Sex, death & absurdity: curiosities from the British Empire

Curated curiosities that glibly sidestep the complexity, diversity and controversy of the British Empire.

Watercolour of Sir David Ochterlony in Indian attire smoking a hookah in Delhi in the 1820s.

Watercolour of Sir David Ochterlony in Indian attire smoking a hookah in Delhi in the 1820s.

Hairy barbarians

The English at first were minor players compared to the Portuguese and Dutch, struggling to break into vast long-established civilisations with sophisticated cultures and philosophies. Asian monarchs regarded the English as rude hairy barbarians.

China especially regarded Europeans as faraway people about whom they knew little and cared even less and the British were given very low status. In 1793 the experienced diplomat and aristocrat Lord Macartney was sent to the Qing emperor to push for a permanent embassy. Macartney was expected to fall on both knees and perform ‘nine prostrations’ , touching his forehead to the ground for the famous kow tow. Hurried negotiations reduced it to one knee and no prostrations.


It is well-known that explorers and colonial settlers decimated local indigenous populations by introducing new diseases. Equally, huge numbers of settlers and colonialists died from malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and typhus. Of the 50,000 Europeans who arrived in Jamaica between 1700 and 1750 only 10,000 were living by 1752.

Settlers also died from ‘dry belly ache’ as a result of drinking rum distilled in lead pots after first experiencing violent spasms, pain, vomiting and paralysis.

The Indian Mutiny saw massacres and savagery on both sides and it was to have profound implications for the course of empire. The British revived an old Mughal custom of hanging or blowing victims from cannons. At Peshawar some forty mutineers were blown from cannons, “their blackened heads falling on the crowds of spectators”. It worked: this visceral sight ‘encouraged’ the Punjabi tribal chiefs to side with the British.


Capt James Cook, 1776

Capt James Cook, 1776

How Britain took possession of Australia is a masterpiece of absurdity. Cook landed on the north-east tip of Australia and the gentlemen of the ship went on shore. Cook wrote in his log: “at 6 possession was taken of this country in His Majesty’s name and under his colours, fired several volleys of small arms on the occasion, and cheered three times, which was answered from the ship.” There were no witnesses to this and confident that it was an uninhabited land, no other European power had claimed Eastern Australia, nor were there local kings to bother with, Cook sailed away with Eastern Australia, without any locals knowing it, now considered British. It is akin to Chinese fishermen landing on an obscure Scottish island, seeing no-one about and irrevocably claiming West Europe for the Emperor. It was, of course to have profound consequences for the aborigines.

Sex and empire

Young men leaving Britain to serve the empire found their power and wealth enabled new opportunities for relations with concubines, prostitutes and mistresses. The 19th century writer Edward Sellon described how India was full of women who “understood in perfection all the arts and wiles of love”.  His view, and rarely if ever do we hear from the female perspective, was very much of beautiful courtesans happily practicing the erotic arts with no mention of the poverty or lack of choice that put them in the first place.

Even so in the more relaxed early days of the Raj relations there was much cultural and social interaction between the British and the Mughal court. Indian wives and mistresses of the British could attain a degree of status and recognition. Sir David Ochterlony every evening escorted his 13 Indian wives around the Red Fort in Old Delhi, each on the back of her own decorated elephant.  His favourite wife, the former dancing girl Generallee Begum, was so dominant that one observer remarked that “making Sir David the Commissioner of Delhi was the same as making Generallee Begum”.

Three Nautch girls, Delhi. Photographed by Charles Shepherd, 1862 Source:

Three Nautch girls, Delhi. Photographed by Charles Shepherd, 1862 Source:

Sellon and Richard Burton were connoisseurs of ‘Nautch girls’, dancers for human pleasure, as opposed to spiritual purpose, whose dancing and prostitution  raised money for their temples. Nautch became a word to describe a woman whose skills, style and allure could mesmerize men to absolute obedience. Burton was convinced that women in tropical countries were more passionate than men, and reported the belief that if a man gave a woman seven cloves to eat on the 17th of the month she became sexually insatiable.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 and late Victorian values changed the dynamics creating far more distance being the two races and a powerful raise of the eyebrow at men going native rather than English. Furthermore the arrival of English women, on what was nicknamed the ‘Fishing Fleet’, meant that men were expected to toe the line more. The cold season saw a whirl of social occasions and courtship although any woman who could not find a husband went back to England cruelly nicknamed as ‘returned empties’. They might be lucky – the ones who remained, the often unpopular ‘memsahibs’, faced a restricted often harsh life of heat, loneliness, disease and separation from children who were sent to English boarding schools to avoid tropical diseases.

Do things ever change? Yesterday’s fears and problems still echo today

The British Empire was partly about trade and profit but not everyone felt this was beneficial to the nation. 17th century observers was suspicious about the loose morals of smoking tobacco while in the 18th century some believed that Indian luxury fabrics from India would undermine the British taste by introducing an ‘oriental’ sensuality. The flood of Chinese ceramics and silks were regarded as symptomatic of culture of excessive consumption, greed and social fragmentation.

Many were also against the negative aspects of empire: predatory commercial expansion, guns and drugs trading, cheap alcohol, aggressive mineral rights and land acquisition, forced labour and slavery. Commentators felt that the empire was morally bankrupt and enriching the ruling elite at the expense of the many.

Richard Cobden denounced imperial expansion while J.A. Hobson saw a financial conspiracy supported by…a corrupt press, ill-informed public, false government subsidy that yielded profit for the City of London, patriotism as convenient diversion, insider self-trading, protectionism and an aggressive foreign policy.

What gave British merchants the competitive edge over their rivals was the supply of cheap credit. The risk of failure was high but fortunes were made and the City of London was at the heart of it.

Caribbean prosperity was built on the insatiable appetite for sugar which, in Britain, was consumed more than anywhere else in the world, especially in tea. Clearly the unhealthy British diet is not a new thing!

Further reading

Most of the above were from a great book by John Darwin called Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. It manages to address a lot of the complex issues of the empire in an accessible, informative way.

For a take on sexual relations read Jeremy Paxman on the British Empire: where men went to run wild.

For a completely different take on British sexuality read one of my earlier blogs: The secret sex society of the Beggars Benison.

7 thoughts on “Sex, death & absurdity: curiosities from the British Empire

  1. Talk of Richard Burton always brings to my mind the oft over-looked Scottish adventurer / explorer James Bruce…

    He went off to ‘discover’ the source of Blue Nile in 18th century and on his return was ridiculed by society as his tall tales from the Ethiopian court were disbelieved by all. Good brief account in Moorehead’s “Blue Nile” and more in depth in Miles Bredin’s biography ‘The Pale Abyssinian’ .


  2. Great post.

    There is much here that is curious, absurd and deadly – yet it can’t help but glitter with fascination. History is wonderful, even though it is sometimes an anthology of foolishness!


    • Thanks for your comment but I found that a rather offensive thing to say. Without question British imperialism has done a lot of harm to the world but all countries and peoples have both good and bad in their history. Think of all those who suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Nubian slave traders and the Inca Empire to name but, sadly, only a few. Evil is a condition of humanity not of a particular race, tribe, religion or people.

      Furthermore many British were and still are anti-empire and the British have made many positive contributions to the world in democracy, music, culture, sport, science, medicine and technology.

      (PS I’m British and so is Tim Berners-Lee who invented the world wide web which allows you to write your blog and post comments!)


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