“A sub-deputy’s job was to supervise the poppy growers in his district and make sure the crop was cultivated in the most efficient way. The government itself made cash advances to cultivators, purchased their product, carried on the manufacturing process and made the final sale of the poppy juice to the factories and exporters in Patna and Calcutta. The opium revenue, next to that from land and salt, was the largest single increment to the Indian treasury and generated sixteen percent of its total income.” Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation
Recently, while researching online, I stumbled across a collection of handwritten diaries from the late 19th century. There were 26 volumes, bound in original cloth, with several thousand pages of entries written legibly in ink. The diarist, Henry Osborne (1840-1905) served contemporaneously with George Orwell’s father, Richard Walmesley Blair (1857-1939), in the Opium Department, India Office, of the British Government in Bengal Province. His diaries detail the day-to-day life, work and subsequent retirement of a Sub-Deputy Opium Agent during the period 1876-1905. These diaries were of interest to me as relatively little is known about the work of Orwell’s father and it seemed likely much could be gleaned from Osborne’s life.
I purchased them.
When the box arrived, skilfully packaged by the bookseller, removing each diary from its protective wrapper was a joy. The oldest – Pettitt’s Octavo Diary – was a little worn being more than 140 years old. Henry’s other 25 diaries were (surprisingly) in magnificent, near fine condition. Most of his days in Bengal were recorded using “Letts’s Diary or Bills Due Book and Almanac” and when he retired, “T, J. & J. Smith’s Post Diary with an Almanack”.
I started reading.
In early 1876, Henry appears to be on leave – perhaps because of medical issues – in London. He goes ice-skating for the first time, attends the theatre to see a pantomime, visits friends and relatives. He takes “Julia” riding and walking at Blackheath several times. He has a cold. There is a pressing question on his mind and it unfolds that he does not have to worry about the answer.
“…the vital question of my life was settled and Julia promised to become my wife! We went soon after to the Westminster Aquarium and spent a happy afternoon together – the happiest in my life…”
There is a wedding to plan. Shortly after this “happy afternoon” Henry has a medical challenge and needs an operation on his neck. He explains:
“I was called into the operating room by myself, divested of my coat and upper clothes and then made to lie on my right side on a sofa. Gas of ether was then inhaled, and felt as if dying. Returned to consciousness in a few minutes when the operation all over. Woke up as from a happy dream and felt stupid afterwards and after reaching home spent a quiet day troubled with thoughts of Julia”
I really started to get into the swing of it.
My concern that the diaries would be boring, or difficult to read due to the 19th century handwriting did not prove to be problems. An LED-lit magnifier really assisted. I often paused to look-up places on the map and research what he was doing. Henry might not mention what the play was that he attended but it was easy enough to uncover that he saw Othello, starring Henry Irving or that the pantomime at The Drury Lane Theatre was Dick Whittington. It was particularly exciting when old envelopes and other slips of paper were found between the pages.
Henry and Julia are married on the 13th April, 1876 at St. Mark’s, Lewisham, London. The newlyweds sail from London Bridge to honeymoon in Brighton at Harrison’s Hotel. The scene is very recognisable: “We drove away in a shower of rice”. After Brighton they travel to Edinburgh and visit all the places so loved by travellers to the Athens of the North.
Henry’s leave seems to have been for about six months or so but it is hard to tell as the record of his life commences on January 1st 1876. Other research reveals that Osborne’s career as a colonial official commenced in April 1865. He was employed as a 5th Grade Sub-Deputy Opium Agent stationed at Ghazeepore (Ghazipur) in Bengal. The married couple alight from Southhampton on a steamer to India and one assumes he will be returning to this station with his wife. Julia is not going to like life on the sub-continent (I think to myself while reading these entries). On 15th June he writes “Julia seasick”, then, on the 17th, “Julia dangerously ill”. One can only wonder what the result of Julia eating breakfast the next day will be but there are no more entries for some time.
“Loaded ‘derringer’ & fired a couple of shots in the evening – reloaded and placed it under the mattress of our bed at night.”
Currently, I am almost finished the 1877 diary. Henry is sleeping with a “derringer” under his mattress. I will write more about what I have discovered about the work of managing the cultivation and distribution of the British Empire’s opium business in my next post.
Perhaps the only disappointment so far has been that Henry makes no entries in his diary on arrival in India. I had been really looking forward to this as my own arrival, admittedly by plane, in Calcutta (Kolkata) a century or more later, is a memory that will never fade.
Henry is often “depressed”. His gloomy countenance really surprised me as he emphasises the challenge of “feeling sad” very regularly and at strange times. Often he feels melancholy during times of celebration or holiday. It is unclear why Julia’s singing seems to make Henry feel depressed.
There are periods – in these first two years of the personal record – when a break from these feelings is evident. Henry “marches” around Bengal for months, living out of a tent, doing the work of running the British Empire’s opium business without once mentioning “sadness” or “depression”. He is just too busy perhaps to mention it OR too busy to feel depressed. The moment he returns ‘home’ (well to Dhawa anyway) and goes to a “dinner party” he feels himself “bordering on madness” and he leaves Julia, heading home by himself to a completely “sleepless night”. The next day he returns to his work routine.
Many people think of “depression” as a very 21st century affliction. It is so evidently a feature of Henry’s weekly life and I will pay close attention as the record unfolds.
The other very interesting and unexpected information is tucked away at the back of Henry’s 1876 diary. Why does Henry list the “Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade – Canada Building, King St. Westminster SW”? The society had only been formed by Quaker businessmen in 1874 and one would have imagined that his employer, the British Government, or more specifically, the Opium Department of the India Office, would hardly be enamoured of this interest. Did Henry visit the office? Will Henry visit the office? It is a fascinating prospect to think that this particular sub-deputy opium agent (third class in 1876-77) had a social conscience.