Two historians at the intersection of race, sex and an emergent nationalism
Henry and Annette Beveridge, 1875
IN THE PREHISTORY of Indian nationalism, a particular legislative development stands out. The Ilbert Bill of 1883 sparked what amounted to a White mutiny; specifically a mutiny by the British in India against the colonial government. The situation was diffused and managed by diluting the proposed legislation so that its core idea was defeated.
The thrust of the proposed legislation—named the Ilbert Bill after the then Law Member of the British Viceroy’s Executive Council—was to enable Indian officers of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) of sufficient seniority to try British people in criminal cases falling in their jurisdiction. The basic idea behind the change was to correct an anomalous situation that had arisen: Europeans and British people had to be produced before a British ie White magistrate and if one was not available in the area concerned then the case would be conducted where a British magistrate was available. Clearly the aim of the Bill was also to correct a racial bias which existed in the dispensation of justice. Correcting it seemed to be the right thing to do given the liberal orientation of the British government in London headed by the Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Viceroy in India Lord Ripon. The first Indian had qualified for the ICS in 1864, and by the early 1880s there were perhaps a maximum of a dozen or so Indian officers who would be affected by the change and British people would come under their criminal jurisdiction. So, the change was in effect a small one but clearly for its protagonists the principle was important.
What was extraordinary—and surprising to the viceroy at least—was the fury it unleashed amongst the British in India and especially in Bengal and in Calcutta the seat of the government. The Anglo-Indian community—as the non-officials amongst the British were termed—were appalled. They saw the measure as part of their progressive dethronement—only the latest of a number of such steps which had included permitting Indians to join the ICS and what appeared even more dangerous—the emergence of a narrative which proposed associating Indians with their own governance.
The Anglo-Indian community therefore protested, petitioned, carried out a campaign in the newspapers both in India and in Britain and undertook a social boycott of the viceroy. At one stage there was even a conspiracy to kidnap the viceroy and physically deport him to England. They succeeded in kicking up such a storm that the government was forced into seeking a compromise which in the end was a substantial dilution, to the point of negation, of the original Bill. This was British India’s “White Mutiny”.
Leading the charge of the opposition were planters, businessmen, lawyers and other categories of the non-official British in India. Very likely a considerable chunk of official opinion privately sympathised and disagreed with this tinkering with a basic feature of British rule—the privileged position which race granted in the imperial hierarchy. Yet what was unusual about the protests was also that it gave a central position to the opposition that women—Anglo- Indian women—had to the legislation. To many the real problem with the proposed change was that it would allow British women to be tried by Indian magistrates; and around this theme a whole, highly super charged racialised narrative was constructed. It may have been farfetched, but it was tactically potent and perhaps even lethal to the Bill’s future.
INTO THIS CHARGED racialism we can introduce a British couple—Henry Beveridge and his wife Annette Akroyd Beveridge. When Henry Beveridge arrived in India in 1858 as a newly minted officer of the Indian Civil Service the embers of the 1857 uprising were still bright. In its later stages the revolt had, what the historian S Gopal had appropriately termed, all the characteristics of a “race war”. Beveridge’s passage to India had followed the well-beaten track of middle class well educated young men seeking employment and challenge. In the Bengal cadre, which he was allotted, Beveridge would serve in different districts and looked forward to steady promotions and a progression in his career culminating as a High Court Judge, since he was soon to be seconded to the judicial side.
Annette Akroyd was, however, far from being cut from the conventional memsahib material. Educated at Bedford College in London, itself unusual and she was one of its early graduates, she had heard the Indian reformer Keshab Chandra Sen lecture in London about the sad plight of Indian women and felt that something must be done about it. Even more unusually she decided to do something about it herself and travelling to India, arrived in Calcutta in end-1872 then almost 30 years old. Initially she stayed with Man Mohan Ghose, a well-known lawyer in Calcutta.
Beveridge’s career was hardly spectacular—‘wholly undistinguished’ is how his son described it. At least in some small part this was also because he held views that were unpopular within the echo chambers of the colonial state
The aim of working with Keshab Chandra Sen did not however work out as anticipated. To Annette there was a huge gulf between his public postures on the status of women and his private life. For a start she was shocked on meeting Mrs Keshab Chandra Sen. To her the “wife of the great apostle of women’s emancipation in India” was “ignorant of English and covered with a barbaric display of jewels, playing with them …. like a foolish petted child”. She attended a public meeting addressed by Keshab Chandra Sen and found in the assembly of 2,000 persons there were only three women. In her words, “I realized how uncivilized are their notions about women”.
This critical attitude about Indian society extended also to the British set in Calcutta—“I am convinced of the falseness of our position here”. Encountering the rank prejudice about Indians amongst her countrywomen she was to comment about how no effort was made at all to be a little discerning to the Indians they met: “…all are classed together—men of learning from whom these empty-headed women might learn much and men of proud feeling—I get a sickening heartache and terror of life here.”
The differences with Keshab Chandra Sen meant she branched off on her own—raising money, opening and running a girls’ school in Calcutta, the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya. This she managed for about two years when she met the recently widowed Henry Beveridge and they decided to get married. This was hardly unusual—many women from Britain travelled to India with just this intention. What was different in the case of Annette Ackroyd was the different trajectory she adopted and her independence and strong views. The marriage in March 1875 was solemnised not in a Church but in a registration office—under a new law—Act III of 1872. Henry Beveridge objected to a church marriage and the new Act provided for a civil marriage for couples who declared that they did not profess any religion. They were the first or at least among the first to be married under the new law. Annette’s school was closed and she settled into a new role as wife of a district officer—attending to her household, rearing children amidst long separations from her husband when she would leave with them for the hill stations in Darjeeling, Shillong, or even further away in Simla and Mussoorie.
We have a detailed portrait of Henry and Annette Beveridge’s life in different parts of Bengal largely because of a joint biography that their son published in 1947: India Called Them. Their son, William Beveridge, incidentally was the author of the famous 1942 Beveridge Report which put forward a roadmap for the future welfare state in Britain. Their marriage was evidently a happy one but Beveridge’s career was hardly spectacular—“ wholly undistinguished” is how his son described it. At least in some small part this was also because he held views that were unpopular within the echo chambers of the colonial state; not least of these was an occasional sympathy for the Indian the British ruled over. He was, for instance, to write of the men who ruled India who “bestride the poor land like colossi in touch with it only at the two points of Simla and Calcutta and sublimely regardless of all that that lies between”. As his career languished and he was passed over for promotion or attractive postings, Henry Beveridge turned to historical research as a substitute. His first book, The District of Bakargunj: Its History and Statistics in 1876 clearly derived from the time he spent there. More unusual than this gazetteer cum history was his next book which appeared a decade later—The Trial of Maharaja Nandkumar- A Narrative of a Judicial Murder. This was wading into a century old controversy about the sordid role of Governor General Warren Hastings and how he had done away with those such as Nandkumar who could embarrass him on charges of corruption. This theme, a story, while well known in itself, could hardly have been a popular one for the British in India and it is perhaps unsurprising that his career languished.
In India the linear narrative of the freedom struggle has ceded ground to other perspectives—of tribe, caste and gender. In these perspectives the transfer of power from British to Indian hands left in place more fundamental inequities
IN 1883 THEIR marriage intersected with the Ilbert Bill controversy and husband and wife found themselves on opposite sides of the divide. Henry Beveridge’s sympathy for the Indian point of view made him a supporter of the move; and he would have been in a small minority within British officialdom in India supporting the legislation. He was to note at one stage—“English ladies appeared to him often to be drawing their skirts away from him as he passed”.
More striking was Annette’s position—she publicly took a strong stand against the Bill. For its opponents her support was important: she was a known liberal and her work with Indian women although some years past, was still known. How could the government “subject civilized women to the jurisdiction of those who have done little or nothing to redeem the women of their own races and whose social ideas are still on the outer verge of civilization?” These comments were in a letter to a newspaper and therefore had a wide currency. Her liberal friends, both in India and in England were critical, perhaps even dismayed; but the differing stands of Annette and Henry do not seem to have any impact on their mutual devotion or their marriage. Henry did not find it necessary to try and make her change or temper her views even as he disagreed with them. In any event her views were even stronger than what she expressed in public. In a letter to her husband, she wrote as the controversy raged in Calcutta: “I think it is very extraordinary that any people should find fault with calling of the murderers of women and children savages”. As an Englishwoman, she said, she would “call uncivilized a people which cares about stone idols, enjoys child marriage and secludes its women and where at every point the fact of sex is present in the mind.” To Annette subjecting English women to the jurisdiction of native judges was “an insult”: what led to this sentiment was “not pride of race” but “the pride of womanhood”. To her son writing decades later and on the threshold of Indian independence, Annette found Indians uncivilized “not because she was English but because she was a woman”. Annette’s Indian contemporaries did not comment much about her views but to them diagnosing racism would not have been a difficult task—for they could recognise and feel it with great clarity shorn of all its rationalisations. The judgement of posterity has also been justly and clinically severe and the historian Mrinalini Sinha noted some three decades ago that Annete’s position derived from not pride of womanhood but “pride of white womanhood”.
Annete Beveridge’s stand on the Ilbert Bill attracted attention at the time and later because it seemed so much at odds with her general reputation as someone sympathetic to Indians and her efforts with the girls’ school. But the contrast was even greater with the reputation she was to acquire later in life and especially as a historian and translator.
THE BEVERIDGES RETURNED to England at Henry’s retirement at the end of a career, which had plateaued early. Historical research had been his chosen refuge for some years even while in service—he was President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for a time, not a small recognition of his scholarly attainments. Back in England he plunged himself into translating Akbar’s great chronicler Abul Fazl’s Akbar Nama. This was a vast undertaking given the sheer volume of the work and Beveridge’s three volume translation remained the standard go-to text for almost a century thereafter. Other translations of important Mughal manuscripts consolidated his reputation in the front rank of British historians of Mughal India. If his career as a civil servant was unsatisfactory, his subsequent work as a historian established a reputation among Indian historians that has endured.
Annete Beveridge’s stand on the Ilbert Bill attracted attention at the time and later because it seemed so much at odds with her general reputation as someone sympathetic to Indians and her efforts with the girls’ school
Annette’s achievements were no less. She learnt Persian with her husband’s help, and then medieval Turkish and also plunged herself into translating medieval manuscripts. In her son’s account this field of activity was pursued with such passion to cope with grief after the death of two of her children. Two of her works stand out. The first a translation from the original Turkish of the Babur Nama—the memoirs of the emperor Babur. Earlier translations had relied on Persian renditions of the original Turkish. Hers would be the first into English using the original text in Turkish. It was, and still remains, a monumental work and another attempt such as hers was not made for at least a century. What had perhaps even more impact was the translation of a Mughal princess’ memoirs—the Humayun Nama of Gulbadan Begum. Hers was the first translation and still remains the only one in English. What many historians of lesser-known aspects of the Mughals—their domestic and intimate lives for instance—found most appealing about this work was that an early 20th-century Englishwoman was bringing back to life the voice of a 16th century Mughal princess.
Certainly, this journey into her back pages would be of most interest to those who have read with much pleasure her scholarly well researched translations of Mughal manuscripts and would be at least a little dismayed at her illiberal position on a divisive racial issue in colonial India.
The short-lived Ilbert Bill is part, as noted earlier, of the prehistory of Indian nationalism. In the controversy surrounding the White Mutiny the protagonists were almost entirely British. The Indians largely confined themselves to the role of observers but they were nevertheless deeply interested spectators and bystanders. Lessons were being learnt about the importance of protest meetings, memorialising and petitioning, and of coverage in the press. Perhaps the more important lesson learnt was that the government could be pressurised by a small but articulate and organised body of opinion. An even larger lesson learnt was that Indians would have to learn to fight it out for themselves and change could not be relied upon to come from the benevolence of the colonial masters. The first precursors of the Indian National Congress and then its formation in 1885 can be traced back also to these lessons derived from the Ilbert Bill controversy.
Is there an even larger canvas that we can situate this episode in which the colonial government sought to introduce a measure in part for administrative convenience but essentially to be self-consistent—to remove an evidently racially discriminatory provision from its administrative codes? To the British it was important that the architecture they constructed in India appear to be colour blind even if it was actually not. Perhaps for a very few—and Henry Beveridge may well fall in this category—measures such as the Ilbert bill were necessary because the success of British rule could be measured only in terms of the speed with which it would bring about its own extinction.
The US has long been a country where the politics of race has played an ever-larger role—both when it was a colony and thereafter—and its periodic debates about race and freedom are always illuminative. To some historians, the European enlightenment—from which emerged the ideas that are the bedrock of “Western values” such as human dignity and freedom—was also coterminous with the transatlantic slave trade. The US was thus cofounded on contrary and mutually exclusive principles with Liberty and Freedom coexisting with Black slavery and indigenous American genocide. The historian Tyler Stovall argues that freedom was defined in racial terms and whiteness was intrinsic to the history of liberty in the modern age. From a different track the 1619 Project of the New York Times unleashed a controversy in 1919 that continues with its hypothesis that the American Revolution and War of Independence from Britain was to preserve slavery in the American colonies.
In India, race and colonialism did go together but it was not a settler colony like the US or Australia or South Africa. Decolonisation meant therefore a sharp break of the kind that a Black activist may argue was absent in the US. The racialised attitudes of a ruling foreign elite are now firmly in the past. It is relatively straightforward to call out Annette Beveridge for the stand she took and see clearly for what was an obfuscation of a racial issue into a debate on the status of women. Yet even in India the linear narrative of the freedom struggle has ceded ground to other perspectives—of tribe, caste and gender. In these perspectives the transfer of power from British to Indian hands left in place more fundamental inequities. In this perspective our older certainties must be tempered and moderated even as the great sacrifice and contribution of earlier generations to consolidate the idea of freedom and social progress in India is acknowledged and celebrated.