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Here In Africa: Indian Miscellany - Part One

...it became customary for soldiers and merchants on home leave from India to stop over at the Cape for up to six months to recover their health after the heat and rigours of the climate in the East...

Barbara Durlacher has been delving into Indian history.

Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly interested in the great sub-continent of India and am doing some extensive reading in connection with that colourful and exotic country. Britain ruled over India for nearly four hundred years and the history of that period which started as a simple trading operation in December 1600 when Queen Elizabeth I signed a Royal Charter permitting a group of London merchants to trade with the East Indies under the administration of their first governor, Sir Thomas Smythe, is a fascinating one.

This trading operation changed over the succeeding three centuries into what later became colloquially known as Britain’s “Jewell in the Crown,” and with the establishment of the civil and military administration in India to protect and distribute the wealth that Britain earned from the sub-continent, provided great benefits to the home country, not least of which was the justice system, the wide network of railways and basic medical care. Incidentally for more than 150 years, the ICS (Indian Civil Service) and the standing army provided employment for many young men from Britain and at the same time produced highly trained professionals in all the branches of the civil administration and military from which both Britain and India benefited enormously. Not least was the great network of Indian railways, notable Indian sportsmen and the more modern spin-offs of electronic communications and I.T. services.

In the early years, the Indian exports of spices, sugar, tea, tobacco, exotic fruits, and cotton goods were eagerly sought after by Britain, Europe and America, and it was soon obvious that a large proportion of Britain’s non-industrial wealth was dependent on these imports from the east. Although more than fifty years have passed since Indian Independence in 1947 and the great social upheavals and riots which succeeded the hasty British decision to “Leave India” so soon after the Second World War, the emergence and growth of the thriving “Indian Tiger” has proved to be one of the great success stories of Asia. For this reason, perhaps it is fitting to look back on the early history of the sub-continent and how closely Britain and India have been linked over nearly four centuries of trade and military and civil service administration.

Incidental to Indian history in general, my history in respect of my own family has a few faint Indian links and fragile as they may be, they are of great interest to me, as my background comes from both Britain and Germany with this subtle touch of India somewhere in the background.

The events which catapulted my forebears to South Africa are contemporaneous with the mid-1800s and the crushing fears of unemployment which swept society at the end of the Crimean War in 1854. Lack of opportunities and mass poverty and deprivation led to the enormous wave of emigration to the colonies and North America during the mid 1800s approximately twenty years after Victoria’s ascension to the throne, despite the explosion of Victorian inventiveness and the industrialisation of the mid 19th century which had created expectations of great economic and social improvement. The end of the Crimean War renewed all the old fears and acted as a spur to many families desperate to improve their living conditions away from Britain and Europe. Thus began the great migrations of peoples which opened up countries which previously had languished for lack of manpower and investment.

Voyages between Britain and the East Indies began in 1601 when sailing ships laden with woollen cloth and silver arrived to trade for spices; and Britain held the monopoly for twenty-two years until a number of wealthy and ambitious Dutch merchants arrived on the coast of southern India also determined to lay their hands on the exotic spices of the East. Soon after their arrival they set about establishing their own trading company named the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), which translates as the "United East Indian Company" and it was this Dutch East India Company which, concurrently, also established Cape Town as a halfway-station at the Cape. The small Cape settlement supplied fresh water, meat and vegetables to the ships sailing to the East and over the years, it became clear how vital it was to have a re-victualling station to provide fresh food to the increasing number of ships calling at the settlement.

Eventually the small settlement grew until it became customary for soldiers and merchants on home leave from India to stop over at the Cape for up to six months to recover their health after the heat and rigours of the climate in the East. It is interesting to note that the influence of these temporary residents can still be observed in the domestic architecture of some of the homes in the older parts of Cape Town and in the few remaining gracious flat-roofed Georgian houses in the centre of the city, and an Anglo-Indian influence can also be traced in the delightful thatched and whitewashed single-story cottages of Old Wynberg Village directly opposite the Wynberg Military Camp. The camp was established and has been in use since the first British occupation of the Cape in 1803 when British troops were quartered there.

“And where does the link between India and South Africa come in?” I can hear you ask.

Well, the answer is, that my paternal grandmother Charlotte Elizabeth, was born of British parents in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and my paternal Grandfather, whom she met and married not long after she arrived in East London, Cape Province came to South Africa with his family from the East End of London where he and his father and two brothers had worked as carpenters and carpenter’s apprentices in the Thames Dockyards in the 1850s.

The reason for the families’ emigration to the Cape was the threat of unemployment after the Crimean War and an offer to work as “mechanics” on the soon-to-be-built harbour at East London, Cape Province. In addition, my maternal Great Grandfather was a German Legionnaire serving in the Prussian Army at the time of the Crimean War and when his regiment was disbanded at the end of that war, this legion was recruited to the British Forces with the intention of becoming part of the British Army. In order to do this, the soldiers had to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and when the need for a large standing army was no longer necessary, they could not return to their home country were they would have been considered traitors due to the swearing of this oath. In consequence, they were recruited for the small British military forces in the Eastern Province of South Africa where they were expected to defend the new settlers against frequent uprisings of the local people, as numbers of the regular garrison soldiers had been sent to India at the time of the Mutiny, leaving the young colony defenceless. In later years many of these “Legionnaires” left the Army, married and settled in the Cape Province along with their civilian compatriots who had been recruited from German farming stock.

To be concluded next week.

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