On the travels of Charles Acland in Hindoostan (1842-1845)

Out of the hundreds of books I’ve read in 2010, I would be hard pressed to find a more intriguing one than A Popular Account of the Manners and Customs of India written by the Rev. Charles Acland between 1842 and 1845. The slim volume published in the form of a journal describes the time Rev. Acland spent as the chaplain at Puri, Cuttack, and Midnapore. I was drawn to it to learn more about interactions between Europeans and natives in the 1800s in Midnapore, the mofussil town in West Bengal, India where I spent a greater part of my youth. The English were renowned for putting their vast bureaucratic resources to the preparation of statistical accounts. Thus, there are quite a few volumes dealing with agrarian and administrative minutiae of Midnapore District. There are also quite a few historical books dealing with the arrival of the English in Bengal which mention the secession of Midnapore, Burdwan and Chittagong by Mir Qasim. However, very few of the journals, maintained mostly by soliders, administrators, and clergymen are extant. Fewer still retain a freshness that renders them worth reading over 150 years later. Charles Acland’s account is a notable exception.

Calcutta bazaar, early 1800s (watercolor)


Not much is known about the early life of the author. The Reverend Charles Acland set sail for India in early 1842, leaving behind several young children in England. Acland was first posted in Assam, but later became chaplain of a considerable region of what is now part of West Bengal and Orissa. After spending three years in his broad constituency, Acland succumbed to illness in Puri, Orissa, leaving behind a large body of correspondence which he had diligently sent to his children. The letters which contained invaluable anecdotes detailing common life in rural nineteenth-century Bengal were scrubbed of personal exhortations and published by John Murray of Albemarle Street, London in 1847.

Acland had never set foot outside of England and was understandably in for a shock upon arrival in Madras in early 1842. He writes (p. 5):

The people here are nearly all black, and wear very little clothing. The population is extensive. At dinner we have generally eight or ten men to wait upon us, but they are slow in their movements, and very lazy. The Arabian Nights mentions the fakirs. I have seen some here that have let their feet grow in one position until they cannot move them.

Some of the inhabitants of Madras are afflicted with a curious kind of disease, in which one leg swells to the size of a man’s body, while the other is no thicker than the limb of an infant…

Some English persons, on going out for a walk, may be seen to carry a whip, with which, if the natives are at all troublesome, they lash them; but this is a cruel practice.

Acland, is of course, talking about elephantiasis caused by parasitic infection, but this short passage underscores the pestilence which Acland observed in India, and the cruelty of the European masters which he never grew fully accustomed to.

As “padre sahib” for a large constituency, Acland traveled extensively, usually on palanquin. He was a keen observer of the traits of palanquin-bearers, though his translations of their songs are almost-certainly error-laden. By most accounts, thuggery was a common nuisance faced by travelers in Bengal, but Acland faced no such perils and was generally dismissive of the “cowardly” Bengalees and Oriyas (pp 43-44).

Throughout the journey not a single European is to be met with, but the traveller is entirely in the power of the natives, excepting such assistance as he can derive from his pistols and a thick stick. The danger however is not great. The Ooriahs, as well as the Bengalese, are a small and cowardly race; so much so, indeed, that the East India Company will not allow them to be enlisted as soldiers. A Bengalee of five feet six is quite a tall man, and in shape he is as delicate and effeminate as a European lady.

Acland also wrote down precise details of his own itinerant household. Since he had not been a particularly wealthy man in England, he was amazed at the vast coterie of servants required by each household in Bengal. Of his own, he writes (p. 16):

The greatest expenses here are servants and house-rent. I pay for my house, which is one of the cheapest in Midnapore, forty rupees a-month; a rupee is two shillings. I keep as few domestics as I can; but am obliged to have eleven men and one woman.

The men are:

  1. 1 consummar, or headman.
  2. 1 kitmajar, or waiter at table.
  3. 1 sirdar, who attends to lamps, furniture, &c.
  4. 1 bearer, who works the punkah and helps the sirdar.
  5. 1 dirgee, or tailor, who mends stockings, and makes gowns, coats, shirts, &c.
  6. 2 maistrees, or carpenters.
  7. 2 mollees, or gardeners.
  8. 1 motee, who sweeps the rooms and keeps them in order.
  9. 1 beastee, or water-carrier.

We neither feed nor clothe them: indeed their food consists of nothing but rice, except the consummar and kitmajar, who are Mussulmans. Their pay varies from three to ten rupees a-month. Many people keep forty or fifty men. The sirdar, or bearer, sleeps on a mat in the verandah; the others in houses in the compound. They are all forbidden by their religion to do the work of any other; their fathers and grandfathers performed the same duties, and so will their sons and grandsons also. They are a thievish set, and we dare not leave anything in their way that they can steal…

It is curious to observe how the different castes or ranks here keep distinct, and it is this which renders so many servants necessary.

His loathing of cruelty towards those not bestowed a favorable position in life is also telling (p 83. 84)

I think I have told you how cruelly some of the people here beat their servants. I was standing with an officer in the porch of his house when I was last at Midnapore, when his syce, or groom, brought his horse to the door. Captain L. turned to me, and said, “I have not given that fellow a thrashing for a long time, and he’ll forget what it feels like, and grow lazy.” Now the fact was, the man was so attentive and industrious that Captain L. could not possibly find any fault with him. However, he went down the steps, and, on the pretense that the man did not hold his horse properly, gave him several violent blows on the face and head, kicked him three or four times with all his force, and struck him on the back with a two-foot rule with such violence that the man was obliged to have his back plastered and bandaged up: and all this without the slightest fault on the part of the servant.

Much as has been said about slavery, I do not believe that any of the slaves in Jamaica were ever worse treated than are the servants of some of our officers here. The excuse is, that it is impossible to manage the Hindus without the whip; but I never use it, and I am certainly quite as well served by all, excepting two.

What I also found interesting about Acland’s narrative were his comments on agrarian commerce, and his mention of the diverse flora and fauna of Midnapore. Acland mentions the rupee and the pice, but also the cowrie from seashells, of which 120 made 1 pice. He also laments the ubiquitous dustoori, in which the servant of a buyer receives 2 pice for every rupee of merchandise purchased. Regarding the fauna, Acland mentions at various times in his book animals such as snakes, tigers, bears, monkeys, jackals, parrots, bats, hyenas, elephants, and spotted deer. I’m not sure when the last tiger was spotted in Midnapore, but even snakes were not as prevalent in the twentieth century as they were in Acland’s time. Acland mentions a few specific cases of death by snake bite and his recapitulation of the cures of the time reflects a comic sense of exasperation:

The only possible cure, and that is an uncertain one, is to swallow every few minutes a glass of brandy with some eau de luce, or smelling-salts, dissolved in it, while a man stands near beating you with a heavy whip. Or, instead of this, you may be fastened to a carriage and be compelled to run as fast as possible. The object is to keep you awake, for the danger of the bite consists in the heavy lethargy it produces. The remedies applied, however, are sure to bring on a violent fever, which frequently proves fatal. Few diseases in this country last longer than an hour or two. Fever, cholera, and inflammation of the liver, the three great scourges of India, commonly prove fatal within from two to twelve hours, so that no one can exist here without being constantly reminded of the uncertainty of human life. It is curious that I, who dreaded so greatly the reptiles of India, should have been at once sent to the station where they most abound, for there is probably no place in Bengal where serpents and lizards are so plentiful.

Acland was a man with a specific purpose in India – to spread the Christian faith. Therefore, he could see little of redeeming value in the idolatrous beliefs of the heathens. In this aspect, he was not unlike others of his time who dwelled heavily on grotesque Hindu rituals such as sutee (bride burning), human sacrifice, and stampedes of devotees during the Rathyatra festival of Jagannath in Puri. On the later, Acland expresses his bewilderment that the English continued to pay the princely sum of 6,000 rupees for the upkeep of the Jagannath Temple at Puri. But Acland’s fervent belief that the natives needed to be saved from their Satanism did not prevent him from displaying true feeling for their suffering (pp 96-97).

It is a common saying that the Hindus have no sense of gratitude, that they have not even a word to express that feeling in their language. I do not believe it…

They are said to be extremely dishonest—I mean the natives generally. This also I deny; although their treatment by individuals is enough to make them so; for on the part of Government the error—if any—lies in an excess of mildness and lenity. I would not hesitate, if it were necessary, to entrust a thousand rupees to a servant to take to Calcutta: that is for him a fifteen days’ journey. Yet, if he chose, he might easily get beyond my reach; and such a sum would be sufficient to purchase an estate which would render himself and his descendants landed proprietors and gentlemen. I doubt whether you could say more than that for English honesty although, of course, there may be exceptions here as well as there.

Despite his own deep-set beliefs, Acland was a remarkably sensitive man. In one moving passage in his journal, written after witnessing a near-fatal whipping of a native by a European, Acland displays the perspicacity to ponder over questions concerning the treatment of the occupied by the occupiers.

  1. Why did the men dread the whip, when they were equally well armed?
  2. Are they accustomed to feel it?
  3. Are they generally oppressed, and in what way; and would a native government be an advantage to them?
  4. In what does that superiority consist which makes one hundred Hindus afraid of one European?
  5. What is civilization? What is the difference between real civilization, and that knowledge of arts and sciences, of railroads and balloons, which is commonly dignified with the name? And also what is the connexion between real, true civilization and religion?

Here are a few out of numberless trains of thought and questions which might arise, and do naturally arise, from the little anecdote I have given.

It is indeed a shame that Charles Acland’s untimely death left the tome incomplete and without his thoughts on these pertinent issues.


Click here to read the second part.


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