Category Archives: migration

Unchanged Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 320-340:

Everything that could possibly be wrong with a city was wrong with Calcutta. The city is situated between a river and a swamp. Its weather, Mark Twain had said, ‘was enough to make a brass doorknob mushy.’ For six months out of the year, you are never dry. You take two to three showers a day to keep cool, but start sweating the moment you turn off the tap. The dry winter months, when I arrived, were worse. I woke up some mornings feeling my chest was on fire. Breathing in Calcutta, Manash, the neighbourhood doctor told me, was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Keeping the dust and grime off my body, out of my nails, hair and lungs was a daily struggle. Then there were the mosquitoes, which arrived in swarms at sundown and often came bearing malaria.

I could look forward to the monsoons, of course, when floodwaters regularly reached your waist in parts of the city. When they weren’t flooded, the streets were blocked by marches, rallies, barricades and bus burnings, all of which passed for normal politics in the city. Staying cool, dry, healthy and sane took up so much effort that it left little enthusiasm for much else.

Nothing had changed since my childhood. The paanwallas still ruled the street corners, perched on stoops with their bottles of soft drinks and neatly arrayed cigarette packets. On the streets, the pushers and pullers of various types of carts still transported most of the city’s goods. The footpaths were still overrun by hawkers selling bulbous sidebags, shirts, combs, peanuts in minuscule sachets, onion fritters and vegetable chow mein. The mildewed concrete buildings, the bowl-shaped Ambassador taxis, the paintings on the backs of buses, the ubiquitous political graffiti, the posters stuck onto any flat surface, the bazaars full of squatting fish sellers, the tea shop benches on the sidewalks, the caged balconies of the middle classes, the narrow entrails of corrugated slums, nothing had changed, not even the impassive expressions on the faces of clerks. The city was in its own time zone.

It was not a happy time. Calcutta was in its twenty-third year of Communist rule, its third decade of factory closures. Until the 1970s it had been the largest and most industrialised city in India but had now been eclipsed in population and prosperity by Bombay and Delhi. The only reason politicians seemed to visit the city any more was to pronounce its death.

Since the early 1990s, life in other parts of India had been improving for people like us, the educated few. The government had loosened its hold over the economy, and dollars were flowing into the American back offices and call centres located in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Countless college-educated young men and women, including many of my cousins, had fled Calcutta for these boomtowns.

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Battlefield Recyclers in France, 1917

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 418-422:

Once London’s Directorate of Labour had requested the Indian Labour Corps for France, the tentacles of the Indian Army’s reformed territorial recruitment system under its Commander-in-Chief Charles Monro spread in early 1917 to suck in the villagers required. India’s local civil authorities carried the offer of Labour Corps employment to some rural regions that had provided pre-war Indian soldiers, above all in the North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, and the Himalayan foothills of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Yet they focused more on remoter communities without traditions of military service. These were predominantly isolated tribes of the forests and jungles of north-east India in the provinces of Bihar and Orissa, Assam and Burma, including those future tennis-court builders the aboriginal Santhals, who had been converted to Catholicism by Belgian Jesuit missionaries. Then there were some other recruits from further south–Bengali Christians, and Jews, Parsis and Hindus of the Bombay area.

Some of the Indian Labour Corps volunteers from the Himalayan foothills of the United Provinces stepped warily down to its small town recruitment stations, making it clear to the recruiters where they wanted to go. They asked for ‘Phranch’ not ‘Bachchra’ (France not Basra) having heard the balance of opinion on the rural grapevine about which of the two the soldiers preferred. They and the other Indian Labour Corps recruits entered into contracts to work on the western front, mostly for a fixed term of one year, and governed by Indian Army law, making them a part of the army. Each of them joined a particular labour company named after their home region or town near it, such as the 31st Bihar, the 42nd Ranchi or the 51st Santhal companies. Like the Indian soldiers, the labourers’ driving motivation was economic: a regular wage with three months’ advanced pay was a windfall for their generally impoverished agriculturalist families. Some from the Lushai Hills of Assam in north-east India were enticed in particular by the prospect of saving enough money in France to return home more eligible for marriage. Still more attractive for the Lushais and others from Assam and the Himalayas was a lifetime local tax exemption, guaranteed by certificates handed out by the local civil authorities.

The Indian Labour Corps’ companies were given a military veneer with khaki uniforms and company officers. Although several of the officers were Belgian Jesuit missionaries familiar with their men, some were British strangers who did not speak their languages. A few others were the wounded Indian soldiers who chose to return to the western front. They were pensioned Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Punjabis who had fought there in 1914–15, presumably had a fondness for France, and elected to go back to make money without the dangers of regular infantry work.

On the sea lanes from British India across the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean to Italy from April 1917, the Indian Labour Corps sweltered in hot, cramped quarters below deck. These conditions killed a few who had embarked with cholera, and their bodies were dropped into the sea. More died of cholera in southern Italy at Taranto, where they were buried, while others were held in quarantine for a month. As the Indian labourers travelled the length of Italy by railway passing medieval stone towns on hill-tops and much else they had not seen before, the unrestricted German submarine warfare they had just escaped at sea shaped the work that lay ahead for them in France. Significantly increased sinking of Allied shipping meant war materials were scarcer, and therefore the Indian Labour Corps would have more salvage work to do than otherwise, looking for metal, wood and other debris–a dangerous task that would take them to the trenches. When the Indian labourers started work on the western front in June, they cleared up parts of the Somme battlefield which the Germans had abandoned in their retreat to the Siegfried Position. They stripped bare disused trenches or dug-outs, and lugged rusty barbed wire and other front line debris onto motor trucks for disposal or recycling. Father Frans Ory, one of the Indian Labour Corps’ Belgian Jesuit missionary officers, wandered about the derelict trenches with his company of tribal labourers from British India’s north-eastern province of Bihar and Orissa, many of them former pupils at his missionary school at Ranchi. He saw how shocked his men were by what they found. ‘Every five yards we come across bones still wrapped up in their puttees, arms and legs blown off by shell-fire,’ he wrote at Thiepval on 26 September. ‘One of our old Ranchi boys had his heart full and stood by weeping.’

The Indian Labour Corps did many other jobs around northeastern France in support of the Allied forces. Its companies worked looms to make mattresses, cut stone in quarries, chopped down trees in forests, and made charcoal, an ingredient for gas masks. They also made trench duckboards, built an aerodrome, burned limestone in industrial kilns, and laid roads and railway tracks. They worked around nine hours a day, day after day. Indeed, they rested so little that exhaustion set in among several companies, and British supervisors administered opium to keep the men going.

The labourers had an uneasy relationship with their Indian officers who had chosen to return to the western front having fought there in 1914–15. These veterans kept aloof and liked to assert their superior status as old combatants. As the winter of 1917–18 drew in, they preferred to go cold rather than wear the warm coats made available to the labourers. Some in fact looked on the labourers with contempt as their social inferiors. ‘The men are utterly filthy and take no care of their health,’ said one of the old soldiers, a Punjabi Muslim, who disapproved of his men’s lack of the hygiene and discipline he had known in his regiment.

Each evening the Indian labourers trudged back to their camps, which were isolated and scattered about the countryside up to five miles from the nearest village. They were confined to their camps when not at work, which afforded them very little interaction with the local people. Their camps were initially so dreary and devoid of almost anything but tents that a company of Lushai tribesmen from India’s north-eastern hills of Assam decided to improve theirs. ‘We looked around and collected corrugated iron sheets and other things, and we built a big recreation hall,’ explained Sainghinga Sailo, the Lushais’ company clerk. ‘The other room was made into a canteen. We pooled our money to buy and sell all kinds of things. The canteen began to make a profit. We bought a bioscope. Since many of us had not seen “moving pictures” it brought us much joy.’

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Indian Troops and the Boxer Rebellion

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 45-48:

Also in China, some Gurkhas travelled deep into the interior in disguise with their British officers on official intelligence gathering missions; one group sailed the entire length of the Yangtze River. But by far the largest group of Indian servicemen in China, some 33,000, travelled to Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in the east of the country in 1900–02. They went for the international intervention by a coalition force of the United States, German, French, Japanese and other major armies to suppress the Boxer Rising, the popular peasant movement that attacked foreign legations and business interests, shooting white diplomats and ripping up European-owned railway lines.

The Indian expedition to China for the Boxer Rising exemplified two significant features of pre-1914 overseas service for Indian recruits. The first was that the Army in India was the world’s most experienced at shipping military expeditions. By tradition this was a British imperial speciality, involving troop-ships of the British merchant marine fitted out by the Sappers and Miners at the Indian Empire’s great ports of Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon; the Royal Navy as the world’s premier fleet, with command of the deep sea lanes and unrivalled experience of embarking and disembarking troops, supported by the Indian Empire’s own navy, the Royal Indian Marine; and the Indian Army’s British officer ethos of kindly care, which helped to maintain, even enhance abroad the benefits of military service in British India to compensate for the absence from home.

Thus when Indian troops were sent from British India to east China in 1900 for the Boxer Rising they were taken away by sea with a confident British efficiency that ensured smooth, safe and sanitary travel. In China itself, the Indians garrisoned much of the eastern seaboard up to 1902 as part of the international coalition force of occupation while a diplomatic settlement was reached to compensate the foreign powers for Boxer damage to their interests. During the occupation the Indians were well cared for by the British. Specifically, their pay was boosted by a special allowance for active service, plus three months’ pay in advance before departure from British India, and an extra two months’ pay as a gratuity while in China. Their food continued to be served in keeping with their religions, but with a greater quantity and variety of meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. They could also, with help from scribes serving as non-combatants, exchange letters with their families through Indian field post offices which sold their own stationery and stamps at cheap army rates, and were linked to British India by regular mail ships.

As for their clothes, the Indians needed extra layers in abundance to cope with the severe Chinese winter of 1900–01, when amid heavy rain, hail and snow the temperature fell to −22°C, freezing beards, sweat and urine. They got them in the form of Canadian warm coats, sheepskin overcoats and lambskin vests, and Norwegian socks and fur gloves. The upshot was that the Indian sick rates were low, with just a few cases of frostbite and pneumonia.

The second significant feature of the Indians’ pre-1914 overseas service shown in China was their engagement with foreign culture. The sources for this are few and far between, but the Hindu diarist Thakur Amar Singh was in China in 1900–01 attached to the Indian Army with the princely States unit the Jodhpur Lancers, and he wrote down his thoughts on Chinese culture which were likely typical of other Indian soldiers’ reactions. Like them, he saw the great sights in and around Beijing–the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and Great Wall of China–and he was enthralled. ‘The Great Wall was our daily view,’ he wrote of one of his postings. ‘I had walked for weeks continually on it, and was wondering what sort of man he must have been who started this enormous work.’ Amar Singh then met Chinese families in whose homes Indian soldiers were housed. ‘The inhabitants seem quite gentle and friendly and offer fruits, walnuts, chestnuts, tea, and liquor to all the troops. Their villages are most beautifully built and have separate rooms. Their houses are also clean and well built… The most extraordinary thing is that they don’t milk their cows. They don’t know what milk is. All their things are cooked by fat.’

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The Peasant’s University in British India

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 31-32, 36:

The men of the pre-First World War Indian Army were a tiny proportion of the Indian Empire’s population, just 0.07 per cent of 310 million. In July 1914 there were 217,000 volunteer Indian servicemen. Around 150,000 of them were active professional soldiers, 35,000 reservist soldiers and 32,000 non-combatants; altogether roughly two fifths were Muslims, nearly as many were Hindus, and a fifth were Sikhs. They were not remotely representative of India’s population as a whole. The combatant majority were members of an exclusive list of rural peasant farming communities to whom alone the British opened military service. These were the ‘martial races’, a mix of tribes, clans and castes mostly dotted about British India’s northern provinces–in the plains and hills of Punjab, the valleys of the North-West Frontier Province, and the southern slopes of the Himalayas in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh–or beyond British Indian borders in the independent Pukhtun tribal areas or in Nepal. The British selected them in the pseudo-scientific delusion that their offspring were genetically fitter for fighting than India’s more numerous ‘non-martial races’. As George MacMunn, the pre-eminent British buff on the subject, explained: ‘In India we speak of the martial races as a thing apart because the mass of the people have neither martial aptitude nor physical courage, the courage that we should talk of colloquially as “guts”.’

A dearth of sources on individual Indian soldiers’ pre-war lives makes it difficult to fathom their personal motivations. But by generally following their journeys from their villages to the Indian Army between the 1890s and 1913, using snapshots from veteran interviews and also the viewpoints of British officers, it becomes clear that illiterate men of the martial races willingly joined up for a professional career with distinct benefits. The Indian Army for them was more than just an employer: it doubled as an educational institution that taught them many things, not least on overseas assignments prior to 1914. One British civil servant, as an administrator of numerous Punjabi martial race villages, judiciously summed it up with his nickname for the Indian Army: ‘the peasant’s university’.

Certain Hindu, Muslim or Sikh village communities tended to provide recruits for particular Indian regiments, so that companies could be filled with fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins serving together, or at least with local men of the same faith. This was another vital attraction of soldiering: the regiment was a home from home. The regimental British officers did much to make the regiment a comfortable professional environment where village religious or community customs were respected. They doggedly studied their men’s languages, faiths and social ways, becoming quasi-anthropologists in order to ensure that the regimental kitchen turned out curries, dairy foods and other staples in keeping with company religious requirements; that daily prayers and annual holy festivals were accommodated in the regimental calendar; and that recruits were free to wear their hair as they liked according to their own community traditions, for example the Sikhs’ waist-length uncut locks tied up under the turban, or the Waziristani style of curls about the shoulders. They also strove to make military service consistent with tending to village matters, allowing men generous home leave.

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Sichuan’s Drastic Population Changes

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 63-64:

The Ch’ing conquest and subsequent rule illustrates another type of migration in China, one in which opposite ends of the Yangtze Valley were key locales. Thus far, we have discussed what might be called “expansive” and “consolidative” migrations, the former referring to the outward movement of large numbers of Chinese into territory that they had not previously settled, rather resembling the westward expansion of the white race across the North American continent. Consolidative migration fills in the spaces left behind expansive migration.

A third sort of movement, recurrent throughout Chinese history but particularly visible during the Ch’ing dynasty, can be termed “replacement” migration. In this case, a settled population is so decimated by famine, disease, war, or rebellion—or some combination of these—that serious underpopulation results: few are left to cultivate the fields, while cities are ravaged and largely deserted. Into this partial vacuum come new populations, replacing the dead and often surpassing earlier population levels. The history of Szechwan province demonstrates both consolidative and replacement migration.

Today, Szechwan is China’s most populous province, consisting of 110,000,000 people. If Szechwan were an independent nation, it would possess the seventh largest population in the world, exceeded only by the rest of China, India, the USSR, the USA, Brazil, and Japan. Since early times, Szechwan has always been a part of China proper, yet even late into China’s imperial history, the Szechwan Basin and the upper Yangtze region were only lightly inhabited. About A.D. 1640, with the Ming dynasty about and the Manchu conquest about to roll over China, Szechwan contained perhaps five million people.

For the next forty years, warfare became a way of life in Szechwan. First came the depredations of a murderous invading warlord, then the ruthless Manchu armies determined to crush all resistance. By about A.D. 1680, the province was finally “pacified,” but only about two million survived; one is reminded of Tacitus’s sad comment on the Roman conquest of Britain, “They make desolation, which they call peace.” The richest areas of the regional core were worst affected, and whole cities were turned into ghost towns.

During the following three centuries, Szechwan came to be populated far beyond its previous highs by steady immigration from other parts of (as well as from natural increase): 9 million in 1750, 27 million in 1850, 64 million in 1980.

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China’s Constant Internal Migrations

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 53:

China generates paradox. The Chinese are renowned for their attachment to place, their deep identification with native soil. And yet whenever one looks at Chinese history one finds people everywhere on the move. Migration is part of this movement, the permanent transfer of people from one region to another, sometimes pushed out of their original homeland by overpopulation, poverty, disaster, or war, and sometimes attracted to new lands by real or presumed opportunities for betterment of their lives.

But migrants were not the only travelers across the Chinese landscape. Merchants big and small set forth on business trips; Buddhist monks and devout layfolk made pilgrimages or sought centers of learning; scholars aspiring to prestigious careers in the imperial civil service headed for provincial capitals or Peking to take the most fiendishly demanding examinations ever devised. Officials took up their posts across the far-flung realm, and some were exiled for real or alleged offenses to the most remote and dangerous corners of the empire; corvee labor gangs were sent to work on canals or defensive walls; boatmen and transport coolies moved the goods of the empire; one might even spot a rare travel buff exploring his world out of curiosity or scholarly interest. There were foreign traders, Japanese and Korean monks who had come to learn from Chinese Buddhist masters, ambassadors and their retinues, entertainers, bandits, fugitives. In wartime, armies were on the march. Rebel hordes, angry and desperate peasants headed by ambitious or megalomaniac leaders with their own dynastic dreams, followed the same routes as migrants, merchants, a11d scht1lars. In the mid-1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, urban youth went on an orgy of hitherto prohibited travel, sanctioned by Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary dictum to “exchange revolutionary experience”; later, beginning in 1969, some fourteen million of these urban youth were sent whether they wanted to go or not to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.”

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China’s Repeated Unity

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 50:

Unlike Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire was but a faint echo of Rome’s glory, China’s medieval period was one of the most powerful and resplendent eras of her history. Once again a short unifying dynasty (the Sui) was followed by a powerful and long-lived inheritor the T’ang. In many ways, the T’ang was even more glorious an era than the Han had been, but after roughly two centuries, its lustre was rapidly dimming. By the end of the T’ang, the frontier marches were virtually independent, and the succeeding Sung dynasty was never able to solve its border problems. In the twelfth century, frontier defenses collapsed. North China fell once again into the hands of barbarians, this time from the region we today call Manchuria, and once again a refugee Chinese regime the Southern Sung was driven south to the lower Yangtze, the lands of Ch’u and Wu, where it made its “temporary” capital in the lovely city of Hangchow.

After the Southern Sung the late empire there were interregna but never again a long period of disunity. Ironically, however, this unity was twice imposed by non-Chinese peoples from beyond the Wall: the Mongols of Genghis and Kubla Khan, to whose court came Marco Polo; and then the last dynasty, and in some ways the culmination of the imperial process, the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty, which occupied the Dragon Throne from 1644 until 1911, when in one of history’s greatest not-with-a-bang anticlimaxes the abdication of a six-year-old boy emperor ended not only that dynasty but all dynasties, and more than 2,000 years of imperial history came to an end. These two alien dynasties the Yuan (1279-1368) and the Ch’ing (1644-1911) were the only two periods of foreign rule over all of China.

This very brief chronological survey introduces the names of the principal dynastic periods, and provides a reference chart, since I will be moving back and forth in time through most of the essays in this book. Periods of disunity also influence the story directly, since it was under the impact of barbarian onslaughts that Chinese influence was pushed into the Yangtze Valley more rapidly and forcibly than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, during the three and a half centuries between the Han and the T’ang, refugee populations and exile dynasties so developed the lower basins of the Long River that by the time of the Sui-T’ang unification this region had replaced the North China Plain as the economic center, the grain basket, of China. A similar developmental pulsation took place again during the Southern Sung dynasty approximately A.D.1100 to 1300 when the north was lost to the Chin, before both were overwhelmed by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kubla.

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