The 1891 India Diary of Dr. Francis and What It Teaches Us: Conclusion

The 1891 India Diary of Dr. Francis and What It Teaches Us: Conclusion

The 1891 diary of the British surgeon Dr. Francis offers us valuable raw material for doing a fuller historical analysis of British colonialism. While it is largely sympathetic to India, it does not rise above the innate tone of colonial superiority.

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The 1891 India Diary of Dr. Francis and What It Teaches Us: Conclusion


No country is free from superstition in some form or other. Certain days in the year, for example, are considered propitious for carrying out certain designs, whilst to attempt them on other days would be to court inevitable disaster. Europeans should endeavour, through the medium of a Munshi or Pundit, to ascertain what the principal superstitions of the country are. It would be impossible to describe them in a limited space such as this. One or two of the most remarkable may be mentioned.

Hindus believe that if a kite be whirled round the head of a child on a Tuesday or Saturday, and then let go, it will be well with that child. It is considered unlucky amongst English people for thirteen to sit down together to dinner—one of them will be sure to die within the year. Similarly, Hindus believe that a wife or child will die within the same period in the house on which a vulture, an owl, a hawk, a kite, a heron, a gull, or, even a dove has perched. Hindus object to leave a house to start on a journey, or to undertake any enterprise, in which death has occurred. Muhammedans, on the other hand, regard it as an auspicious reason for doing so.

In seasons of an epidemic of cholera for example, the inhabitants are very desirous of passing it on! And various devices are resorted to for the purpose. An instance of this custom has recently occurred at Meerut where, cholera having killed a great number of the inhabitants, a bull buffalo was painted up and paraded through the city in order to deport the cholera demon out of it.

Parents and relatives very much object to anyone praising their children, being convinced that evil will ensue. (A similar superstition prevails in some parts of the United Kingdom.)

One of the modes adopted for exorcizing an imaginary malignant spirit is somewhat startling. A lady seated at her toilet suddenly finds the Ayah cracking her finger-joints (ungli chatake), in a way peculiar to Orientals, and making passes over her head. The act is one of philanthropy. Wishing her mistress well, the Ayah thus clears the atmosphere of any evil influences that may be surrounding her.

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The 1891 India Diary of Dr. Francis and What It Teaches Us: Conclusion

Certain words being, considered unlucky, natives are careful to avoid pronouncing them. In some parts of China, the natives object to the use of brown paper for making up parcels.


The majority of Europeans in India are apt to speak and write disparagingly only of the natives. The few who know their good qualities appreciate them heartily. Both in public and in private life, amidst much that is reprehensible, traits of character are met with which are not surpassed by any nation in the world. Their fearlessness of danger, and devotion in moments of peril in the service of a good master, are striking evidences of the truth of this statement.

All who have been in war action will testify to the cool indifference to fire with which dholi-bearers hurrying under guidance to pick up an officer. Or a soldier lying wounded on the battlefield, will carry him to the hospital.

It is in action, too, that the stuff of which is a well-chosen, suitably equipped, and well-led sipahi (native soldier) is made, is seen. As an illustration, the story of the Guide Corps before Delhi at the time of the mutiny so graphically told by the noble Herbert Edwardes, is an episode of Indian military life which will bear constant repetition.

On the 13th May 1857, this corps, then stationed at Murdan in the Punjab, within six hours after receiving the order, marched, fully equipped for service, to Altock 30 miles away. Pushed on at once to Delhi, distance of 580 miles and, doing double marches (about 27 miles) every day, or 21 marches altogether, t hey arrived before the beleaguered city on the 9th of June, ready for immediate action. Within three hours, they engaged the enemy hand to hand, every officer being more or less wounded. Here fell one of the most promising of England's sons, Quintin Battye whose oft-quoted last words were "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" –sweet and becoming, it is to die for one's country. Led by such European officers, the native soldier will go anywhere.


It is deeply to be regretted that the British soldier's acquaintance with the lingua franca of India—Hindustani—should be so limited. For he is brought, and brings himself into contact with the natives as much as any other class of Europeans. There can be little doubt that if he knew more of their language, he would take a greater interest in the people. And it is certain that there would be fewer of those disgraceful fracas in the villages which bring discredit upon the British uniform and make the British soldier a terror in the land.

It is next to impossible that, drafted off to India often suddenly and without warning, he should learn the language before leaving England. And he has no official encouragement to do so after arrival in the country. He can learn it if he likes from the regimental Munshi free of expense. But there is no reference to it in the Queen's Regulations, and it is not one of the regular subjects taught in the regimental school. This is not as it should be. The European soldier in due course picks up, phonetically, a few vernacular words and phrases. This is thanks to the almost instinctive perception of their meaning by the native servants attached to European barracks and hospitals and suffice for his daily wants.

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The 1891 India Diary of Dr. Francis and What It Teaches Us: Conclusion

Aag lao (bring a light for a pipe); juldi, juldi (quick, quick) ; chup raho (be quiet); gul mat karo (don't make a noise); puckdo (seize him); kitna baja (what's o'clock?); soo mat (don't go to sleep) ; hoshiyar raho (look alert).

These and other similar phrases, together with a few terms of abuse, constitute the British soldier’s vocabulary. Many British officers indeed, who have no prospect of remaining long in India, know, no more. The mistakes sometimes made owing to a similarity in the sound of words, a servant carries out an order totally different to what was intended. Or, where a wrong word is substituted, the servant being thereby expected to perform an impossibility.

But, it is no laughing matter when a sick man's complaints are not understood or when a life is about to be sacrificed. During the mutiny of 1857, a Commissariat officer saw a European sergeant moving towards a tree, dragging a native camp follower by the neck with one hand and having a drawn sword in the other.

“What are you going to do with that man?” asked the officer.

“Just take his head off,” was the reply.

“Why? What has he done?”

“Bedad! wasn’t be going to blow up the magazine?”

“But what proof do you have of that?”

“Why? He wasn’t far off from that. He had a light in his hand.”

It turned out on further enquiry, that the native camp follower had been sent to get a light for an officer’s cheroot!

It is needless to add that the sergeant belonged to a British regiment, and that he did not know a word of the language. The times of course, were unfavourable for the native, and many a native met his doom without much enquiry.


Europeans are apt to make merry over the droll mistakes sometimes made by Indians in pronouncing English names. But there are many which we ourselves pronounce incorrectly. No one would know intuitively that Beecham was spelt Beauchamp; that Ralph became Raif; Knolloys, Knowles ; Wemyss, Weems; Marjoribanks, Marchbanks. We need not be surprised therefore, when a native turns Macintosh into makkhan toast (toast and butter).

If the title bahadur (a hero) has been conferred upon an Indian, it should always be added to his other names. It may be taken as representing the order of knighthood. Indians are particular about the recognition of their padvi or titular dignity. Thus, Rajputs and Sikhs and all who have it, are very proud of the possession of the title Singh, implying princely blood or the military profession. The word means a lion, or anything high or noble. Amongst Brahmins, the Pathak, the Chabbis, the Pundits, etc., maintain their distinctive characteristics, and move only in their own separate groove. Mussulmen are proud of the prefixes Mirza (a princely Mogul title); Mir (a chief or leader), applied to Syeds; Pir (a spiritual guide or saint).Hindus are prone to ridicule this title.


I would advise all Europeans in India to study the proverbs of the country. Useful in conversation everywhere as emphasising a truth, they are also serviceable in administering a quiet rebuke. Indian proverbs are remarkable for their "concise neatness." A number of proverbs will naturally be the same, expressed somewhat differently in all countries.

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The 1891 India Diary of Dr. Francis and What It Teaches Us: Conclusion

himmati murdan, mududi khuda (God helps those who, help themselves) ; daam kare sab kaam (where there's money there's everything); jab talak jaan tab talak aas (whilst there's life, there's hope) ; bure bhaag se accha bhaag (bad luck may bring good luck). Others, having local significance, are applicable chiefly to particular countries. As in India, Unt chhade, kutta kaate (mounted on a camel yet bitten by a dog; misfortune has long arms for the unfortunate); haath pair ki kahili, moonh mein moonchen jaayen (when hands and feet are idle, moustache will be in the mouth).

It is hoped that the foregoing sketch of native social etiquette in India will be of some little use to Europeans during the first year or two after their arrival in the country. And that, by being made aware of certain points in the social life of Indians, they may be enabled to hold intercourse with the latter without in any way unintentionally hurting their feelings. For valuable information bearing on the subject, I am much indebted to the works of Sir William Muir, Max Mueller, Sir William Hunter, and Sir Monier Williams. His A Brief History of the Indian People, and Stobart's Islam should be included in the library of every intending resident. Most particularly, Fallon’s dictionaries are the best in my opinion, in existence.

Concluding Notes

This is the concluding part of Dr. Francis’ observations of an India at the turn of the twentieth century. As we have seen throughout the series, in reality, these are his recommendations—and guidance to Englishmen coming to India for the first time.

It is quite remarkable even when we read it now for the wealth of raw material it contains for making a proper historical analysis of British colonialism. While it presents a largely sympathetic picture of India it is understandable because the author was naturally cut from the cloth of the brazen colonial superiority that characterised that era. Thus, even while being sympathetic and understanding, the air of ingrained condescension towards the “natives” permeates his writing like an unliftable fog. Perhaps the most marked feature of Dr. Francis’ India diary is the reign of terror so casually unleashed by the soldier class of the British military. This theme deserves a fuller exploration on its own.

We hope you found this series stimulating, thought-provoking, and useful.


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