How British Officers Survived in India in 18th and 19th Century?

British officers in India actually lived rather well before 1947.

To begin with, forget the U.S. Army’s notion that soldiers should not adapt to the country they’re deployed to. Also, forget the whole concept of “deployed.”

If you were a British officer assigned to India, especially to the Indian Army, that was a career – India was going to be your new home until you resigned, retired, or died there. You had to hope you liked it. Home leave, prior to the 1860s, was permitted only once every 10 years. At ten year intervals, you were permitted to take 3 years to go home and do whatever it was you needed to do, and that included about a year of traveling back and forth. You also had to pay for your own transport – the better part of a year’s salary – and you were on half-pay while absent.

Upon arrival in India, one of the first things a young British officer would do was hire a dubash or a khansamah. A dubash was an interpreter, who would take over the management of your affairs: he could hire servants, find a house, get you a loan, etc., whatever you required. Eventually, army regulations forbade the use of dubashes, but those duties usually were taken over (at least in part) by the khansamah, or head servant – a kind of Indian butler. An officer’s servants would do his grocery shopping and prepare his food – generally Indian cuisine. You had to get used to eating spicy food, yogurt, etc., but this is how you stay healthy in India as your body adjusts to new… well, everything.

Interestingly, water was not as much of a problem in the past as it is today for foreigners. I’ve read hundreds of accounts of foreigners traveling to India from Britain, and none of them ever refer to the water making them ill, possibly because most of them came from London, which probably had the most polluted and dangerous water in the world already. Plus, the Georgian and Victorian stomach was a lot tougher and more adaptable than modern ones: these were people who lived in a world without antibiotics after all. However, in the larger cities (such as Madras), steps were made to pipe in clean water, and there was also a conservancy department that tried to keep the streets clean.

The question implies that the British needed “life support,” including food. As I’ve noted, above, they mostly ate Indian food, but they did have some specialty items from home, which they craved mainly because it was a “taste” of home. In British India, most foreign personnel were assigned either to a civil station (an administrative center), or to a cantonment (a military base), or to some combination of the two. There were also the “presidency” capitals – Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay – from which the three major political divisions of British India were governed. In these three cities, there were “Europe shops” that imported all sorts of items from Europe, and they kept up stocks mainly by purchasing “private trade” goods.

The East India Company had a monopoly of trade between Britain and India until 1813, but its sailors were allowed “privilege in the hold” as part of their pay: for an ordinary sailor, this would mean one seaman’s chest full of non-monopoly goods; for an officer, it might be 4–10 tons of cargo space. Since such people traveled out to India frequently, they knew what was in demand, so they’d bring out everything from buttons, pins, and corsets to “pipes” of Madeira, cheese, sausages, etc. The four-to-six month journey back and forth across the Equator actually improved the Madeira, but I doubt if the same was true for the cheese and sausage. In any event, these things were available in the “presidency” capitals, and there were also Europe shops at some of the bigger “up country” or “mofussil” stations. Needless to say, you often paid ten times the price you would have paid back home, in England.

The British didn’t always eat Indian fare, however. An Indian cook who wanted to endear himself to his employer usually learned how to make – or closely approximate – British dishes. Indeed, once learned, these tricks were passed down through cooks’ families. My university used to employ an elderly man named Appalaswamy to cook at the program house for study-abroad students in Hyderabad. He had been born in 1914, and he had actually been a servant for the British before Independence. He thus had one skill that endeared him to many an American student: the knowledge of how to make a good apple pie. Needless to say, before long he was sporting the name “Apple Swamy.” I’ll always remember him fondly for nursing me back to health when I became very ill, and for eventually helping me get my flat set up, even to coming with me while we pushed an old cycle-rickshaw loaded with my stuff over to the new place. He also came right back at me with a nickname: “Triple Cup Man,” because I always liked to have three cups of chai.

After the East India Company lost its monopoly, in 1813, the old system of supplies continued until the 1830s, when private trade between Britain and India finally took up the slack. In the 1840s, the number of “unofficial” Europeans in India began to increase, significantly, and this was propelled by the establishment of the P&O, the Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Co., which ran vessels between Britain and India via Egypt: the Suez Canal didn’t open until 1869–1870, but the British had set up an overland crossing between Alexandria and Suez, via Cairo. In 1853–1858, they also built a railway along that route. By the P&O “Overland Route,” as it was called, you could travel from London to Bombay in 5 weeks, to Madras in 6 weeks, and to Calcutta in a little less than 7 weeks. Every month, the P&O’s scheduled steamers brought out about 4–5 tons of mail, parcels, and packages to British India.

Significantly, the cuisine aboard P&O ships east of Suez was often Indian, and prepared by Indian cooks. In fact, Britons who retired to England often brought Indian cooks home with them, and sought out the ingredients to keep up their Indianized dietary habits. The East India Club, in fact, was rather famous for its curry dinners, and even in the early 19th century London could boast of at least a few Indian restaurants.

From the late 1820s on, the British also developed Hill Stations in India. These were holiday retreats, located in picturesque mountain locations, where it was cooler during the summer months. Over time, the British literally “terraformed” the hills around these stations, growing all sorts of temperate climate fruits and vegetables that they otherwise could not obtain in India. I remember visiting an experimental farm at one of these stations, back in the mid-1990s, and having the overseer bring me a sampling of apples. He wanted to know if he was “getting them right,” and figured that I – as a foreigner – would know.

What about alcohol? To begin with, the British imported a lot of Madeira to India, preferring it over most other wines because it keeps well in tropical heat. As for reds, Constantia wines from South Africa were popular and also easy to import, as nearly every East Indiaman touched at Cape Town on the way out to India. Initially, beer was imported into India to provision British troops and sailors, but when the British finally began to take over highland areas in India, they immediately set up their own breweries. In fact, India Pale Ale was essentially invented to provide a lighter, more refreshing beer suitable for tropical conditions. Earlier, British troops had often binged on arrack and “toddy.” Toddy is made from distilled palm sap, and all I can say is that it goes down as easily as lemonade when it’s fresh, but the resulting hangover is like the aftermath of way, way too many tequila shots. Needless to say, such drink did no favors for the British Army, and they were keen to replace toddy and arrack with beer. Initially, the British adopted Mughal methods of making artificial ice, but in the 1840s the Tudor Co., from Massachusetts, began to import American ice to India, where it was stored in special “ice houses.” By the 1860s, however, the P&O had imported ice-making machinery, setting up the first plant at its shipyard in Bombay.

What about meat? For the most part, the British – especially in north India – ate a modified version of Mughlai cuisine, which included a lot of pilaf-like dishes that contained meat, such as briyani, or biriyani (spellings vary a lot in India). If you were traveling “up country” before the railways were built, the stage stops, or dak bungalows, invariably served a chicken curry that the British called “sudden death” – not because it was bad, necessarily, but because the cook who manned the dak bungalow often went out back and killed the poor chicken as soon as someone arrived, so he could get to work making dinner while the “sahib” enjoyed a Bass Pale Ale. The attendants at dak bungalows cooked and sold drinks as a side-line.

To provide markets with something other than “jungle chicken,” goat, and dried fish like “Bombay duck,” the British often set up poultry farms, etc., which did a thriving business, especially near large cities. Beef was also available, being used primarily to make “bully beef” for the British Army. In the 1860s, however, the slaughter of cattle for the Army began to become a political issue, and although it continued, it had to be done almost in secret. You can find butchers’ shops with beef in them in India, today, but they’re not the most hygienic places, being swarmed with flies, and they’re often hidden out of plain view.

In the latter half of the 19th century, imported canned provisions became available, and British life in India became increasingly more Western with the introduction of railways, electricity, refrigeration, motorized ceiling fans, telephone exchanges, quinine, etc. At the beginning of the 20th century, motor cars and airplanes also appeared, and after the First World War it became possible to fly between Britain and India in a matter of days, although most people still traveled back and forth with the P&O.

Interestingly, India’s first modern mall, Spencer Plaza (now sadly in decay) started out as a Europe shop in Madras (Chennai) in the early 19th century. When I first went to India, in the mid-1990s, Western foodstuffs could only be found in odd little specialty shop. I recall one, the Star Market, that used to be near the Connemara Library in Chennai (if I’m not mistaken), that used to sell all sorts of goodies, although where on earth they came from is anyone’s guess. Nothing had an expiration date, and one got the impression that it wouldn’t do to ask too many questions. Today, however, there’s no need for such shops: India makes its own versions of almost all Western-style food products (not necessarily a good thing, health-wise), and these are available in just about any grocery store.

To end this on an interesting note, during World War II, on the Burma front, Indian Army rations became very popular with Australian and British troops – so much so that curry rations began to be mixed in with their regular food. The kind of food that feels comforting in a relatively cool, damp climate like England’s isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re in hot, steamy Calcutta, sweating out the moisture in your body as fast as you can replenish it. There was a time, in the 17th century, when the English tried to eat like Englishmen in India, and it didn’t work too well; they soon came up with a saying – “two monsoons.” In other words, two years was how long you could expect to live, eating and drinking like that. Once the British adopted a more Indianized lifestyle, their death rates plunged. However, the idea that India was some kind of death sentence hung on, for a long time, because it often seemed that way. Statistically, however, you were safer in India than you were in London. That data, however, didn’t exist until the late 18th century.

Author: Aditya Bhuyan

I am an IT Professional with close to two decades of experience. I mostly work in open source application development and cloud technologies. I have expertise in Java, Spring and Cloud Foundry.

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