Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

Chapter 8

Up the Hooghly with James Hingston


David Walker and Roderic Campbell

James Hingston (1830–1902) was born in London and arrived in Victoria in 1852, where he practised as a notary public, an agent authorised to draw up legal documents (Walker 2005:179–180). He built up considerable personal wealth from investing wisely in commercial opportunities following the goldrush era in Melbourne. Hingston never married and lived for over 30 years in his bedroom at the George Hotel, St Kilda, amid large piles of books and papers and a growing reputation for eccentricity. An indefatigable reader, he knew Shakespeare’s plays almost by heart and was considered one of Melbourne’s great raconteurs. He died at Exmouth, in England, in 1902.

Hingston’s first travel writing was published in the late 1860s, but his overseas travel began in the late 1870s when he took an extended world tour through India, the Middle East, Japan, China, Cochin-China, Malacca, Singapore and Java. He travelled by himself, sometimes meeting other travellers along the way, and took particular pride in journeying without benefit of guidebooks, feeling that ‘it is a great advantage to the traveller to have read none of them’ (Hingston 1885:iv). He declined to clutter his mind with the opinions of others and claimed to have recorded what he saw and what he heard while actually in the locations themselves and when his impressions were still fresh. He contributed articles to the Melbourne Argus, compiling a chapter at each destination. From the kindly welcome their regular appearance received, he was prompted to collect his separate pieces into a book, which was first published in two volumes in London, one in 1879 and the second in 1880. Hingston felt that the one-volume popular edition, The Australian Abroad on Branches from the Main Routes Round the World, published in Melbourne in 1885, better met ‘the spirit of the times and the needs of the reading public’ (Hingston 1885:iv). Although his contributions to the Melbourne press continued into the 1890s, he did not publish any more books.

Hingston tells us in the Preface of The Australian Abroad that he had no intention of creating a guidebook, although he did think his book might be ‘a companionable one’ for those taking the sea routes in or out of Australia. Its structure would be well suited ‘to travellers on long or short journeys, and to desultory readers’, since each chapter was wholly discrete and the book could therefore be picked up and put down at will. His narrative of travel was continuous and had no plot or storyline, which he hinted was ideally suited to the rhythm of travel. ‘At sea or on land, on board ship, on the rail, by the bedside of the invalid, or for the travelling bag of the tourist, the book is one equally adapted for beguilement of otherwise unoccupied hours’ (Hingston 1885:iv-v).

His objection to guidebooks is not made clear, but it may have had something to do with his projection of himself as a practical sort of fellow who liked to make up his own mind about things. This does not stop him collecting in his notebook, as he moves from place to place, a great deal of apparently factual information of varying reliability—historical detail and statistical information, particularly—much of which he appears to have obtained from his guides and some of which he recites in his account. If he did not read guidebooks he probably would not have noticed the regular warning that appeared in contemporary Baedeker guidebooks to be wary of local guides and the quality of their information, which was why the Baedeker guides went out of their way to provide comprehensive details as correctives for the educated traveller (Baedeker 1898:xxxv). But, as Hingston said of Shah Jehan’s claim to have created paradise on earth at Delhi, you have to take someone’s word, and it seemed that the word of the local inhabitants, of hotel-keepers, and especially of the guides he hired was good enough for Hingston.

Hingston’s tone is largely conversational, reminiscent of the Victorian clubman, settled in the corner with a good drink and a fund of well-worked stories. In keeping with his ideas about the rhythm of the book, each chapter is one of these stories and, perhaps surprisingly for this kind of book, the writing exhibits considerable skill and literary sophistication. It is measured, even if liberally laced with literary allusions or analogies drawn from his experience, and well organised in the marshalling of its elements. His style appears as the measure of the man himself—bluff, idiosyncratic and reflective, with the good storyteller’s sense of timing.


Hingston’s first sight of India is from a steamer anchored off Madras, when he gazes across the turbulent breakers dashing on the shore half a mile away and spots the dark shapes of the famous surfboats hurrying out to meet them (Hingston 1885:256). He’s not impressed. He can see the low-lying city of Madras and finds it somewhat unprepossessing. It lacks any harbour or breakwater, and their only means of getting ashore is to risk life and limb boarding the surfboats heading out to pick them up. It’s an inauspicious start.

By the time he reaches Delhi, a median point in his trip through India, he has come to regard his journey as taking an upward trajectory as he moved from Madras to Calcutta, and thence up country through the fertile Ganges plain to Benares, Lucknow and Delhi; these places are all, as he puts it (falling unusually into the third person), ‘on the ascending scale in the traveller’s estimation, and for that reason he is glad that his curiosity has led him onwards’ (Hingston 1885:286). And back at Madras, when he finally gets ashore it is largely through his curiosity that he manages to surmount his lack of enthusiasm for the place.

His curiosity is aroused by the sight of some jugglers performing on a hotel verandah. Their repertory involved swallowing pebbles and swords, breathing fire, and a variety of substitution tricks, all quite mystifying. For Westerners travelling in India witnessing a performance of jugglers and magicians was one of the standard sights, and a conventional Western view of their trickery was that it was the devil’s work, a trope Hingston rejects yet continues to play with whenever he encounters similar activities. Here, he observes that, with ‘their black colour and unprepossessing features’, one might ‘believe that their clever doings were really diablerie in all senses of the word’, but Hingston clearly respects their undoubted skills, asserting that ‘these men were the best of their kind that I ever saw’ (Hingston 1885:257). When, later on in Calcutta, he has the opportunity to attend some Western entertainment, he prefers instead ‘a Hindoo entertainment’ on the street. Again, extraordinarily proficient sleight of hand and swallowing tricks leave him pondering material and spiritual questions. Previously, he says, ‘I had but a half belief in miracles, but I retired that night convinced that there was more in heaven and earth to understand than he thinks for who sits in the seat of the scorner’ (Hingston 1885:268).

Hingston does not care to be one of the scorners; rather, he travels as one who prefers to reflect upon and draw what understanding he can from what he sees about him. At times it even resembles a self-education project as he probes and questions, ponders and draws his conclusions. He suggests at one point that travel is the key to broadening one’s understanding of human nature (Hingston 1885:297). ‘Never believe what you see’ is one maxim he takes from watching these performances; ‘In one way or another we are all throughout life the fools of our senses, to which we so pin our poor faith’ (Hingston 1885:257–258). Beyond that, though, his open, inquiring mind searches for what this can tell him about the country he finds himself in. All this conjuring ‘may be called the poetry of illusion, and … makes “the thing that is not seen as though it were”‘, but at the same time he recognises its specifically Indian character and long history:

Figure 1: The Traveller and Guide in Delhi Palace

Hingston’s view of India was mediated as much by his literary reading as by the words of his guides, whom he sought out on the spot, convinced of their superiority over published guidebooks. This illustration from The Australian Abroad depicts the studious traveller inside a Delhi palace being instructed by his guide in the mysteries of India’s past, which Hingston saw as ‘the transformation scene of an extravaganza’.

Source: Hingston’s The Australian Abroad on Branches from the Main Routes Round the World, William Inglis and Co., Melbourne, 1885, p 286.)

Such art is a specialty of Hindoostan. Practised for ages, and handed down from father to son, it has reached that fine finish that takes from it all semblance of art. In that way, the world has not its equal to show (Hingston 1885:269).

Similar thoughts occur to him when, spotting an abandoned Juggernaut car in Madras, he contemplates the awful nature of its purpose, now thankfully prohibited by the English. What ‘a fine curio’ it would make now, he thinks, its strange appearance creating ‘a good show in some distant land’ (Hingston 1885:256–257). This also is a tension he constantly explores—the nature of the British rule and its transformative or reductive effect on the ancient, vibrant, sensuous, but also pitiless culture now controlled through subjugation to imperial rule. Looking at the Juggernaut’s wheels, he cannot help thinking of how many people had been crushed by them. Nevertheless, he can appreciate the complexity of issues involved in such prohibitions and their unexpected consequences, such as the lot of the poor widow after the banning of suttee. A widow has nowhere to go; she can neither remarry nor return to her own family, so for most women there is ‘no refuge whatever but to become the slave of her mother-in-law! … thenceforth for the rest of her life the most miserable of all womankind’ (Hingston 1885:278). The Juggernaut is for Hingston the first in a long series of ambivalent reminders of India’s past.

The history of Madras has significance for the British visitor as it was the first place the British settled and built their first fort, Fort St George; it became the first of the Indian presidencies and was also where the English and French fought their first battle (Hingston 1885:258–259). Even though, as he says, for all these reasons Madras is properly the first city that one should visit in India, ‘the mere visitor will not wish to make a long stay’ here, and he is glad enough to leave, despite having to encounter again the indignities and dangers of the surfboats to rejoin his steamer. If he ever revisits Madras, he concludes, it will be on urgent business only and from the landward side (Hingston 1885:259).

Up the Hooghly River

From Madras, Hingston’s steamer heads up the coast to enter the complex delta system of the Ganges on its western branch, taking on a Hooghly pilot who attracts Hingston’s attention as one of a special breed unrivalled in the world, and slowly winds its way along the Hooghly River towards Calcutta. The boat by now is fairly empty, since, as Hingston explains, this means of arriving at Calcutta has largely been superseded by the new cross-country railway which has reduced the travel time by several days from Bombay, where ships now prefer to land mail and passengers. The creation of the railway network has not just made travel easier; it also has economic consequences for major centres, changing the commercial balance of the old India. It has made Bombay’s fortune and significantly diminished Calcutta’s trade, although some smaller boats that do not need pilots to negotiate treacherous sandbars continue to trade along the river, including two vessels he sees bound for China loaded with a cargo of opium. Later, as he travels across the plains to Benares and Lucknow, he’ll see the vast poppy fields, but his first sight of ‘this disgraceful traffic’ is here (Hingston 1885:262). This leads him to contemplate the complex relationship Britain has with its subject peoples in India—something he continues to dwell on.

In Hingston’s view, the opium trade is odious and as morally reprehensible as the slave trade: ‘It is about equally profitable, and equally disgraceful and demoralizing’, and should be suppressed too; nor should the opium be forced on the Chinese ‘at the point of British bayonets’. Yet, he suggests, the very benefits brought to India by her new rulers, the British, are largely subsidised by the profits from opium, ‘for years the best paying of Indian exports’ (Hingston 1885:262–263). It is as if the nub of the complex, ambiguous, imperial relationship is encapsulated in the opium trade. Here Hingston argues that it is to Britain’s credit that she does not enrich herself with the profits of either the opium trade or any other Indian produce: ‘Every penny that is raised from India is spent upon the government and improvement of that country’, he says (Hingston 1885:263). India’s vast revenues ‘are, within a few pounds, expended there in promoting protection, civilization, and the progress and bettering of its people’, which he contrasts with the lack of protection Indians had previously enjoyed, being ‘robbed by their rulers, and sacrificed to please their whims’ (Hingston 1885:263).

On the other hand, Hingston has no illusions about the importance of India for Britain’s standing in the world. It’s a morally fraught conundrum reasoned away by claiming that if Britain is beneficent to its subject peoples then it is worthy of the prestige derived from holding such a great dominion, which is, in fact, ‘the brightest jewel in the British crown’. Some people, he says, have diamonds to sell and profit from, but Britain holds tightly onto its jewel ‘very much for the reason that all folks keep jewels—to show the world that they can afford to do so’ (Hingston 1885:263). There is no mistaking, he adds, ‘that the possession of this vast India alone places Britain in her foremost position among the powers of Europe. To lose it would be to sink to a second-rate place in the world’s regard’ (Hingston 1885:263). There is a conflicted kind of pride here for Hingston, giving way to his imperial sympathies, conflated with the pride Britain has in showing off its jewel to the world. And as his journey continues through the dominion, he is constantly amazed by the disjuncture between this vast empire, the Raj, that is ‘as large as all Europe … and has more square miles of land than I know how to write without help; that has two hundred and fifty millions of souls’ and of which ‘the little island of Britain with its small thirty-eight millions is really the owner’ (Hingston 1885:265). How would it be possible for so small a country to keep such a large, disparate territory in check if its rule were not benevolent? Such is the nature of the thoughts he retires with on his first night in Calcutta, as sleep overtakes him:

I dream of the empire into which I have thus wandered … Is it anything but a dream—all that relates to such romance of a land that has had every great nation of the past at some time for its owner.? None of those great nations of the past have held greater power in it than little England, and none have held it longer. It is something wonderful to obtain of such a land even the bald and barren idea that writing can only convey. To see it is to satisfy one that there is an object in life (Hingston 1885:265).

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that with such thoughts circulating in his mind, he feels the need for the refreshing cynical asperity of the colonial viewpoint as a corrective and enjoys the moment at the Calcutta Customs House when an Australian, incensed by high-handed treatment from customs officials, ‘taunts the officials of this great India as being only the servants of “a Crown Colony” and having no discretionary powers or liberty to exercise them in favour of a free and independent colonist like himself’ (Hingston 1885:263–264). He does not say who this was, but, for all that he is English-born and an apparent closet imperialist, we should not forget that Hingston is also, as the title of his book firmly asserts, an ‘Australian Abroad’.

Britain may have firm charge of its great, seething empire but the old India has a habit of irrupting in ways that form part of its fascination as signs of the mysterious East, as well as in other less reassuring ways. In Calcutta his guide shows him the site of the infamous Black Hole, now occupied by the post office building. It may now be subsumed beneath or behind the quasi-European facades of Dalhousie Square and out of sight, but it is a sign that the Mutiny1 continues to lurk beneath the consciousness of the ruling power as still having the potential for appalling instability. On arrival there, Hingston remarks that an early recollection of Calcutta has to do with the story of the Black Hole, from which most people have ‘an unpleasant impression of the place’, and it is scarcely surprising that it should be in his mind since the events of the Mutiny occurred barely 20 years before his arrival in the country. They were events that shocked European self-confidence deeply and changed the way India was administered, as he recorded when he saw on their approach to Calcutta the prison-palace of the last king of Oude spread out along the Hooghly riverbank (Hingston 1885:262). It was, he said, the avaricious deposing of this king by the Honourable East India Company that was one of the main triggers for the Mutiny, and that, in turn, led to the deposing of the Company itself and the imposition of direct British rule and the creation of the Empress. For Hingston the sight of this palace was too redolent of what he calls ‘the saddest pages in Indian history’ and he thought it was ‘bad taste to place this prison palace where it is. Such unpleasant features of the country should be set further back’ (Hingston 1885:262). Out of sight is out of mind, perhaps. However, adopting his own symbolism, the imprisoned king ‘caged a magnificently large and very restless Bengal tiger’ on his water frontage in full view of all who passed by—a gesture whose meaning would be plain to all (Hingston 1885:262).

Throughout his journey Hingston encounters further traces of the Mutiny—marks on a city gate where Europeans were massacred, ruined and abandoned palaces, memorials for the dead—or else indications of its lingering effect. He is curious, for instance, about the grandiose railway stations he encounters all over the country, even at small towns, until he realises that they’ve been constructed as fortresses in case of future unrest, and that the rail network, too, is more than just an improvement in travel delivered for the country by benevolent rulers. ‘With the network of railways throughout Hindoostan a series of forts have been thus built that may one day be needed’ (Hingston 1885:293). His arrival at Cawnpore is a moment when memory of the Mutiny and lurking fear of another similar episode will become crystallised in one place and one time.

For now at least, in Calcutta he feels no sense of apprehension about ‘the natives’. In fact, as he walks around he finds the disparity in population numbers between them and the Europeans almost reassuring, since ‘it says something for good government, that one hundred and fifty thousand should dwell so peaceably, as a governing people, among two hundred and forty millions’ (Hingston 1885:267). As a people, Indians ‘are of temperate habits’, he decides, with little inclination to change their situation: ‘The way of life of the majority, wretched as it may seem, no doubt best suits them’ (Hingston 1885:267). He has already formed a mental idea of Indians as pliant and supple like a willow branch, bending to the prevailing wind and letting change—and a succession of rulers—simply blow over them. ‘They have ever bent where they should rebel. To that which ill-uses them they kneel. Their destroyer they worship. Of their trinity, the favourite god is the destroying Shiva’ (Hingston 1885:260).

It is another of Hingston’s themes that the East is unchanging and, regardless of what goes along on the surface of events, beneath it things continue much as they were. This was an orientalist view that chimed with his image of the romance of India of old, as ‘the proper home of all that is imaginative, fantastic, sensuous, and extravagant’ (Hingston 1885:291). While Delhi probably became for him the highest expression of this sentiment, wherever he went in India he found this element of the unchanging nature of the East to pervade.

Benares, the ‘Holy City’

Travel from Calcutta onwards is now by train and with the change in mode of transportation the journey itself begins to take on a different hue. It is as if Madras and Calcutta have been like a foretaste of the real thing and Benares, supposedly ‘of the most ancient of all habitations of men in this world’ (Hingston 1885:272), is where the real journey begins—into the past and into the spiritual world of India.

In Calcutta Hingston had briefly noticed the places of worship of the three main faiths, commenting that only at the Muslim one was he forbidden entry. His observation then of the Hindu temples was that they reminded him more of small museums, being ‘so full of carvings and curiosities’ (Hingston 1885:270). In Benares, however, he’s confronted by the full panoply of Hinduism at work—the multifarious shrines and temples and myriads of people crowding around him ‘working out their salvation in the waters and in the temples; the priests ever at their elbows—and pockets’ (Hingston 1885:274). His views seem to have undergone some subtle transformation as he realises that what he saw in Calcutta as just so many curios were much more than this. He mentions ‘Professor Max Müller’s lectures on the origin of religion’ (Hingston 1885:272), which may have guided this change.2 For he has now come to understand their individualities and what they represent as well as something of their origins, which he gives some account of, despite still finding the multiplicity of divine forms ‘bewildering’ (Hingston 1885:272–273). Here, he says,

is to be seen all the idolatry and grovelling to graven images of which we read such denunciation in the Scriptures, and are so apt to think as a thing of a bygone period; and not, as it is, the form of religious worship followed by over one hundred millions of the inhabitants of Hindoostan (Hingston 1885:273).

After he had viewed the cave temples in southern India and had the Hindu pantheon explained to him more fully, he came to a deeper understanding of what he first saw at Benares (Hingston 1885:319).

It is this realisation that something so apparently ancient continues as a living religious force in the lives of so many which is at the heart of his understanding of India generally, not just its religious culture. Benares is the past as well as the present: ‘Its antiquity … is the chief ingredient in that sanctity to which its crowds of temples only help’. He claimed that Benares, as one of the oldest cities in the world, rivals even Damascus and that Hinduism is one of the most ancient of religions, which ‘has been described as the natural religion of humanity, and as the outcome of our ordinary devotional instincts, unguided by any revelation’ (Hingston 1885:272). In Benares Hingston has been drawn in by this all-encompassing religious atmosphere to discover something he had probably not previously suspected. Of course, he’s by no means the only ‘European’, or even Australian, to fall under the sway of this ancient wisdom, at a time when widespread interest in Indian religion was developing, largely because of Müller’s scholarly work and translation of texts. I have written elsewhere of other Australians who were attracted by India in this way, including Alfred Deakin, who pursued his own pilgrimage there slightly later (Walker 1999:20–25).3

Nor was Hingston’s approach uncritical. Some aspects of Hinduism still trouble him, especially ‘its fakirs—a class of fanatical beggars peculiarly holy and filthy’ (Hingston 1885:273). Hingston cannot shake from his mind the connection between cleanliness and godliness, which colours his perceptions of fakirs, when he observes them in Benares and again in Lucknow, where he attempts to ‘interview’ one, as he puts it. This fakir had been living up a tree, where he desired to become imprisoned in a cage of growing branches, but British soldiers pulled him down and he remained in a deserted palace gardens, a ‘most gruesome, grimy creature’. Hingston is appalled by the disfigurement and strange practices adopted by fakirs he met along his way and is not backward in expressing his ‘disgust’ (Hingston 1885:282). Despite these cavils, Hingston decides that in Benares ‘the phenomena of faith can be well studied here—in this its head-quarters’ (Hingston 1885:274). In a characteristic pose he determines, once again, not to be a ‘scoffer’ and throws himself into a maelstrom of investigation, bathing in the Ganges and drinking from the Well of Knowledge, while at the same time attempting to preserve a dignified impartiality.

His attempts to complete his pilgrimage, performing the same devotions that any Hindu would, are baulked by the intransigent guardians of the Well of Purification, who refuse his attempts to partake of its waters because he is not a Hindu; once again he discovers that, unlike what Europeans generally believe in Asia, some things are not to be bought (Hingston 1885:275). His cynical disposition has not been set aside, however, as we discover when he contemplates the kind of knowledge that might well afflict him after drinking ‘that nasty mixture’, the stinking waters from the Well of Knowledge. Equally, his bathe in Ganges made him feel ‘all the better for it’ but not, he suspects, for the same reason as those around him; in his case, it was because he now felt ‘as one always does after a bath in this climate’ (Hingston 1885:274). He speculates that climate may have something to do with this worship, as he contemplates all those around him who ‘believe in this sanctifying power of the Ganges with a strength of faith that we, born of a cold northern hemisphere, scarcely comprehend’ (Hingston 1885:273). It is as if, here, Hingston is exploring the limits of his own tolerance.

He appears to be no longer in holiday-maker mode but to have taken on the role of an explorer or adventurer, as he surmises when pondering his motives for wanting to involve himself so directly at personal risk.

Why we do such things these can well answer who risk their lives in climbing to dangerous peaks which have proved already fatal to many adventurers. No knowledge is to be gained by doing such risky climbing, but here the case was different; and I followed only the example of thousands whom I have no right to say were less wise than myself (Hingston 1885:275).

There is a suggestion, perhaps, that he has personally determined to test the Müllerian hypothesis on the plurality of religions and to leave himself open to the possibility that his own religion is not the sole valid profession of faith. This is the virtue of travelling, as he has already found; it teaches us about other possibilities—’If we learn in travelling what fools there are in this world, we also learn how we have been equally befooled at home in other ways’ (Hingston 1885:275).

Benares has affected him in many ways: it has stimulated his curiosity and his bent for seeking knowledge and understanding; it has aroused his distaste and natural scepticism, but at the same time he has been deeply touched by it. He develops an admiration for Indian culture that informs what he sees in the rest of his journey, from the palaces and magnificent buildings of Lucknow and Delhi to the ancient remnants of old destroyed cities there and at Allahaba, and the temple-caves carved from the rock. Most of all, perhaps, Benares moved him in a way that must have taken him by surprise when he witnessed a cremation on the waterfront.

In Calcutta he had stumbled across a cremation, drawn, he said, by the smell of roast pork. It is perfunctorily described as something discovered by a sightseer, who then moves on (Hingston 1885:270). At Benares, however, his mind is undoubtedly transformed by all that he has seen; the cremation he sees is ‘the most impressive sight, next to a hanging, that I ever saw’. He witnesses the complete ceremony as the pyre is built and the young widow takes the torch, walks round the pyre before setting it alight and then retires to watch her husband consumed in the flames. For Hingston, there is a poignancy in this scene as well, perhaps, as something symbolic of what he has learned here in Benares about the antiquity, continuity and vitality of Indian cultural life. It is something that will be, he says, ‘a lifelong recollection—one of the most enduring that all India leaves with me’ (Hingston 1885:277–278).

Lucknow and Delhi

The journey to Lucknow passes slowly through the same kind of landscape as before, but differs in other respects. This section of the railroad is the Oude and Rohilcund line and ‘about the worst to be found in India’, with dirty, old and uncomfortable carriages in which sleep is all but impossible. Yet, it turns out to be a more sociable leg of the journey when he encounters ‘an old Australian acquaintance’ who is a stationmaster at one of the stations on the line, and three Americans on the train ‘who are travelling with no better reason for doing so than I have’ (Hingston 1885:279).

Picking up on a long-running theme, the Australian bemoans the climate, saying he now understands why extreme heat was designated the chief post-mortem torment, and he misses Australia. The Americans are ‘good company’, Hingston finds, which makes up for the discomforts of this journey, as well as for the difficulties he had had in holding a conversation on the previous leg to Benares, when he ‘had but Hindoos for company, and conversation therefore rather flagged’ (Hingston 1885:279). Lest we do not grasp the point, Hingston adds ‘which is but a mild way of saying that I could not understand a word that I heard said by those around me’ (Hingston 1885:279). Hingston’s difficulty in understanding Indians speaking English is one of his constant gripes, almost from the moment he first lands when he engaged a guide at Madras ‘who, lyingly, said that he knew English’ (Hingston 1885:256). However, the sense of companionship with the Americans, one of whom is a lady, is obviously mutual, as they keep company beyond Lucknow to Delhi and Agra, even adopting little subterfuges on the way to Delhi to keep Indians from entering their compartment (Hingston 1885:284).

They reach Lucknow early in the morning and, after tea and toast at 5 am in his hotel, Hingston sets out to wander around the town. He calls it the ‘City of Palaces’; it is the ‘City Beautiful’, located in ‘the very garden of Hindoostan’, but he’s really talking about a city ‘that was so grand-looking but awhile ago’ (Hingston 1885:280)—in other words, before the Mutiny. This is the perpetually looming presence that marks the moment when the extraordinarily delicate and refined beauty of a dream city crashed in ruins. For Hingston’s experience of Lucknow is in reality an experience of what once was rather than what is now, and he exerts his imagination, fuelled by his repository of literary knowledge, in an attempt to recreate the former glory of Lucknow that resides inside his head. Similarly in Delhi, where he celebrates the extraordinary richness and vitality of Moghul culture by reference to a long poem written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, Hingston seeks out a world that has, to all intents and purposes, passed him by. In a telling observation there he laments that ‘the traveller through India thus finds here that he is a day after the fair, and must see Delhi in all its glory in the mind’s eye only’ (Hingston 1885:287).

In contrast to the way in which he presented Benares, Hingston’s experience of Lucknow, Delhi, and Agra is treated primarily as an architectural excursion; it is principally the buildings and town planning that attract him and form the substance of his commentary. He is captivated by the palaces, towers, mosques and gardens that constitute what remains of ‘that once magnificent city’ of Lucknow (Hingston 1885:281) and the ‘wonder of a city’ that is Delhi (Hingston 1885:285). In so doing, he has reverted to a familiar kind of tourism—the concentration on past glories now suggested only by the grandeur of their ruins. It is the kind of tourism that took travellers to the ruins at Athens and Rome to contemplate the achievements of the classical world or to Egypt to marvel at the legacy of the Pharaohs. It was also the kind of tourism that by this late stage of the 19th century was influenced by Ruskin. The tone of Hingston’s treatment of the former architectural splendours of Lucknow and Delhi recalls some of Ruskin’s writing on the decayed greatness of Venice.

The recital of the names of these places, such as the Chutter Munzil and the Kaiser Bagh gardens in Lucknow, the Shalimar gardens and the Red Fort in Delhi, evokes for him, and for the educated British reader, a certain exoticism. Hingston’s account of what he sees in them is replete with the tropes of orientalism and of decayed civilisations—of decline and fall. In Lucknow and Delhi he imagines languid courts and reclining houris—all the sensuousness that practical Englishmen, perhaps wistfully, associate with the soft, sinuous East. In Delhi particularly, his mind’s eye is full of the images supplied by his reading of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), which was in part, he points out, set there. Indeed, he suggests that the reason he was so keen to see Delhi was that he owes his earliest knowledge of it to this poem: ‘Moore’s pleasant imagery and word-painting take hold of the reader, and remain in the memory—thus giving to Delhi a poetical, equally with an historical, interest’ (Hingston 1885:285).

However, in viewing India through this particular lens, Hingston is following an already well-established tradition for the British traveller. It has been suggested that the poem’s continued popularity long after its first publication in 1817 influenced the kind of exotic imagery used by British visitors to India for most of the 19th century (Archer & Lightbown 1982:104–106). As early as 1838 one traveller in Kashmir, GT Vigne, remarked, ‘At one glance we have before us the whole of the localities described in Lalla Rookh. I use the word described, for there is great justice in the ideas of scenery to be collected from the poem’ (Archer and Lightbown 1982:109).

In fact, Delhi was one for Hingston of the highlights—if not the highlight—of his tour of India. It was a place he had yearned to see—’Youthful impressions being of the strongest, Delhi so draws me to it, irresistibly’ (Hingston 1885:285)—and he is not disappointed by all it offers. It is at one of the old sites of Delhi that he sees the Kootub Minar, a 250-foot high minaret, ‘simply the largest shaft, the grandest pillar, the tallest and most costly column, that the world can show!’; seeing this ‘alone is worth the journey to Hindoostan’ (Hingston 1885:290–291). His enthusiasm for such a large object of this shape might cause some to snigger, when it is presented so baldly, but what Hingston is suggesting here is that the structure suggests a kind of sublimity evoked by a combination of its antiquity (it was constructed in 1190), its architectural detailing and carving (the Koran is beautifully carved around the column as it ascends), and, most of all, the views of it and from it and what they suggest. This again is a familiar trope of tourism, but one more commonly associated with natural views of mountain peaks and high thundering waterfalls. The tower impresses Hingston ‘as a grand combination of architectural ideas, in all of which elegance is allied with great strength’ (Hingston 1885:291), but, as usual in these discussions, he clarifies his aesthetic appreciation by describing the affective impression it makes upon the viewer and what it engenders in the spectator who adopts it as a viewing point.

The effect on the visitor is according to temperament; the excitable are full of loud admiration; but others seem dazed and subdued to quietude by a majesty that approaches the sublime, so far as stonework can represent it. Hours are spent in wandering around and sitting about at different points of view to gaze at what so fascinates one. The ascent is, from the large size of the pillar, made with the greatest ease—the four hundred steps leading one around to the summit with scarcely a feeling of fatigue. The view from that position is over a scene of desolation and ruined greatness that is quite deplorable (Hingston 1885:291).

Once again, we are brought back to the feelings of decay and loss and former grandeur which Hingston presents as the prevailing message of the stones of Lucknow and Delhi.

‘The rest’, he says, ‘can be filled in by the imagination of those who look now upon that which is left’ (Hingston 1885:287), which is what he invites us to do. Literature can certainly help in this process and Hingston’s recourse to Byron and Moore, and even to The Thousand and One Nights, in this context is instructive; it is no surprise that the complete title of Moore’s poem is Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance. Of Delhi, he comments ‘Literature has helped to its great fame’ (Hingston 1885:285). It is not too much to say, however, that Hingston is seduced by the buildings and that his reading has assisted in this process. He describes Lucknow’s Chutter Munzil as ‘a building that, in a sort, invites the visitor and woos him to visit it’ (Hingston 1885:281). He has a similar reaction when he first sees the Taj Mahal by daylight in the distance: ‘Now that one so sees it, there is no help but to go, as all further resistance to its fascination is ineffectual. It is as if Venus, fresh risen from the sea, had beckoned one to come’ (Hingston 1885:302). When close to it, his reaction is similar to the impression created by the Kootub Minar. He sits gazing upon the Taj Mahal in companionable silence with his three American friends, ‘but we are each as if we were alone’.

So seated, every sense within one seems to run all to eyesight … hearing is gone … The enchanter architect who inspired this pile has waved his wand, and spell-bound one. He was a true Prospero, and one gazes as if one would never cease gazing at this ‘dainty Ariel’ of a palace, which he has here called into existence (Hingston 1885:302).

The eye may have taken over momentarily, confounded by the sublime prospect unlike any other sight in the world (Hingston 1885:304), but literature is deeply implicated in his response and has not been forgotten:

If you ever thought that the ‘Arabian Nights’ was all nonsense and romance, and ‘Lalla Rookh’ all imagination and fancy, what think you now?—now that you have looked around upon the scene that has filled the last four hours as if but a few minutes. You have looked upon Lucknow and its palaces—you have seen what Delhi and its surroundings have had to show—and have now come to this wonder of all wonders. Are your thoughts what they were; or what say you? You are silent, and silence is the all-sufficient answer (Hingston 1885:304).

Yet, while Hingston—and, indeed, any ‘European’ or, more specifically, British visitor—may stand in front of these buildings mysteriously drawn to them, with their heads full of romantic imagery of the East, there is no question that a denizen of Lucknow or Delhi or Agra, standing by his side, would have his head filled with a different kind of imagery. This is more especially so of Lucknow and Delhi, where the recital of the names of palaces and forts and mosques Hingston endows with romance are precisely the same names and places that only a short while before carried terrible associations of massacres, appalling privation, war and heroic battles, and carnage. Hingston does mention the Mutiny—he could hardly avoid doing so—but only in passing and only from a British perspective; he does not allow recent history to draw him in with the same attention to detail that he applies, say, to the workings of Shah Jehan’s court. He talks of the British losses but does not ponder the Indian ones. This is a significant omission, since the relief of Lucknow by the Highlanders supposedly marching in to the sound of the bagpipes was one of the almost archetypical moments in the Mutiny—a moment fixed in the popular Victorian imagination and recreated endlessly in drawing-room prints. What did not impinge on the Victorian imagination in the same way was what occurred in the moments after the relief. These events were recorded in old photographs, such as Felice Beato’s 1858 photograph of the courtyard of the siege-battered Sikanderbagh building strewn with the remains of about 2000 ‘rebels’ slaughtered by the British forces after they regained control (reproduced in Chaudhary 2005:63) and in another contemporary image showing the British military looting the Kaiser Bagh (Russell 1860:I, facing 333)—a place, according to Hingston, of ‘bewildering prettinesses’, which was built just seven years before its destruction at huge cost by the same ruler of Oude imprisoned on the prison-palace on the banks of the Hooghly (Hingston 1885:280). These images, which suggest there is an alternative story to be told, might accord better with local memories of these events and be closer to the associations these placenames prompted in the minds of the local inhabitants.

The fact that Beato’s 1858 photograph is constructed does not detract from the force of its imagery. Without going into his reasons for doing so, one can surmise that Beato reconstructed a scene that he felt had some kind of veracity.4 Beato’s reconstructed scene represents a narrative, just as Hingston does with his construction of the meaning of the buildings he sees. Each is an act of imagination related to architecture. In Hingston’s case, however, the touristic concentration on the architecture allows him to elide the uncomfortable recent past, whereas Beato’s representation highlights it.

Hingston has postponed his reckoning with the Mutiny until he comes to Cawnpore, as he acknowledges upon arriving at Delhi, saying that in his haste to get there ‘I overrun another city by the way, to which I must return, as it has a name in the story lately made more prominent even than this great Delhi, though from other and sadder causes’ (Hingston 1885:285). He clearly does not want the Mutiny to get in the way of Lalla Rookh. Just as Beato’s photograph is a set piece, Hingston has reserved a special chapter for his own set piece on the Mutiny.

In the meantime, he tours Lucknow, Delhi and Agra, determined to take in their historic buildings and the remoter history they suggest, as well as taking what opportunities he can to remind us of the benevolence and achievements of British rule. For all his admiration of their beauty and refinement, Hingston remains mistrustful of the motivations behind their construction and the way they were built, arguing that ‘slave labour is the secret of the wonders of architectural India’ (Hingston 1885:288). These differ from the motivations of the British, of course, whose construction of such things as bridges and railways is more practical and democratic, being aimed at providing benefit for the Indians without exploiting them. His readership is, after all, among the ‘British’ (in the wider sense of that term). He is also, in the end, more comfortable with the ‘British’; he has slipped back here into being once more the colonial gentleman on tour—and hard work it is, too, all this sightseeing (Hingston 1885:283). If only he could ‘have been here in the last century—about 1738—to have seen Delhi in all its glory, ere the Persians then despoiled it’ (Hingston 1885:285) (or even in about 1855, before the modern-day equivalent of the Persians despoiled it?). Fortunately there is still Lalla Rookh to paint the scene for us. Hingston may well have possessed one of the many illustrated editions of this book. Richard Westall was the first artist to provide illustrations for Lalla Rookh, for an edition published in 1829, but the best-known portrayal of Moore’s vision was in Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for the 1861 edition (Nolan 2008: 80,84).5 This was the India6 Hingston had specifically sought out and was why Delhi represented for him in so many ways the pinnacle of his journey.

India is the land of the wonderful, and the proper home of all that is imaginative, fantastic, sensuous, and extravagant. Its past has been as the transformation scene of an extravaganza. It is something, I think as I leave Delhi, to have, in so seeing it, realised ‘Lalla Rookh’ (Hingston 1885:291).


India has challenged Hingston and charmed him. To paraphrase the words of Whitman, it is large and contains multitudes, and Hingston has done his best to take them in, travelling around filling his notebooks and consulting his sources, including the ones he only lets slip, perhaps by accident, some of which have been discussed here and some speculated upon. For it is clear that he has, after all, done much reading and, as he sits on the Bombay wharf waiting for his steamer to leave, he drops another name, that of Colonel Cory, which tells us he was thinking imperially about India at this juncture—about the ‘Great Game’ and the threat from expansionist Russia in the north.7 He quotes Cory’s assessment of what a catastrophe for British wealth and might the loss of India would be. Cory quotes Peter the Great’s description of India as ‘the storehouse of the world’ and Hingston wonders aloud ‘whether Russia’s gradual advance to the gates of Afghanistan’ is a continuation of Tsar Peter’s policy (Hingston 1885:330).

All Hingston’s observations have now come together in this imperial viewpoint. His tour has taught him that the British presence on the subcontinent is tenuous:

The feeling of the traveller throughout India is, that he is in a foreign land … and liable at any time to be kicked out of it … If England cannot, for climatic reasons, colonize India, what chance has she of permanently holding it? (Hingston 1885:331).

None of a succession of previous rulers, he reminds us, not even the colonising Mongols could hold onto it in the past.

What Colonel Cory tells us is well-known to the nations of the world, and such a many-times transferred country as India is will be certainly looked upon as fair prey for any Power at variance at any time with England (Hingston 1885:331).

But, for various reasons he concludes that ‘British power has nothing to fear from those that are now in India’ (Hingston 1885:331) and has great faith in its civilising mission, which, by providing education and elevating the living standard, personal security and civil status of the ordinary Indian, will continue to prevail, he argues, so long as Indians recognise the benefits conferred upon them (Hingston 1885:334). The process of ‘adopting the Hindu into the British family’ (Hingston 1885:334) will pay off in the end and, ultimately, will even bring about the passing of what Hingston regards as one of India’s greatest evils and impediments to progress—caste, which he describes as ‘a tree of great toughness, ancient growth, and wide-spreading roots and branches. Yet it is marked for falling at some distant date’ (Hingston 1885:332).

For the rest, after spending barely any time there at all compared to what is needed to do it justice, his visit to India has been like a dream—so much so he can scarcely recall all he’s seen:

An Arabian Night’s sort of dream will India be to prince or peasant who may run through it all … bent only on seeing everything with the eye of the curious. The recollections of it will jumble in the confused manner of dreams (Hingston 1885:333).

Already it is time to leave and, as the deck-gun lets off its farewell, one-gun salute, Hingston gazes back from the stern of the mailboat. His last view of India, like his first, is from the sea.

Works cited

Archer, Mildred and Ronald Lightbown 1982, India observed: India as viewed by British artists, 1760–1860, Victoria and Albert Museum and Trefoil Books, London.

Baedeker, Karl (ed) 1898, Egypt: handbook for travellers 4th remodelled ed, Karl Baedeker, Leipsic.

Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna 1892, From the caves and jungles of Hindostan, Theosophical Publishing Society, London.

Carter, Jennifer MT 2000, ‘A tale of two poets’, Kipling Journal 294.

Chaudhary, Zahid 2005, ‘Phantasmagoric aesthetics: colonial violence and the management of perception’, Cultural Critique 59 (Winter).

Cory, Arthur 1881, The Eastern menace, or, shadows of coming events, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co., London.

Hingston, JH 1885, The Australian abroad on branches from the main routes round the world, William Inglis and Co., Melbourne.

Majeed, Javed 1992, Ungoverned imaginings: James Mill’s The history of British India and orientalism, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Marvin, Charles 1882, The Russian advance towards India, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, London.

Moore, Thomas 1817, Lalla Rookh: an oriental romance, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London.

Nolan, JCM 2008, ‘In search of an Ireland in the Orient: Tom Moore’s Lalla Rookh’, New Hibernia Review 12(3).

Russell, William Howard 1860, My diary in India, in the year 1858-9, Routledge, Warne & Routledge, London.

Sharafuddin, Mohammed 1996, Islam and romantic orientalism: literary encounters with the Orient, IB Tauris & Co., London.

Walker, David 1999, Anxious nation, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.

— 2005, ‘Hingston, J. H. (1830–1902)’, in Australian dictionary of biography, Supplementary Vol, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

1   It is usual nowadays to avoid the term ‘Mutiny’ for the overall Indian revolt in 1857–1858; in this chapter the term that Hingston used is adopted here for the revolt, as well as for placenames that have since changed.

2   Max Müller (1823–1900), a German-born Sanskrit scholar and Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, was then well-known for his work on philology and comparative religion, as a translator of Hindu classical literature, and for this popular series of lectures first given in 1878.

3   There is never any suggestion that Hingston’s interest is anything other than curiosity; he shows no signs whatsoever of interest in Theosophical views; for instance. Hingston refers to ‘some spiritualistic imposters from America’ at one of the theatres in Calcutta when he was there, and, intriguingly, Mme Blavatsky was in 1879–1880, conducting her own tour of India and giving various spiritualist performances, in which she visited many of the places Hingston visited, including Calcutta (Blavatsky 1892).

4   About 4–5 months after the event, Beato had the bodies disinterred from their shallow graves in the vicinity, where they were only partially buried, and arranged them across the courtyard for his photograph (Chaudhary 2005:68–70).

5   An important part of Moore’s project was to use the orientalist setting to cloak his critique of British imperialist policy and of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland—’Moore created an Orient in Lalla Rookh which was integral to an anti-imperialist stance’ (Majeed 1992:120). It seems unlikely that Hingston would have been aware of this aspect of Lalla Rookh or favourably disposed to it.

6   Work by the scholars Javed Majeed and Mohammed Sarafuddin has reappraised Moore’s orientalism more favourably, placing more focus on the ambiguity of Lalla Rookh as a political allegory and discovering in it a more sympathetic understanding and even a more accurate representation of Islamic or Moghul life than some previous Western commentators have given it credit for; so perhaps in this respect at least Hingston may not have been totally wide of the mark (Majeed 1992:97,104; Sharafuddin 1996:138,141–142,213).

7   Colonel Arthur Cory, a former officer in the Bengal Army, was the first co-editor and managing proprietor of the Lahore edition of the Civil and Military Gazette (from 1877) and later edited the Sind Gazette in Karachi. He was the author of The Eastern Menace, or, Shadows of Coming Events (1881) and was regarded as an expert on the politico-military strategic issues affecting northern India (Carter 2000:12; Marvin 1882:45,336–337).

Wanderings in India: Australian Perceptions

   by Rick Hosking and Amit Sarwal