Daily archives: October 2, 2012

Victorian Sexuality and Empire

On 6th June 1837, in a letter dated “On the Indus above Mooltan”, Alexander Burnes wrote to Charles Masson in Kabul:

” Mr Trevelyan writes that he is instructed to join me, but I take it he is snug in Calcutta – he travels with four wives! “

The only Trevelyan with whom I can find evidence Burnes was in touch is Sir Charles Trevelyan, who later married Macaulay’s daughter and was famously the author of the great civil service reforms which were the major Victorian step towards meritocracy. My generation all learnt about these reforms at History O-level, not least because we learnt it from the textbooks by Trevelyan’s son and grandson, G.M. and G.O. Trevelyan, which were pretty well compulsory reading in British schools for sixty years.

Burnes definitely was in contact with Charles Trevelyan, who had recommended Mohan Lal to him. Trevelyan definitely lived in Calcutta in 1837. Trevelyan was two years younger than Burnes, and could well have been instructed to join him. I am pretty confident about the identification.

C.E. Trevelyan is one of the great, solid figures of the Victorian establishment. It is fascinating to think of him having four Indian wives. We know from Mohan Lal’s later writings that Burnes, in his camp near Mooltan, was being kept warm at night by some Kashmiri girls (plural) whom he lived with for some years and travelled with him.

I found that Burnes letter in the British library; we get the odd glimpse, but unfortunately there is no way to recover the voices of the women.

Much history has been active censorship. Trevelyan’s boss at the time was Sir Charles Metcalfe, who was a great and good man (he missed out on the permanent post of Governor General of India because when acting in that position for a year he abolished press censorship, annoying the Government). Metcalfe only had one Indian wife, whom unlike Trevelyan he acknowledged – possibly another obstacle to his becoming Governor-General.

There is a fascinating timeline to the setting in of Victorian morality. Burnes’ letter was written a few days before Victoria became Queen. Racism and hypocritical sexual morality became dominant in the ensuing decades – there was remarkably little colour prejudice in the UK before. Thus when three decades later Sir John Kaye came to write a three volume biography of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, he did not mention his marriage at all, or the existence of his children – despite the fact that one of them was then aide-de-camp to the Governor General of India!

On my Burnes biography, I was advised by William Dalrymple that the time to stop researching and to finish writing up is when you stop finding things that make you say “Wow!” Plainly I am not there yet.

UPDATE Thanks to commentators who have pointed out Trevelyan’s callous argument when administering relief during the Irish famine. This was quoted by Daniel below from Trevelyan:

‘The great evil [the Irish famine] with which which we have to contend’, said Trevelyan, ‘is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people’

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I hope and pray April Jones is found alive and well. It brought back forgotten memories of cries of “April” in the woods, walking behind a line of adults near Roman Camp, looking for a girl called April Fabb who disappeared from a small village close to me when I was ten. My friends and I were searching the woods for weeks afterwards hoping to find her, and I remember the chill and fear that descended on parents in North Norfolk. I don’t think she was ever found.

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