In December last year I took two volumes of the biography of Henry Bartle Frere by John Martineau, published in 1895, out of the archives of one of London’s libraries. Over days I read close to 800 pages, which includes excerpts from seven to eight thousands letters that Bartle Frere wrote.
By the end I was feeling more than a bit queasy on the high moral Victorian prose. Normally, history books I have read go in a tottering pile out in the hallway, out of sight, out of mind. But I was troubled by Bartle Frere; I needed to keep him where I could see him. His two-volume life instead went in a small pile on the kitchen floor. For several months moving around the kitchen I walked past these books. I wondered if William Dalrymple was having similar problems getting his head around the methods and arts of the East India Company in Bengal, for his forthcoming The Anarchy. I also didn’t know what to do with this bit of history, other than relating it, although in the programme of roads and rail and communications (built on the labour of the poor and oppressed) that the British drove, there are parallels in today’s Pakistan.
First it was a question of sifting what seemed likely and what didn’t seem likely from his correspondence. Far away in his posting in Sind, and then Calcutta and then Bombay, official letter writing was clearly something of an all-encompassing pastime for Bartle Frere. That in itself was an indication of his being a paperwork megalomaniac to some extent, despite the “cold weather” tours that he made of Sind, and that much of his correspondence – to his superiors in London and Calcutta and sometimes to John Lawrence in Lahore who finds him a nuisance and doesn’t reply – was designed to “big-up” his achievements. Martineau also quotes from the 1860s that as regards his relations with the British, first as the East India Company in Calcutta and then as the British government in India, “In the Legislative Council of Calcutta and afterwards in governorship (of Bombay) which he now vacates Sir B Frere’s skill and good fortune have not failed him. When in his latter office there have been complaints that he has sometimes promised more than he performed.”
Henry Bartle Frere and Charles Napier are kindred spirits
True, Frere seems to have had a grip on the Company military, particularly through the Anglo-Indian contractor John Jacob (of the Sind Irregular Horse), and was forever in conversation with “Shet” (he must mean Seth) Naomul their man in Karachi – who at one stage promised to bring mercenaries from Africa to back up Company troops – but Frere seems to have directed what rule he had by the pen and from within his four walls. What emerges most strongly though it all are East India Company preoccupations. Frere had been through Haileybury, the East India Company school, where I surmise he had learnt the three mantras that defined his time in Sind and in the Bombay presidency: military barracks, irrigation and roads, and a barely concealed sideline in sequestering princely states.
Henry Bartle Edward Frere, born March 1815, one of eleven children of a genteel Etonian squire now on hard times, like two of his five brothers found his way out to India in the late 1830s. There is the small detail in Martineau’s biography that when as a young man in India, in the Bombay presidency, Frere is ill with an inflamed liver. This is either alcohol, or hepatitis, or perhaps both. He makes an advantageous marriage to Catherine the daughter of the Governor of Bombay, Sir George Arthur. This takes him on the up.
After a time as a revenue collector then political agent in Sattara, coincidental with the death of the Rajah, a representative of the old Mahratta dynasty that the British were keen to weaken, and the annexation of the province for the Company, Frere is appointed Commissioner of Sind, on the recommendation of Lord Dalhousie in Calcutta and arrives in Karachi in January 1851. He will remain as commissioner until 1859.
In Kurrachee there is a briefing with Charles Napier, a forward man to his fingertips, who controversially annexed Sind because Runjeet Singh would not allow Company troops through Punjab to the Afghan frontier, who is now leaving office. The two are kindred spirits. Napier introduces Bartle Frere to their man, Shet Naomul, who ambitiously is running a Hindu fight-back to the political rule of the Mirs. After Miani, Napier dispatched three of the Talpur Mirs to Bombay and then to Calcutta imprisonment and seized their lands. The last, Ali Morad, in Khirpur, is still alive, but rendered politically impotent by the Company regime when they seize his lands. (Martineau says astonishingly that Ali Morad lives until 1894!)
For their failure to pay their debts, the Indian elites in Bombay are lined up for jail and penal servitude, just as Frere intended
Bartle Frere describes the condition of Sind when he arrived there as there was “not a mile of bridged or of metalled road, not a masonry bridge of any kind in fact not five miles of any cleared road”. This he seeks to correct with an ambitious scheme of roads. He instigates one over the Lukee range near Sehwan, so linking Shikapur to Karachi, which means the Indus doesn’t have to be crossed and then recrossed. The roads between villages aren’t metalled, but forty feet in width and run straight through jungle.
During his time three irrigation projects were also initiated – the Begari Canal 1855-56 and Ghar Canal 1856-57 and at Roree, the Eastern Nara canal commenced in 1853 and finished in 1859, at a cost 5 lakh rupees, for cultivation of indigo, sugarcane, rice, wheat. Alongside roads that were constructed – the official account makes mention of nearly 6,000 miles – there was a substantial programme of communications in plan. In April 1858 Frere inaugurated the Sind railway to connect Kotri on the Indus and Karachi to save the necessity of sending goods and passengers to Gisri Bandar. Two steam trains are planned between Karachi and Multan – the Oriental Inland Steam Company, established 1856 began working in Sind in 1858. After the Uprising of 1857, Frere also attempts to convince the government of India (sensibly) that Kurrachee and not Calcutta was the natural port of Punjab.
What emerge next are many signs of a political clampdown in Sind. The British favour the Hindus and sideline the Muslim population because they dread an insurgency. Persian – described as “bastard Persian” – is outlawed as a language of rule or administration. Bartle Frere has a deliberate policy of encouraging all things Sindi, including language, as a way to extend control. In upper Sind, Hindu moneylenders are encouraged to get the zaminders into debt, as a slow-burning attempt to wrest the land south of Punjab into the Raj’s hands.
The East India Company has a veritable thing about zaminders all over India and they are regularly insulted in official documents. In the 1860s as Florence Nightingale campaigns for sanitary reform and hospitals in India she recounts unknowingly the Company line that India is in “slavery to zaminders”. The reason isn’t difficult to understand, since the zaminders control the tracts of land that the Raj want. In Sind, as in Bengal, the policy of lulling them into debt with itinerant Hindu bankers has little effect. The zaminders don’t mind about the debt. They continue to build grand houses and maintain luxurious lifestyles. In Sind they also count on the fact that the Company is busy further west and won’t much trouble them.
This turns out to be absolutely true. General John Jacob, commander of the Sind Irregular Horse, an Anglo-India mercenary “dark of complexion” as Frere as his commanding officer writes, is quelling the area around Sibi. Today he is remembered as a “pir” in Jacobabad. In the 1850s he is having a high old time, consolidating the area, making raids against the Murrees (Marris) and Boogtees (Bugtis), rounding them up and using them as indentured labour to build irrigation canals. Under Jacob the area is run by coercion, threats and gunpowder.
In 1857, the year of the Rising (or the Ghaddar), the feeble excuse that “Persia may invade” is used to increase aggressive action against the Khan of Kelat and the tribes. Back in Karachi, when he can tear himself away from his letter writing and his Minutes to the Company in Calcutta – the only governance that is suitable here is self-governance, in other words, “let me do exactly what I want” – Frere reacts promptly by sending troops to Punjab and sending 550 men of the 1st Fusiliers and Belooch battalion on the Indus to Multan, which was garrisoned by local troops. In September he faces a mutiny in Karachi. Thirty years later, Empress Market will be constructed on the grounds where the native sepoys were executed by means of example after the Ghaddar, to suppress mutinous feelings amongst the rebels.
In Sind, between the lines, the Company was viewed in many quarters with fear and loathing. Indentured labour was used to drive roads and a rail track into the interior – the way that it is done is that a fire is lit kilometres up ahead and the jungle then cleared by slave labour following the plume of smoke. The Kotree to Kurrachee railway line goes bankrupt in July 1859 for 125,000 rupees – the work force are starving and have not been paid for three months – and no-one is held to account. Once the British Government in India has taken control in 1858, it becomes more difficult to extract the revenue, now administered from Calcutta, on which Frere relied. John Lawrence, formerly of Punjab, and a moderate and liberal who favoured “masterly inactivity”, disliked Frere for his bellicose tendencies anyway. As Governor of India he will ignore Bartle Frere’s voluminous pleas for money, soldiers, improved barracks, arms.
Your man in Sind starts looking at other options. Frere’s early interest in Karachi harbour was apparent in October 1852 when he stands with his wife at Manora Point watching through field glasses the Duke of Argyle, “an English ship laden with troops, the first that ever made the voyage direct from England to Sind” come over the sand bar into the harbour “and let his imagination picture all that that scene implied for the future of Kurrachee, of Sind and of North-western India”. Between the years 1853-54 and 1857-58 the value of seaborne trade of Karachi rose from nearly £9 million to £21 million and in 1859 it was almost as great as that of Madras.
Frere introduced the practice of holding annual fairs for promoting trade in Sind. To encourage the traders all frontier duties were to be remitted during the time of the fairs. This brought traders from Central Asia and Bombay together, fairs in 1852 were held in Karachi and Sukkur in upper Sindh. Frere also initiated his own postage stamp, the Scinde District Dawk stamp, although it was abolished in 1856 when regular all India stamps were introduced. “The stamp,” writes Frere of his dawk stamp “you will observe is the old East India Company’s modification of the broad arrow which the EIC used I believe from the time of Charles II til the Company itself was abolished.”
His firm military grip during 1857 meant that Frere, like a rolling stone that gathers no moss, is promoted somewhat beyond his capabilities. In April 1862 he is appointed governor of Bombay. Company man that he is, he is always thinking of revenues for the military. Frere commissioned a report in 1863 that showed that “half a million sterling was wanted to house your European troops, not luxuriously, but according to what was observed by the military the ordinary and admitted requirements of life in India”.
Thankfully, the disruption of the American Civil War has positively impacted Bombay’s cotton trade. Between 1861 and 1865 Bombay booms as the world hub for cotton, cotton finally rivaling opium as the main trade. There are vast speculative bubbles, in land, in reclamation schemes, in the future price of cotton. A well-heeled coterie of Indian merchants, Parsee and Hindu, become spectacularly rich. Frere sets out to siphon off some funds.
By now I know that Frere is something of a pyromaniac. In the correspondence that flows to Calcutta, the mark of the East India Company forever on him, Frere announces that he knows the date of share flotation when the government of Bombay Back Bay Reclamation Scheme will crash! He also has a hand in the collapse of the Bank of Bombay, founded 1840. There are questions in Parliament in London. This time he is called to account. His governorship of Bombay is terminated in March 1867. Frere is summoned home to appear before a committee in 1868. He calmly blames the collapse of the Bank of Bombay on an Indian, Premchund Roychund, a friend of the British secretary of the Bank. It was, he states, nothing to do with his governorship. For their failure to pay their debts, the Indian elites in Bombay are lined up for jail and penal servitude, just as Frere intended.
Unbelievably, Disraeli’s government now sends him to South Africa. In South Africa, trying to annex Transvaal, Frere’s past begins to catch up with him and the Liberal party under Prime Minister Gladstone, finally get their man. He is recalled in disgrace to London. Gladstone made a damning speech that “Sir Bartle Frere, who was the great authority for the proceedings of the Government in Affghanistan, has announced in South Africa that it will be necessary for us to extend our dominions till we reach the Portuguese frontier of the north”. The press turn on Frere as the man who aggressively forced the first Afghan war and caused the collapse of the Bombay banking system and economy which also affected British merchants.
The high Victorian prose of John Martindale’s biography as he begins to sum up now seems laced with the sinister.
“One thing well known is that Sir Bartle Frere has no fondness for what are called safe colleagues and subordinates … in Sind it was notorious that this steady blameless man took more to energetic and often injudicious officers of all services than he did to more steady going ones.” In other words, beneath the veneer of propriety, Bartle Frere was drawn to the darker side of human company.
“He relied in great part and as it proved justifiably in preserving Sind on his own personal influence with Belochees and Mahrattas and on that perfect sweetness and serenity of demeanour which exercises so peculiar a charm over the minds of Asiastics when they knew that it does not proceed from ignorance of the danger that may be gathering around.” The translation being that Frere managed his territories by making threats of military action.
Yet I wonder. Martineau’s biography, published just in 1895, just two years short of the high-tide of Imperialism and Victoria’s golden jubilee, is what you might expect of the time. The prose is opaque, the darker glimpses of Frere are to be found only between the lines of the purple prose.
I know things aren’t right in Sind, but I am still unsure of the real picture, although there are many interesting parallels with the present in Pakistan, particularly the terrible ill-treatment of those who are building the communications infrastructure, the roads and the canals and so on.
Frere was undoubtedly mad and bad, but there are other stories too, and Henry is an unexpectedly good sketcher and line drawer. His favourite younger brother Richard, of the 13th (Somerset) Light Infantry who took part in the first Afghan war, is in India too, along with their brother William. Richard will die in Rawal Pindee in 1843. In May 1839 Henry writes from Poona to his sister relaying Richard’s description of the army of the Indus’s advance through the Bolan pass to Quetta. It is evocative and poetic. From Shirkarpur they make 27 miles over the desert “the silence around them” being “awful”.
Then the pass itself is described, a narrow valley at first between hills of clay and gravel and then limestone. On the fourth day they were clear of the pass and on a small plain, the hills surrounding capped with snow. The ground was covered with tulips, anemones, dandelions, clover, and on the sides of the hills were cypresses, rhododendrons, geraniums and “they recognised many of the birds as old European friends”.
Thoughts of home, vulnerability and fear – these are also part of the story of Company men in Sind.
Catriona Luke is an editor and writer based in London