Thumbu Sammy, 1911

The SAADA 2020 calendar began January with a striking image. It was taken by photographer Augustus Sherman in 1911, part of a series depicting new Ellis Island arrivals. We don’t know much at all about the boy in the picture. Titled “Hindoo boy”, the subject is identified in Peter Mesenhöller’s “Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920” (c1905) p.94 from another print that bears a caption: Thumbu Sammy, aged 17, Hindoo ex SS ‘Adriatic’, April 14, 1911. 

Who was this boy, I wonder? He’s well dressed. Look at the gold-trimmed cap, the diamond earring, and the shawl wrapped about his shoulders. What would have sent a 17-year-old around the world on the SS Adriatic in 1911? Here was what happened in 1911 in his native India:

I wonder, was it plague that drove the boy? Or was he part of a resistance to British rule so he had to leave? Or was his wealthy family interested in sending him to an American university? And what became of him? Where did he go from Ellis Island in 1911? Where did he live and die? Is there anyone today who counts him among their ancestors?

So many unknowns. And a photographer who caught a face, a posture, and those remarkable details of clothing and jewelry and hair.

What Draws You There?

empiremade.jpgEmpire Made by Kief Hillsbery is part travelogue, part family memoir. It’s the story of Nigel Halleck who sets out from England to be a clerk in the East India Company in 1841. But it’s also the story of his American nephew many times removed, who travels to India, Nepal, England, and Afghanistan, to unearth Nigel’s story.

I loved the rabbit-holes of the Raj the book took me down—the Golghar in Patna, the Russian in the court of Nepal, the machinations following Ranjit Singh’s death, the atrocious goings-on at Haileybury, the origin of the phrase “in the nick of time,” the sad tale of the decline of Dacca and its eponymous muslins, and so much more. The book follows the slow evolution of the Company from a band of feckless adventurers into the instrument of Empire but along the way, the tales of oddball characters lend enchantment (Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, is just one among them). Fluid writing with an engaging narrative sweep. IMG_3393.jpgI found it pleasing when odd, unexpected connections showed up–e.g., Monier Williams whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary sits authoritatively on my bookshelf, was a classmate of Nigel’s.

Finally, Hillsbery offers an unusual take on all these layers of history for two reasons: firstly, because he’s American, he makes connections broader than either a British or an Indian writer might. He notes, e.g., how the Cornwallis monument in Calcutta commemorates  his victories in battles against Americans in the Carolinas, Irish rebels in Connacht, and Indians under Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore. And secondly, while I felt from the start how deeply personal this story was, there remained mysteries about it that didn’t clear until the very end. At that point those elements became a kind of poetry, echoing fragments of information I’d had from the beginning, only it took this whole journey through history and geography for me to understand what they meant.

I suppose the question to ask yourself, in every writing project that comes your way, is “What draws you there?” Those lines connecting writer and subject gained in strength and significance as I read my way through this book, each link placed clearly and with intention.


A Hedge? A Customs Hedge?

So Trump wants his beautiful wall, right, and at once time he said he wanted to make Mexico pay for it?

IMG_2382.JPGAs with so many follies of history, it turns out that particular strategy’s been tried before. The Brits built a wall of sorts in India, back in the days of the East India Company. And they intended to make the Indians pay for it.

It wasn’t exactly a wall, all the way. It was a hedge–well, sort of.

A Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2300 miles; and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men… It would have stretched from London to Constantinople… it consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.

A hedge? A Customs hedge? Turns out this was all about the infamous Salt Tax. On a whim, writer Roy Moxham, stumbling upon a reference to the hedge, decided to go look for it in India.

Now needles and haystacks are as nothing compared to the task of finding anything at all in India. The country of my birth, if I say so myself, specializes in obfuscation, delays, disappearing mirages, bureaucratic stumbling blocks, and other kinds of phenomena in the nearly-there-but-oh-no-look-out! category.

The Great Hedge of India combines Moxham’s historical quest with his journey on the ground. It’s full of marvelous information like the history of the tax on salt, which the East India Company quietly appropriated from local royal traditions and began to impose, in defiance of orders from London. The amount of salt used by an Indian family, it seems, was the subject of fierce argument, as was the question of whether Indian cattle or sheep needed salt. It’s an improbable story, well told, with little digressions into such things as the body’s need for salt and what is likely to have happened to people who were deprived of it.

The hedge itself was abandoned in 1879. If finding it on the ground seems an impossible task, consider also that Moxham had never used a map or a compass to go on a really long walk before. India is not the most salubrious setting to exercise such beginning skills. Moxham’s book alternately amuses and enlightens. The quixotic travel chapters detail the hospitality and kindness of friends and strangers alike, painting a heartwarming picture of rural India.

If Trump had any sense at all, he’d see the futility of this wall project. Unfortunately, he is no better equipped with either common sense or compassion than were the greedy and ruthless in the Company’s higher ranks, or their poorly paid, corrupt subordinates.


A Clear Sign

KohinoorThe lies contained in conventional historical narrative sometimes carry a peculiar, irrational sting.

Take the Koh-i-noor Diamond, currently part of the British crown jewels. A Smithsonian article by Lorraine Boissoneault examines its history and reviews a book about it, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by historians Anita Anand and William Dalrymple.

I had to read this book, because I remember seeing the thing itself, in an exhibit at the Tower of London back in the 1980’s. And I remember how seeing it made me feel a little ill. It was part of a whole lot of purloined goods. Instinctively, I knew that everything in the interpretive text was a lie. I knew that, even though I hadn’t quite formed the words to say so at the time.

“A gift from the people of India?” You’re kidding me! It was nothing of the sort. It had been taken off the hands of a ten-year old prince, sole heir to a kingdom in India–along with the rest of the kingdom, naturally. Ten years old. We don’t know how things would have turned out if he’d been allowed to grow into his ancestral role. He wasn’t exactly a gentlemanly role-model or anything like that. For now he lies buried in England. But he was just a child, and all of Empire was aligned against him.

Anand and Dalrymple take readers through the dramatic, poisoned history of the diamond, which can as well be read as a history of the subcontinent itself. The Kohinoor played, they say, a cameo role in that history, elusive and not as sparkling as you might think. Everyone wants it, the East India Company included. And here’s the thing, of all the kings and merchants, soldiers and courtiers who coveted it over the centuries, no one’s hands are really clean. As for the thing itself, it ends up cut down to half its size, around Queen Victoria’s neck.

The book leaves us with the question: what do we do with these stolen artifacts from the colonial era? What should we do with them in the real world and in our minds? Let’s be real. The likelihood of the diamond’s return to the land of the riverbed that gave it up is nonexistent. Still, the book makes us probe the questions related to that possibility: To whom might one return the diamond, since the king who last owned it was deposed and is now dead and the kingdom itself no longer exists?

Perhaps a clear sign by the museum case is an option, a sign that does not disingenuously gloss over the historical facts. Three decades ago, when I came to set my tourist’s eyes on the fat, glassy gem, and felt a sudden pang at being lied to, I think a clear sign would have gone a long way for me.