Victorian Sexuality and Empire 39


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’


39 thoughts on “Victorian Sexuality and Empire

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  • John Goss

    Craig Murray,

    Yes, eventually he did. And he was better than his father.

    In my research into the great English novelist Robert Bage, I discovered that Samuel Pipe-Wolferstan met an ageing and ailing Bage in Tamworth in 1800 before joining the good and great local gentry including Peel’s father (also Robert). Bage told Wolferstan to put the case for buying American corn, which Wolferstan did, but it fell on deaf ears. Peel sat on the fence. In another instance a young girl was run over by one of Peel’s wagons and limped on crutches to the Peel residence. He gave her a shilling and sent her on her way. Wolferstan, when he heard about this meanness, tried to find the girl to give her proper recompense. The Peel’s were not philanthropists. Their money was made in the mills of Yorkshire, but they were big farmers too. Young Robert, who as I said was not as bad as his father, was a friend of Wolferstan’s son Stanley. But he believed in protectionist policies for forty years.

  • John Goss

    Here I go again. Relying on memory I thought it was a shilling Robert Peel senior gave the ‘crippled for life’ girl one of his waggons ran over, but it was, I’ve looked it up, two shillings and sixpence. Magnanimity!

    Apols again, it was not a deliberate attempt to mislead.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Don’t like sounding like a broken-record about Lord Brougham but it was he who put the case to PM Peel about repealing the Corn Laws.

    Peel’s confidant, MP John Wilson Croker, wrote Brougham a most critical letter about his political conduct in the summer of I845, and the former Lord Chancellor responded in kind about the PM’s, stating that he should be more open, and concilitory with his opponents.

    Brougham followed it up with a series of hypothetical questions to ask Peel about dealing with the growing famine in Ireland by adopting free trade.

    Croker replied on December 12, 1845: “Peel’s answer to the letter I wrote him by your desire six weeks ago, indicated pretty strongly that he was inclined to some modification of the Corn Laws,& some subsequent communications & some non-communications convinced me that he was taking a line contrary to the opinions which I so strongly felt, & which under his auspices I had promulgated in 1841 & 1842 – & in support of which I had so strongly quoted your authority in your excellent speech of 30 May 1820.” (Quoted from Trowbridge H. Ford, Chancellor Brougham and His World, A Biography, p. 591.)

    When Brougham’s leadership of Peel’s bill in the Lords gained its passage, thanks to his spirited defense of his change of heart on the matter, the Prime Minister was most elated by his handling of the House, especially the Young Tories: “Nothing,” he wrote on May 26, 1846, “could be in better taste.” (Ibid., p. 595.)

    In short, Peel, like many of his colleagues, has gotten too much credit for what others, especially poor Brougham, helped do.

  • Matt Keefe

    “…for you stole Trevelyan’s corn, so the young might see the morn, now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay…

    Low lie the fields of Athenry, where once we watched the small free birds fly…”

    As was heard booming around Croke Park on the first occasion it opened to the English rugby team in 2007.

  • Courtenay Barnett

    The fields of Athenry could be an allegory.
    The Irish were fucked by Trevelyan’s polices. The world is being fucked by neo-liberal policies. But, just as then, as now, the fixation with the orthodoxy and the power – stands firm.
    As with Plato’s allegory of the cave, there is a dark fixation with policies that in essence fuck the majority of humankind.

  • Courtenay Barnett

    @ Craig and John Goss,

    “It is, I think, a grave mistake to judge human beings by the political principles of a different era to that in which they lived.”
    I read the James Somersett case ( 1772 in the Court of King’s Bench) in which Lord Mansfield ( then Chief Justice of England) made his landmark decision in which slavery in England was impermissible as an “odious” ( Mansfield choice of word) condition:-

    “The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

    By the standards of the time, Mansfield knew full well the condition “so odious” – so the idea of inhumanity of humankind against humankind, as with the policies of Trevelyan, is not as easy as one may first suggest by reference to the standards or morals of the time.

    The duality, the hypocrisy, and the utter inhumanity, then as now – may by intellectual application try to foist off the guilt and brutality, by seeking refuge with an explanation of the circumstances and standards of the times. Examples exist then as now – much the same arguments – much the same explanations and excuses.

  • Doctor Wu

    Trevelyan was merely a cog in the machine.

    Ireland did not starve for potatoes; it starved for food.
    Ireland starved because its food, from 40 to 70 shiploads per day, was removed at gunpoint by 12,000 British constables reinforced by the British militia, battleships, excise vessels, Coast Guard and by 200,000 British soldiers.

    The London Times gloated in an Editorial in September 1848 :

    “Soon, the sight of the Celt on the banks of the Shannon will be as rare as the Red man on the banks of the Manhattan”

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