WILLIAM IN INDIA
My father who served in both India and Burma during the latter stages of World War Two told me that for all the preparations, inoculations and warnings, nothing quite prepared you for this vast country.
Although I am not certain of William’s actual movements during his stay in India, my father noted that he was stationed in the northern part of the country for a while which in contrast to the oppressive heat further south, was surprisingly cool. He further noted that when stationed in Bombay, it felt he had visited two completely different countries within five months of his initial arrival.
I have never visited India but a contemporary observation from my daughter sticks in mind. On her way to Australia she was diverted to Calcutta as a fellow passenger suffered heart problems whilst travelling. Although she did not leave the plane she was shocked at what she saw from her window. Literally metres from the airport there was the most appalling poverty. This was an image that has haunted her ever since.
This was in 2002 over one hundred and twenty years after William first set foot in India (strangely enough almost to the date of Williams’s arrival. Jenai’s unplanned visit was on the 15th July 2002 whereas I have already noted that William first set foot in India it appears on the 12th July 1882.
But apart from obviously from the airport was the poverty my daughter witnessed very much different from what William would have discovered in 1882. My father said that India was a country of extreme contrasts and I think that is as true today as it was in 1882.
In 1882 we were at the heart of Empire where on maps most of the world seemed to be coloured red. Britain was at the top of the pile and controlled many thousands of miles of territory. In India’s case this would last for another sixty five years until the rushed independence of 1947.
But for anybody in India in July 1882 this would have been the last item in their thoughts although I would think that some more enlightened men may have seen the signs of decay even then.
The British involvement in India really began to take off in the eighteenth century. In the early part of that century we became influential in trading along the coast. But then we began to move inland and were successful even though we were involved in great deal of conflict. Books on the period note that by the end of the century we had subdued most Indian states either by conquest or by making them subordinates.
This was not by far our first involvement with India. We had been via the East India Company been given a monopoly of all our trade to Asia since its foundation in 1600. I will quote a short section from the BBC British History internet site which will give the reader a flavour of how important India was to us.
Towards the end of the 17th century, India became the focal point of the Company's trade. Cotton cloth woven by Indian weavers was being imported into Britain in huge quantities to supply a worldwide demand for cheap, washable, lightweight fabrics for dresses and furnishings. The Company's main settlements, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were established in the Indian provinces where cotton textiles for export were most readily available. These settlements had evolved from 'factories' or trading posts into major commercial towns under British jurisdiction, as Indian merchants and artisans moved in to do business with the Company and with the British inhabitants who lived there.
But this came at a price as there were a large number of regional states and whilst some remained stable and saw the great advantages that the British had to offer, others were different.
There were many conflicts and uprisings as power and influence were chased. An Edwardian book I once read called these Small Wars were in most cases, put down with bloody consequences. The situation was not helped that by the 1740s we were also bickering with our closest neighbour, France.
But let us travel forward some one hundred and forty years to the 1880s when William was in India. How much had it changed?
Well although the East India Company was still in existence and had helped enlarge the Empire beyond the shores of India with the acquisition of Java (1811), Singapore (1819), Malacca (1824) and the defeat of Burma in 1826, the British Crown began to have a greater influence in the company's affairs.
Various acts were passed which regulated the company’s activities and confirmed the sovereignty of the Crown over acquired territories. The real nail in the coffin was the wholly avoidable Indian Rebellion of 1857. This was a bloody conflict with heavy losses on both sides.
One still reads of stories of the way British women and children were treated during the rebellion but little is mentioned of the bloody retribution that the British took on the rebels once the uprising was crushed.
In 1858 the company was dissolved through the Government of India Act 1858. The British Raj came into being and a Governor-General was appointed. Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India and India in turn was known as the Jewel in the Crown, a well-known term.
But all was not well, as with today there were the very rich and the very poor. There were widespread famines and millions of people died (some estimate fifteen million deaths over a fifty year period) As per all things British, commissions were set up to investigate these catastrophes but really, the situation (which had its roots in The East India Company) was not really under control until the early twentieth century.
I wonder what William would have made of all this when coming from his ship and standing on Indian soil for the first time. He may well have had a good idea of what he was going to face and would have known India via the newspapers and other journals of the time. Or, on the other hand William might have had no idea at all with Her Majesty's Rules & Regulations governing his every movement.
It is hard to tell, but what I do know is that William was involved in a war in Burma during 1885-86. His discharge papers tell me that he was entitled to a medal for his part in the Third Anglo-Burmese War (Third Burma War) of 1885 (Although clashes occurred for another two years).
This was the the third and final of three wars fought during Victorian times between the Burmese and the British. This war resulted in the final loss of sovereignty of the independent Burma under the Konbaung Dynasty.
Its rule had been severely damaged due to the loss of Lower Burma in 1853, the result of the Second Burmese War (1852). After this war Burma (as with India) was ruled under the British Raj as a province of India. This was the case until 1937 when the British then treated Burma as a separate colony. In the aftermath of World War Two Burma achieved full independence in 1948 a year after India.
The third conflict also involved our neighbours the French. About five years prior to the actual war, the British were getting increasingly concerned with the cosiness between Burma and France. It appears, through intelligence, that we became aware that the Burmese were trying to purchase military equipment from the French.
This triggered off a number of petty disputes including border disputes with India. The French actions in Burma convinced the British to take firm action against Burma as it began to note the seeds of rebellion taking root.
The British gave the Burmese an ultimatum that amongst other things required the Burmese to submit to British control its foreign relations and various other commercial aspects of the country.
As you can imagine this was rejected and another Small War had begun.
Whilst researching this war on the internet I came across an amusing mnemonic which might have helped a brighter schoolboy in later days to remember the exact date of the war.
It concerns a Burmese defence minister called Kinwun Mingyi U Kaung (1822-1908) and reads as follows
U Kaung lein htouk, minzet pyouk ("U Kaung's treachery, end of dynasty": U=1, Ka=2, La=4, Hat=7 in Burmese numerology i.e. Burmese Era 1247 or 1885AD).
I think this mnemonic would have been the last thing on William’s mind whether at the time or in 1886 when Burma was annexed. I can only guess at Williams’s role in this complicated uprising.
He may have been involved in combat or his influence might have been behind the lines although, the award of the medal does give me the impression that William did see combat.
He does not seem to have suffered any wounds and his discharge certificate shows his conduct as exemplary. He was the perfect soldier as many, many were during their service.
William received his discharge certificate in Winchester on the 10th of May 1887 and for the time being I have lost track of him. Did he return to the Isle of Wight a wiser man and take up his previous occupation or similar?
Strangely, I would have thought that a soldier by the name of William Colenutt would have been easily enough to trace but there were a good number of William Colenutt’s serving with the British Army in the nineteenth century.
In view of this, I have decided to extend my researches further to see if I can track William down after his release from the army in 1887. I am looking to research his life afterwards, whether he married, had issues. In short, what happened to him?
I will call this, I hope – A Civilian Life – Part Three - (William’s Return).
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