The year was 1834. With a two-masted Pinnace (a light sailing ship) named Seagull, an Arabian horse and a battalion of 22 servants, Fanny Parkes was well-armed to travel the Indian subcontinent.
Born in Wales as Frances Susanna Archer, she married Charles Crawford Parkes, a Writer of the East India Company, at the age of 27, in 1822. Her first years in India were spent holed up in their house in Chowringhee, Calcutta, where she learned Hindi and Sanskrit. Every day, she rode her Arabian horse around the countryside while the sun set.
In 1835, she found herself childless and wanting for adventure. Her husband had been promoted to the position of Acting Collector of Customs. He was too busy to take her out. Fanny was not one to be chained by her circumstances. So, she decided to seize the days herself. It was unorthodox for a Welsh woman to travel by herself, as is evident by this comment on Fanny by Emily Eden:
We are rather oppressed just now by a lady, Mrs Parkes, who insists on belonging to our camp. She has a husband who always goes mad in the cold season, so she says it is her duty to herself to leave him and travel about. She has been a beauty and has remains of it, and is abundantly fat and lively. At Benares, where we fell in with her she informed us she was an Independent Woman.
In 24 years of travel, Fanny explored the Ganges, Allahabad and parts of the Himalayas. She would travel from six in the morning down the Jumna river and dock at seven in the evening. The threat of being ambushed by dacoits was real, so an armed guard was set while they rested. The idea of danger seemed not to deter her, as she embraced India in all of its local pleasures. She picked up cigar smoking, playing the sitar and even consuming opium!
Her eccentricities did not go unnoticed. In her memoir, “Wanderings of a Pilgrim In Search of the Picturesque During Four and Twenty Years in the East,” she wrote:
My friends laugh at me when I play on the sitar, and ask, “Why do you not put a peacock’s feather at the end of it?
Wherever Fanny went, she learned something new. Her eccentricities made her a firecracker at parties and social get-togethers. At one such party, a young Rajput princess made an unnatural request:
I am told you dress a camel beautifully,” said the young Princess; “and I was anxious to see you this morning, to ask you to instruct my people how to attire a sawari camel.
Fanny obliged, devoting a sub-section of her memoir as “How to dress a camel”. As she said, “if there is but one thing in the world that I perfectly understand, and that is, how to dress a camel”. She set about an elaborate dress, composed of over a thousand bells and seashells, two Tibetan cow tails, black and crimson cloth and red and black tassels. She dressed the animal in the presence of Baiza Bai of Gwalior, who was greatly amused at the sight.
Baiza was a Maratha queen of the Scindia clan who had been recently deposed by her adoptive son. As a widow, she suffered many disprivileges, though she had been a powerful ruler of Gwalior. The two discussed the plight of widows in India and in England, prompting Fanny to remark:
The fate of women and of melons is alike. Whether the melon falls on the knife or the knife on the melon, the melon is the sufferer.
Their conversation was a curious meeting of independent women; a nineteenth-century feminist discourse in the making. On the laws that kept women as the slaves of their husbands, Baiza asked, “Who made the laws?” and Fanny replied “The men.”
They formed a sisterly connection in more ways than one; Baiza named Fanny the Grand-Aunt of her Granddaughter, effectively making her a sister in name. She often called on Fanny for help in organising social functions. At one function, Fanny joined Baiza while suffering rheumatism in her face. Baiza indulged her with a lump of opium. The drug took her pain away, leaving Fanny without fatigue, “perfectly happy” and chatting incessantly. The next day, however, she had to summon a doctor to treat her hangover.
Fanny’s husband was too mild-mannered to bother her for her travels. His own knack for joining Fanny in an adventure only extended as far as the Taj Mahal. The magnificence of the Taj Mahal made a deep impression on her, and she was vocally furious at the plan of the Governor General to ‘sell’ the Taj Mahal as he had the Motee Masjid. Learning of the price, which was two lakh rupees, she exasperated:
The present king might as well sell the chapel of Henry the Seventh in Westminster Abbey for the paltry sum of 12,500.
Fanny managed well by herself, making friends across the strata of society – from the elite socialites of the British Raj to the Indian women of the courtly harems (zenana).
Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [referring to her horse], one might be happy for ever in India,’ she wrote in her journal in 1838… Oh! the pleasure of vagabondizing over India.
Her observations were often anthropological. She wrote at length about the Thuggee community, who “roam about the country in gangs, strangling people for their money; it is their only employment.” The word ‘thug’ hails from their exploits.
Her descriptions were often interesting and humorous.
All men in India wear mustachoes; they look on the bare faces of the English with amazement and contempt.
In 1846, after suffering many sicknesses in India, Fanny returned to Britain with her husband. There, she found the Isles “bitterly cold” and “began to speculate if it were possible to exist in England.” Once bitten by the travel bug, it is not easy to return to the idle comforts of a faraway home.
In 1851, Fanny funded and helped set up an exhibition titled “The Great Moving Diaspora of Hindoostan,” at the Asiatic Gallery in Baker Street, London. Her collection was eclectic, but all deeply her own. They were her adventures in material form. Among her items were the dice of the Thuggees, an iron Lathi, fossils, butterflies, ornaments and idols.
Fanny passed away in 1875 at her home in Cornwall Terrace. Two months later, her cousin, Clement Robert Archer Esq, published Fanny’s memoir. It received wider attention in 2002 when William Dalrymple republished it as”Begums, Thugs and White Mughals“. As Dalrymple wrote:
When she arrived home, her mother barely recognised her. It was as if the current of colonisation had somehow been reversed: the coloniser had been colonised. India had changed and transformed Fanny Parkes.
Fanny’s story is much larger than these anecdotes. Her writing is accessible and quirky, giving us a rare non-colonizing view of nineteenth-century India. The perspective of a young, female Welsh traveller with an open heart for the locals of India presents a land that is at once rich with character and adventure. Modern day backpackers can only dream of the adventures Fanny had in the pre-Raj days of the subcontinent.
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