Jemima Kindersley’s letters depicted life in an uncertain mid-18th century, when things were chaotic and complex.
“Weaving is the employment of the greatest number of the people throughout India; but the greatest manufactory for fine muslins, calicoes, dimities, & c. is at a place called Daca, in Bengal, and formerly the capital of that province. The exquisite fineness of some of the muslins is inconceivable; for those which are made for the Mogul and his zanannah are ten times the price of any allowed to be made for Europeans or any other merchants.
Embroidery and needlework of all sorts, is likewise brought to the greatest perfection at Daca. The needlework is all performed by men. Their slowness is intolerable, but their patience is without end.”
Illustration by Anirudh A Ashar.
This extract from a letter by Jemima Kindersley in October 1767 provides an insight into the “patience and neatness” that the writer observed in the “inhabitants of India”, which led to “such perfection” in “some of their manufactories...that Europe can boast of nothing to equal them”.
Kindersley was among the several female travellers from England who had – from the 1740s onwards – documented their experiences in India. They were usually written as letters, a medium popular at the time.
Kindersley, who journeyed in the mid-1760s, occupied an ambivalent position among these writers. Historians, who placed travel accounts within a contextual framework based on approach and style, found it hard to classify Kindersley. She came several decades before the well-known and better-anthologised writers such as Maria Graham (later Maria Callcott) and Eliza Fay. Her style, in places, mirrored that of travellers such as Niccolo de Conti (of the early 15th century), and Ralph Fitch and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in the 17th century, who are known for their curiosity and detailed observations. Kindersley’s letters show the same meticulous care, but she was clearly opinionated on several other aspects: for example, her reasoning for why sati was “so prevalent”. She stood midway between travellers of a century or so ago and the ones who came decades after her and clearly believed in the civilising mission of the colonising countries.
The 68 letters that make up Kindersley’s account were published as Letters from the Island of Teneriffe, Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope, and the East Indies, in 1777 by John Nourse, a well-known publisher of scientific and philosophical works. They are now available online, thanks to the digitisation efforts of the Fansey-Kindersley family history project. A review of the book in Critical Review Volume 43, which says the letters make for easy and agreeable reading, places the number of letters at 85.
One of the earliest female travellers was Jane Smart, who lived in Madras, around two decades before Kindersley came to India. Her letters to her son – covering a total of eight pages – were all written in 1743. They describe how the Nawab of Arcot – with a fine procession of palanquins – visited the British governor at Madras. They are available in volume II of Henry Davison Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras.
The nawab’s begum, Smart observed, was “thin, genteel and middle sized” and her “complexion...tawny”. Her eyes were painted black, while her lips, nails and the spaces between her fingers and toes were coloured red. Smart’s view of the begum was in contrast to how Kindersley would, a few decades later, write about “Mohammedan women in the seraglio”, though both writers showed a certain empathy and curiosity.
Kindersley was born in 1741. When she was in her early twenties, she married Colonel Nathaniel Kindersley in Norfolk, East England. In 1765, three years after her wedding, she set out for India, where her husband served in the East India Company’s Bengal Artillery. Earlier that year, the Treaty of Allahabad had been signed between the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, Shuja-ud-Daula of Avadh, and Robert Clive of the East India Company. The treaty recognised the Company’s now changed status in India – from traders, they were revenue collectors and administrators. As per its terms, the Mughal emperor also granted the Company the diwani of Bengal and Bihar. The Company also maintained troops at Allahabad, ostensibly for the emperor’s protection, but primarily as an assertion of their own power.
t took Kindersley a year to make the sea journey to India – from England to Tenerife (off the coast of northwest Africa), Brazil, South Africa and then South India. During her time, the big sailing ships called the Indiamen were yet to become popular. Instead, she travelled in gun-ships, which were equipped with 34 or 64 guns around the deck to guard against pirates. It took her three weeks to reach Tenerife, which had been conquered by the Spaniards a couple of centuries earlier.
A few months later, when she reached Brazil, she noticed how suspicious the Portuguese were about the arrivals from England, for they were always shadowed and trailed. At the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, then under Dutch control, Kindersley wrote of the slaves from the Malay region. Some of her accounts, though, were based on hearsay and factually incorrect.
Kindersley’s travels coincided with that of Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin, who travelled to London as the Mughal emperor Shah Alam’s emissary. In his book The Wonders of Vilayet, I’tesamuddin wrote of his journey to the West, including a stoppage at the Cape. In contrast to Kindersley, I’tesamuddin detailed how the people of Bengal and Eastern India had been taken there as slaves and had, in time, forgotten their native languages.
Kindersley then sailed to Nagapattinam in South India, where there was controversy brewing over the Dutch governor Van Teylingen’s escape to Madras. Teylingen had been charged by his own company of corruption. From Pondicherry, Kindersley travelled to Madras, and then to Calcutta via the Bay of Bengal. It was during this time that she wrote about the dangers of the sand banks along the river Hooghly, which had led to many shipwrecks in these parts.
Kindersley’s accounts of how people travelled, how messages were passed on and how ordinary people lived gave a vivid sense of the times. Many of her river journeys – Calcutta to Patna, and to Allahabad – were on budgerows, a long, spacious boat that was common on the Ganges, especially after the monsoons. The budgerow would be accompanied by another boat, which carried helpers and provisions. In summer, Kindersley observed, people would travel in palkis or palanquins. A set of bearers would go on ahead with tents and pitch them when the journey ended every evening.
People lived simple lives, says Kindersley, though they spent vast sums “on tamashes”, such as their children’s marriages and religious festivals. The cow was the most venerated animal, she notes. The Rajputs and Mahrattas were the “fighting castes”, while “the banias”, with their passable knowledge of English, served as “intermediaries and interlocutors”.
Kindersley returned to England in 1769. Eleven years later, she translated Antoine Leonard Thomas’ Essay on the Character, Manners, and Understanding of Women in Different Ages (originally written in French in 1774). This book looked at women, largely of the upper class and in supposedly civilised cultures – ancient Greece and Rome, and the Renaissance period in Italy and France – and described them as both “adored and exploited”. She also added two essays of her own. In one of them, on the “Muhammedan women in the seraglio”, Kindersley wrote about how the women lived a life of pleasure and constraint, and used their wiles to control men.
Kindersley died in 1809, and in the decades following her death, there appeared more accounts, again written in the epistolary style, by women writers. Reading these – from Eliza Hamilton’s fictitious novel on a Hindu raja to Fay’s Letters and Callcott’s accounts – one can sense a gradual change in how the East was shaped and viewed.
Kindersley’s letters, precursors to those that followed, depicted life in an uncertain mid-18th century, when things were chaotic and complex across the Gangetic plains, when there was no clear ruler despite the recent battles that had been waged, and the many changes – such as those wrought by trains – had yet to leave their mark on this region.