. Both Thomas and Dorothy came from families closely connected to the East India Company.  Their son John Shore (1751-1834) became Governor-General of Bengal.

The first document is an inventory of the household goods, plate, jewels, china, linen, furniture, clothing, and books belonging to Thomas Shore which were in his London house at the time of his death in 1759.

Thomas Shore inventory

India Office Private Papers MSS Eur F702 Noc

The second is an auction catalogue for furniture, fine china, and ‘other East Indian Curiosities’ which were sold in June 1775 when Dorothy Shore, ‘A Widow Lady,’ moved from Golden Square in London to the country.

  Doorothy Shore auction

India Office Private Papers MSS Eur F702 Noc

 Thomas Shore (1712-1759) was the son of John Shore, the East India Company’s warehouse-keeper at Botolph Wharf on the River Thames.  Thomas followed his father into Company service, becoming  a supercargo in charge of the commercial business of several voyages to China.

In 1743 Thomas Shore married widow Mary Dorothea Edgell (née Hawthorn).  Her stepfather was East India Company sea captain John Shepheard (d.1734).   Mary Dorothea died, and in 1750 Thomas married  her younger half-sister Dorothy Shepheard (c.1725-1783).  Thomas and Mary had two sons, John and Thomas William.  John continued the family tradition of East India Company service, whilst Thomas William became a Church of England priest.

The inventory lists the contents of Thomas Shore’s house room by room: servants’ garrets;  bedrooms; closets;  dining room; parlours; china room; kitchen; yard; wash house; pantry; and cellar. Every item is recorded from valuables to a cheese toaster and mops. Thomas owned many objects from Asia including Chinese snuff boxes, musical instruments, and ornaments; Indian textiles and tea kettles; dressing boxes and a bathing bowl from Japan.  Thomas’s book collection ranged from works of religion and history to geometric problems and Gulliver’s Travels.  Dorothy’s personal belongings in the house were itemised to distinguish them from her husband’s property, mostly jewellery but also her clothes, childbed linen, and textile pieces.

P7280016

India Office Private Papers MSS Eur F702 Noc

The auction of Dorothy Shore’s household goods offered a ‘Variety of Furniture, useful and ornamental  China, curious carvings in Ivory, &c brought from India by her Husband’.  Amongst the items sold were an ‘India japan case with Mariner’s charts’ - 2s 6d; 27 small Indian pictures of birds and flowers - 6s; a parcel of India paper hangings on cloth - £1 6s 0d; ten blue dragon plates, two basins, a Nankeen sugar dish with handles, cover and plate – 7s; two Chinese summer houses with figures – 7s.  Some lots can be matched to objects listed in her late husband’s inventory, for example the ‘Luxemburg gallery’ of prints. The sale raised a total of £103 5s 0d.

P7280002 cropped

India Office Private Papers MSS Eur F702 Noc

We should like to thank the Friends of the British Library for their generous donation enabling the purchase of such interesting documents which allow us to peek into the homes of an East India Company family in the 18th century.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers MSS Eur F702
The East India Company at Home 1757-1857

28 February 2017

Indian Independence: a source

For students of the last days of the Raj, the India Office Records are the main source. Papers from the Viceroy’s Private Office, Political Department files, fortnightly reports of provincial governors, private papers of key officials: together these archives show events unfolding day by day in the lead-up to Independence and afterwards.  The film-maker Gurinder Chadha consulted these files when making her new film “Viceroy’s House”, (released 3 March), which highlights the secrecy of the discussions.

  VICEROY'S HOUSE FIRST IMAGE small
Scene from "Viceroy's House"

Among the Records is a series of War Staff files. Uniquely among India Office departments, the War Staff owed its existence to an external event. When war was declared in 1939, the Military Secretary of the India Office created a War Staff to deal with Intelligence, Supplies and Operations. By working closely with the Cabinet and the War Office, this sub-department drew the India Office into the heart of wartime government. Internal communications were also put on a wartime footing, as this diagram shows:

   IOR-L-WS-1-12029
IOR/L/WS/1/12029 f.341 Noc


Under the cryptic heading ‘PHP’ (post-hostilities planning), certain War Staff files (IOR/L/WS/1/983-988) address the subject of India’s future. The discussions dwelt upon the country’s strategic importance. Government feared that British withdrawal would leave the wider region exposed: “History has shown that nature abhors a vacuum and if the British step out, we can expect the Russians to step in”. (L/WS/1/985, f. 87). Britain’s oil supplies in the Gulf, its Indian naval, army, and air bases, its access to India’s military forces: all were at risk if a post-Independent India were to turn hostile. To predict the future at this stage, as officials admitted, was next to impossible. The files include standard orders for action and confidently signed-off approvals. But the overwhelming sense that they convey is one of apprehension.

  

IOR-L-WS-1-985 (image 2)

IOR/L/WS/1/985 Noc

IOR-L-WS-1-985

IOR/L/WS/1/985  Noc

Antonia  Moon
Lead Curator, post-1858 India Office Records

 

Gurinder Chadha’s film,  “Viceroy’s House”, a fictional telling of the Mountbatten’s arrival in India prior to Independence, is released in cinemas across the UK on Friday 3 March.

  _P8A0313
Scene from "Viceroy's House"

 

23 February 2017

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

“Sicily is a very fertile country. It is the Kashmir of Europe.”
- Letter in Malayalam by an Indian sepoy, August 1943, Central Mediterranean Forces.

Through letters exchanged between the home front and international battlefronts, Indian soldiers in the Second World War reveal themselves to be part of a mobile world. Military enlistment and its consequent legitimacy for travel open the door to foreign countries, and new ways of seeing. While the letters themselves become agents of communication between remote villages spread across India and theatres of war thousands of miles away, they also foreground soldiers as itinerant spectators, engaging in colonial encounters in new lands.  Travel becomes an affective experience, and Europe, viewed through eastern eyes, the site of intercultural exchange.

 © IWM NA 9418 Wounded soldiers from 8th Indian Division being transported in the back of a lorry, 28 November 1943Italy - Wounded soldiers from 8th Indian Division being transported in the back of a lorry, 28 November 1943 © IWM (NA 9418)

A sepoy in the Central Mediterranean Forces, part of the Allied forces in Italy, writes: “As a reward for all our previous sufferings, Almighty brought us here to Sicily. We are supplied with British Troop rations. Sicily is a very fertile country. It is the Kashmir of Europe. Wherever you go, you will find groves of date palms and innumerable vineyards. The civilians are very sympathetic and kind hearted… The climate is very good, because it is an island in the Mediterranean Sea.… An Indian soldier is respected both for his fighting qualities and morale. The people here display no colour prejudice. The coloured are better loved than the white. Sanitation in Sicily is excellent. In our camps we enjoy radio music and cinema almost everyday. On the whole this is one of the happiest and most beautiful countries I have ever seen”.

   IWM E6547 Local children play with Indian troops manning a Bren gun carrier, 13 November 1941
Cyprus - Local children play with Indian troops manning a Bren gun carrier, 13 November 1941 © IWM (E 6547)

The verdant Italian landscape serves as a harmonious backdrop for amiable cross-cultural understanding that, nonetheless, indicates the presence of systemic inequalities during the war experience – in Indian soldiers’ rations contrasted to British troops, for instance. The extract also highlights the complexity of wartime hierarchies – being a colonial soldier on the victorious side destabilises racial structures to the extent that “the coloured” liberators become “better loved than the white.” And the rather idiosyncratic mention of Sicilian sanitation perhaps indicates its novelty to this soldier.

An Indian captain in the Auxiliary Pioneer Corps is similarly rapturous: “I am sitting under an olive tree and so many trees of almonds are standing near by. No sooner there is a slight wind than all the ripe almonds fall down on the ground. Vineyards are hanging everywhere. Birds are chirping and orchards are found all over the area round about us. Vegetables are in abundance and fruits are more than I can put in black and white. This is the first time in my life that my breakfast consists of almonds and grapes only… Our relations with the local inhabitants are cordial and they are very social”.  Here, the use of the present tense lends immediacy to this description of an Italian paradise’s mellow fruitfulness. Most significantly, both letters emphasise the restorative, albeit exoticised, potential of the natural world in a foreign land, seen through war-weary Indian eyes.

Diya Gupta
Third-year PhD researcher at King’s College London
Find out more in this short film 

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

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

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