While the association of travel with self-discovery sounds clichéd, for those women incarcerated by the moral codes of upper-class life being able to get away from it all was indeed liberatory. For the single British woman, who either became a member of what came to be known somewhat unkindly as the ‘fishing fleet’ or travelled to visit family, look for jobs or take up positions of governesses and so on, the East held endless promise and indeed hope. In a recent book, Anne de Courcy looks at girls and women who formed part of the fishing fleet from the 17th century onwards and concludes that courtships could range from a few days to a month or so. Interestingly, she adds, that concerned over the fact that the British in India were either setting up liaisons with local women or marrying them, the East India company actually sent out young single women “whom they maintained in India for a year, during which time they were supposed to find a mate... if after the year they had proved too plain or too unpleasant for even the the most desperate Company man, they were shipped home as ‘Returned Empties’.”
This most derogatory term that underlined the seriously skewed gender relations among the British in India drew attention not only to the ubiquity of matrimony and the unenviable status of unmarried women but also to the purported eligibility of those in the service of the Company and later of the raj. What it did not acknowledge was that many young and not so young women chose to travel to the East and experience its fascination and supposed magic. Letter and memoir-writing and, for those with artistic talent, drawing and painting were almost mandatory; in the pre-camera and certainly pre-internet days, keeping time aside for memorializing or sharing became an important part of the day’s agenda. It is more than likely that only a fraction of what was written survives; these writings and visual imagery provide an exclusive rendering of different and differing understandings and experiences of India. Some women lived an entire lifetime, most days more humdrum and stressful than exciting, while others came for visits that became life-changing and momentous. Undoubtedly, social background and opportunity determined what India could offer to women who either came through compulsion or through choice. For the lucky few, the choices were more glamorous and promising than it was for others.
When Lilah Wingfield saw an enticing advertisement in the Illustrated London News for journeys to India during the Royal Durbar of 1911, she wasted little time in making plans for a trip. It would provide the lively 23-year-old of Anglo-Irish aristocratic descent a way of escape from her controlling mother. Soon, with a companion, a chaperone and a male escort she was on the P&O liner, Maloja, headed for Bombay. The serendipitous acquisition of her diary by her granddaughter, Jessica Douglas Home, led to a reconstruction of Lilah’s life (A Glimpse of Empire) and although the focus was on the star-studded days at the Durbar, the intrepid Lilah travelled afar, to Bangalore and Benares and to Peshawar and Rawalpindi. The North West Frontier and the Khyber Pass had a distinct fascination for many British women; few perhaps also remembered — or had indeed heard of — the incarceration of the formidable Lady Florentia Sale, the wife of General Sir Robert Sale, second in command to General Elphinstone, who headed the British military presence in Afghanistan. Sale had been sent to clear the access to the Khyber from Kabul of Ghilzai Pashtun rebels. In the bitter winter of 1842, a seriously outnumbered British army was nowhere near achieving its task and in no position to rescue their stranded families; soon, unable to undertake the march, often on foot and through deep snow, to join her husband in Kabul, Lady Sale agreed to become a prisoner of Akbar Khan, son of the Amir, Dost Mohammed.
To some this might have seemed like a strange if not dangerous choice to make; they, however, did know what the march to Kabul meant for the women. Often, they were robbed of their possessions and left only with the clothes on their backs. Or, for example, Mrs Mainwaring had to walk through snow carrying her young child, picking her way “over the bodies of the dead, dying and wounded”. Crossing endless streams of freezing cold water, avoiding the gunfire of the enemy and not quite knowing where one was headed was a terrifying experience. When the unfortunate woman got to the camp, there was no chance of being able to change her clothes; Lady Sale sympathetically commented that “I know from experience that it was many days ere my wet habit became thawed and fully appreciate her discomfort”. Little surprise, then, that Lady Sale chose to become a prisoner. Known by now as the “grenadier in petticoats”, the redoubtable lady kept a detailed diary of those eight months in captivity. The dozen women and 22 children held as prisoners were well treated and Akbar Khan even earned some respect from Lady Sale; he allowed a celebration of her wedding anniversary by arranging a dinner with the ladies of her captor’s father-in-law’s family. It is another matter that the recipient of this favour wrote of the event with characteristic disdain: her hostesses were coarse featured, their dress inelegant and “they ate with their fingers, Afghan fashion; an accomplishment in which I am by no means au fait. We drank water out of a teapot”. Had she mistaken the variant of a samovar for a teapot, one wonders?
It was to the Khyber Pass, too, that Lilah was headed, although she found time to explore Peshawar beforehand, appropriately escorted by a bodyguard to protect her from “the outlaws from the mountains”. On December 22, 1911, Lilah and her party chose to set out in a tonga with the aim of reaching Jamrud Fort at the mouth of the pass before nightfall. They took the more interesting, although perhaps less comfortable, option, though a branch of the North Western Railway covered the short distance of 10 miles between Peshawar and the fort. The mud battlements were built by the Sikhs in 1826 and witnessed a bitter Afghan-Sikh battle a few years later (photograph). The Sikhs won the war and although it looked vulnerable and unprepossessing, the fort’s strategic location was to make it invaluable to the British. At the fort, Lilah and her party changed into two-horsed tongas “in which we rattled along in fine style”. Lilah was greatly impressed by the “lean-looking little horses from Central Asia which are used in these mountain tongas” as they cantered and trotted up the steepest, most rocky paths with aplomb.
Determined to reach the limits of British India, Lilah and her party pressed on to the fort at Ali Musjid passing “crowds of different tribes from the heart of Asia” tramping along. She noted a large rock at which caravan-loads of Muslim travellers disembarked to pay homage. The rock was reputed to bear the mark of a kick from the prophet’s horse when he had ridden through the area 1300 years ago. The fort at Ali Musjid too was not much more than worn out battlements on a plateau above a hill — although it had been the scene of the first battle of the Second Afghan War of 1881. Their final destination was the last British outpost of Lundi Kotal that provided a panoramic view of the border of India with Afghanistan and the road to central Asia where few Europeans dared venture. Snow peaks stretched into infinity and Lilah could not but marvel at “such fine virile men” who guarded the frontiers. Unsettled times meant that the visiting party had to leave well before dusk and an overwhelmed Lilah wrote that “the sun going down over the tops of the mountains at the entrance to the Pass was something I shall never forget”. In spite of some minor dalliances and a more serious one with a Captain Amir Ahmed, Lilah did not acquire a husband on her Indian trip; it was not long after her return that she made an appropriate choice of husband and, as her granddaughter added “watched from afar the fortunes of those she had encountered on her journeys through India”. She was one ‘empty’ who came back brimming with excitement, only to shore up her many experiences for innumerable rainy days.