Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The characters of Cawnpore: the Hillersdons

Charles George Hillersdon, who also held the position of Magistrate for the district, was a few years my junior, being in his early thirties. He was slightly above the average in height, but a sedentary life had left him somewhat corpulent and he tended to stoop, making him appear older than his years.

This is John Williamson’s first impression of the Collector – the official appointed by the East India Company’s to run Cawnpore and the area around it. Hillersdon is to be his boss while he works for the Company in Cawnpore.

Charles Hillersdon was a real person. The description of him is based on a drawing that is unreliable for two reasons: he’s just a background figure and many of the drawings made of key incidents at the time were works of imagination by people who may not even have been there. Still, it’s a credible picture and may well be accurate.

Hillersdon’s personality is even more the product of my imagination. He seems to have been an unremarkable man, presumably good at his job or there would have been paperwork defining his deficiencies. In Cawnpore he is the most sympathetic of the Europeans, a bridge between Williamson and the other British staff with whom he has nothing in common. Hillersdon is, if you like, the acceptable face of colonialism: hard-working, sincere, doing his very best for the people who are his responsibility, but ultimately having little understanding of the country where he is living.

His wife, too, was a real person and there are suggestions that she was, indeed, the rather sweet piano playing mother that Williamson describes. Like many English wives in India, she lived an isolated life, surrounded by servants but with no real contact with the Indians. Her home attempted to keep India at bay with the furnishings and taste of the English Home Counties, while she bore children at a rate that reflected the value that Victorians placed on motherhood.

Charles, Lydia and their children all took shelter from the rebels in General Wheeler’s Entrenchment. Lydia was pregnant at the time and she survived to see her child born. None of the Hillersdon family, though, survived the bombardment of the European position. Like so many of the people who died on both sides at Cawnpore, they may well have made political misjudgements and they may have served deeply flawed systems, but they surely cannot have deserved the fate that they met there.

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