By Bob Adams

I don’t think there are many of us who are not interested in our origins. Just look at the popularity of Who Do You Think You Are? on the BBC.

I’m no different. I knew that my mother had been born in India in 1931 and I had heard many stories from her early years. Her family finally returned to England in 1938, just before the Second World War.

However, until I started to research her background, none of us in in our immediate family were aware of just how long my mother’s side of the family had been in India. It turned out that her great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Earle, had written a brief account of his time there from 1768 to 1785.

And what’s more, one of his son’s daughters, Harriet Tytler, had written a series of diaries, extracts of which had been published in 1986. Harriet was present at the siege of Delhi in 1857 and had given birth to a baby at the time. In the back of a cart!

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The Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi

Solomon Earle had been a Captain in the East India Company (EIC) Army. Part of his account described a march by the army right across India from Awadh, in North India, to Surat, on the coast just north of Bombay (Mumbai).

In Solomon’s day the British presence in India was in three isolated settlements; Bombay, Madras and Calcutta (Kolkata). There was no master plan to colonise India. The EIC ran a number of trading posts, or “factories”, and because of the increasing unrest in India at the time with the collapse of the Mughal Empire there was thought to be a need to protect these settlements. At the same time there was the constant threat of war with France. Hence the establishment of an armed protection force, the EIC Army.

Early in 2016, I set off to India to follow the route of my ancestor’s expedition, travelling by train.

I was travelling with a friend, Steve Reilly. We took a flight to Delhi, then a further flight to Kolkata, the real starting point of our journey.

Kolkata is fascinating. Half the population seem to live on the streets and all life is there. We saw people fast asleep, covered from head to toe, men being shaved, old men chatting, children being sent out to beg, makeshift chai stalls and extreme washing from a geyser or even a hand pump.

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Memories of Empire: The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata

From Kolkata, we visited the nature reserve in the Ganges Delta, the Sundarbans (the name means beautiful forest). The reserve comprises the largest area of tidal mangrove forest in the world and is formed by the deltas of four large rivers including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Although we were in the boat for a whole day cruising by the mangroves, we only saw a small part of it.

Next stop on our itinerary was Lucknow, capital of Awadh. We took an overnight train from Kolkata. It left on the dot, at 12.20pm. Steve was snap-happy, taking shots of people outside. They dried their clothes on the line. There were even goats grazing between the tracks – we wondered how they avoided the trains. We travelled on into the plains of Bengal, paddy fields, mostly drained and dry, and crops, very flat.

Our food arrived in plastic bags inside a foil container. We also got a bendy paper plate. It was very difficult to eat the watery vegetable curries in our laps. We thought we did very well – until Steve got up and noticed he was sitting in pool of curry, staining his new trousers.

We arrived in Lucknow at 6am, tired after our first night on a train. The station was very busy, crowds sleeping on the floor and general bustle. Outside there was the usual crowd of rickshaw drivers wanting our business.

At midday we left on a tour of Lucknow. Taking an auto-rickshaw we soon arrived at “The Residency”.

The British residency has been left in ruins as a memorial to the 1857 rebellion when 2,000 out of 3,000 troops and civilians died on the British side and countless besiegers. Many more after the siege was relieved, four-and-a-half months later, by sword-wielding Highlanders who the mutineers apparently thought were the ghosts of the women and children slaughtered at Cawnpoor (Kanpur). It was a poignant and atmospheric place.

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View from the roof of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow

Then it was a cycle rickshaw to the Bara Imambara, a huge tomb built from 1785 to 1791 (the same years Solomon Earle was fighting his way around India), supposedly to provide employment during a time of famine. The structure is ostensibly a tomb to Asaf-ud-Daula and has a maze constructed in its roof, called the labyrinth. If you find your way through the labyrinth you end up on the roof.

After leaving Lucknow, we took a train back to Allahabad and then another to the isolated temple complex of Khajuraho. Solomon Earle passed near this place but at the time it was overgrown with creepers and unknown to western people. Then it was onwards, south, to the city of Bhopal.

Bhopal is, of course, well known for the horrific Union Carbide gas disaster in 1984, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. The site of the factory has still not been made safe and the local people continue to suffer from its after-effects. We visited the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, an admirable institution that supports those who are still in need of help. Donations to the clinic can be made via the Bhopal Medical Appeal.

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Children in Bhopal

We then took the train further south to Burhanpur and the fortress of Asirgarh. Burhanpur was a gem. It receives few tourists and we were made very welcome. It even has a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel equivalent, the Hotel and Holiday Resort Ambar. We visited the palace where Mumtaz Mahal, one of the wives of Shah Jahan, died in childbirth. Shah Jahan went on to build the Taj Mahal in her honour.

The EIC army left Burhanpur in a hurry. The British had been defeated near Pune at the battle of Wadgoan, in 1779, and the victorious Maratha army was on its way. The march to the comparative safety of Surat, a distance of 223 miles, took nineteen days, an amazing feat in those days given the cumbersome nature of transporting thousands of troops and camp followers. We travelled by overnight train in a matter of hours, passing through Surat and onwards to Baroda (Vadodara).

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A chapati bakery in Burhanpur

Baroda is a city rather like York, complete with ancient gateways and a renowned university.

The reason we were visiting Baroda was to visit the Maharaja. In 1780, Solomon Earle was appointed “resident” to the then Maharaja of Baroda, Fatesinhrao Gaekwad. Residents were a bit like ambassadors, but appointed to keep an eye on the local rulers.

Solomon stayed at Baroda for nearly three years. We stayed for four days and wandered in the park, visited various ancient sites and ate delicious vegetarian food. And yes, we did get to meet the Maharaja.

His name is Samarjitsingh Gaekwad and he was perfectly charming. We saw him in his palace, the Laxmi Vilas. It turned out that his grandfather had built a working model of the Flying Scotsman and he knew York well.

Sadly, the time came to leave Baroda. We took the fast train, the Shatabdi, to Mumbai, for an overnight stay before our flight home.

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Bob Adams with the Maharaja of Baroda, Samarjitsingh Gaekwad

  • Bob Adams is writing a book about India in the 1780s. He also plans another Indian railway adventure, this time travelling from Mumbai to Chennai (Madras) with his wife Barbara.
  • An Englishwoman In India: the Memoirs of Harriet Tytler 1828-1858, edited by Anthony Sattin, was published by Oxford University Press in 1986