The Chaos of Empire The British Raj and the Conquest of India
Hile turning Bombay’s home for old European sailors into a legislative
assembly in January 1928, labourers came across patches of red dust.
The dust was the disintegrated remains of the city’s first English residents. Now
200 metres inland, workers had dug into a graveyard that once stood on the
desolate promontory of Mendham’s Point, looking out over crashing waves and
shipwrecks. There, senior English officers had been buried in elaborate tombs,
but the bones of clerks and soldiers, the ordinary English functionaries of
empire, were thrown in a shallow grave under a big slab of stone. Corpses were
quickly dug out by jackals ‘burrowing in the ground like rabbits’, according to
one account. Even the clergy were buried in common graves, with Bombay’s
first five priests thrown together in one hole. The cemetery was ‘more terrible to
a sick Bombaian than the Inquisition to a heretic’, one observer wrote. By 1928,
the cemetery had been entirely forgotten.1
The English ruled territory in India from the 1650s. Britain was the supreme
political force in the subcontinent that stretches from Iran to Thailand, from the
Himalayas to the sea, from at least 1800 until 1947. These years of conquest and
empire left remains that survived in South Asia’s soil, sometimes until today.
Perhaps a quarter of a million Europeans are still buried in more than a thousand
‘cities of the dead’, as the British explorer Richard Burton called them in 1847,
scattered through the countries that once made up British-ruled India – India,
Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma.