Education About Asia: Online Archives

Travel Matters: An Indian Subaltern’s Passage to China in 1900

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“On June 29, 1900, I, together with the ‘headquarter’ [commanding officers] of the 7th Rajputs, a Bengal regiment, boarded the ship Palamcotta at Calcutta.” This opening line sets the stage for Chin meh Terah Mas (Thirteen Months in China), an account of a “yudh yatra” or war travel (yatra also means a journey, tour, trip, or pilgrimage) penned by an Indian subaltern named Thakur Gadhadhar Singh. He was a subaltern both in the military sense (i.e., a subordinate Indian noncommissioned officer) and in the postcolonial sense (i.e., a marginalized and colonized person). (note 1)

As many travel narratives do, Singh’s China story signals its itinerary right from the first step. The title itself is revealing. Parenthetically subtitled Chin Sangram (The China War), it identifies itself on the cover as offering “a full eyewitness account of the great war in China in 1900–1901 A.D., and a brief history of China and Japan, customs and practices, Chinese religious beliefs, [their] well being, relations with other countries, information regarding military forces and states, and a complete description of famous temples, buildings etc., Boxer uprising, foreign occupation—so on and so forth, generally characteristic descriptions of all knowable and suitable subjects.” (note 2)

Singh’s trip occurred under unusual circumstances. He recalls their Calcutta send-off by a “General Leach” of Fort William whose parting words were: “Rajputs! The Indian government places great faith in sending you to China. In China, the ministers of world powers [foreign legations] are in great danger because of the rise of a new religious community known as the Boxers. You have been mobilized to free them. Carry out this mission enthusiastically on behalf of the government. And do it triumphantly. Your force was previously dispatched to China in 1858–59. So this is not a new undertaking for you. Our expectation is that you will be successful” (1).

NOTES

1. For details of this argument, see my, “(A) Subaltern(’s) Boxers: An Indian Soldier’s Account of China and the World in 1900–1,” in The Boxers, China and the World, eds. Robert Bickers and R. G. Tiedemann, forthcoming.

2. Thakur Gadhadhar Singh, Chin meh Terah Mas (Lucknow: Thakur Gadhadhar Singh, 1902). All page numbers in the body of the text are to this book.