In the last days of 1884, an English politician named Randolph Churchill landed in Bombay. Then in his mid thirties, he was a rising star of the Conservative Party, who had made his name by a series of withering attacks on the policies in Africa of the great Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Churchill was a self-proclaimed ‘Tory Democrat’, who wished his party to abandon its defence of tradition and privilege and take up more progressive positions and affiliations.

Randolph Churchill spent six weeks in India, travelling across the sub-continent, calling at the colonial port cities but also visiting the princely states, and taking in some shikar in the jungles along the way. His experiences are described in a series of letters he wrote his American wife. Three days after landing he told her that ‘I have not done any sight-seeing yet, except going into Bombay and walking about the streets and looking at the people, an endless source of interest’. A week later he was taken by ‘a great Parsee’, the millionaire businessman Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, to see the Towers of Silence. ‘I was asked to write my opinion of their process in their books’, wrote Churchill to his wife, ‘and composed a highly qualified and ambiguous impression which would have done credit to Gladstone’.

From Bombay, Randolph Churchill proceeded into the Indian heartland. The Holkar of Indore arranged a hunt for him, but the cheetah sent to catch blackbuck ‘was sulky and would not run well’. Another hunt was arranged in the forests of Dudhwa, in the Himalayan terai. Here too not many animals were shot, but the English politician did get to ride an elephant, of which experience he wrote:

‘I think an elephant is the best mode of conveyance I know. He cannot come to grief; he never tumbles down nor runs away… You would not believe what steep places they get up and down or what thick, almost impenetrable jungle they go through. If a tree is in the way, and not too large a one, they pull it down; if a branch hangs too low for the howdah to go under, they break it off. They are certainly wonderful animals, and life in many parts of India would be impossible without them.’

This was written on 1st February 1885; a week later, writing from Government House, Calcutta, Churchill reported that that he at last ‘had the great good fortune to kill a tiger’ (but we know not where). From the centre of the Raj he moved to Rewah, for more shooting, before returning east to the Benares, which (unsurprisingly) he found to be ‘the most distinctly Hindoo city I have yet seen; old and curious in every part’. He attended a nautch party at the palace of the Maharaja, and then took a ride down the river, of which he penned an even better account than of his ride on an elephant:

‘Later, we took a boat, came down the Ganges, and saw all the Benares people bathing—thousands. As you know, this is part of their religion. The water is very dirty, but they lap up quantities of it, as it is very “holy”; also there were to be seen the burning Ghats, where all the dead are cremated. There were five bodies burning, each on its own little pile of faggots; but the whole sight was most curious and I am going again this morning to have another look. Benares is a very prosperous city, as all the rich people from all parts of India come here to spend the end of their days. Any Hindoo who dies at Benares, and whose ashes are thrown into the Ganges, goes right bang up to heaven without stopping, no matter how great a rascal he may have been. I think the Grand Old Man (i.e. Gladstone] ought to come here; it is his best chance’.

These views, on India and Indians, must be considered rather advanced for their time. Certainly, as compared to the common or garden variety of imperialist Randolph Churchill displayed an uncommon curiosity about the ritual practices of the subject population. The summer after his trip, the Liberals were defeated in a General Election, and Randolph Churchill became Secretary of State for India. A year later he impulsively resigned, citing disagreements with colleagues. He continued as a (very vocal) Member of Parliament, but never held office again. He died in January 1895, three weeks short of his forty-sixth birthday.

Randolph Churchill’s son lived twice as long as he did, long enough to serve two terms as Prime Minister and to be acknowledged as the ‘saviour of his country’. But whatever Winston Churchill’s deeds in and on behalf of Great Britain, so far as India was concerned he was an old-fashioned, narrow-minded, imperialist. While living here as an army offficer in the 1890s he showed no interest in the people or landscape of the sub-continent. Later, as a politician in Opposition, he opposed talks with Gandhi; still later, as Prime Minister during the Second World War, he worked very hard to delay the granting of independence to India. Indians themselves he regarded as a ‘beastly people’ with a ‘beastly religion’. It is a relief to know that these prejudices were not shared or anticipated by his father.

Published in The Hindu, 22/7/2007