Begums, Thugs and White Mughals

Fanny Parkes


Begums, Thugs and White Mughals

Fanny Parkes


Fanny Parkes lived in India between 1822 and 1846. She was the ideal travel writer – courageous, indefatigably curious and determinedly independent. Her journals trace her transformation from a prim memsahib to an eccentric, sitar-playing Indophile, fluent in Urdu, critical of British rule and passionate in her appreciation of Indian culture.

Fanny is fascinated by the trial of thugs, the adorning of Hindu brides and swears by the efficacy of opium on headaches. To read her journals is to get as close as one can to a true picture of early colonial India – the sacred and the profane, the violent and the beautiful, the straight-laced sahibs and the ‘White Mughals’ who fell in love with India, married Indian wives and built bridges between the two cultures.

‘Her beautiful descriptive journals provide a remarkable insight into this crossroads in Anglo-Indian history.’ - Sunday Telegraph
‘... extraordinarily modern and readable.’ - Charles Allen
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Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes
Edited by: William Dalrymple
ISBN: 978-0907871-88-0
Format: 400pp demi pb
Place: India

Author Biography

Fanny Parkes (née Frances Susannah Archer) (1794–1875) was a Welsh travel writer. She is known for keeping extensive journals about colonial India where she lived for twenty-four years. In 1970, her memoirs became available for the first time since their original publication in 1850.

Extract from Chapter One

IN APRIL, 1822, Monsieur mon mari took me to Switzerland. For the first time, I quitted England. How beautiful was the Valley of Chamonix! How delightful our expedition on the La Flegère! The guides pronounced it too early in the year to attempt the ascent of Mont Blanc. We quitted the valley with regret, and returned to Geneva: but our plans were frustrated, and our hopes disappointed; for, on reaching the hotel, we found a letter requiring our instant return to England. The Marchioness of Ely, in which we had taken our passage to Bengal, was reported to be ready to sail in a few days: no time was to be lost; we started immediately, travelled night and day incessantly, and arrived, greatly harassed, in town. The illness brought on by the over-fatigue of that journey never quitted me for years. The vessel, however, was merely preparing for her departure, and did not sail until long after.

Happily the pain of separation from the beloved home of my childhood was broken by the necessity of exertion in preparation for the voyage.

June 13th – We went to Gravesend, to see the ship: it was scarcely possible to enter our destined abode, the port stern cabin; so full was it to overflowing – boxes of clothes, hampers of soda water, crates of china and glass – a marvellous confusion! After a time the hampers and boxes were carried below, the furniture cleated and lashed, and some sort of order was established.

We had carefully selected a ship that was not to carry troops: we now found the Ely had been taken up to convey four troops of H. M. 16th Lancers; the remainder of the regiment was to sail in the General Hewitt. Some of our fellow-passengers were on board on the same errand as ourselves.

June 18th – We had lingered with our friends, and had deferred the sad farewell until the last moment: half uncertain if we should be in time to catch the ship in the Downs, we posted to Deal, took refuge at the Three Kings, and had the satisfaction of watching the Marchioness of Ely, and the Winchelsea her companion, as they bore down. At eleven o’clock we went on board, and sailed the next day. There was such a glorious confusion on deck, that those who were novices in military and naval affairs might deem, as they gazed around, it could never subside into anything approaching order. Everyone, however, was saying it would be very different when the ship was at sea; of which, indeed, there was little doubt, for to go on as we were would have been impossible. Off the Isle of Wight the pilot left us to our captain’s guidance; the breeze was favourable; we were sailing so smoothly, there was scarcely any motion. The last farewell tears dropped as I passed the Needles and the coast of Hampshire, whilst memory recalled the happy days I had spent there, and in the Forest, the beautiful Forest!

Such thoughts and feelings it was necessary to throw aside. I joined the party in the cuddy, scrutinised the strange faces, and retired to my cabin, with as solitary a feeling as if my husband and I had been exiles for ever.

The voyage began prosperously; I was satisfied with the captain, with my cabin, with my servant, and happy with my lord and master.

We regretted we had taken our passage in a ship full of troops, and anticipated we should be debarred taking exercise on the quarterdeck, and enjoying ourselves with walk and talk during the fine moonlight nights. In the Ely it appeared as if it would be impossible; were you to attempt it, you would be sure to blunder over some sleeping Lancer. However, the band was on board – some small consolation; and as the society was large, there was more chance of entertainment.

July 1st – Porto Santo looked beautiful, its head enveloped in clouds. The rocky island rises boldly out of the sea; its mountains are very picturesque. The sight of land and white châteaux was quite charming.

I now began to recover from the maladie de mer, and to regain my usual good spirits. Creatures of habit, we soon grew accustomed to the small space. The stern cabin, twelve feet by ten, at first sight appeared most extremely inconvenient; but now it seemed to have enlarged itself, and we were more comfortable. Still sleep would scarcely visit me, until a swinging cot was pro- cured. From that time I slept calmly and quietly, whatever pranks the old Ely might choose to play.

The comfort or discomfort of a voyage greatly depends upon your fellow- passengers. In this respect we were most fortunate; one-half the officers of the 16th Lancers were in the Ely. The old 16th to me were friends; my father, who had been many years in the regiment, was forced to quit it, in consequence of a severe wound he received in action in the Pays Bas, under the command of the Duke of York. My uncle had commanded the gallant regiment in Spain, and other relatives had also been many years with the regiment. Chance had thrown us amongst friends.

Perhaps no friendships are stronger than those formed on board ship, where the tempers and dispositions are so much set forth in their true colours.

July 22nd – What a strange, bustling life! This is baggage day; all the trunks are on deck – such a confusion! I am suffering from maladie de mer; the wind is contrary; we tack and veer most tiresomely; the ship pitches; we cling about like cats, and are at our wits’ end, striving to endure our miseries with patience

The Bristol water is invaluable, the ship water very black, and it smells vilely. I knew not before the value of good water; and, were it not for the shower bath, should be apt to wish myself where Truth is – at the bottom of a well.

Yesterday such a noise arose on deck, it brought me to the scene of action in a minute: ‘Come here! Come here! Look! Look! There they go, like a pack of hounds in full cry!’ I did come, and I did look; and there were some hundred of skipjacks leaping out of the water, and following each other with great rapidity across the head of the ship. When many fish leaped up together, there was such laughing, shouting, pointing, and gazing, from four hundred full- grown people, it was absurd to see how much amusement the poor fish occasioned. I looked alternately at the fish and the people, and laughed at both.

A kind of rash teases me; in these latitudes they call it prickly heat, vow you cannot be healthy without it, and affirm that everyone ought to be glad to have it. SoamnotI.

Having beaten about the line for a fortnight, with a contrary wind, at length we entertained hopes of crossing it, and letters were received on board from Neptune and Amphitrite, requesting to be supplied with clothes, having lost their own in a gale of wind.

July 30th – Neptune and his lady came on board to acquaint the captain they would visit him in form the next day. The captain wished the god good- night, when instantly the deck was deluged with showers of water from the main-top, while a flaming tar-barrel was thrown overboard, in which Neptune was supposed to have vanished in flame and water.

July 31st – At nine o’clock the private soldiers who were not to be shaved were stationed on the poop with their wives; on the quarterdeck the officers and ladies awaited the arrival of the ocean-god. First in procession marched the band, playing ‘God save the King’; several grotesque figures followed; then came the car of Neptune – a gun-carriage – with such a creature for a coach- man! The carriage was drawn by six half-naked seamen, painted to represent tritons, who were chained to the vehicle. We beheld the monarch and his bride, seated in the car, with a lovely girl, whom he called his tender offspring. These ladies were represented by the most brawny, muscular, ugly and powerful fellows in the ship; the letters requesting female attire having procured an abundance of finery. The boatswain’s mate, a powerful man, naked to the waist, with a pasteboard crown upon his head and his speaking-trumpet in his hand, who represented Neptune, descended from his car, and offered the captain two fowls as tropical birds, and a salted fish on the end of a trident, lamenting that the late boisterous weather had prevented his bringing any fresh. A doctor, a barber with a notched razor, a sea-bear and its keeper, closed the procession.

Re-ascending the car, they took their station in front of the poop, and a rope was drawn across the deck to represent the line. Neptune then summoned the colonel-commandant of the Lancers to his presence, who informed him he had before entered his dominions. The major was then conducted, by a fellow calling himself a constable, to the foot of the car: he went up, expecting to be shaved, but the sea god desired him to present his wife to Amphitrite. After the introduction they were both dismissed.

My husband and myself were then summoned: he pleaded having crossed the line before. Neptune said that would not avail, as his lady had entered the small latitudes for the first time. After a laughable discussion, of to be shaved or not to be shaved, we were allowed to retire. The remainder of the passengers were summoned in turn. The sentence of shaving was passed upon all who had not crossed the line, but not carried into execution on the officers of the ship. The crew were shaved and ducked in form, and in all good humour. In the meantime the fire-engine drenched every body on deck, and the officers and passengers amused themselves for hours throwing water over each other from buckets. Imagine four hundred people ducking one another, and you may have some idea of the frolic. In the evening the sailors danced, sang, recited verses, and spliced the main brace (drank grog), until very late and the day ended as jovially as it began. Several times they charmed us with an appropriate song, roared at the utmost pitch of their stentorian lungs, to the tune of ‘There’s na luck about the house’.

We’ll lather away, and shave away, And lather away so fine,

We always have a shaving day Whenever we cross the line.

With sorrow I confess to having forgotten the remainder of the ditty, which ended – There’s nothing half so sweet in life As crossing of the line.

‘Rule Britannia’ with a subscription for the ruler of the seas, was the finale, leaving everyone perfectly satisfied with his portion of salt water. It was agreed the rites and ceremonies had never been better performed or with greater good humour.

Neptune was accompanied on board by a flying-fish that came in at one of the ports, perhaps to escape from an albicore: a lucky omen. The gentlemen amuse themselves with firing at the albatross, as they fly round and round the vessel; as yet, no damage has been done – the great birds shake their thick plumage, and laugh at the shot.

The favourite game is pitch-and-toss for dollars. Boxing is another method of spending time. Chess and backgammon boards are in high request; when the evenings are not calm enough for a quadrille or a waltz on deck, the passengers retire to the cuddy, to whist or blind hookey, and dollars are brought to table in cases that formerly contained Gamble’s most excellent portable soup! On the very general introduction of caoutchouc into every department of the arts and sciences, some of the principal shipbuilders pro- posed to form the keels of their vessels of indian-rubber, but abandoned the project apprehending the entire effacement of the equinoctial line.

August 1st – Caught a bonito and a sea-scorpion; the latter was of a beautiful purple colour, the under part white: also a nautilus and a blue shark; in the latter were four-and-twenty young ones. The shark measured seven feet; its young from twelve to fourteen inches. The colour of the back was blue, of the belly white; several sucking-fish were upon the monster, of which some were lost in hauling him on board: one of those caught measured nine inches and a half; it stuck firmly to my hand in an instant.

Our amusements concluded with viewing an eclipse of the moon.

A stiff gale split the mainsail and blew the foretop and mizentop sails to pieces: no further damage was sustained. I enjoyed the sight of the fine waves that tossed the vessel as if she were a cockleshell.

We caught two Cape pigeons, very beautiful birds; the moment they were brought on deck they suffered extremely from maladie de mer!

August 23rd – There is a ship alongside! A ship bound for England! It speaks of home and the beloved ones, and although I am as happy as possible, my heart still turns to those who have heretofore been all and everything to me, with a warmth of affection at once delightful and very painful.

August 27th – Lat. 32° 9' S., long. 4° 25' E. – A dead calm! Give me any day a storm and a half in preference! It was so miserable – a long heavy swell, without a ripple on the waves the ship rolled from side to side without advancing one inch; she groaned in all her timbers: the old Marchioness appeared to suffer and be as miserable as myself. The calm continued the next day, and the rolling also; the captain kindly allowed the jolly-boat to be lowered, in which some of the lancers and my husband went out shooting.

This day, the 28th of August, was the commencement of the shooting season: game was in abundance, and they sought it over the long heavy swell of the glasslike and unrippled sea. The sportsmen returned with forty head of game: in this number was an albatross, measuring nine feet from the tip of one wing to that of the other; a Cape hen, a sea-swallow, with several pintado and other birds.

When the boat returned, it brought good fortune; the wind instantly sprang up, and we went on our way rejoicing. This day a whale was seen at a distance; if it had approached the vessel, a captain of the Lancers had prepared a Congreve rocket for its acceptance.

September 1st – We spoke a Dutchman off the Cape, looking in a very pitiable condition: the same gale which had damaged her overtook us, and blew heavily and disagreeably for three days. The weather was very cold and wet, and we felt disappointed at not touching at the Cape.

September 10th – Lat. 36° 43' S., long. 45° 30' W., ther. 64° – Another calm, and another battue: the gentlemen returned from the watery plain with great éclat, bringing seven albatross, thirty pintados, a Cape hen, and two garnets. One of the albatross, which was stuffed for me, measured fifty-three inches from head to tail, and nine feet ten inches across the wings.

September 23 – A school of twenty or thirty whales passed near the ship; it was almost a calm; they were constantly on the surface, frolicking and spouting away. They were, the sailors said, of the spermaceti order, which are smaller in size, and do not spout so high as the larger race. I was disappointed. Two of the officers of the Lancers rowed within ten yards of a large whale, and fired a Congreve rocket into its body; the whale gave a spring and dived instantly. The rocket would explode in a few seconds and kill him: a good prize for the first ship that falls in with the floating carcase. They fired at another, but the rocket exploded under water and came up smoking to the surface. The boat returned safely to the ship, but it was rather a nervous affair.

September 25th – Another calm allowed of more shooting, and great was the slaughter of sea game. I must make an extract from Colonel Luard’s work, speaking of a battle that took place on the 10th: ‘The Cape hen was a large fierce black bird, and only having its wing broken, tried to bite every person’s legs in the boat. When she was placed on the ship’s quarterdeck, a small terrier belonging to one of the officers attacked her, and they fought for some time with uncertain advantage; the bloody streams from the dog proving the severity of the bird’s bite: at last the terrier seized his adversary by the throat, when the battle and the bird’s life ended together. In lat. 4° 13' S., long. 93° 11' E., the thermometer in the sun standing at 130°, and in the shade 97°, two small birds, in every respect resembling the English swallow, came about the ship. One of them was caught, and died; the other (probably in hopes of rejoining its companion) remained with the ship fourteen or fifteen days, frequently coming into the cabins and roosting there during the night. It was at last missing; and, not being an aquatic bird, perhaps met a watery death’.

During the time of the battue on the third day, three sharks were astern; we caught one that had a young one by her side. When opened on deck, a family of twenty-four were found, each about twelve or fourteen inches long; the mother measured seven feet. The shark is said to swallow its young when in peril, and to disgorge them when the danger has passed. The curious birds and fish we see relieve the tedium of the voyage.