“Holding the Welfare of Three Million People in Your Hands”: The British Voices from South Asia Series

Europeans visiting a complex of Hindu temples; lithograph by Prince Waldemar of Prussia; 1853, later hand coloring.

Europeans visiting a complex of Hindu temples; lithograph by Prince Waldemar of Prussia; 1853, later hand coloring.

By Erin M. Hess

Today marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of the Indian Independence Act of 1947, and the establishment of India and Pakistan as sovereign nations after nearly ninety years of British rule. Happy Independence Day to all who are celebrating!

You might be wondering what Indian Independence has to do with the Williams Center for Oral History in far-away Louisiana. We’re drawing the correlation because of an interview collection we house here at the Center that’s a great example of the unexpected, historically significant, and compelling content that we strive to make easily accessible to people like you.

In 1996, shortly after the Center was established, folklorists Frank de Caro and Rosan Jordan generously donated a group of thirty-seven oral history interviews with former British colonists stationed in India during the early and mid-twentieth century. These interviews, conducted in 1978 and 1980, comprise our British Voices from South Asia series, and the collection is also housed at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of South Asian Studies.

Over eighty-five hours of interviews – all recently converted to digital audio format and with indexes available on our website – cover the culture of male and female British colonists and their perspectives on India. Interviewees include military officers as well as people working in forestry, engineering, education, politics, business, and the church.

To showcase this collection, I’ve chosen two excerpts that resonated with me. I hope these selections spark an interest in you to delve further into this fabulous series of interviews! (More information on access can be found at the end of this post.)


Robin Adair served in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and the Indian Army. Unlike most Britons who arrived to India by boat, Adair drove to India from England with three of his Cambridge colleagues. The thought of driving to India is incredible enough, but the following excerpt left me shocked at the enormous responsibility placed on young ICS officers.


Robin Adair: There’s no doubt that one . . . in the ICS, one had enormous responsibility at a pretty early age, being administrator of a district of perhaps two to three million people. As I think I mentioned the first day we were talking about this, you’d become a district magistrate probably when you’re . . . certainly before you’re the age of thirty. When you’re about twenty-six or twenty-seven you would be a district magistrate and . . . you would really hold the welfare of, oh, some three million people in your hands, because it is the way the district magistrate runs his district which greatly affects the welfare of all their population.


I liked this next excerpt, from ICS officer John Stubs and his wife, Kay, because it captures the excitement, and often the fear, that many Britons faced while living in a place as strikingly unfamiliar to them as India was. Here, Stubbs recalls hunting down two man-eating leopards that were terrorizing villages within his district.


John Stubbs:   I remember one village I was in where . . . This one I did shoot. I managed to shoot him. There were two of them. But this one was a . . . wasn’t a very established man-eater, it . . . it killed a boy who was . . . they used to . . . In the hot weather, they used to sleep out in sort of [crawls?] on the mountainside to watch . . .

Kay Stubbs:  Goats.

John Stubbs:  . . . watch their goats. And this boy went out of the [crawl?] in the middle of the night to urinate, you see, and the leopard caught him; I don’t know why, quite. Killed him and ate him. And this village that . . . where this boy . . . the villagers all said that this . . . But they said that the leopard used to come every night and scratch at the doors. And I don’t know whether this was true or not. But certainly it did happen that leopards used to try and claw their way into houses. And you could see the marks on the . . .

Kay Stubbs:  Oh, and they did go in on some occasions.

John Stubbs:  And they did go into houses and kill people. That one, as far as I know, only killed one person. The other one which I was after for a long time must have killed or mauled dozens of people over that period. And it actually was operating over an area of about fifteen square miles, so you never knew where it was. And in one night, he killed . . . attacked eight people in one night. I think he got away with one of them.

Kay Stubbs:  One old lady, I think. The others were mauled.

John Stubbs:   The others were mauled and managed to frighten him off. I had one very interesting evening and I was . . . I tied up a goat and I was sitting in the tree. No, I had the goat killed, and I was sitting up over the body of the goat. I suddenly looked down and I saw this leopard lying just like a cat underneath in the moonlight, bright moonlight, a most lovely sight. And so I got my rifle down and I shot the leopard. And I didn’t know whether I’d killed it or not, and it gave a roar. By this time I was . . . My torch went out when I fired off, you know, [laughing] the shock of it. And I was trying to get the torch back into operation. And then I suddenly heard an extraordinary noise from behind, coming up this watercourse. A dog started barking, and I thought, “Well I wonder what this is.” And an enormous dog hyena came up under my tree and he started to howl just right underneath me. The most devilish awful frightening noise I’ve ever heard in my life!


For more information on the folklorists who created the British Voices from South Asia series and collection availability, visit the online exhibit and this previous blog post. All interviews from this series will be fully available on the LOUISiana Digital Library by 2015.



Adair, Robin, interview by Frank de Caro and Rosan Jordan, audio recording, 1978, 4700.0592. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Stubbs, John and Kay, interview by Frank de Caro and Rosan Jordan, audio recording, 1978, 4700.0591. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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