Reading the Letters

Hand-written letters were the only means of communication between India and England at the beginning of the 19th century. Elizabeth Gwillim wrote to her mother in 1802:

I sit to write exactly opposite your picture … I seem to be talking to you. Having seen no land since I left England I cannot persuade myself I am so far off … I have a thousand things to say … & you are I dare say desirous to hear how we like this strange country.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, October 17, 1801
Elizabeth Gwillim at her writing desk, sketch included in a letter to Hester James, February 7, 1802

It took about six months for a letter to reach England, and another six months for a reply, or even longer. Sometimes the letters the sisters sent were lost, when the ship carrying them sank in a storm, or was captured by the French – the English and the French were at war from 1803 on.

A note on language

Elizabeth’s and Mary’s letters to their sister Hester and mother are chatty and informal, full of descriptions on the weather and the scenery, what they ate and what they wore, exotic plants and animals, and gossip about Madras society.

They use descriptive terms and language common at the time, which may now seem derogatory or distasteful. For example, they refer to Indians as ‘black’, and to Muslims as ‘Moors’ or Musselmen’.

They also exhibit contemporary prejudices. Elizabeth describes the Dutch settlers in the Eastern Islands as ‘a disgrace to humanity’, and characterizes ‘the Moor-men’ as ‘a ferocious people enervated by luxury’. Mary writes of the ‘blackey families’ of the Englishmen who marry Indian women. Elizabeth was, however, good friends with the ‘half-caste’ or mixed race daughter of a local doctor, and Mary accepted as companion the ‘mulatto’ daughter of a local official.

I do not know whether Mary mentioned to you Mrs: Young. She is a natural daughter of Dr: Anderson very dark but extremely pretty – she was educated by Lady Dalling & bred up in her family – she is extremely clever & very good indeed she is a very sweet creature whom you must love – her voice & manner are just like Nancy Green, she is precisely such a Brillortan [?] as Lizzy Thoburn & just as innocent & pleasant I have no friend with whom I am a hundredth part so intimate.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her sister Hester James, August 24, 1805