10th April 2018 – News from the North West Frontier – RCH Taylor’s letters home

by Aidan Herron

“News from the North-West Frontier – Lieut Col Richard CH Taylor’s letters from India 1857-1859”
by Aidan Herron
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – April 2018)

The April presentation to Skerries Historical Society was from Aidan Herron: ‘Letters from the North West Province.’ We’re not talking Connaught here: the letters were written from India during the aftermath of the Mutiny of 1857. The writer was Lieutenant Colonel Richard Chambre Hayes Taylor of the 79th Cameron Highlanders. His regiment had served during the Crimean War up to 1856 and he had only just made it home to Ardgillan when his regiment was ordered out to India to help put down the mutiny. Such is a soldier’s lot in life.

The letters are a fascinating resource and it’s clear that Aidan gained a good deal of enjoyment from reading and analysing them. He presented a picture of a complex man – very much of his time – who delights in gossip, observes his surroundings with the eye of an enthusiastic tourist, but is under no illusions about life’s harsh realities.

He has a wickedly witty eye and happily notes that the ‘ladies of Calcutta all dress gorgeously and expensively. I believe they do and think of nothing else – beauty is by no means common.’ He laughs at the unmarried European ladies who ‘would marry anybody if well off. Young girls constantly jump at old fellows from 50 to 70.’

He is also unimpressed by the ‘petty jealousies and absurd forms of etiquette’ which characterise colonial society.

On a more serious note, he sees that the feeling of the Europeans towards the local population is ‘quite violent and prejudiced, tho’ they do not allow it, and consider themselves quite moderate.’ However, even though he can see his compatriots prejudice, he himself believes that ‘Not a single native is to be trusted.’

When it comes to military action, he is a pragmatist: ‘In action no prisoners are taken, all wounded are finished off.’ If prisoners were taken and the wounded treated, they would end on the gallows anyway: killing the enemy on the field is a ‘less troublesome mode of proceeding.’ The slaughter also helps assuage the outrage felt by the Europeans – and Sikhs who took no part in the mutiny – at what they saw as the most appalling betrayal.

Lieutenant Colonel Taylor is probably summed up best in his own words: I should be very glad if I never were to see another shot fired in anger; but when…fighting is inevitable…it is as well to be ‘in the thick of it’. 

Report by Oona Roycroft