Book review – Preparing The Grounds
Reviewed By Asif Farrukhi
Before the British Empire moved in to pluck Sindh like the low-hanging fruit it had become, there were a number of travellers who acted as advance-guards to serve the purpose of the rapidly advancing empire.
Edward Paterson Del Hoste was one such traveller but he still retains a sense of mystery. We can only speculate if his correct name was Delhoste, or perhaps even De L’Hoste. The name may be mysterious; however, one thing about him is very clear: he was not one for mincing his words.
Regarding the government in Sindh he said: ‘I am doubtful if the manner in which Sinde is ruled deserves the name of a government’. Hard-hitting and strangely apt, it is only the quaint spelling of Sindh which makes you suspect that this is not from today’s newspaper or some present day politician’s speech. Has Sindh really changed substantially from the days of the Amirs and the subsequent colonisation? Due to their astute observation and sharp, if somewhat biased analysis, these travellers pose a challenge for Sindh which still interests many.
It is not only the government with which Del Hoste found fault in the report he prepared based on his 1832 visit. His sharp observations can also be read as a list of faults. He finds the climate ‘intolerable’ and the insect-infested violent winds likely to cause death among men and beasts.
He is no less flattering towards the people than the geography, noting that: ‘the Sindians are generally about middle stature, with dark complexions, long hair and roman features. I should say that they were a handsome race of men — they are natural athletes and well made — but are inactive, and lazy, and very dirty in their persons — neither bathing or changing their clothes often.’
Appearances can be deceiving but Del Hoste is not ambiguous in his opinion about the people of Sindh. He even invokes his superior Pottinger in maligning the ‘character’ of the people: ‘They are avaricious, full of deceit, cruel, ungrateful, and strangers to veracity; but in the extenuation of their vices, it is to be remembered that the present generation have grown up under a government whose extortion, ignorance and tyranny is possibly unequalled in this world.’
This dark cloud of disapproval lifts momentarily when he speaks of the local women, bemoaning that he had ‘no opportunity for seeing many of them,’ but judging them by the nautch girls he had seen in Hyderabad, he goes on to pass judgment that ‘they were in point of beauty far superior to the female natives of India.’
This bears a remarkable similarity to the views held by Richard Burton, surely the keenest observers and the sharpest among the many travellers to Sindh during the colonial transition. Del Hoste’s account belongs to the same category as the travel accounts of Pottinger and Postans, and can be read in the same spirit.
Del Hoste travelled to Sindh as a surveyor attached to a diplomatic mission to the courts of the Mirs in Hyderabad and ‘Khyrpoor.’ His main interest was the opening up of the River Indus for free trade. In addition to comments on the topography, he recorded many other things, such as the killing of a nautch girl by a Baluch warlord, and the humiliation of a ‘tolerably well-dressed’ Hindu, who had come to see a tamasha, by a Musalman sepoy at Khairpur.
It is due to such observations that these reports make interesting reading and have historical value. Del Hoste’s reports were previously compiled by Dr Mubarak Ali along with the account by McMurdo under the title Sindh Analysed. In his brief introduction, Dr Ali had commended Del Hoste for his observation. Del Hoste’s report on the routes leading from ‘Kurachee’ to ‘Jerruk’ was also included in the compilation of various memoirs on Sindh, edited by Hughes Thomas for the Bombay government in 1855 and subsequently reprinted from Delhi.
It is for the first time that three reports and concerned correspondence are being published together. This volume has been ably edited by Matthew Cook who is currently associated with the North Carolina Central University, and has written his dissertation on the relationship between Sindh’s history and colonialism during the 1840s. What makes this edition invaluable is that the editor has consulted the original manuscripts. So this edition should be regarded as the definitive one and superior to the previous reprints.
In his brief introduction, Cook contextualises these reports with a period of ‘heightened tension on the part of the British, who feared a potential Russian invasion.’ He links the fate of Sindh with the game of the big powers of the day — a strange game which continues to cast an ominous shadow even today.
Cook further makes some perceptive remarks about the relationship between colonialism and information gathering of the kind carried out by such travellers. He quotes Dirk’s statement that ‘colonial forms of knowledge were critical in the establishment and maintenance of colonial rule in India,’ and goes on to say that the ‘imperial context of Del Hoste’s 1832 reports supports Dirk’s position by illustrating how intelligence is not mere ‘information’ but rather a specific form of knowledge driven by larger imperial concerns.’
Regrettably, Del Hoste stops short of developing this argument further. This would have perhaps meant going beyond these reports and the brief documents can only be used to hint at larger questions beyond their context.
Excerpt from the book below
Selected reports By Edward Paterson Del Hoste
Edited By Matthew A. Cook
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN 978- 0-19-547287-5