An Early Nineteenth Century Vade Mecum for India

Sutapa Dutta, Gargi College, University of Delhi, India


A Guide-Book for an Empire is bound to be of epic dimensions, more so if it is on India. In its length and largeness, in its depth and diversity, in its grand ambition and ambivalence, such works would inevitably reflect the geographical, political and cultural drama of a country that is so varied. There can be no clear distinctions, no acute significations even, as the tragic and the comic, the grand and the common dissolve, intermingle and produce a chaotic discursive montage of what India is. One such early work which presents India through the eyes of an Englishman is the The East India Vade Mecum of Captain Thomas Williamson written in 1810. Meant as a ‘Complete Guide to Gentlemen intended for the Civil, Military, or Naval Service of the Hon. East India Company’, this colonial archive is probably the first patient and meticulous noting down of minute aspects of life and people in India. Spread over two volumes of more than thousand pages, the author’s professed aim in undertaking this stupendous labour was for ‘public utility’, ‘with the view to promote the welfare, and to facilitate the progress, of those young gentlemen, who may from time to time, be appointed to situations under [the] several Presidencies…’(Letter to the Hon. Court of Directors of the East India Company in Vade Mecum).

[Keywords: Colonial Bengal, East India Company, India, Vade Mecum.]

About Captain Thomas Williamson we come to know from what he writes about himself in this book. The author attributes his considerable insight and knowledge to his long stay of ‘twenty years’ in Bengal. He first arrived in India in 1778 and was a Captain in the Bengal army. It is apparent that the Williamson family had spent some time in Calcutta. His father, whom he mentions also lived in India and is buried in Calcutta. By the time he was writing the Vade Mecum, he had already achieved some fame with his Oriental Field Sports, or the Wild Sports of the East, published in 1809, an extraordinary book that documents vivid descriptions and picture plates of animal hunting in India, especially tigers. As a first travel guide to India intended for Europeans, Williamson’s Vade Mecum was intended to fill up the gaps in information required by the statesmen, military men, merchants, civilians and all those who proceed to this new country. Keeping this in mind Williamson adopts an ‘easy’ and ‘familiar’ style rather than a ‘didactic style’. The guide book is meant for those who would travel to India for a long stay and will need information of the place and people of this foreign country. His guide, he claims, has been written with the purpose to provide a ‘just’ conception of the ‘characters of the natives’ in India, and would remove all doubts, prejudices and national opinions, which if allowed to prevail “must occasion every object to be seen through a false medium” (I:Preface,vii).

Williamson’s assertion that his guidebook is not a false medium is apparently a rejection of such historical interpretations which are perceived very often through the narrow and distorted glasses of western preconceptions of India. From the seventeenth century onwards especially with trade links opening up, Western imagination and curiosity were fed with fantastic stories of India’s fabulous wealth and its rich markets. European relationship with India for the next 300 years remained based on vague knowledge, assumptions and misconceptions. From the latter half of the eighteenth century as the British began to consolidate their physical territories in India there began a simultaneous process of constructing a vision of the Empire. Such a vision shaped by the contemporary Enlightenment ideal in Europe, was at once based on an imaginary construct and fashioning of the ways the British conceived of India and their role as rulers. As they undertook from the 1770’s a more detailed study of India, there began an intense cataloguing and categorising of languages, races and tribes in India to secure a better understanding of the unchartered civilization they had to administer. Warren Hastings and his coterie of Oriental scholars like William Jones, Charles Wilkins and Nathaniel Halhed with their massive scholarly endeavours of translations and texts, reasoned that their effort to impart learning would be ‘useful to the state’ and would ‘lessen the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection’ (Letter of Hastings to N. Smith, October 4, 1784, quoted in Kopf, p.18).Although there were obvious political and ideological differences between the Anglicist and the Orientalist point of view, yet both their perceptions were essentially those of the outsider. Charles Grant considered “the people of Hindostan, a race of men lamentably degenerate and base” (Grant: 71) and proposed in his Observations that “The communication of our light and knowledge to them, would prove the best remedy for their disorders” (Grant: 148-9).

Such viewpoints and scholarly enterprises reflected usually two extremes; on the one hand, there was an exuberant display of wonder and curiosity in those who saw India as a land of exotic differences. To comprehend such a mystifying entity, there was the obsessive desire to find parallels and common origins of languages, race, literature, etc. The attempt was to divest India of its strangeness and to fit it into a familiar framework that would be more comprehensible for the Western onlooker. The other extreme was to conceive India as a threat – as a land of dirt, disease and death – an exotic but a dangerous place. Throughout the eighteenth century as the British tried to contend with territorial supremacy, first in Bengal and later in the rest of the country, such contradictory tensions of differences and similarities continued to bother them. The sense of doubt, anxiety and uneasiness existed side by side as they tried to ‘master’ the land, the languages and the laws. Captain Williamson’s Vade Mecum shows this inevitable contrast between a seductive desirous India and a land which is at the same time threatening and fearsome. His insistence that the young English recruits ought to ‘know’ this land reflects to a large extent Wellesley’s ambition in setting up the Fort William College in Calcutta in 1800. Wellesley’s anxiety “for the better instruction of junior Civil Servants of the Company” as they were “totally incompetent and ignorant of the languages, laws and usages and customs of India”, was with a view to “the stability of our own interest, as to the happiness and welfare of our native subjects” (Wellesley’s Minute in Council, dated 18th August, 1800 in Roebuck: xx)…Access Full Text of the Article

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