The Diaries of Henry Osborne (Part 2)

Reading Henry’s diaries is taking longer than expected.

Tumbling down the research rabbit hole every few pages is a time-consuming pleasure. Is that book Henry mentioned available readily online? How well did British officials understand Bengali and other local languages? Who were these linguists serving the civil service? What is a GomashtahHow did the British rule and run their empire and what other primary sources do we have? What was the perspective of the colonisedWhose who? What historical fictional is worth reading? What is that medication? What vaccinations were available in India in 1877? Where is Henry marching exactly? Where exactly is Bengal Province? What were the boundaries of British rule? When? How is that place-name spelt now? Maps are rabbit holes. Google Maps and historical ones are an even deeper warren to plunge down.

Henry refers to the challenges of “the famine“. Terrible, horrible rabbit hole. Our diarist mentions he is reading Daniel Oliver’s “First Book of Indian Botany”. Rabbit hole. Henry receives mining and investment prospectuses as well as a “Certificate of Chemistry” in the mail (which is amazingly reliable and fast between Great Britain and the sub-continent). He is pleased the document is signed by his professor. A little investigation. Yes, he graduated from the Royal School of Mines and Science Training Schools in South Kensington. Rabbit hole. His instructor is WG Valentin who published a popular textbook, A Course of Qualitative Chemical Analysis (1874). 


Significant sources

The most extensive and useful labyrinth found came from investigating Henry’s frequent reference to “Carnac” or “the agent”. The Registers of Employees of the East India Company and the India Office reveal that this is Henry’s boss, the most senior official in the Opium Department, JH Rivett-Carnac (1838-1923), the Opium Agent for Benares. He contributed evidence to the First Report of the Royal Commission on Opium in 1894 and is now my best primary source for understanding contextually the information in Henry’s diaries. His obituary provides useful insight into both the man and official:

In accordance with the family tradition of the Rivetts he spent most of his life in India, where he had a very distinguished career, in both civil and military capacities. In addition to his public life in the Indian Civil Service, he had many private hobbies of a more purely intellectual nature, in any of which he would have obtained eminence had it held his somewhat over-versatile attention for longer than a few years at a time.

Carnac wrote about his life and times and well as his intellectual hobbies. Who’d guess that this would include (a rabbit hole the size of) archaeology? He published a very unexpected book you can read online, Prehistoric Remains in Central India. His memoirs, Many Memories Of Life in India, at Home, and Abroad, published in 1910, provides many invaluable insights into the work and lives of men – like Henry and Orwell’s father, Richard Blair –  as they progress through the ranks of the Opium Department. Carnac acknowledges “the overworked district officials” and the following, lengthy quote, provides context for many of Henry’s diary entries:

“To most of my readers the name of the Indian Opium Department will convey no information. It seems necessary then to explain that the Indian Government draw from opium a revenue of about four millions sterling. As to the merits of this source of revenue it is not my intention to enlarge. A Commission was sent out to India in 1893 to examine the whole question, and in their report will be found all the information that the most exacting inquirer can demand. The chief sources of supply were, and still are, the Behar districts of Bengal, and the southern and eastern districts of the North-Western, now termed the United Provinces. Under the Act pertaining to the subject, no one could grow the poppy plant without a licence from Government. And all the produce of the plant so grown had to be delivered over to the Government officials in the poppy-growing districts at a fixed rate. The opium so collected was then despatched to the Government factories, where it was packed and thence sent down to Calcutta. These chests of opium were there sold by auction, and the difference between the price thus obtained and the cost of the drug, and of the establishment of the Opium Department, represented the opium revenue.

The establishments necessary for the working of the Department were presided over by two so-called Agents, the one of whom had his headquarters at Patna, where was a factory, the other at Ghazipore, where the second factory was situated. The operations of the first of these Agents were confined to the Behar districts. Those of mine, called the Benares Agency, extended over the portion of the NorthWestern Provinces above mentioned. Each Agent had under him a considerable European and Native staff, generally a European officer, with sometimes a European assistant, in each of the districts where opium was cultivated. This officer had to select the lands on which the plant was to be grown, and issue to each cultivator a licence in approved form. To the headquarters of this officer was brought the drug when collected, and by him it was weighed and payment made according to certain rules which it is unnecessary here to detail. It was then sent down by rail or boat to Ghazipore. The opium when received at the factory was not ” manufactured ” in the true acceptation of the word, inasmuch as it went to China in the state received from the districts—that is, without any addition or manipulation. The processes at the factory were confined to seeing that the drug was of a uniform ” consistence ” as regards the moisture therein contained, and to making it into balls, like large cannon-shot, of which the covering was formed by the flowerpetals of the plant. For the duties of granting licences, inspecting and measuring the lands, seeing that none without licence were sown, for receiving, weighing, paying, &c, and for despatching the drug to the factory, the European officer had a considerable Native staff, and some two or three Gomashtahs, of about the rank of Native officers, a contingent of Native clerks, and a large number of men employed in the districts to supervise cultivation, prevent illicit cultivation, smuggling, &c. These in the whole Agency numbered several hundreds. In the Benares Agency the European district staff was, in my time, about sixty strong. This was supplemented during the busy time of the weighing of the drug by an additional twenty or so young fellows, taken on temporarily, and from whom were chosen later assistants to fill permanent vacancies. At Ghazipore, besides an office staff of secretaries and clerks, the Agent had a superintendent of the factory, a medical man, generally a Surgeon-Major in the army, and a dozen or so employed at the works, two of officer’s rank, the remainder chosen from retired army sergeants, and so forth. It will be seen, then, that the Agent had a considerable staff to control, and that what with this and the many other questions connected with a large Department and a great revenue, his hands could be pretty full.”

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Henry and “Carnac”

There is a growing sense of unease at work for Henry and mention of “Carnac” grows more frequent and negative. Last post I mentioned our diarist was sleeping with a “derringer” under the bed as there were intruders in the house. His application for a transfer to a more favourable station is not approved by “the agent”. In 1878, Henry also has the challenge of a newly born son, who is sick with bronchitis, on top of the usual worries with his own physical and mental health. He reads a “confidential file” which gives him “a greater insight into Mr Carnac’s character than ever and not favourably”. A few days later it appears that Henry must meet with Carnac to answer “a charge bought against me” to do with “arrears of pay”. It doesn’t go that well:

“…met with the agent with whom I did not have an altogether pleasant interview…”

It will take Henry another seven years before he is promoted to the next rung on the sub-deputy opium agent ladder. There is probably nothing to that other than the glacial nature of promotion in this branch of civil service but it is interesting to read about his travails with the boss. Orwell’s father is often mentioned, in biographies of his literary son, as having very slow career progression. It is worth noting that Carnac says in his memoirs:

“Promotion was slow, and prospects were not good. Still a man could rise eventually to a salary of £1200 a-year, with a pension on retirement of £500 a-year. A young man so started was provided for, in a way, for life, and there were many who could not resist the temptation of thus disposing of a son, and relieving themselves of the expense and anxiety of further education. So there was a considerable demand on my miserable patronage, and having fortunately no poor relations to provide for, I did my best, whilst trying to secure a good class of youth for the work, to assist deserving old officers who were known to have large families and proportionate difficulties to struggle with.”

One notices that there is an “M Rivett Carnac” listed as serving the Opium Department in 1878 who is at the same “assistant sub-deputy” rank as Richard Blair, Orwell’s father. Carnac had no children so one assumes this must be a relative he was assisting by his patronage.

1878 agents-2 1878 agents2-2

More rabbit holes

“All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.”

                                                           Shooting and Elephant, Orwell

There’s much to learn about the operations of late-19th century imperialism in India. The economics of the state-controlled opium monopoly in Bengal is of fundamental importance to understanding the period. Originally my interest in George Orwell led me to plunge down the rabbit hole of reading twenty-six diaries by this sub-deputy opium agent.  Orwell hated imperialism, especially after his experiences in Burma and I am confident that Henry – an “Anglo-Indian official” – will teach me more than a little about the experiences of Orwell’s father.

Pursuing “Carnac” has proven very worthwhile in developing a bibliography of other interesting primary and secondary sources to read about the British Empire’s opium trade. I am currently down the Deming, Owen, Tomlinson, Riddick and Rowntree rabbit holes but needing to head up to the surface for more of Henry’s life with his wife and newly born son, Henry Percy, as they literally traverse the Province of Bengal.

References UK, Registers of Employees of the East India Company and the India Office, 1746-1939/University of London; London, England; India List Civil and Military India; Reference Number: b2168330~S10 1890 pt 1

Bayly, C. A., Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, The New Cambridge History of India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010

Deming, Sarah, The Economic Importance of Indian Opium and Trade with China on Britain’s economy, 1843–1890, Whitman College, Economics Working papers 25, Spring 2011

GBO. Great Britain. Royal Commission on Opium. (Rivett-Carnac).1894. “Note on the Supply of Opium” (Presented by Mr. J. H. Rivett-Carnac, C.I.E.I.) Appendix V. Part 1. 319-335. First Report of the Royal Commission on Opium; with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices. Volume I. (C-7313). London: Printed for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. By Eyre and Spottiswoode

Marshall, P. J., Bengal: The British Bridgehead: Eastern India 1740-1828, The New Cambridge History of India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Osborne, Henry, Diaries of Henry Osborne, Sub-Deputy Opium Agent for the Opium Department, India Office, of the British Government in Bengal Province, India, 1877-78, Lett’s Diaries Company, Ltd

Owen, David Edward, British Opium Policy in China and India, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934

Riddick, John F., Glimpses of India : An Annotated Bibliography of Published Personal Writings by Englishmen, 1583-1947Greenwood Press, 1989

Riddick, John F., Who Was Who in British India, Greenwood Press, 1998

Rivett-Carnac, John Henry, Many Memories Of Life in India, at Home, and Abroad, Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1910 (pp 304)

Rivett-Carnac, John Henry, Prehistoric Remains in Central India, Calcutta, 1879 (Reprinted from the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal)

Rowntree, Joshua, “The Opium Habit In The East: A Study Of The Evidence Given To The Royal Commission On Opium 1893-4”. China, Culture and Society, 1895

Tomlinson, B. R., The Economy of Modern India, The New Cambridge History of India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013


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