Gardening and the British Army in India

One of the major problems facing the British Army in India was boredom. This was not so serious for officers, who had the opportunities for sport, travel, and responsibilities far more stimulating than they would at home. But it was a formidable challenge for army wives and for other ranks. One little recognised way of dealing with boredom and homesickness was through gardening, which became a way of asserting Englishness in a very alien environment.

Edith Cuthell, whose husband was an officer in the Royal Artillery, tried to come to terms with being away from England and family through her garden. She wrote her mother a series of letters, published as My Garden City in the City of Gardens in 1895, describing her life as a memsahib in terms of her gardening. During her first Christmas away from home she and 'the captain sahib' dined on 'soup of tomatoes from our own garden from English seed, also French beans and new peas, not the tinned article.' Like many a homesick memsahib, for Edith her garden became a psychologically important link to England, her family and to sanity. 'My violets are in bloom, dear little English flowers,' she proudly told her mother, 'carefully, one by one I have gathered enough to make a buttonhole.'

A deep nostalgia for the green fields, simple flowers, and soft rains of home was a constant theme in the letters of those who served in India. 'We took a palatial bungalow, all pink and white,' wrote the young Winston Churchill about the quarters he shared with two other subalterns in Bangalore, 'It stood in a compound of nearly four acres with a hund red and fifty splendid standard roses.' But binding your sons in exile was the price for taking up the white man's burden. One such son, an anonymous subaltern, so desperately missed England during the holidays that he wrote:

It's a dreary attempt at Christmas, you know,
The Punkah instead of the Christmas Fire!
The Colonel instead of the dear old squire!

Soon after Christmas Edith Cuthell told her mother how her husband had been employed in judging an inter-battery gardening competition in his artillery regiment. 'The life of a garrison gunner in an Indian fort is very dull one,' she explained.

The army encouraged gardening by organising competitions and providing men with plots of ground, tools and seeds, to keep them out of mischief - as well as bars and native brothels. Idle hands, the Victorians knew, could readily do the devil's work. Just as it was widely accepted that contented cottagers, tending their flower and vegetable gardens would foster rural stability back home, so in India it was assumed that gardening would have a similar beneficial effect. In addition it would allow men to supplement their diets with healthy self-grown foods, and learn a useful trade by which they could earn a living and not become a charge on the workhouse after being discharged. This became an especially important consideration after the Cardwell reforms of the 1870s permitted short six year enlistments. Military gardening became so popular that G. Marshall Woodrow wrote Hints on Gardening in India specifically for British other ranks: it ran to six editions by 1888.

Many officers became keen amateur botanists. Surgeon Major J.E.T. Atchinson of the Bengal Army persuaded General Sir Frederick Roberts to take him on the 1878 Kabul expedition as its official botanist. He collected some fifteen thousand specimens that included nine hundred and fifty different species, and on returning to London read a paper to the Linnean Society 'On the Flora of the Kuram Valley, etc. Afghanistan.' Eleven years later General Henry Collett read a paper to the same society 'On a Collection of Plants from Upper Burma and the Shan States'. In it he listed some seven hundred and twenty five species, without mentioning that he collected most of them while serving as a brigade commander during the 1887-88 Burma Campaign. This distinguished soldier-botanist was born in 1836 and commissioned into the Bengal Artillery. He served in the Mutiny, on the North West Frontier, in Abyssinia, during the Second Afghan War and in Assam, being badly wounded in the foot. On his retirement in 1893 he was made a Knight Commander of the Bath and in 1900 published his Flora Simtensis, a 652 page compendium that listed 1326 species to be found around Simla. In the foreword, Sir William Thistleton-Dyer, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, pointed out that in addition to his good friend General Collett, many other eminent soldiers had made major contributions to Indian botany, including General Murray, Colonel Grant, General Sir Richard Stray, Captains Dewey, Willby and Simpson, General Walker and Colonel Madden.

Officers' wives also got involved. Margaret Brown, whose husband was a Major General in the Madras Cavalry, published her Wild Flowers of Southern India in 1868. Lady Dalhousic, who was married to the Commander in Chief of India, sent the twelve hundred plants she collected in the Simla region in seven months in 1833 to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, and dispatched an additional six hundred specimens to Kew.

Kew was, to quote Joseph Hooker, its famous nineteenth century director, 'the botanical headquarters of the British Empire.' It was the apex of a network of botanical gardens, the most important of which was founded in Calcutta by Colonel Robert Kyd of the Bengal Infantry. He built it on some three hundred and ten acres of the east bank of the Hooghly a little downstream from the centre of the city, using his private collection as a foundation for a selection that by 1813 had grown to 3,240 species. The origins of the botanical gardens at Ootcumand, the second most important in India, can be found in the cooperative that Captain Molyneux set up in that Southern Indian Hill station in 1847 for growing fruits and vegetables. The botanical gardens became so attractive that in 1908 General Price wrote that they are 'about the prettiest - I speak from rather extensive personal knowledge - of the Public Gardens to be found in the British possessions in the East.'

It is not surprising that gardening should have played a significant, yet little known role in the life of the British Army in India. After all armies reflect the culture and society from which they are drawn and gardening has for long been a central theme in English self-identity. As Rudyard Kipling, the poet of both the Raj and of the soldiers who served the Queen in India, observed, 'Our England is a Garden.'

Originally published in 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 111

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