Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fanny Parks: A Wandering Pilgrim in 19th Century India

by Tom Williams

Fanny Parks went to India in 1822, accompanying her husband. Arriving in Calcutta, she and her husband lived respectably with the other Europeans, although she was quick to learn Hindi so that she could communicate with the servants.

After two years in Calcutta, her husband took up a post in Allahabad, 500 miles to the north-west. It was her first experience of rural India, and she loved it. The time was, she said, "the most approaching to delightful that we had passed in India." Once there, her husband became manager of the ice works.

The manufacture and storing of ice in the days before refrigeration was an important industry, but managing an ice plant must have had more than a passing similarity to watching paint dry. Fanny threw herself into organising the household, arranging an avenue of trees and digging a new well. (She quotes the local proverb: "Plant a tree, dig a well, write a book, and go to heaven.") It seems pretty clear, though, that she was bored.

Equipped with her workable Hindi and her horse, Mootee, she spent much of her time exploring the country. "Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse]," she wrote, "one might be happy for ever in India."

As a woman, she was allowed to socialise with Indian women in a way that local custom would have considered quite unacceptable for men. She formed friendships with many Indian women and was even able to visit them in the zenana (harem), an area completely forbidden to men other than the immediate family and therefore a continual source of exotic rumour amongst most Europeans. It was her accounts of life in the zenana that, in part, led to the success of her autobiographical Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, two extraordinary volumes which gave an unparalleled insight into Indian life under British rule in the first half of the 19th century.

Her husband seems to have been, by the standards of the time, unusually relaxed about leaving her to travel on her own. When the two of them went to visit the Taj Mahal, he sent her ahead in her own boat and she writes about her experiences and adventures on the river as an unchaperoned woman. Her behaviour was considered improper by more conventionally-minded memsahibs and she seems to have had few women friends among the European community, although she is always writing of the men she knows and visits. (Even back in England she shocked people by going out and about unchaperoned. "I shall never be tamed," she wrote "… to the ideas of propriety of a civilised lady.")

She took to wearing Indian dress, even having a burka made for herself (though she doesn't say that she ever wore it in public). She complained that "a lady in European attire gives me the idea of a German mannequin" and contrasted European women's stiff walk with "that snakelike, undulating movement, – the poetry of motion" that she saw in the Indians.

Although the early 19th century saw generally good relations between the Indian and European communities, Fanny Parks was much closer to the local aristocracy than most and was regarded by many Europeans as having "gone native". She learned Urdu, which was the language of court and which she described as "Hindostanee, intermixed largely with Persian."

She was sympathetic to Indian religions and contrasted them favourably with Christianity: "The fakir, who from a religious motive, however mistaken, holds up both arms until they become withered and immovable, and who, being, in consequence, utterly unable to support himself, relies in perfect faith on the support of the Almighty, displays more religion than the [bishop], who, with a salary of £8000 per annum, leaves the work to be done by curates, on a pittance of £80 a year."

Her enthusiasm for Indian religious observance did not, however stop her from stealing idols that she found in the countryside and adding them to her collection of Indian artefacts. On her return to England she proudly announced that: "My collection of Hindoo idols is far superior to any in the [British] Museum."

She was entranced by fabrics and fashion and learned the esoteric skill of dressing a camel. "There is but one thing in the world that I perfectly understand, and that is, how to dress a camel," she claimed. She was good enough at dressing camels to be asked to dress the camel of a local Rajah. The dress was made of "many yards" of black and crimson cloth covered in seven hundred bells, one hundred beads and thousands of cowrie shells. She drew the line, though, at actually riding the beast, saying that she would be frightened of tumbling off.

Much of her time was spent at entertainments, whether the balls given by the British or more elaborate entertainments provided by the Indians. Having animals fight seems to have been considered a great sport, with elephants and even rhinoceroses being pitched against each other. Nach dancers provided a more relaxed entertainment.

With no need to find herself employment, Fanny Parks gives the impression of a life spent in a continual round of exploring, socialising and being entertained. The realities of life in India do intrude, though. She is constantly reporting herself unwell, often through the effects of the heat. She matter-of-factly records the deaths of native friends, servants and Europeans as smallpox, plague, heatstroke and other unspecified illnesses take their toll. Even her substantial domestic menagerie suffers. "The sickness in our farm-yard is great: 47 … sheep and lambs have died of small-pox; much sickness is in the stable…" There is the occasional murder to break the monotony of death from sickness.

The East India Company offered generous pensions. Fanny Parks reminds us of why they could afford to: most of their employees failed to survive to collect their pensions. A detailed study of the mortality rate amongst British troops in India in the 1840s suggested that almost 3% died every year. A 21-year-old soldier in the Bombay army was reckoned to have only an evens chance of surviving 25 years of service – much less than he would need to collect his pension.

The life expectancy of the native Indians was, of course, less than that of the Europeans. Besides issues of sanitation and general health, the natives suffered the effects of famine. Fanny Parks describes passing through a famine area:

"There lay the skeleton of a woman who had died of famine; the whole of her clothes had been stolen by the famished wretches around, the pewter rings were still in her ears, but not a rag was left on the bones that were starting through the black and shrivelled skin; the agony on the countenance of the corpse was terrible. Next to her a poor woman, unable to rise, lifted up her skinny arm, and moaned for food. The unhappy women, with their babies in their arms, pressing them to their bony breasts, made me shudder… I cannot write about the scene without weeping…."

In 1839, Fanny Parks returned to England to visit her family, her father having died. She complained that the country was small and dark. Even the mutton was compared unfavourably with that in India, although she was fascinated by her first experience of a steam train. Her visit was not a happy one. While she was in England, her mother died and she herself was seriously ill for three months. It was not until 1844 that she returned to India. She seems to have spent less time now exploring the country and complained of life being monotonous. Years in India had sapped her health and that of her husband. In 1848, both of them left India for England, arriving on New Year's Day 1846.

Her homecoming was unpropitious. "[I]t was bitterly cold, and I began to speculate if it were possible to exist in England." Exist in England she did, though, surviving until 1875, when she died at the age of 81.

Fanny Park's memoirs are available free on Google Books.

Tom Williams is the author of two books based around Britain's colonial experience in the mid-19th century: The White Rajah and Cawnpore. Both are published by JMS Books and available as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon and other retailers.

Tom's Blog
White Rajah (US)
White Rajah (UK)

Fanny Parks actually visited Cawnpore about thirty years before the events in Tom's book, which explains his interest in her travels – though they're interesting anyway.

Tom is currently working on a book set in South America during the Napoleonic wars. Tom writes about 19th-century history, writing and dancing tango on his blog.

Cawnpore (US)
Cawnpore (UK)


  1. I so enjoyed this post. I recently traveled in India and certainly had quite different experiences than a 19th C woman, but fun to hear what she met on her unusual path. Grim also, which is often the dominant feel in parts of India.

  2. Fascinating post. Fanny was remarkable, thank you for introducing us to her!

  3. I read this with great interest, particularly because the hero in my novel Far Beyond Rubies set in Queen Anne Stuart's reign 1706-1714 was profoundly affected by his experiences in India.
    Far Beyond Rubies is now available as an e-book,and from the 30th October,2013 as a paperback, https://museituppublishing.com/bookstore/2, amazon.co.uk.,amazon.com, nook and elsewhere.

  4. I remember getting out of the car in some remote Indian village and looking around. Ours was the only car in sight. I turned in the other direction and thought, "This is just what an English woman would have experienced 200 years ago. The wind and dust blowing on my skirt, the oxcarts, the simple buildings." And since I am of English descent, I felt a connection to those women who were here before me.

  5. I had been reading Fanny Parks since I came across the book by chance at the Briyish Council Library, New Delhi (around early 80s). The writer always seems to be so honest that her portrayal of all incidences involves you wholeheartedly. She never had any ambition of a saleable writer so whatever she wrote was an honest diary. This is the beauty of this book.


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