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Rethinking The Feringhees In India

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

Elizabath Hamilton
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016, Pg 245 258, 1695

VOLUME XLI NUMBER 2 February 2017

When one reflects on the representation of the human condition in history and one turns to the British individuals who served the Indian Empire, one is reminded of John Locke’s paradox. In 1690 in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke proposed the paradox over which philosophers have puzzled since then. Let us imagine an individual who chooses to stay in a room which is locked from outside. He exercises his free will in that he chooses to stay in the room, on the other hand he actually has no freedom to leave the locked room. Is he morally responsible for the choice he made to stay in the room if he has no alternative since he is actually locked in? It is possible to elaborate on that puzzle, but for the present it is enough to remind ourselves of the questions it gives rise to when we look at the implications of the narrative in the book The Feringhees. There were men like George Orwell who served the Empire and hated it, men like E.M. Forster who felt little or no sympathy with those who served the Empire—and then there were others who chose that life— they had a moral discomfort with racism and jingoism and the occasional bloodymindedness of the conquerors, but at the same time they were locked in a trajectory pre-determined by their family and their entire social world and hence they served the Indian Empire. This book with its simple narrative of two men who served in the Indian Civil Service in the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may lead a reader to reflect on the complex issues raised by John Locke’s philosophical puzzle. The eighteenth century tradition of regarding biographies as the best form of historical writing is not dead. Arguably, it is alive in popular historical writings. Biography remains an approach to history that takes us to some of the innermost recesses of history which the generalized aggregative view of history cannot reach. This book, The Feringhees, is something in between those two genres. The author, Elizabeth (nee Barton) Hamilton focuses her narrative on the life of her father Sir William Barton, and her husband’s great-grandfather Sir Robert Hamilton of the Indian Civil Service. Robert’s father too was in the East India Company’s Civil Service and Robert spent his childhood in Beneras and Bhagalpur, until he was ...

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