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Captain Thomas Williamson, East India Vade-Mecum


Browse: Captain Williamson's East India Vade-Mecum

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Captain Williamson’s East India Vade-Mecum is an extraordinary document which vividly depicts the period in which the British involvement in India was changing from adventurism into colonialism. It is a rare work, and we were lucky enough to be able to buy the first copy to come up for sale in over twenty years for this project. No copy of it was available in a library in Australia prior to this but it will now be accessioned into the La Trobe University Borchardt Library Collection.

Bibliographic Details
Author: Captain Thomas Williamson
Title: East India Vade-Mecum; or; Complete Guide to Gentlemen intended for the civil, military, or naval service of the Hon. East India Company. 
Place: London
Publisher: Black, Parry, and Kingsbury
Date: 1810


The books is based, Williamson says in his introduction, on twenty years of experience in India, which would mean that he is describing the period 1790 to 1810. Williamson’s father also lived in India, he mentions that he is buried in Calcutta, so clearly the Williamson family had a tradition of service in India. Concerning Captain Thomas Williamson himself we know from this book that he was a Captain in the Bengal army and at some point was living near Cawnpore as well as clearly having lived in Calcutta. He is also known as the author of at least three other books. His most famous work was his Oriental Field Sports, or The Wild Sports of the East which was published in 1809 and includes plates of tiger hunting. He also wrote the preface anddescriptions of the plates in The Costume and Customs of Modern India from a Collection of Drawings by Charles Doyley, Esq. which was published in London by Edward Orme in 1813 and The anglers Vade-Mecum. Indeed, from The East-India Vade-Mecum we can see that he is a keen hunter and one of the more grisly aspects of his account of the sea voyage to India is his description of hunting whales and turtles while on the voyage.

An important aspect of this book is that it is, in many ways, the first travel guide to India intended for a Western audience. Earlier accounts of travel in India are predominantly accounts of individual’s journeys, and whilst they do include prescriptive material intended to educate the reader, they do not set out to be travel guides. Williamson’s book is definitely intended as a travel guide. However, it differs markedly from the tradition of travel guides started by Murray and Baedeker in the 1830s in that it does not include a place by place description of journeys that can be made. One of the key reasons for this is revealed early on in Williamson’s East India Vade-Mecum when he says ‘I cannot conceive what could induce any man of respectability to visit India, without some substantial recommendation, or, indeed, unless under some agreement, or sufficient assurance of being employed in such manner as might tend to certain advantage.’ (pp. 174-5).

In other words, the very notion of leisure travel to India seems inconceivable to Williamson. Indeed, reading his account it is not hard to see why this should be the case, the voyage to India in an sailing ship of the period an East India man is no pleasure cruise and the traveler should expect that at any moment, if he is lucky enough to have a cabin, that its walls might be torn down so the cannon stowed in the aft can be put back into position pointing out of the port hole. The harsh conditions on the ship are as nothing to that once the traveler reaches India where it is very much a matter of life and death whether he survives and flourishes in his new environment. Indeed, I would suggest that one of the features of this book which make it totally different from a modern travel guide is that its basic intention is to give the reader some knowledge that might help him when he goes to India in order to make a life for himself there. In other words it is not a guide for a short trip, but a guide to how somebody might spend their life in India.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is that in a sense it has no guide to how to travel in India as its geographic construction of the idea of India is radically different from that in later works. For Williamson it seems India consists of Madras, Calcutta, ‘up country’ and native territories. Concerning Madras he says little for it is like Cape Town apparently little more than a halt on the voyage on the way to Calcutta.

What constitutes Calcutta is not clear, he does not distinguish mostly between the town and the province of Bengal, in a sense when he is talking of Calcutta he often seems to be talking about Bengal. Thus Dacca is mentioned, but it is as if it is hardly more than an extension of Calcutta. Likewise the ‘up country’ is a completely nebulous area apparently consisting of everywhere in India under British influence, basically Bihar and Uttar Pradesh up to around Lucknow and Kanpur. As to the native territories these receive scant attention and don’t seem to have any geographic contextualization at all in the text.

At first sight this geographic conceptualization of India seems bizarre. It is as if we were viewing India as a number of stages on which actions take place, but that the normal way that nowadays we relate those stages to each other by contextualizing them on a geographic and cultural map of India was not yet in place. Rather there are the only three stages in Captain Williamson’s conceptualization of India; the main stage is Calcutta, a secondary stage is an up country station, situated outside of a town like Kanpur or Lucknow, and a third stage represents marching through the countryside or traveling on a river. I think the key point here is that these stages represent the only places where Europeans live, which is what interests Williamson, and he imagines his readers who are going to India to make their lives there.

There is also an intriguing aspect of Williamson’s book as a text which is that it resembles in some respects a kind of gothic horror story with all of the elements of sex, violence, and mystery which we might find in that genre of literature.  Williamson lived in a world from before the era of Victorian prudery and is happy to talk about sexuality in his book. He, indeed, not only describes in detail how the newcomer to India should go about settling down with a native woman, but also a justification of this practice. By this period there was already considerable debate about this practice in many circles but Williamson points out that in a situation where there are around four thousand English gentlemen in India, and only two hundred and fifty women, this is perhaps the only way that most men can survive. However, he is strong in his condemnation of prostitution and is at pains to distinguish taking a concubine from keeping a prostitute. One of the most heart rending sections of the book though is his description of how the children born of these unions are normally separated from their mothers and sent to orphanages where they grow up to be drummer boys in the army or seamstresses and domestic servants.

He also mentions that British soldiers in the Bengal army, who he does not include it seems in his four thousand ‘gentlemen’ in India, all have native wives who live with them in their barracks.  This also points to a strange disjuncture in the book, it is not only the Indians who are essentially foreigners to Williamson, but also English people who are not gentlemen. When he speaks of the common soldier or the English tradesman they seem to be almost as much a foreign community to him as the Indians he describes. Indeed, in that some of the Indians are ‘gentlemen’ they actually seem to be viewed in a sense more sympathetically than the English common soldier, sailor or tradesman, who appears to be really of no interest to Williamson at all.

There is also no shortage of violence, gruesome descriptions of hunting are gleefully recounted. Indeed catching turtles near Ascension Island manages to combine both sex and violence as they are easily caught we are told ‘I had an opportunity of witnessing the facility with which they may be taken at certain seasons, when in the act of copulation ; as happened while we were there, in January. The turtles floated in pairs, in a state approaching to lethargy; allowing our whale boats to run along-side of them, without, in general, being alarmed.’ (p. 58.) However, the traveler as well may as much be the prey of the wildlife as the hunter of it. We are told that the sundarbans are full of tigers that carry off unwary travelers and that scarcely a day passes by at a bathing ghat without crocodiles carrying off bathers. In a sense too there is an element of horror in his depiction of the everyday realities of life in India for the European, where death waits at every turn it seems in the guise of accident, ill health or violent death.

There is another element of the book which resembles a little a gothic novel. The extraordinary number of servants the European is said to need to retain which is reminiscent of the servants in the gothic castle of literature. The range of whom require over two hundred pages in the text to describe in regard to their duties and characteristics. Indeed, when it comes to the point of where he explains how at a dinner the crowd of servants, several to each ‘gentleman’ gathered around the table can be intolerable it becomes apparent that in a sense not only are the actors in Williamson’s book surrounding themselves by this cast of servants, but they are also being consumed by them.  I would speculate indeed that the vision of the need for servants in India created it seems an anxiety like that over a Frankenstein’s monster, or a golem. Indeed, there seems to be an underlying tension in the book which is very akin to this theme there is on the one hand an imperative it seems that the only way to exist in India is to employ a hoard of Indian servants, and a horror that doing so the English are creating a community of Indians who might eventually devour them by becoming so like them that that they supplant them. Thus Williamson has no sympathy for English women who dress like Indians, nor Indians who dress like Europeans, and his strongest criticism is often directed at those who seek to break down the barriers of race and class.

It is evident that there is also another source of terror which lurks in the mind of its author. This is not the horror of India, but of France, and of the terror of the French Revolution. Occasionally this is directly expressed, such as in his account of the Boors of Cape Town who have been effected by this affliction as Williamson sees it. Sometimes the criticism is veiled but there. For instance he often criticizes the contemporary garb of women, which he complains is immodest and in imitation of the Indian manner.  But, it is also the period in which women’s fashion was strongly influenced by French rejection of the clothes of the old regime and the flowing lines of the revolutionary women’s costumes. I would speculate that this is also an element in his analysis of India which is relevent, he is at the greatest pains to make it clear that he has no sympathy for the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity. India, is a stage on which the English can instead demonstrate that economic adventurism, improvement, and rigid division between the gentlemen and the working classes can be played out.

There is also a wealth of very curious information about India at the time. For instance he explains the number of pice to a rupee varies on a daily basis.

I have already hinted at the fluctuations that take place in all coins, whether gold, silver, or copper. This up and down price of money, if I may use the expression, is managed by the shroff's, or native bankers; who invariably, except on particular holidays, meet towards midnight, compare accounts, and settle the value of money for the succeeding day. Notice is accordingly circulated in an underhand manner; and, throughout the great town of Calcutta, covering perhaps three thou-sand acres, and well peopled, the whole of the parties concerned, nay, even the ordinary retail shop-keepers, are apprized of the alteration. Sometimes the exchange is allowed to remain at the same rate for a few days in succession : this rarely takes place except when a particular currency, say silver, is to be bought up at a low rate, such as 58 or 60 pice to a rupee, to be sold again when the rate has been, For that purpose, raised to 64, or 65. (page 203)

Indeed, the incomparable strength of the book lies in the sheer level of detail in it which defies description and gives an extraordinary and vivid picture of India, as seen through the eyes of Captain Williamson during this period.

Dr Peter G. Friedlander
Asian Studies
La Trobe University, VIC 3086
Tel: 61 + 3 9479 2064
Fax: 61 + 3 9479 1880


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Last Updated: 25 July, 2006

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