This ship is the SS Strathaird. It is shown on a postcard sent by my great aunt to my grandfather as she and her family left India forever in December 1948 - on this very ship. Their parents, siblings and friends were also leaving. My grandfather lasted for another six months in the increasing chaos and violence of the Partition of India before he too booked passage for his family. They were Anglo Indian - mixed race Christians abandoned by the British administration.
As discussed in yesterday's post, we now live in a world where we can see and hear about events all over the world. We can watch amazing sporting achievements, royal weddings and Hollywood ceremonies as they happen. Sadly we can also see bombs falling, people dying, refugees fleeing and any number of other terrible events.
I am currently reading India Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann1. I wanted to start to have some understanding of the events which drove my family to leave their home of many generations to start new lives in countries which were completely alien to them.
The more I read about Partition, the more outraged I have become. Not even particularly on behalf of my own Anglo-Indian relatives. Just generally outraged for all involved (well, my nickname at college was Millie Tant...!).
At the end of May 1947, the British government - struggling against a tide of debt and misery in the wake of the 1945 peace - approved a plan which would carve up India and create a new country - Pakistan. On 3 June, this plan was announced to the leaders of the many factions involved - the Hindu dominated Congress, the Muslim League, the Sikhs, the Anglo Indians, the many rulers of princely states, etc. And at that meeting it was sprung upon them that Britain would be handing over power on 15 August 1947. Not June 1948 as everybody had thought. In just ten weeks time the British were expecting two new governments to have been created to govern two huge states, each with massive mixed and volatile populations.
It seems quite incredible that the British government got away with this. Indian Summer details the fear of outside influence from the US, Russia, China and others; the concern about Pakistan becoming a focal point for an increasing hegemony of Islamists; the worries about the strategic position of Afghanistan and the ambitions of its rulers. Is this all sounding horribly familiar?
We all watch rolling news broadcasts of wars and refugees. My family were luckier than most that we see in, say, Syria. They had British passports already; they had European lifestyles. They left with nothing though. My grandfather ended up in Coventry simply because he had met one British man in the same line of trade (telecoms) and he had his business card. Two of my great aunts went to New Zealand followed by my great grandparents. To my knowledge, my grandfather never saw his parents again, although they did not die until at least twenty years later.
This post is not about the rights and wrongs of immigration; it is about how the human stories get lost in sweeping generalisations made by governments. It was right that India was given independence. It was not right to think that such a delicate operation could be carried out in ten weeks.
1. India Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire - Alex von Tunzelmann (Simon&Schuster 2007; Pocket Books 2008)