The Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library house a vast number of manuscript collections relating to India. These include the records of the Secretary of State of India, the correspondence of Viceroys, and the papers of numerous officers of the Indian Civil Service. Other collections deal with the princely states, and with the important British mercantile firms in India.
For many years, these papers were housed in a grim grey building off Blackfriars Bridge Road, across the Thames, and not far from Lambeth Palace, the city home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1997, however, the India Office Library (as it was then known) was shifted to a new location in central London, adjacent to St. Pancras station. The shift was necessitated by the wish to have all the collections of the British Library under one roof.
Many theses and books have been written on the basis of the India collections of the British Library. If one is a historian of the Raj, it scarcely matters what your subject is—be it peasants or princes, Gandhi or Curzon, this is where you shall find the most abundant as well as the best preserved records.
I have myself spent hundreds of mostly pleasurable hours looking at the papers housed in the British Library. I have studied here the records of the Forest Department and of the Political Department. I have explored the collections of the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and of the great, pioneering anthropologist, Verrier Elwin. I have read faded microfilms of periodicals as varied as the London Times and Jayaprakash Narayan’s Everyman’s Weekly.
Once, searching for something more important, I came across a file donated to the British Library by a London bookseller named Truslove and Hanson. This contained letters written to the bookshop by Field Marshall Archibald Wavell between 1943 and 1946, when Wavell was Viceroy of India. During wartime, the supply of such non-essential goods as books was curtailed; and Indian bookstores are grossly inferior to London ones in any case. Hence these letters for books that Wavell wanted and, once he got them, presumably read.
Judging by the file’s contents, this Viceroy of India had an astonishingly wide range of interests. Thus, among the books he ordered from Truslove and Hanson were the political scientist Harold Laski’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution of our Time’, William Empson’s work of literary criticism, ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, and the collected poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Viceroy seemed to have a taste for the classics—hence the request for copies of all volumes of the Cambridge New Shakespeare, ‘in the leather binding if available’. He liked humour both ancient and modern—thus the orders for G. Gordon’s ‘Shakesperean Comedy’, for Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’, and for the letters of George Bernard Shaw. Scripture was represented by R. A. Knox’s translation of the New Testament, art by a biography of the painter Augustus John and a book on the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Wavell had, it seems, an interest both in light fiction and serious history. He asked his bookseller for a copy of C. S. Forester’s recently published ‘Lord Hornblower’, but also for a book on ‘Carthaginian Peace’. As a military man, he requested a copy of de Chair’s edition of Napoleon’s memoirs, as well as a book that ‘has been recently published by a son of the late Mr. Roosevelt, recording some inside history of Mr. Roosevelt’s relations with Mr Churchill’.
One reason Wavell read so much was that he did not like to talk. One of his own generals, Sir Francis Tuker, wrote of ‘his extreme difficulty in talking to one or else his naturally laconic manner… He really did find it difficult to conduct a conversation of any length’. This impression is confirmed by an Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. During the Second World War, Menzies met Wavell in Egypt, where the Field Marshal was serving as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in the Middle East. Menzies hoped to have an extended conversation with Wavell, for he admired his military genius—besides, Australian troops formed a fair proportion of the troops under his command. To his dismay, Menzies found that Wavell ‘simply did not talk at all. He appeared to be blind in one eye, and this meant that when I sat next to him at table he would swivel his head right round, ninety degrees, fix me with the good eye, and say either “I see”, or “Maybe”, or “Um”, or nothing’.
Wavell had been sent to India by Winston Churchill as a sort of punishment posting. He was not one of the British Prime Minister’s favourite Generals; and India was not one of the Prime Minister’s favourite countries. Thus, when the Viceroyalty fell vacant in 1943, Churchill pulled Wavell out of his post in the Middle East and sent him to the sub-continent.
As Penderel Moon has observed, Churchill intended Wavell ‘simply to keep things quiet in India till the war ended’. For the Prime Minister was an implacable foe of Indian independence. But, once in Delhi, Wavell defied orders by working steadily towards that end. After the War ended, the Viceroy called a conference in Simla to try and work out an agreement between the Congress and the Muslim League. Wavell’s initiative was saluted by an Indian on his staff, V. P. Menon. The Viceroy, wrote Menon to a friend, ‘is a great man and I have a feeling that where great statesmen and politicians have failed a soldier is going to succeed’.
It was Wavell who pressed London to set a clear time-table for the British withdrawal, and it was Wavell who facilitated the formation of an Interim Government of Indians. It fell to his
flamboyant successor to make the last, dramatic gestures that accompanied the end of the Raj. Yet it was Wavell, not Mountbatten, who should get most of the credit for initiating the end of British rule in India.
Those who worked with the taciturn Field Marshall revered him. Consider thus the testimony of Ian Scott, who served as Private Secretary to both Wavell and his successor as Viceroy. Scott remarked of Wavell that ‘vanity, pomposity and other such weaknesses never touched him’; another way of saying that (unlike Mountbatten) he did not look to, or care about, how history would judge him. For his part, General Francis Tuker came to admire Wavell ‘immensely for his ruggedness and his absolute equanimity under misfortune, and for the fact that he never appeared to bear any grudge or resentment against anybody who during his career let him down or did him down. He never bore any resentment against Churchill for pushing him out of the Middle East, nor did he bear any resentment against the Cabinet for pushing him out of India in 1947… He was in this sense a very great man’.
It is a pity that there exists no serious biography of this intriguing and arresting figure. There are books aplenty on Mountbatten, but scarcely any on Wavell. I am told that one reason for this is that, like some other great Generals, Wavell had a partiality for his ADC’s. His family does not want this side of his character to be made public, and hence have barred his papers to scholars. One hopes that they will come to see sense. For a liking for young men has not prevented the English from recognizing and documenting the greatness of many other historical figures—such as Oscar Wilde, T. E Lawrence, and, indeed, Lord Mountbatten himself.