By Fanny Parkes,William Dalrymple

Fanny Parkes lived in India among 1822 and 1846 and used to be the perfect go back and forth author – brave, indefatigably curious and determinedly self reliant. Her journals hint her transformation from prim memsahib to eccentric, sitar-playing Indophile, fluent in Urdu, severe of British rule and passionate in her appreciation of Indian tradition. Fanny is fascinated with the trial of thugs, the decorating of a Hindu bride and swears via the efficacy of opium on complications. To learn her is to get as shut as you may to a real photograph of early colonial India – the sacred and the profane, the violent and the gorgeous, the straight-laced sahibs and the ‘White Mughals’ who fell in love with India, married Indian other halves and equipped bridges among the 2 cultures.

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Additional resources for Begums, Thugs and White Mughals. The Journals of Fanny Parkes

Sample text

The possibilities seemed endless. Yet in the early years of the nineteenth century, this optimism and excitement began to wane, and senior figures in the Company became openly disdainful of all things Indian. Partly the reasons for this were political. In the eighteenth century the Company was a small, vulnerable coastal power that depended on the goodwill of Indian rulers. Many Indian armies were better equipped and better trained than those of the Company: the armies of Tipu Sultan for example had rifles and canon which were based on the latest French designs, and their artillery had a heavier bore and longer range than anything possessed by the Company’s armies.

Within a few years, the missionaries – initially based at the Dutch settlement of Serampore – were beginning to fundamentally change British perceptions of the Hindus. No longer were they inheritors of a body of sublime and ancient wisdom as Jones and Hastings believed, but instead merely ‘poor benighted heathen’, or even ‘licentious pagans’, some of whom, it was hoped, were eagerly awaiting conversion, and with it the path to Civilisation. It was at this period too that the first development of ideas of racial purity, of colour and ethnic hierarchy, and the beginnings of straightforward racialism emerged: ideas which would of course reach there most horrifying denouement in the middle years of the twentieth century, but whose roots can be traced to developments in European thought a century earlier, and at least partly to developments in British India.

Even when she dislikes a particular Indian custom, she often finds herself engaged intellectually. ’ No wonder the Eden sisters turned their noses up at Fanny Parkes, complaining that she clung onto their party, taking advantage of their protection while touring the lawless roads of Northern India and taking the liberty of pitching her tent next to theirs: she was a free spirit and an independent mind in an age of imperial conformity. Behind the jibes of the Eden sisters (‘There is something very horrid and unearthly in all this,’ wrote Fanny Eden on March 17th, ‘nobody ever had a fat attendant spirit before …’) lies a clear uneasiness that ‘Bibi Parkes’ (as they call her) is a woman whom they would like instinctively to look down upon, but who is clearly having more fun – and getting to know India much better – than they are.

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