An Englishwoman in India
The Memoirs of Harriet Tytler
Edited by Anthony Sattin
Harriet wrote her memoirs when she was in her late 70’s. She was a Victorian woman and represented her class and period well.
Her grandfather and uncle were prisoner’s of war in France under Napoleon. Her grandmother and mother lived nearby for 15 years so the family could be together. After the battle of Waterloo, they were released and returned to England. That is where her mother met her father while he was on furlough from India.
Harriet was born in 1828 to a British military family in India. At 11 years old, as was common practice at the time, she was shipped off to England with two younger siblings to continue her education. When they landing in England their clothes were so outdated everybody laughed at them. Her brother was immediately sent on to boarding school where two older brothers were waiting for him. She and her sister lived with a family they had never met before for about a year, until her aunt came to collect them. Her aunt was strict and cruel and Harriet hated every minute of her time there.
At seventeen she started her journey back to India to be reunited with her parents who she had not seen for 6 years. She traveled by steamer and by land until she reached Aden just off the Red Sea. The group traveling with her were friendly and she had a happy time. At Aden she received a letter from her brother-in-law in India and feared her sister was sick. It was worse, her father was dead. When she finally reached Calcutta, there was nobody to meet her. She saw her mother two weeks later only to discover that she was on her way back to England with the younger children. Harriet was to stay with another aunt and uncle who was serving the in Punjab Campaign.
At 19, she met and married Robert Tytler, a Captain in the British Army who was also a widower with two children.
This woman did not have an easy life.
On May 11, 1857, she was living in Delhi, eight months pregnant with two small children at home. That was the day of the Great Sepoy Mutiny. The “Sepoy” was the Indian soldier serving in the British Army.
“It is wonderful to think how unanimous they were, Hindus and Mohammedans, in the one object of exterminating the hateful Christian in India. On this occasion the Mohammedans and Hindus were one, their bitter antagonism to each other, which had always been our safeguard so far, was for the time overcome. The gullible Hindus, two to one in each regiment, firmly believed Prithee Rai’s raj would return and then they would be masters of India. The wily Mohammedans, who were using these poor deluded men as a cat’s paw, encouraged the belief, knowing all along that they would soon find their mistake, for the Mohammedan meant to reign by the edge of his sword, which would also be used to proselytize the poor idol worshippers.”
However Philip Mason notes in the Introduction: “Harriet, of course, like everyone else, has heard of the cartridges (smeared with pork and beef fat) but does not seem to have known that the original offensive cartridges were withdrawn (therefore confirming that the rumor was true). Like every other young wife in India at the time, she thinks that the Mutiny was a deep-laid plot, instigated by the sons of the king and spread by wicked Muslims who played on the fears of the simple gullible Hindus.”
Harriet ran for her life that day. She, pregnant, with her two children, 2 and 4 years old, eventually loaded themselves onto an already overloaded carriage and rode hard out of town. Her husband riding back and forth checking on other people. The carriage broke to pieces. They found another one, it also broke down. They ended up walking to the next outpost where luckily there was no uprising.
Eventually the British took back Delhi. Harriet bore 10 children, 8 of whom lived, and spent the rest of her life an expat in India. She died in 1907 at the age of 79.
Photo credit: Richard Collier