Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Truth may be stranger than fiction.

Some readers have told me that they have a problem with Cawnpore because our hero disguises himself as an Indian and gets away with it.

In my book, I do tell the story of Jonah Shepherd, who passed himself off as an Indian, although he was in fact an Anglo-Indian ie he had an Indian mother and a European father. Nowadays, people might think that such a deception would have been easy to pull off, but at the time of the Mutiny people were very sensitive to the difference between Anglo-Indians and Indians. Anglo-Indians were seen by many of the rebels as traitors and subtle distinctions of skin tone, accent or bearing could be the difference between life and death. The success of Shepherd's impersonation was therefore by no means assured.

Shepherd disguised himself in native clothes and had his hair cut short all round his head leaving a tuft of long hair in the centre, over which he wrapped a piece of cloth as a turban. Just the change of clothes seemed to make quite an effective disguise. As he left the British camp he was challenged by sentries who failed to recognise him as one of their number. He was, however, seen leaving by some of the rebels and taken for questioning. The episode where he is questioned in Cawnpore is based on his own account. He was worried that he might be asked about his religion. As a Christian, he did not know the Muslim creed to convince the questioner that he was a Muslim or enough about Hindu gods to pass himself off as a Hindu. He decided to pass himself off as a Chummar, which he said was a very low caste that held no particular creed and he got away with this deception.

His main concern was to disguise his height, which he did by the simple expedient of stooping a lot. Apparently he was significantly taller than most of the natives. He was also worried that he might be recognised by somebody who knew him from before the Mutiny, so he would pull a cloth about his face whenever he could. These crude devices kept him alive until Cawnpore was relieved.

As Jonah Shepherd was leaving the British lines, a European friend of his suggested that he disguise himself too and join him. Although his friend later thought better of the idea, this does suggest that Europeans did believe that they could disguise themselves effectively.

In fact, there was evidence that a European could get away with such disguise. At the siege of Lucknow, Henry Kavanagh, one of the European volunteers in the garrison, offered to pass through the rebel lines to guide in the relief column. He dyed his skin and dressed himself in native clothing before passing around the European camp and ensuring that he was not recognised for what he was. He escaped from the siege by swimming across a river but soon ran into an enemy sentry.

"I thought it prudent to be the first to speak, and remarked, as we approached, that the night was cold, and after his repeating that it was cold, I passed on observing that it would be colder bye-and-bye."

He passed several other sentries without his disguise being penetrated. At one point, he and his native companion were stopped and questioned. The native became visibly frightened. Kavanagh wrote:

"I drew their attention to his fright, and begged that they would not terrify poor travellers, unaccustomed to being questioned by so many valorous soldiers."

The sentries were satisfied and let him go.

The fictional John Williamson, of course, gets away with much more than this, but then he is a devotee of Indian culture and has his local love to help him. His exploits are fictitious, but the historical evidence suggests that he may well have had a better chance than a modern reader might expect.

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