London and the British Library on British Cemeteries in Colonial India

Melissa Turoff, Class of 2007

In London, thanks to my Clark Fellowship in the winter of 2007, I met the British Empire. Of course, this is not exactly true, but at the end of my ten days in London, I truly felt that I had come face-to-face with the subject of my study in a variety of ways. I went to London to do primary source research for my senior thesis, which is on the creation of British cemeteries in colonial India at the turn of the 18th century, the way they illuminate the formation of early imperial ideologies, and then on the discourse on these cemeteries in the late Empire as a means of creating a history for the Raj and as a form of nostalgia for the early Empire during the Raj itself.

Excited by the relative originality of my look at colonial cemeteries, and the fact that so little has been written on it (a fact that is fairly remarkable considering the well-trodden nature of the study of the British Empire in India), I set off to London with the intention of finding the primary sources only available at the British Library: the actual legal creation of the cemetery I was focusing on (South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta, founded in 1767), the original wills and testaments of those buried there, the discussion on how these enormous and extravagant monuments were actually erected, newspaper obituaries and eulogies from Anglo-Indian periodicals from the 18th century, and photographs of the South Park Street Cemetery.

Once in London, I started my academic adventure into the bowels of the East India Company and India Office records contained in the Asia, Pacific, and Africa Reading Room. The librarians there, whom I befriended and got to know fairly well in my daily visits to the library, were extremely helpful in navigating the daunting amounts of information contained in that Reading Room alone. I spent hours pouring over late 18th-century and early 19th-century record books, deciphering and becoming familiar with the handwriting of men like Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Judicature of Fort William in Bengal in the 1780s. The hours I spent reading and typing as I tried to soak in and record everything I possibly could, were both frustrating and exciting, and always, through the lens of retrospect, entirely fruitful (even if a source I had spent hours copying never made it into my thesis). The time I spent with these original documents, seeing the transformation from the haphazard records of the early Empire to the methodically published handbooks given to imperial magistrates in the late Empire, really gave me a sense of perspective on what life in early imperial Calcutta was like. Leafing through a memorial album—a scrapbook dating from 1861 dedicated to the death of Lady Charlotte Canning, wife of the first Viceroy of India—I touched Lady Canning’s favorite flowers from the garden at Barrackpore, which had been pasted in by her best friend.

Yet when I say that I met the British Empire in London, I mostly refer to my interview, or rather entire afternoon, with Theon Wilkinson, the 83-year-old author of the book Two Monsoons, a fairly atavistic non-academic look at British death, cemeteries, and mourning rituals in colonial India. I was really thrilled and honored to be meeting this man, not only because he seemed to be the authority on my topic, but also because his book contained no footnotes or citations, so I was eager to hear if he could provide me with any useful sources. He bought me coffee and later lunch and then we moved to a quiet place to talk because he is deaf in one ear. He was born in Cawnpore in 1926 into a family of imperial magistrates. He was sent back to England for school and when he returned he immediately became an officer in the British army during WWII, where he commanded a huge battalion of “native” infantry. He then went to Oxford, and as soon as he got out of University, he became an imperial magistrate in Kenya during the Mau Mau war for independence. He was “25 years old, and suddenly in charge of an area the size of Wales.” He guarded Mau Mau prisoners. My conversation with Mr. Wilkinson was very moving and illuminating. I realized that this thing I had called “the British Empire,” which I had studied from afar, criticized, and even vilified, for my entire academic career, was made up of human beings like Mr. Wilkinson, whom I genuinely liked and respected.

Mr. Wilkinson is also the founder of the British Association of South Asian Cemeteries (BACSA), a non-governmental institution with a fairly imperial apologetic and Raj nostalgic outlook which seeks to preserve the graves of Britain’s imperial heroes who made the British Empire. The BACSA archives, contained in the British Library, provided an extremely useful and extensive (though a bit disorganized) reserve of grave-inscriptions and photographs for my thesis. Mr. Wilkinson proudly and kindly showed me his desk and private archives, along with the archives and sources that were at my disposal. We corresponded throughout the rest of my trip through hand-written letters suggesting further sources of interest, which he sent directly to my hotel, since he doesn't have e-mail. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Wilkinson, not only for his academic advice and help, but also for, perhaps unintentionally, showing me the human side of the British Empire, still very much alive to those who lived through it. My critical distance from my studies was, in the best way possible, fractured by my meeting this former imperial magistrate, who is now both a scholar and activist seeking to preserve British graves in India, for him a very personal endeavor.

Thanks to the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship, not only did I find many of the sources I was looking for in the British Library and in the Victoria and Albert Design Museum Library, but, surrounded by doctoral students and professors writing their books, I realized the weight and importance of the excitement I was feeling—that this was what I wanted to do, that this research trip to London, and my thesis in general, was a small but important step in what I hope will be a long academic career.