Boredom in colonial India & its legacy

Endless dinner parties, fancy dress balls, hunting trips, picnics - and yet the British were bored in India.

The popular Indian web-series “Panchayat”, disembarks from the stereotypical enchanting & idyllic representation of rural India. As a viewer, you learn a thing or two about village-bureaucracy and realise that nothing ever progresses – and that which does, seems inconsequential in the eyes of its main protagonist. The main protagonist often “bored”, questions his professional choices. Reading Jeffrey Aucherbach’s “Imperial Boredom”, one cannot help but find strong parallels between the web series & the tales of dreariness faced by disillusioned British officers stationed in India in the 19th century.

H.G Keene, writing in “A servant of John Company” recalls the dullness of Mathura where his first job was that of an assistant sub collector. His job was to verify farmers’ claims that bad weather had ruined crops and that they should therefore be excused from paying rent; examine afflicted tracts and submit a written report on the state of the harvest.

From: HG Keene’s “A Servant of John Company” illustrated by William Simpson from original sketches by the author

There is an important difference though; the British endeavours of combating boredom were often deeply rooted in asserting power over another people & subjugating them to injustice through surveillance projects.

Survey officer in camp. ‘My Tents. Survey. 1840.’ British Library

Combating boredom resulted in projects like the “People of India”, an 8 volume study of the castes and tribes of the subcontinent. There was even a survey of all books published in India after 1867 (more than 2,00,000 records!). All the surveying, mapping & recording contributed to the strengthening of British rule in the country.

Bengal Library Catalogue of Books, 1875 | British Library

‘Boredom’ became a standard English word in 1852 when it was first used by Charles Dickens in ‘Bleak House’. The word appears 6 times in the book, each time, at occasions that detail the indulgent life of the British elite.

We take look at photos and prints in an attempt to understand these instances of boredom.

Imperial Boredom

Auerbach investigates personal letters, diaries and notes  – through these numerous (and fascinating) sources, he argues that the Empire was not as adventurous as the paintings, fiction or travel writings of the 18th-19th century made it to be. Long distance travel had become safer, and therefore less adventurous; travelling within India too, was dull – guidebooks were plenty, and they all recommended the same route. (This is something we mused over while looking at travel paintings by artists).
Soldiers had no major wars to fight; women traveling to India and other colonies were as bored as their male counterparts.

The poem describes a day in the life of an East India Company employee.

The ceremonial nature of the Empire (with its Durbars, parades and other spectacles) added to the boredom while generating tedious & endless paperwork. From having no time to write in their diaries, to having nothing “new” to write about, imperial service was apparently not all that “fun”. From Shimla to Calcutta, Governors like Lord Lytton found India  to be “one incessant official grind from morning to night”. 

Sir W. Denison and others planting the first quinine tree in the Nilgiri hills, India. Wood engraving by M. Jackson, 1862 | Wellcome Collection, CC BY

William Denison considered his life in India monotonous. He even found the weather of Madras to be quite predictable : “You know exactly what it will be from day to day – the only variation being the character of the wind”. 

Lord and Lady Dufferin and Group at the Viceregal Lodge Shimla

Dullness is the central characteristic of an Indian viceroy’s existence’

Lord Dufferin, Governor General and Viceroy of India (1884-1888) in a letter to Sir W. Gregory
Lord Auckland receiving The Raja Of Nahun in Durbar in his tent by Emily Eden [In Portraits of the princes & people of India, J. Dickinson., London (1844)]

Emily Eden, in Up the Country describes a Sikh delegation’s visit to her brother, Lord Auckland : (George had to listen to) “the most flowery nonsense imaginable. . . . It took a quarter of an hour to satisfy him about the Maharajah’s health, and to ascertain that the rose had bloomed in the garden of friendship, and the nightingales had sung in the bowers of affection even sweeter than ever, since the two powers had approached each other.”

Allen Bayard Johnson, who served in the Bengal Carbineers from 1846-72 & later in the Staff corps described a typical day in a diary entry from 1849: 

Rose at 9:15…read…Munshi came from 10:30-12 …read…tiffin…read…coffee…drove…dinner at mess…bed at 9. 

Combating Boredom

Thomas Seaton, who had a distinguished military career (including the Afghan War and the 1857 War in India), was so bored of his daily routine in Ludhiana that he employed a teacher to teach him Hindustani. Writing diaries became necessary – as these would help the Empire with information crucial for governance. Many frequently engaged in hunting; picnics, dinner parties, fancy dress balls were endless – but even this became routine.

What Auerbach seems to have missed though, is looking at the lives of people who the colonial officers and soldiers had waiting upon them for every small task. They ensured that the officers could bathe, eat and party, even if they were somewhat bored.

To know that “the most sordid and criminal exploitation of one nation by another in all recorded history” (Will Durant, 1930) was “boring” to its administrators, is both unsettling and audacious.

The laments of Governors may trigger a post-colonial reader, but his view on the incompatibility of institutions and the Empire force you to acknowledge the impact of British colonialism on many of our institutions today.

“Either the empire must go, or the institutions. Very probably, both will go eventually”. The Empire has gone, and we wait to see the future of many of our institutions, that hold on to the bygone world of British colonial bureaucracy.

Our reaction is similar to this iconic one from ‘Django Unchained’ when Dr. Schultz confesses he’s bored and the (disturbing) Mandigo fighting is entertaining.

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That’s all for this month 🙂 If you spotted something fascinating from a gallery, museum, archive or library, tell us about it! Whether it is a link, image, or story, we’d love to hear from you at [email protected]. Thanks for reading!

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Boredom in colonial India & its legacy