Stuck at home since March? Let’s take a virtual trip. For research, writers sometimes leave their desk, whether for the local library, to conduct interviews, or to head out of town. Below is an account of a trip that launched years of research. Barbara Sibbald is writing a novel about the lives of her great-grandparents, Stephen and Lily Turner, in the North West Frontier of India from 1885 to 1912. Here she is, writing about an important find in 2007 in India.
Searching for the South Park Cemetery, my mother and I had been entombed in a taxi for the seeming eternity of Kolkata’s rush-hour traffic, stuck behind brightly painted trucks emblazoned with STOP! HORN PLEASE! When it flowed, traffic moved in waves like schools of fish, crossing lanes and intersections. Finally, we arrived at the over-populated city of the dead: 1,600 souls housed in Indo-Saracenic pillars, pyramids and three-meter-square mausoleums — an architectural miniature of the glory of the Raj. The shrill cry of a peacock seared the air of this final stop for hapless Britishers in the early days of the East India Company. Few made it past two monsoons. Samuel Munckley Duntze lasted six. Time enough to partner with a Parsi woman, to sire two daughters. Beget a legacy of otherness.
We were in India on vacation in November 2007. Or at least that’s why I was taking my first trip to the sub-continent. My mother had a more ambitious agenda. For over twenty years she had been researching her family’s genealogy: the Turners of India. She had names, places of burial, christening documents. She’d gathered family memorabilia: letters, photographs and watercolours. I had but a dim understanding of all this. Mum, to her credit, was intent on enlightening me, enticing me to perhaps write something of the family. And this man, this Samuel Munckley Duntze, my mother’s great-great-grandfather, my great-great-great, he was the starting point of the family’s time in India. His grave was a point of departure for a long story.
The guard at the entry gate said the cemetery would close in a half-hour, at five. My ever efficient mother knew Samuel was buried in section 7, SP 616, near the boundary walls. And she had a map. We raced to the end, disrespectful of the resting residents. She took the last row, I the second last. The overcast sky grew darker by the moment, surreally large crows hovered and cawed over moss-covered statues and tombstones, some of the size of small houses. The engraved names and epitaphs were filled with dirt and grit. I dampened a crumpled Kleenex with precious water from my bottle and rubbed. Words emerged: much loved, sadly missed, worn out etc. I raced through a dozen tombs. And there on a monument nearly two-metres square topped with a pillar: Samuel Munkley Duntze. In the silent cemetery my words rang out: “I found it!” Mum raced over giddy with excitement. We scrubbed at the letters, poured on water, used precious sterilized wipes. Night was falling, birds flocked overhead. I scribbled the inscription in my notebook:
Underneath are deposited the remains of SAMUEL MUNCKLEY DUNTZE, ESQ. Late Assistant Superintendent of Police in the Lower Provinces Who departed this life the 19th day of August 1819, aged 25 years. Deeply and generally regretted; his urbanity of manners and benevolence of Heart made Him admired and beloved by classes, and the pride of every circle. This humble inscription To the memory of departed worth and excellence is offered by an Old friend and schoolfellow who had intimately known him upwards of 17 years and Owed him many very many Obligations.
Who was that friend and what were the obligations? One mystery solved, another presents. That’s what comes of genealogical meddling.
There was no mention of Samuel Duntze’s common-law wife, the Parsi woman from Khorassan. Some family documents claim she was a princess, a woman from a noble family, of high birth. Her possible pedigree survives, but not her name, nor a likeness, though she was reportedly beautiful beyond compare. Alliances between native women and employees of the East India Company were not uncommon. The Company had been trading in East India since 1600, becoming the most powerful corporation the world has known. Until the mid-19th century, it ruled parts of India with an army of 225,000 — larger than Britain’s — and a police force, with employees such as Samuel Duntze. British women were largely and understandably wary of the danger and uncertainty of the sub-continent and so British men often had liaisons with native women. Some wholly adopted the culture, even converting religion, donning garb and ways of life.
Samuel Duntze and his best friend, likely the one who erected his tomb, lived with Parsi sisters and had children. Samuel’s will states that “every individual article of property to be equally divided amongst all my children born out of wedlock.” His year-old daughter is not specifically mentioned. Did he know his wife was pregnant with his second child? She was only a month along; she probably didn’t know herself, discovered it later in her grief-stricken state. Louisa, who was born in May 1820, never saw her father.
She was Stephen’s mother. Stephen, my great-grandfather, was a quarter Parsi, and thus Eurasian. He sought his fortune in Northern India. There, my grandmother was born in a tent with the desert wind howling outside. But who were these people? What sort of life did they have? What did it mean that he was a Eurasian? Did it matter? This was a story I had to tell.
Barbara Sibbald returned to India with her immediate family for three weeks in November 2015, mostly touring through Rajasthan, and visiting Delhi and Mumbai, but also spending a week in Dharmsala including a visit to her great uncle’s tea plantation in Sid Baree, where her great-grandfather eventually retired. Following this, she took two, three-week long trips to the United Kingdom, devoted to research. She visited and interviewed numerous new-found relatives and spent four days at the British Library’s Asia and Africa Reading Room taking copious notes from documents, maps and books. Check out her work here and read about her working trip to Swaziland.
The photo above was taken by Barbara Sibbald, as were the other India photos. This is the Sid Baree tea plantation in Kangra Valley; the plants are supposedly cuttings from Sibbald’s great-grandfather Stephen.
Header photo credit: Stephen Sibbald