Somewhere in this sea of mustaches is my great grandfather on my mom’s side, William French. He could be any one of these faces; there’s no blondish hair, big-ish noses, or any other genetic quirk of chance that’s familiar to me. All these men look the same, and I could be related to each and every one of them.
My great grandfather is in here somewhere though, I know it.
I’ve always walked by this picture, framed proudly in my parents’ kitchen and there was always a dose of pride in it for me: look, my family is a part of history! But the more I look at this photograph the more it haunts me. At the very top of the picture, a caption notes that these men were all officers and, at the bottom, another note reads:
Rawalpindi, India, October 1934.
This is no vacation then, no ordinary picture of my great grandfather in a military outfit. This a snapshot of seventy men in the British Empire, sitting for a photograph in what is now modern-day Pakistan.
So when you realize where this picture was taken, everything about it changes: why are these men in India?
If you ask any British person why these chaps were sitting for a photograph five thousand five hundred miles from home then I don’t think they’d be able to tell you why. A few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Is this something to do with World War I? World War II? Maybe the British just had a military base out there or something? Wasn’t this back when we were the good guys defending the world from fascism?
After listening to Empire and reading Shashi Tharoor’s excellent Inglorious Empire, I now know why: William French is sitting for this photograph in 1934 because a corporation once stole a country. One hundred and seventy seven years before my great grandfather set foot in this foreign country, the East India Company seized the region’s treasures, pillaging its industry, and entirely broke the economy. Refusing to govern the people they now controlled, the Company caused famines and set people against each other for their own political benefit without a care for ruling India or its people. All they cared for was the plunder and the profit.
...kingdom after kingdom was annexed by the simple expedient of offering its ruler a choice between annihilation in war and a comfortable life in subjugation. When war was waged, the costs were paid by taxes and tributes exacted from Indians. Indians paid, in other words, for the privelege of being conquered by the British.
Looting is a better word than taxation perhaps (the word “loot” was taken from India, too). And so for a hundred years the East India Company crushed the country to bits, exploiting everyone they could. Eventually, the company was gobbled up—nationalized—by the British monarchy. And with it, Queen Victoria became Empress of India: the British Raj was born.
Not once at school was I told any of this stuff. I’d heard of the Raj before, although the British always spoke of it as if it was something to be proud of. I never knew what it really was until Tharoor firmly slapped the ignorance out of me.
So that’s why my great grandfather is sat for his photograph in Rawalpindi. He’s a line in the thread connecting the immense corporate greed of the East India Company—from pirates and thieves and delusional monarchs with visions of empire—to then him, my great grandfather, sat there in the sun.
Wherever he is.
Doesn’t this photograph mean something else now? I can’t look at it like a cute little trinket hanging on the kitchen wall.
What this photograph shows instead is William French, the company man. He wasn’t some random guy in the background of the empire—a casual onlooker—but an officer in it, an enforcer of the British Raj. There aren’t any family stories about his time as an officer or what he saw there, but a quick search about what the British did in Rawalpindi around that time and I find myself reading about mustard gas experiments inflicted on Indian soldiers who were used as test subjects.
Was my great grandfather a part of this? Did he know? Perhaps he knew of things much worse. Perhaps he did much worse.
As William French sat to take this picture in Rawalpindi, George Orwell published his first novel about what the British had done to Burma. And it’s obvious to me in all of Orwell’s writing, in Nineteen Eighty Four or Animal Farm or Burmese Days, that he wasn’t just writing about communism or fascism taking over the world—he was writing about us, the British.
(The scary part about fascism isn’t that someone else can be lured into it, but that even you can, too.)
At the time Orwell was describing his life as a police officer in Burma—and what the empire turned him into—he was also writing about William French, about my great grandfather; a man on the other side of the world contributing to the same empire in his own way. Although perhaps French didn’t do anything evil, perhaps he wasn’t a company man at heart. Perhaps he was drawn into this empire and he couldn’t say a word about it. But it doesn’t matter what he thought, it only matters what he did: French went to a foreign country, donned the uniform, and became a component of this colonial empire. If he lasted until retirement then the Indian government would have paid for his pension: even if he left the country his extraction, his pillaging, his looting would continue.
So the reason why I’m staring at this photograph is because here it is, here’s my link to colonialism, my link in the great chain of monarchy and empire, a document that proves my family’s contribution to the plunder.
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