“I am deeply concerned in regard to a proposed marriage between a Native Gentleman of India and an English young Lady.”
On 2nd March 1911, a very anxious father from Bayswater, London, wrote to the Under Secretary of the India Office in Whitehall for advice. The India Office was prompt to answer:
“The proposed marriage should not take place in the interests of the lady.”
The family crisis was surely a common one- a willful woman, determined to marry the man she was engaged to against her parents’ wishes, a distraught father, a mother sick in bed with worry. But why should an office of an imperial state care about an ordinary English woman’s marital preferences?
Evidently, because the groom in question was Indian. And yet, inter-racial unions, though not marriages, were far from uncommon in the British Empire. To the contrary, in early British India cohabitation between English men and Indian women was quite common. While concubinage was well tolerated amongst lower class English colonial officials in the eighteenth century, the practice of keeping a female Indian companion of noble birth and a zenana (secluded women’s quarters within one’s household) was quite central to the construction of a political persona for high ranking Europeans moving in indigenous noble circles. (Take for example the well-known cases of William Palmer in Lucknow and his companion Bibi Faiz Baksh, and James Achilles Kirkpatrick and his begum Khair un Nissa in Hyderabad. To know more about these and other inter racial families in colonial India, read Durba Ghosh’s Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire.) Why then was our love story of particular concern to the imperial British state?
As historian Ann Stoler writes, “Who bedded and wedded whom in the colonies of France, England, Holland and Iberia was never left to chance.” Interracial unions, even when they were favoured in early empires, always served a purpose and were closely governed. Indigenous concubines, mistresses and even “wives” were meant to perform sexual, social and political functions for male European officials trying to navigate the foreign worlds they’d colonized. Later, when threats began to plague an insecure colonial regime premised on European racial and cultural superiority, in moments of political crisis or instability, such unions with indigenous women came to be seen as sources of “contamination”, ruining the bodies, culture and political loyalties of colonial officials. By the twentieth century, interracial unions had lost complete favour with imperial administrations, including the British.
The problem with the proposed marriage of Miss Gertrude Tucker and Messr. Chiminlal Bhojuck in 1911 however wasn’t simply interracial. It raised the spectre of an English, Christian woman bound in marriage with an Indian, Hindu man, choosing to live a life outside the bounds of middle class European respectability. The tables of race, gender and imperial power stood in danger of being reversed. Would she be considered a legal wife if the man had already been married before? Would she be considered a concubine? Would she be accepted by Indian society? All the precarities known too well to native Indian concubines, companions and begums of English officials were now visited upon the figure of the European woman. And that was a matter of concern not for her parents alone, but also for an imperial state, invested in policing the lines of difference between the European and the oriental Other. The European wife was seen by later imperial administrations as the civilizing anchor for white men in the colonies prone to racial “degeneracy”, a safeguard against contaminating sexual and cultural contact with the colonized. Sexual contact between an European woman and a native man could only be processed by imperial publics through the idiom of rape. For Gertrude Tucker to desire such contact and give it legal sanction defied the schema of an empire premised on European superiority and difference.
“The Indian is a Brahmin and was married, as customary, at an early age. He came to England about 9 years ago to study for the Bar. He alleges that during his absence from India she committed adultery and on his return he “divorced” her under Hindoo law. He claims to be non legally entitled to marry again. The divorcee is alive… I shall be extremely obliged if you will reply to the following points and to kindly do so at your earliest convenience.
1.- Whether the young lady would be a legal Wife or a Concubine
2.- Does Hindoo law permit a divorce as a legal annulment of marriage.
3.- Can a Native State law effect the question of marriage so to render the proposed marriage legal in that particular State.
I am Sir
“(1) Under Hindu law the position of the lady would be that of a concubine. Under English law her position would be anomalous, as the Courts could not give her the full rights of a wife married to a Christian.
(2) There is no divorce recognized as possible under Hindu Law.
(3) Any such law as is suggested, if passed by a Native State, would be contrary to Hindu Law and would probably have no force or effect.”
Everyone, in fact, from family to state, seemed concerned about her status after marriage, save Gertrude Tucker alone. Miss Tucker was clearly in love, and very determined.
Chiminlal Bhojuck was sent to England in 1902 to study for the Bar, at the expense of the Maharajah of Bhavnagar, the ruler of a princely state in Kathiawar with very favourable relations with the British Raj. At some point during his seven year residence at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tucker, he and their daughter, Gertrude Bertha Tucker, fell in love. After passing his Bar Exams he returned to India in December 1909, securing employment in the Revenue Commissioner’s office of Bhavnagar State. After nearly a year’s separation, he returned to London in October 1910, accompanying Mr. Prabhashankar Pattani, the premier of Bhavnagar State, as his secretary in some negotiations with the British government. Three weeks before his departure to India in December, Chiminlal, then 32, proposed marriage to Gertrude, 28, which she accepted. Chiminlal intended, with Pattani’s full endorsement, to marry Gertrude and return with her to India, but her parents objected, insisting that the couple wait for a year. Chiminlal agreed, but gave Gertrude an engagement ring, which Mr. Tucker despairingly noted in January 1912, “she still wears, and they correspond by every mail.”
Mr. Tucker wrote frantically to various officials at the India Office, taking the matter as far as the Secretary of State for India, hoping to persuade his daughter to change her mind. He also wrote to Mr. Pattani, asking for further clarification about Chiminlal’s marital status, who promised to confirm if “Bhojuck was a “free man”.” Pattani wrote, when pressed, a few months later that “Bhojuck had “taken his affairs into his own hands” and therefore he “had no further control over him”.” Back in London, Gertrude Tucker seemed equally impervious to her father’s implorations or her mother’s plea of illness.
“Apart from the racial question knowing that such marriages rarely, if ever, are favorable to an European girl and do not receive recognition by either Europeans or Natives in the Country and being advised, that legally, she would only be a Concubine, I resented the proposal of marriage. I cautioned my Daughter as to the effect upon her life but without avail.”
Chiminlal, who had been married at an early age, insisted that his wife had committed adultery during his absence, and he had divorced her upon his return- a “divorce by custom” that Mr. Pattani initially confirmed. He assured Gertrude that “she would be his legal wife and be recognized as such in India, and that her marriage, though effected in England, would be in accordance with Hindoo law and the laws of the state in which he resides.” For Gertrude, all the reasonings of the world’s mightiest imperial administration were as to nothing against Chiminlal’s word.
Faced by the immovable force of love, the Secret Department in Whitehall finally divined a strategy.
“The real difficulty is the infatuation (no milder word suffices) of Miss Tucker, who is determined to marry the man, whatever happens, and is not in the least deterred by the considerations set out… That being so, it is possible that if pressure is put on the man from above, the only result may be to add martyrdom to his other attractions. On the other hand he is represented as absolutely dependent on the Maharaja for funds, and if these are stopped it is possible that they may both realize that love in an Indian Cottage is likely to be, “Lord forgive us, cinders, ashes, dust.”
The ending of this long love saga is bitter. A recommendation that the Maharaja of Bhavnagar intervene in this case was forwarded to the Government of Bombay in February 1912. With remarkable swiftness, on 15th March 1912, the Bombay government responded with the news that the marriage had “been abandoned”. An anxiously waiting Mr. Tucker was informed in early April of the same. He and wife heartily thanked the Political Secretary of the India Office for his “kindly intervention”, averring that “such an alliance would have been a disaster.” Of the state of Gertrude and Chiminlal’s hearts nothing is known. Only a cynical, impersonal obituary to love on the last page of the Secret Department’s file on the subject:
“It only remains for the young lady to sue him for breach of promise.”