Civility and Empire: Literature and Culture in British India, 1822-1922

By Anindyo Roy | Go to book overview

4

Savage pursuits

Missionary civility and colonization in E. M. Forster's “The Life to Come”
For conquering Clive, or Wellesley's mightier name,
The wide world echoes to the trump of fame,
Yet have there been, who loftier praise have won,
Undaunted Schwarz, and saintly Middleton
England hath many such; she little knows
What to their secret championship she owes;
Their prayers, with night and day to Heaven aspire,
Bulwark her empire with a wall of fire,
And arm the happy earth that gave them birth
With power to build the throne of Christ on earth.

Harriet Warner Ellis, Toils and Triumphs (1862)

In a letter to E. M. Forster, dated 30 April 1924, T. E. Lawrence conveyed his reactions to a story that Forster had sent him:

It's abrupt, beyond grace and art: but at my second reading what came out of it strongest was a feeling of pity for the African man. You cogged the whole of life against him and he was no good to wait all that while. None the less his illness was overdone, or his sudden spasm of strength at the end of it. It was too unexpected. Couldn't you have led up to it by some careful hints of force & sinew in the last pages?

(Forster 1985:56)

The story was “The Life to Come, and the “African man” in question was no African but a tribal aboriginal belonging to one of the many indigenous forest-dwelling communities of central India. Between the years 1921 and 1922 Forster had served as a private assistant to the local Hindu ruler of the state of Dewas, a province located on the northern boundaries of this tribal area. Generally known by names such as Gonds, Bhils and Khonds, these “primitive” tribes were scattered over a vast area in central India, which in the nineteenth century lay on the geographical edges of the semi-autonomous princely states and the territories officially called “British India.” To this day the Gonds represent numerically the most dominant indigenous tribe of India, with a history of political power that

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