WHAT LIFE WAS REALLY LIKE IN BRITISH INDIA
BY BECKI ROBINS/UPDATED
JUNE 4, 2021
There are a few things we can all mostly agree on, and one of those things is colonialism. Colonialism was bad, and we all know it, with the possible exception of like 59 per cent of the population of Britain, but never mind. Most people who take the time to look at the history of colonialism and its impact on the countries and cultures where it was practised will arrive at the same ugly conclusion: With a few minor exceptions, people suffered under British rule. They were starved, stolen from, denied justice … but hey, they did learn how to appreciate shepherd’s pie and toad in the hole, so, perks.
India was ruled by the British for 200 years — first by the private East India Company, and then by the British government after the East India Company was finally abolished. So if you want a textbook example of the great experiment of colonialism, well, here’s what life was really like in colonial British India.
POVERTY IN INDIA SKYROCKETED UNDER THE BRITISH
Taurines Studio – Wikipedia
Poverty existed in India before the British, thanks in part to constant war, food shortages, and the caste system, but in general Indian society took care of everyone. According to Indian Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, India was once one of the wealthiest countries in the world — and then the British showed up. “The British came to one of the richest countries in the world,” he said during the launch of his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, “a country which had 23 per cent of global GDP … a country where poverty was unknown.” While that last bit is an exaggeration, the British certainly took poverty from a small problem to a national crisis.
The British didn’t implement any policy or introduce any technology with the express purpose of helping Indians — everything they did was for the sake of enriching the British, and that meant two centuries of exploitation and looting, both the metaphorical kind and the actual kind. “This country was reduced to one of the poorest countries in the world by the time the British left in 1947,” Tharoor said. So in conclusion, colonialism stank for nearly everyone except the British. End.
WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE FOR WOMEN IN BRITISH INDIA
Mennonite Church USA – Wikipedia
Okay so colonialism stank and it benefited very few Indians, and as much as we’d like to be able to put that to bed so we don’t have to argue about it, it would be wrong to not acknowledge the few small improvements that happened under British rule.
India’s two dominant religions had not-very-liberated ideas about women’s rights. In both traditions, women were secondary to their husbands. In the Hindu religion, they existed only to procreate and provide company for men, and in the Islamic tradition, men were allowed to hit their wives or ditch them if they got bored with them. Female infanticide was common, and so was child marriage.
When the British Crown took over the government from the East India Company in 1858, Queen Victoria proclaimed the British would not interfere in Indian customs. But by 1870, the British had decided to act against female infanticide, and a bill was passed banning the practice✎ EditSign. Many British were also critical of child marriage and supportive of equal education for men and women. According to The Huffington Post, the British also translated and made widely available some of the old Hindu texts, which were generally a lot more supportive of women’s rights — and that filtered back down into Hindu society, which ultimately resulted in more autonomy and liberty for Hindu women. So it was not all terrible things done by the British. Just mostly terrible things.
ALSO THERE WAS THE WHOLE NOT HAVING TO THROW YOURSELF ON A FUNERAL PYRE THING
Widowed women in “upper caste” Hindu families got a huge boost in their standard of living under British rule in that they got to, you know, live. Before the arrival of the British, it was a common practice for a woman to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband — in fact, it was actually expected and many women did it willingly, mostly because women who didn’t participate spent the rest of their lives living in shame and humiliation.
The roots of this awful practice were mostly financial. A wife stood to inherit her husband’s possessions after his death, but if she was no longer alive, then his possessions would go to his male family members. So it was in the interests of his male family members for her to burn to death alongside her husband’s corpse. Nice.
According to The Huffington Post, an activist named Raja Ram Mohan Roy vigorously worked to end the practice of “widow immolation,” but he got help from the British, especially from Christian missionaries and Sir John Malcolm, the governor of the Bombay Presidency. In 1829, the practice of widow immolation was banned, although 10 years later religious protesters convinced authorities to add an amendment distinguishing between “voluntary” and “forceful” immolation (“voluntary” was evidently a-okay). By 1861, though, Queen Victoria had issued a general ban on the practice and that was the official end of the horrible tradition.
OUR CHARTER SCHOOL IS BETTER THAN YOURS
Before the arrival of the British, the Indians did have two educational systems already in place — one for the Hindus, and the other for the Muslims. According to Nauman Tahir’s paper The Aims and Objectives of Missionary Education in the Colonial Era in India, both indigenous systems were focused more on spiritual and classical education rather than practical education, and the schools were only for boys (girls were often educated at home).
When the East India Company took over Bengal in 1765, it decided against promoting education among the people of India, and it wasn’t until its Indian officers urged it to reconsider that it rolled its eyes and did a couple of not-very-enthusiastic things in the name of public education. Mostly, it set up language schools, but even that was self-serving — it was in the interests of the East India Company for Indians to be schooled in the local dialects. It wasn’t until the Charter Act of 1813 that there was a specific plan in place and an acknowledgement of the Indian peoples’ right to education.
From there, we can argue about whether the indigenous systems or the Western ones were superior, and whether Indian children benefited more from one than the other. It’s certainly a little paternalistic to say the indigenous system needed to be replaced; on the other hand, it’s probably true Western-style education gave Indian kids opportunities they wouldn’t have had under the old systems.
IT WAS HIS FAULT YOU MURDERED HIM
The British also brought their system of justice to India, and it may be worked reasonably well when it was evaluating cases of Indian on Indian crime. But whenever the British controlled justice system saw a case involving an Indian versus a British citizen, the courts tended to always favour the British citizen. How surprising.
According to The Guardian, a case involving a British perpetrator and an Indian victim would nearly always be decided in favour of the British perpetrator. The murder of an Indian by a British person would always be ruled an accident, but in the reverse scenario, it was always a capital crime. The courts would also find new and creative ways to deflect blame — for example, if an Englishman kicked an Indian in the abdomen and the Indian died from a ruptured spleen, it wasn’t the Englishman’s fault because the Indian clearly had an enlarged spleen as a result of malaria infection. And the sentencing was pretty disproportionately unfair, too. A white man convicted of killing his Indian servant (on those rare occasions when he did get convicted) might serve six months. In fact, during the many years of British rule, thousands of Indians were murdered by British colonists, but only three white men were ever executed for killing Indians. But hey, give credit where it’s due, it could have been zero white men (sarcasm).
LIFE EXPECTANCY IN BRITISH INDIA WAS ABYSMAL
If you want to gauge the overall health of a community, life expectancy is a useful tool. Generally speaking, when life expectancy goes down, there is something seriously wrong within that community. And when the British took over India, life expectancy for the average Indian didn’t just go down, it dropped by 20 per cent all the way down to 32 years. Just put that into perspective, life expectancy for the average American today is around 79 years. If there was a sudden drop as bad in modern America as it was in British India, people would suddenly barely be living into their 60s, rather than looking forward to making it to 80.
According to the Conversation, under the British Raj — which is the term used to describe the post-East India Company era between 1872 and 1921 — life expectancy for Indians dropped but honestly, it wasn’t that great during the reign of the East India Company, either. After India finally achieved independence, average life expectancy went skyrocketing up, far surpassing anything enjoyed under the British Raj or the East India Company. Today, Indians can expect to live about 27 years longer than they did under British rule. So yeah, something was seriously wrong in British India.
INDIA’S CASTE SYSTEM STILL SUCKS, THOUGH THE BRITISH KIND OF IMPROVED IT
Just about every country has some kind of class system — in the United States it’s based solely on economics, and we only talk about three different classes: lower, middle, and upper-income. But India’s system is a class system gone totally haywire, and by the way, it still exists and has existed for more than 3,000 years.
According to the BBC, in the caste system, people are divided into hierarchical groups based on the kind of work they do. There are four main groups: The Brahmins, who are the teachers and intellectuals, the Kshatriyas, who are the rulers and warriors, the Vaishyas, or traders, and the Shudras, who do all the menial jobs. But those four castes are further divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, and then there’s a final group: The Dalits or “untouchables,” who don’t belong in any caste. Also, there’s no way to escape your own caste-like ever, so there’s that.
The British mostly strengthened the caste system, but they also disagreed with the treatment of the lower castes and the untouchables, and many of those people became educated and actually accumulated wealth under British rule. Some were even able to pass as members of the higher castes. Still, you really only saw an improvement in your life if you were able to become educated and wealthy — the poor still suffered under the forced segregation of the caste system.
THERE WERE 31 DEVASTATING FAMINES IN INDIA UNDER BRITISH RULE
Illustrated London News – Wikipedia
Even today, you’ll hear people say famine is an act of God or nature, something no one can control or fix until nature finally decides to undo it. But is that’s an overly simplistic, dismissive, and frankly not very insightful assessment of the complex set of circumstances that have to come together in order for a famine to occur?
According to YourStory, in the 2,000 years before the British arrived in India, there were 17 famines, which equals roughly one every 118 years or so. In 120 years of British rule, there were 31, which is closer to one every four years. So there has to be some causative association between British rule and all those extra famines, and you don’t really have to dig very deep to find out what it is.
The British occupied India for one reason and one reason alone: economic gain. Before the arrival of the British, Indian farmers had been growing mostly food crops like rice and vegetables, but rice and vegetables aren’t terribly profitable as far as exports go, so the British started compelling farmers to grow higher-value crops like poppy and indigo. But here’s the problem — you can’t put your surplus of poppy and indigo in your basement to fall back on during a not very fruitful season. So when an especially dry season happened and crops failed, starvation set in almost immediately and many Indians weren’t able to ride it out.
THEY ALSO RAISED TAXES … TO RECOUP THEIR OWN LOSSES DURING THE FAMINES
George Percy Jacomb-Hood – Wikipedia
The Indians were already dying because they had no food stores to see them through hard times, but as they were dying the British were banging down the front door demanding their taxes. Before British rule, Indian leaders charged between 10 to 15 per cent of each peasant’s cash harvest, and they would usually waive the people’s taxes during times of famine.
According to YourStory, the British were not nearly so sentimental. When they took over control of the government, they raised taxes to a whopping 50 per cent, which means even if the peasants were growing food crops there wouldn’t have been much left after taxes to put in a storeroom for later. Then the dry weather and crop failures happened, people started dying, and the British said to themselves, “Hmm, how can we improve things for these farmers?” Just kidding. Actually, they said to themselves, “Hmm, how can we recoup some of our own losses from all of these dead farmers?” So they raised taxes from 50 per cent to 60 per cent. And during famine years, the British kept on flourishing while people all over the nation they were supposed to be protecting starved to death in their homes. Tell us again how colonialism wasn’t so bad.
THE RAILROAD WAS REALLY NOT A GREAT THING FOR INDIA
People who argue in favour of colonialism (and yes there really are people who still say colonialism was a good thing), will frequently cite infrastructure as something great the British did for India. One often-cited example is the introduction of the railroad, and yeah, there probably are instances where access to high-speed travel was advantageous for the locals. You can reach hospitals faster, for example, and you can move products from one place to another much more efficiently, thus expanding your customer base. That is, if the British aren’t just taking all of your product and selling it to their own customer base.
But making life easier for the people of India is not even the reason why Britain introduced the railroad. The main motivation for bringing that particular technology to the Indian subcontinent was so the British could efficiently move troops from one place to another, which made it easier for them to put down small rebellions and to control the local people in general. Also, the railroad allowed them to easily transport food out of farming regions, which they did during times of plenty and also during times of famine. In fact, according to The Conversation, mortality rates during the famines of 1876 and 1896 were highest in regions served by the railroad. So, yeah.
DIVIDE AND RULE
Take a note, America. Unified people are a lot more difficult to rule than people who are divided. The British could not have conquered half the known universe if they didn’t understand that simple fact. And it was actually policy during British rule to sow dissent between the two primary religious groups in India — the Hindus and Muslims. Because if you can promote fighting amongst the people, then the people will be distracted by their imagined enemy, and not so concerned about you anymore. Also, divided people aren’t in much danger of banding together to take you down, so you can safely rule them while mostly not doing the things that make the citizens of other nations respect and appreciate their leaders.
Britain’s policy of dividing the nation even had a name: It was called “divide and rule,” and it worked rather excellently for most of the time the British were in power. According to The Guardian, in the early days, the British deliberately created antagonism between Indian princes, and later they used the caste system to further divide the population and create a sense of disharmony in the indigenous population. Most of all, though, they nurtured the division between Hindus and Muslims, and that division is one of Britain’s lasting legacies. When Britain finally pulled out of India in 1947, it left behind a populace who still, for the most part, couldn’t set aside the differences Britain had worked so hard to promote.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THE DEMOCRACY?
Democracy wasn’t a thing in India before the British, and people who pine for the days of colonialism are pretty sure that’s evidence the British did a lot of good while they were controlling India. Okay, but The Guardian says the facts don’t really bear that out — the colonizers actually worked to undermine Indian politics and destroy any institution that might have otherwise resembled democracy. The British controlled everything, from tax collection to the justice system, and the Indians really didn’t get a say in any of it.
When the British Raj took over from the East India Company, they threw a couple of crumbs to the indigenous population — a select few educated, upper-class Indians got to sit on a “legislative council,” but those were not elected positions and the people who held them had no real power.
By 1920, Indian councils finally had elected representatives, but the people who were permitted to vote in those elections were members of a tiny, elite group — in fact the Guardian says only about one in 250 Indians had voting rights. Also, the Indian representatives only got to vote on stuff the British didn’t care about, you know, like health care and education. The British were still in charge of the important things, like collecting taxes and making sure colonists got away with their crimes. So yeah, if that was democracy, well, there’s a great democracy in North Korea we’d like to tell you about, too.
THE MESSED UP TRUTH ABOUT THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
BY BECKI ROBINS/UPDATED: DEC. 16, 2020
Clap if you trust big corporations. Do you hear the sound of crickets? No one trusts big corporations. Big corporations are in it for their stockholders and their CEO, and ultimately, they don’t really give a large rodent’s backside about their customers or anyone they trample on the way to lining their own pockets. Harsh words, yes. But the truth hurts.
After all, big corporations have sold addictive, cancer-causing sticks of doom to little kids and built dangerous, toxic factories in a poor, downtrodden neighbourhood… and it gets even worse. For a historical example of just how evil a big company can be, we only have to go back a few hundred years to the East India Company’s reign of terror. You remember those guys — they were the ones tormenting Captain Jack Sparrow in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But it should go without saying that their real-life behaviour was even worse than what we saw in theatres.
The East India Company, both on and off-screen, is pretty much the poster child of an evil corporation. Just how evil? Well, here’s the messed up truth about this notorious organization.
IT STARTED AS A SIMPLE TRADING ENTERPRISE
The East India Company had innocent beginnings. Sort of. It started out as a small, private collection of merchants who were looking to trade spices in Indonesia because, in those days, British food was super bland, and they really, really needed something to make it taste better (or really, to taste like anything at all). Wait, who are we kidding? Millions of dead people later, British food is still super bland, and that somehow makes the whole history of the East India Company so much worse.
Anyway, according to ThoughtCo, the Company was first chartered by Queen Elizabeth I, and the ships set sail in 1601 for the Spice Islands. When the Company got there, the Dutch and the Portuguese were all, “Nope, we got here first,” and so the merchants figured they’d maybe just go to India instead. And India was all, “Crap.”
Well, not at first. At first, the merchants set up outposts and started trading English wool and silver for silk, sugar, tea, cotton, and opium, because of course opium. There was some pretty valuable stuff moving in and out of those outposts, so it wasn’t long before the merchants realized they needed to hire people to help protect the outposts from thieves and various other forms of angry people. That’s how a simple trading operation turned into, well, the thing it turned into.
FOR 20 YEARS, THE OPERATION WAS RUN OUT OF SOME DUDE’S HOUSE
Not unlike most major Silicon Valley tech companies, in the beginning, the East India Company was run almost entirely out of some dude’s house with only six employees on staff. History doesn’t seem to remember if the employees had a ping pong table, worked 18 hours a day, and were paid next to nothing on the promise of stock options that never materialized, but it does seem like kind of a risky enterprise for those first six people, who were trying to run a business located halfway across the globe during a time without Skype, the Internet, or phones of any kind. Still, for 20 years, that’s exactly what they did. According to Britannica, by 1700 — 100 years after it was first established — the East India Company had grown its London staff to 35 and had moved into a small office in the English capital. By 1785, the permanent staff in its home office had risen to 159.
Take just a moment to internalize that. The East India Company was a corporation that was ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and it was managed from far, far away by no more than 159 people. Evil comes in strange disguises.
THE EAST INDIA COMPANY STARTS CAUSING TROUBLE
Written into the East India Company’s charter was a provision that allowed it to mint its own money (pictured above), acquire territory, build forts and castles, raise armies, and “wage war” if it was in the interests of Britain and the Company. And naturally, that was all deemed to be in the interests of Britain and the Company, so it’s not like its officers were especially shy about using the tools that the crown had given them.
According to History Today, in the early days of the Company, India was ruled by the Mughals, a fabulously wealthy dynasty that was open to trade but had all these pesky ideas about taxation, trading with non-Company traders, and you know, having authority in their own lands. So in 1686, the company got permission from James II to sail 19 ships from London to India and show the Mughals who was boss. They ended up stuck in a four-year war that ended with an embarrassing defeat. The fleet was scattered, officers and soldiers were taken prisoner, and an army of Mughal soldiers large enough “to have eaten up all the Company’s soldiers for breakfast” poured into the Company’s Bombay fort. But then, inexplicably, the Mughals decided to let the British stay in India because, you know, they were subdued now and might one day become allies. Ha.
THE EAST INDIA COMPANY TAKES OVER INDIA
One of Britain’s greatest assets has always been its stick-to-itiveness. The British have never really given up easily, which is how they managed to win the Battle of Agincourt against at least 20,000 well-rested French soldiers with only around 6,000 exhausted, hungry, and sick archers. Back in the day, they also didn’t seem to have any real sense of honour when it came to people who were not, you know, British, or at least white European. And when you’ve got no honour, that means you don’t fight fair.
After defeating the East India Company in a four-year war, the Mughals (pictured above) let the East India Company stay in the country, which the East India Company clearly just thought was permission to try and take over. According to The Guardian, the East India Company decided to conquer India in the mid-1700s, and by 1803, it had pretty much done that. Its first act was the subjugation of Mughal emperor Shah Alam in 1765, who after his defeat was forced to dismiss all of his revenue officials in India’s major trading cities and replace them with English dudes. Oh, and from that moment on, Mughal taxes would be collected by the East India Company, too — fairly and honourably, of course. (Note the sarcasm.)
AND YOU THOUGHT TODAY’S CORPORATIONS HAD WAY TOO MUCH POWER …
Just imagine for a moment what it would be like if Amazon took over the entire Western Hemisphere. Oh, wait. Amazon has already taken over the entire Western Hemisphere, so maybe that’s a bad example. Okay, imagine if Pottery Barn came along and said, “We’re running things now,” and then they kicked everyone out of the Senate and the Supreme Court, and when you paid your taxes every year you had to write a check out to “Pottery Barn” instead of the Internal Revenue Service. Now, imagine if they staffed Pottery Barn with slaves, raised an army, and used it to conquer every Crate & Barrel, IKEA, and Restoration Hardware in the continental United States. Plus, picture this Pottery Barn army killing people for shopping at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
According to The Guardian, that’s what happened after Shah Alam handed over control of India’s revenue to the East India Company. A few years later, roughly 250 East India Company clerks controlled an army of 20,000 and were basically the country’s ruling party. And like any good colonial power, they existed solely to accumulate wealth and territory. By 1803, the Company controlled most of India, and the crazy part is that the British crown wasn’t behind any of it. The Company was a small, unregulated corporation in London run by Robert Clive, a man The Guardian calls “an unstable sociopath.”
BRITAIN STILL HAS A WHOLE LOT OF INDIAN TREASURE
According to The Guardian, Powis Castle is a 13th-century fort in Wales that today serves as a home for the British Empire’s plundered treasure. Okay, there’s some other stuff there, too, like Roman artefacts, artwork from all over Europe, and some British objects, but the castle also houses a large portion of the loot that the East India Company collected during the 18th century. Evidently, there are more Mughal artefacts in this one Welsh castle than there are in the National Museum of Delhi, which should give you a pretty good idea of the extent of the theft perpetrated by the company.
The loot includes jewelled daggers, handfuls of rubies and emeralds, jade and ivory ornaments, silk wall hangings, and statues of Hindu gods. And really, while there’s no real justification for stealing cultural treasures from a foreign nation, the nauseating thing about this collection is that most of it were plundered and then brought back to Britain mostly just so the plunderers could show off how fabulously wealthy they became while engaging in plundering on behalf of the East India Company. And for some reason, no one has actually thought they should maybe give the stuff back.
THE EAST INDIA COMPANY HAD A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF POWER
By 1803, the East India Company’s conquest of India was pretty much complete. Their army had grown to a massive at 260,000 soldiers, and just for comparison, the size of the United States Army at around the same time was 12,000 men, so yeah. Even if you add in the 5,000 Navy seamen and 1,000 marines the U.S. also had around the same time period, the difference between the size of the American military and the size of the military-controlled by a small, private London-based firm was pretty astonishing.
Throughout all of this, the British Crown remained more or less separate from the East India Company. According to The Guardian, Britain spent loads of money protecting the Company’s interests in India, but the Company was still able to argue in favour of its continued legal separation from the British government, mostly because there were plenty of people within the British government who owned stock in the Company, and therefore had a vested interest in making sure that the East India Company could keep doing its thing.
THEY ENGINEERED THE WORST FAMINE IN INDIAN HISTORY
Kalyani Bhattacharjee / Wikimedia Commons
Really, the only way a colonial power can justify moving into a foreign nation, setting up a new government, and claiming all of the local riches as your own is if systemic racism is basically the foundation of your entire enterprise. In other words, colonialism isn’t possible unless you somehow convince yourself and others that the people you’re conquering are lesser than you … or that they aren’t really people at all. After you’ve done that, any atrocity becomes possible.
According to YourStory, famine was not unheard of in India before British rule, but indigenous leaders actually cared about what happened to their people and, you know, did something about it. The East India Company was above that. In fact, the famines that happened under their rule were engineered by their own greed. They forced farmers to grow inedible, high-value crops like indigo and poppy, but the surplus couldn’t be set aside for hard times because it wasn’t the sort of thing you could feed your family on. The Company was also charging farming peasants a whopping 50 per cent of their cash harvest, and after a bunch of peasants died, they raised the taxes to 60 per cent to help recover some of the loss of taxation from all those dead peasants. A staggering 10 million people died, but the East India Company had a banner year with higher profits than it had had in previous years, so hey, what’s a few million dead babies compared to that?
THEY WERE DRUG LORDS
The East India Company conquered a whole country and killed millions of people. So really, the only way the Company could’ve been much worse is if it was also selling drugs. Hey, guess what? The East India Company was also selling drugs. In fact, it wouldn’t really be off-base to say they were drug lords. According to Sanskriti Magazine, the East India Company saw the economic opportunity in selling opium, and it really didn’t matter to them if there were any moral or ethical problems with it, because profits are more important than people. Sound familiar? (Cough, cough, big tobacco, cough, cough.)
Long after China banned opium smoking and categorized the sale of opium as a crime equivalent to robbery and instigation to murder, British India was taking charge of the opium trade and actively trying to grow the industry. Believe it or not, the East India Company was so incensed by the audacity of China wanting to protect its people from a dangerous, addictive substance that it waged war on China three times, all over the “right” to sell opium on Chinese territory. By the end of the First Opium War, the Company had not only secured the right to sell opium in five Chinese ports, it had also destroyed much of the coast of China and forced the Chinese to pay $15 million in restitution to British merchants. Britain also got to keep Hong Kong.
THEY WERE SLAVERS
You’ll be shocked to hear that the East India Company traded in slaves. Actually, you probably weren’t shocked to hear that because you’re probably so numb already to the East India Company’s crimes that you probably didn’t even blink when you read that. Yes, the East India Company also traded in slaves. Because when you’re already morally corrupt to the depths of your icy black soul, what’s a little extra human suffering in the grand scheme of things.
According to Counterpunch, the East India Company trafficked slaves from both Western and Eastern Africa for export to its settlements in India, Africa, and parts of Asia. By the 1730s, it was engaged in large-scale transportation of slaves, which continued into the 1750s and 1770s. It also dealt in “indentured servants,” who were really just slaves with politically correct labels. The Company recruited impoverished Europeans to work for them, and the deal usually went like this: Spend four to seven years as the legal property of a rich person in an East India Company settlement in exchange for free transportation across the Atlantic. Um, where do we sign up? That really doesn’t sound like an awesome deal, frankly, but it must’ve worked for the EIC.
AT LEAST WE HAVE TEA AND CHUTNEY
Now, a couple of centuries later, we can look back at the history of the East India Company with the benefit of modern wisdom. We can ask ourselves how this could’ve possibly been allowed to happen, and we can examine the cultural scaffolding on which the East India Company was built. We can also look for some silver lining, no matter how small, just so we don’t have to completely accept the horrible awfulness of it.
So did any good come out of it? Well, according to the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum, Britain now has afternoon tea. And mango chutney. Yes, those appear to be some of the primary reasons why millions of people had to die. Now, it’s true that mango chutney is delicious, and tea is pretty much the sun around which the entire British solar system revolves. So it’s not like there isn’t any value to those things, but you know, you can get tea and mango chutney in Canada, too, and Canada never had to take over a whole country and starve a bunch of people to death in order to obtain those particular imports.
Those things probably would’ve found their way into British culture eventually, anyway. If they hadn’t, coffee is a pretty fine substitute for tea. And granted, there’s really nothing quite like a dollop of mango chutney on a papadum, but still, even that’s not worth the lives of millions of people.
THE END FINALLY COMES FOR THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
Most murderous psychopaths eventually attract the attention of some authority figure or another, and eventually, that authority figure goes, “Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t let that guy continue to be a murderous psychopath.” By the 1850s, India was pretty collectively sick of the East India Company, and in 1857, there was an uprising. Around 80 per cent of the Company’s own Indian troops turned on it, killing British soldiers, civilians, and Indians who were loyal to the British.
By then, the East India Company was so sure of their own God-given right to subdue and plunder the nation of India that they thought nothing of both putting down the uprising and then murdering a bunch of people in retaliation. According to Historic UK, the Company killed thousands of combatants and civilians who sympathized with the rebels. Finally, the British government stopped looking the other way and said, “That’s crossing a line,” and you know it’s a pretty big line if it’s enough to make colonial Britain squeamish. In 1858, the Crown abolished the East India Company. It didn’t actually give India its independence or anything, though. The country remained under British rule for another 89 years.
MESSED UP THINGS THAT HAPPENED DURING COLONIAL TIMES
BY DEBRA KELLY/UPDATED: DEC. 30, 2020 6:04 PM EDT
It’s possible you weren’t taught much about colonial America in school, and that’s a shame. We get it, schools have a lot to cover. But taking the time to wade into what was going on in North America before the USA is important. Partly because it’s a fascinating look at where our roots are, and partly because there was some seriously messed up stuff going on.
The winter of 1609 was bad. The Smithsonian says it was called the Starving Time. So really, really bad. We know how bad they were because of survivor George Percy. He wrote that when there were no more horses, rats, cats, and dogs, the living started looking at the dead with less sorrow and more hunger. Percy wrote about people who dug up graves they’d just filled in, eating the flesh of the dead and even drinking blood from people who still lived but were too weak to protest.
Yikes. There were others who wrote about the Jamestown colonists and the extreme steps they took to survive, but it wasn’t until 2012 we found physical proof to support the writings. Archaeologists called her Jane and reconstructed her fate after finding her partial skull buried alongside the bones of butchered horses and dogs. Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley — who has worked cases like Jeffrey Dahmer’s — says she was around 14 years old and probably died of natural causes before starving colonists ate her brain (which decomposes quickly), tongue, face meat, and leg muscles. Cut marks on her skull suggest she was initially butchered by someone who hesitated in the act, while her legs bore more skilled, almost professional cuts. You know what they say about desperate times.
THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF COLONIAL MEDICINE
Historian Martha K. Robinson says there were no facilities for training new doctors in the colonies until 1765 when the Medical Department of the College of Philadelphia finally did open its lecture halls. Then, they were training doctors based on two current European theories. William Cullen surmised illness usually came from some kind of contagion, and kudos to him for being on the right track. Not everyone agreed, though, and Herman Boerhaave’s school of thinking basically said there were two forces at work in the human body: solids and fluids. Keep them in balance and the person would be healthy.
That’s a bad idea, but strangely, treatment options were pretty standard no matter what your doctor was taught. They still believed that treatment with the most visible effect on a patient was the most effective. What’s that mean? Whatever knocked people out the fastest or gave people the most violent vomit or the most explosive diarrhoea was clearly the most effective because they were getting rid of the corruption assailing them. No one likes going to the doctor, but at least today you can be pretty sure they’re not just going to give you something to make you sweat, run, and vomit as violently as possible.
THE WITCH HUNTS OF HARTFORD
Before Salem, there was Hartford. In 1642, Connecticut made witchcraft an offence that could get someone the death penalty, and Connecticut History says it only took a few years before that’s exactly what happened. Also Young was hanged for witchcraft in 1647, at the same time Mary Johnson was having her own confession whipped out of her. She confessed to witchcraft and was hanged later, her life only prolonged by her pregnancy.
We’re not actually sure how many people were accused of witchcraft because records are iffy, but we’re pretty sure 11 — including two men — were hanged. Others fled or were banished, according to Time, and it had to be terrifying. It only took a single witness to put someone on trial and get a guilty verdict. Could just be one person who doesn’t like you! One woman was sentenced to death after being accused of practising witchcraft that made one of her neighbours shoot another man, which seems at least a little shady. It wasn’t until 1662 that authorities slowed down and rethought what they were accepted as evidence in these trials. That included determining whether or not witnesses had something to gain from their accusations. It didn’t fix everything, but it was a step in the right direction.
THE PEQUOT MASSACRE
Never heard of the Pequot massacre? Let’s change that. In the 1630s, Puritan settlers were fighting the local Pequot people over a patch of land in what’s now southern Connecticut. The war lasted three years, and until May 26, 1637, it looked like the Puritans were going to be driven off the land they were trying to take. But that was the day they swarmed Mystic Fort and killed around 500 men, women, and children.
University of Connecticut anthropologist Kevin McBride (via Indian Country Today) says there’s no question this particular episode in history can be called a massacre, adding it was the first of three similar incidents that would go on to shape relations between Puritan settlers and native peoples. Despite having 70 well-armed English soldiers and 250 others on their side, the Puritans almost lost. Until that is, they trapped the Pequot inside their fort. According to Battlefields of the Pequot War, English attackers initially tried to enter the fort but lost about half their number. So they played dirty. They set the whole thing on fire and killed anyone trying to flee the flames. After the attack, Pequot in other villages throughout their ancestral territory fled to other tribes for safety but was pursued by the relentless march of the English. Two more villages were completely destroyed, and it helped set the tone for decades of future conflict.
THE PHIPS PROCLAMATION
There’s still a strange tendency for people to think there’s nothing uncomfortable or racist about calling a sports team the “Redskins,” so let’s take a look at where the term actually comes from and why it’s not cool.
In 1755, the Massachusetts government-issued something called the Phips Proclamation. It was essentially a massive bounty letter and promised enterprising, bloodthirsty individuals they would be paid well for any Penobscot brought to them, either in chains or in pieces. The highest bounties were paid for men taken to Boston — alive — but if that was too much work, they’d also pay for scalps. And that’s the scalps of any person, any age. If you were to, say, scalp a pair of toddlers, you’d walk away with a cool 40 pounds.
No one really needs to spell out why that’s messed up, right? Those scalps were called “redskins,” which puts cheering for your Redskins at a Friday night game under the lights in a whole new light. Baxter Holmes in Esquire about what the term still means today: “It represents a trophy of war — the bloodied scalp of a murdered Native American, slaughtered for money, the amount dependent on whether it was a man, woman, or child.” It goes back to colonial America and Spencer Phips, and you can call him what you like.
AN 82-YEAR FAMILY FEUD CREATES THE MASON-DIXON LINE
You’ve heard of the Mason-Dixon line, and you probably know it as the border between the north and the south. You might also think it’s pretty unnecessary because we already have all kinds of other borders we can use. Why this one? Because of an 82-year family feud.
According to the Maryland Historical Society, it started when England’s king gave William Penn II the go-ahead to just lay claim to everything between Maryland and New York. That 1681 order is pretty vague, and you can see the problem already. Things got ugly, surveys weren’t completed, and mediations and conferences didn’t help. Finally, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were summoned all the way from the Royal Observatory in England to put the whole thing to rest.
In the meantime, the Smithsonian says there was a whole lot of hate going around. There was never any outright war, but there was plenty of border skirmishing, arson, and (occasionally) murder. When the two territories signed a peace treaty in 1738, they agreed there wouldn’t be any more “Tumults Riots or other Outrageous Disorders to be committed,” but it was still another 12 years before the border was legalized, and a further 17 years until the Pennsylvania Penns and the Maryland Calverts agreed on the Mason-Dixon line, all of which makes your angry neighbours look like amateurs.
THE NEAR-SINKING OF THE MAYFLOWER AND THE FIRST SETTLER MURDERER
Some folks have an idealized vision of those people who first came to the New World on the Mayflower, and we tend to think of them as the devout sort who spent the journey alternately praying and being kind to their neighbours. That definitely wasn’t the case for all of them. Let’s talk about John Billington and his family.
First off, his sons were kind of jerks. According to Mental Floss, the Billingtons were fleeing to the New World to escape some serious debts he’d run up in England, and thanks to the Billington kids, the ship almost didn’t make it. At one point, one of the boys decided it was a brilliant idea to play with dad’s gun and fire it below decks in a cabin full of people and barrels of gunpowder.
Once they landed, it became clear where they’d learned their manners from. John Billington not only refused the mandatory bit of military service but started spouting anti-establishment propaganda while plotting to overthrow the new colony’s leaders. For whatever reason, he was allowed to continue his hate-talk, and it wasn’t until 1630 he got into an argument with a new settler and shot him. As you do. The man, John Newcomen, died from infection and Billington had the dubious honour of being hanged as the first settler murderer.
THE REVENGE OF HANNAH DUSTON
Junius Brutus Stearns, US Public Domain
We’ll tell the whole story here and let you make your own decisions about how heroic Hannah Duston was because 99% Invisible isn’t sure. Duston lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1697, and she had just given birth to a daughter when her little settlement was attacked by a group of Abenaki. Duston, her baby, and maid Mary Neff were taken and marched north. Historic Ipswich adds a horrifying but important detail: When the baby slowed them down, she was smashed against a tree and killed.
Everyone can agree no mother should ever have to go through something like this. It’s no wonder Duston had some serious rage, and when the raiding party and their captives stopped for an overnight rest in New Hampshire, she got her revenge. Duston, Neff, and a boy named Samuel killed the entire group as they slept. Knowing no one would believe them without proof, they scalped them, too.
That included six children. Duston made it back home and went on to tell her tale to the minister Cotton Mather. He ensured it was recorded for history, and it’s been memorialized in weird ways. There’s a nursing home named after her, bobbleheads in her likeness, and there’s a statue to her in Boscawen, New Hampshire. Yes, her statue is holding scalps. Discuss.
THE DEAD TEENAGER’S UNMARKED GRAVE
When archaeologists working in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, uncovered the skeleton of a teenage boy, they uncovered a murder case, too. The details they have discovered — thanks in large part to forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley — paint a grim picture of colonial life.
The boy was found buried with fireplace ash, animal bones, and a milk pan that was probably used to dig his grave. Only about 15 years old, his spine already showed serious damage from a life of hard labour and his teeth were just as bad. His wrist was broken, likely warding off blows that ultimately killed him. Add in his secret burial, and the Smithsonian says he was likely one of the countless indentured servants who went to the New World hoping to find a better life but found the opposite.
He was killed and buried between 1665 and 1675, and that was the same time laws were being passed forbidding private burials of servants just like him. The deaths of servants and the secret burials were happening so often there were finally laws being put in place to prevent exactly this kind of violence, abuse, and murder, too late for this teen.
POPULATING THE COLONIES WITH UNWILLING PEOPLE
Not everyone who ended up in the New World went there looking for a better life, and not everyone went of their own accord. We’ve all heard that Britain used Australia as a massive penal colony, and guess what? They did the same thing in colonial America, and according to Gizmodo, around 52,000 convicts were shipped across the Atlantic.
That includes people convicted of a whole host of crimes, from felonies to women who were out in public after 10 p.m. (Seriously.) There were so many that in 1670, Virginia tried to pass a law forbidding entry to any British convict, but the king was having none of that upstart nonsense and overturned the law. Pennsylvania tried, too, with similar results.
Now, let’s talk even more messed up. Britain also saw the colonies as the perfect way to get rid of all the orphans and urchins who were clogging city streets. Ship them overseas, too! The National Museums Liverpool says the first group was sent in 1619 when 100 little tykes were rounded up off the streets and sent to live in Jamestown. Another hundred were sent to Virginia in 1622 when a settlement was in need of more people to make up for numbers lost in a major massacre. Can things always go from bad to worse? Easily.
COLONIAL GERM WARFARE
People have a long history of being generally horrible to each other, but every so often an obscure piece of history resurfaces that simply serves as a reminder of the depths humans will sink to. One of those low points happened in 1763, when Native Americans laid siege to the British settlement around Fort Pitt. The British retreated into the fort, and things were looking dire.
Historians from Colonial Williamsburg say it got dark real fast (morally, not optically) when two Native American representatives approached the fort to appeal for an end to the fight. The Brits refused, but Sir Jeffery Amherst did give the representatives a parting gift, hoping to thin the ranks. One local trader described the incident in his journal, writing, “We gave them two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”
This was probably not the only time colonists passed along a gift of blankets infected with smallpox, and it did some serious damage. Historians have tentatively linked an outbreak of smallpox in the Ohio Valley with Amherst’s “gift,” and it’s impossible to tell just how many people died. What happened to Amherst? His name was immortalized in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts (via UMass), even though locals wanted to name the town “Norwottuck,” after the area’s original inhabitants.
POISONED PEACE TALKS
Everyone knows the story of Pocahontas. She married John Rolfe in 1614, and the marriage brought peace … short-lived peace. Most stories stop there, but the National Park Service recounts what happened after her father’s death in 1618. They got a new chief — Opechancanough — and peace was shattered in 1622 when he organized an attack on the Jamestown area that left around a quarter of the colonists dead.
Reinforcements were called, raids continued, and Opechancanough eventually decided it was time to start the peace talks. He met with Jamestown representatives Dr John Potts and Captain William Tucker, and they gave the Native Americans an offering of wine.
Nice enough gesture, right? Not really. They had poisoned the wine, and it ended up killing around 200 people. The Jamestown colonists took the opportunity to attack and killed about 50 more, and there’s just no turning back from something like that. The following conflict lasted for a decade, which makes losers out of everyone.
THE SHOCKING NUMBER OF ‘MELANCHOLY ACCIDENTS’
It’s tough to think of America’s founding fathers and their immediate ancestors as anything but the responsible sort of people who had their acts together enough to be able to deal with any kind of hardship. But historian Peter Manseau (via the Smithsonian) found something strange when he started digging through colonial news reports: They weren’t that responsible after all.
Manseau was working on something completely different when he noticed there were a ton of newspaper reports detailing what colonists called “melancholy accidents.” Today, we call them “gun deaths.”
There weren’t just a few, either — there were hundreds and hundreds of them, too many to include in a single book about America’s history of colonial gun deaths. Manseau says the era is filled with stories of people killed by misfiring rifles or by guns that went off accidentally. Other people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and caught bullets that had been meant for no one. Of those hundreds, he says a few, in particular, stuck with him: The story of a woman who was ironing handkerchiefs when she was accidentally shot by her 11-year-old nephew. She finished the ironing, then called for help. In another report, a father accidentally killed his child and died of grief a few weeks later. There was a brother who accidentally shot and killed his sister, then tried to kill himself … they go on and on. Yes, you have a constitutional right to a gun, but be careful with it!
THE NATION’S FIRST SLAVE
While everything about slavery is horrible from start to finish, breaking this terrible chapter of American history down into digestible pieces is just one way to remember how bad it truly was. While slavery has been going on throughout recorded history, the Smithsonian says we actually know who the first slave in America was: John Casor.
Originally, most of the work in the colonies was done by indentured servants. That meant people would pledge to work for others for a finite time, and at the end of that time, they were free. Why would anyone agree to this? There were often incentives like a free passage to the New World, ownership of land, or some other bonus to be awarded upon fulfilling the contract.
Until Casor, that is. Castor was the indentured servant of Anthony Johnson, who was a one-time indentured servant himself and one of 20 black people living in the Virginia colony at the time. When they disagreed over whether Casor’s contract had been fulfilled (it simply bound him to “seven or eight years” of service, which is apparently so vague that Casor’s claimed 14 years of service weren’t sufficient), they went to court over the matter. The ruling (via Berkeley) was precedent-setting: Since Casor was African, the judge decided he wasn’t bound or protected by English law and was, therefore, Johnson’s property. It doesn’t get much more messed up than that.
MESSED UP THINGS THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED ON THE OREGON TRAIL
BY DEBRA KELLY/UPDATED: FEB. 22, 2022 12:15 AM EDT
If you’re of a certain age, you remember spending hours naming your Oregon Trail family after your own family or friends, guiding their MS-DOS-based adventures, and laughing when brother Stinky Johnny died of dysentery. Hilarity! The real Oregon Trail was filled with about as many accidents and illnesses, and the National Oregon/California Trail Center says more than 300,000 Americans actually did travel along with it at the end of the 19th century. From start to finish, it took between five and six months, and it’s hard to imagine today. Sell everything that doesn’t fit into your wagon, and set out with no guidance from Google Maps? They were a brave bunch, and slightly insane, so it’s not surprising a whole lot of messed up stuff happened along the way.
THE UTTER-VAN ORNUM MASSACRE
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
In truth, there wasn’t much conflict between the Native American tribes and early travellers, who were mostly fur traders and missionaries. But once settlers started heading West and claiming the land for themselves all willy-nilly, not everyone was pleased. You’d be pretty mad, too.
The ill-fated Utter-Van Ornum wagon train would go down in history with the dubious honour of being the deadliest wagon train (via the Idaho Chapter Oregon-California Trails Association). Led by Elijah Utter (sometimes written “Otter”), the group included four families, 21 children, and a few former soldiers. They were attacked on September 9, 1860, and 11 died in the two-day confrontation. The tale told by the Washington State Historical Society suggests they may have been the fortunate ones because when the four soldiers took the first opportunity they had to pick the best horses and high-tail their way out of Dodge, they left the party with a broken defence. Colonel George Wright, who was in charge of the military presence and rescue mission, said they likely would have survived if it wasn’t for the cowards.
The group scattered, and one of the soldiers made it to a military camp outside Fort Dalles to sound the alarm. The rescue parties stumbled across some stragglers, but the most horrific scene was discovered by Lieutenant Anderson. He found a camp of 15 people, including five dead who had been partially eaten by the starving living. Once everyone had been accounted for, they found only 15 people survived.
THE SAGER ORPHANS
Ever feel like you have the worst luck on the planet? You don’t have anything on the seven Sager orphans.
According to the National Park Service, six children set off from Missouri with their parents in early 1844, with the seventh being born in the wagon. Patriarch Henry Sager took ill by the time they reached the Rockies, and they buried him alongside Green River. Naomi Sager descended into a sort of grief-stricken illness, and her daughter Catherine wrote she was, “at times perfectly insane.” She died near Twin Falls, Idaho, and the children — ranging from 13 years old to a newborn — were orphans for the first time.
They travelled on with the wagon train and ended up in the care of missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. They’d established a safe home in the Walla Walla Valley, and within the year the seven had been officially adopted by the couple … who were killed in a massacre three years later, along with John and Francisco Sager, the eldest children. The others were taken captive, but only four were ransomed back — the other fell ill and died. Seriously, you don’t have it that bad, and if there’s one consolation it’s the surviving girls’ memoirs that talk about the kindness they experienced along the way.
Alfred Jacob Miller
Emigrants only had what they could carry. Imagine taking your entire family across the country with only what you can pack into a minivan, and no rest stops or Taco Bells along the way. Food was a huge concern, and that makes Fort Laramie — nicknamed “Camp Sacrifice” — that much more tragic.
According to The Plains Across, Fort Laramie became a major trading post. Settlers would keep as much as they could on their overloaded wagons in hopes of trading once they reached the fort, but that wasn’t always possible. Everyone was in the same boat, so to speak, and traders didn’t have much use for the more impractical items they’d brought along. Accounts tell of the dumping grounds outside the fort, filled with treasured possessions like bookcases and furniture, iron safes, and books. Practical things were left, too, by people needing to spare their oxen from dragging the heavy loads. Anvils, weapons, ploughs, kegs, and barrels … all dumped.
Also, dumped? Extra foodstuffs and one account even talked about the 20,000-odd pounds of bacon left behind. Given the starvation that happened later, it’s impossible not to wonder how many people died dreaming of everything they dumped.
THE DONNER PARTY’S UNDELIVERED LETTER
You’re probably familiar with the story of the Donner Party, the second-most famous thing about the Oregon Trail. They were heading for California, not Oregon (via Online Nevada), when they set off in 1846, and about half met their grisly end in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Whether it’s better to eat or be eaten is a discussion for another time, but the tragic footnote is that the entire thing could have been avoided.
The Hastings Cutoff was a fairly untried shortcut, and Fort Bridger (pictured) sat at the trailhead. There was actually someone riding ahead of the Donner Party acting as a scout, and Edwin Bryant sent a letter back warning them it was too dangerous to take the so-called shortcut. The letter ended up in the hands of Fort Bridger’s founders, owners, and the people who stood to gain the most if thousands of settlers started passing through their trading post, so you can probably guess what happened next.
Jim Bridger and partner Louis Vasquez certainly could have handed over the note, sending the Donner Party down the safer route and presumably preventing all the cannibalism nonsense. Instead, they never gave them the warning, sending them to some of the darkest days imaginable, all in the name of making a buck.
MURDER OR SURVIVAL?
Surviving the Oregon Trail was just the beginning for some people — just ask Lewis Keseberg. He was a member of the Donner Party, and according to Sierra College, he paid horribly for his survival. Rumours started circulating that he was the first to dig into the not-so-scrumptious meal consisting of his fellow settlers, that he killed others for their meat, and that he preferred human meat to beef. The accusations got so bad he even sued for slander and won $1, but when Keseberg died in 1895, even his obituary reminded everyone he was a cannibal.
He was interviewed a few times, and when he was 62 he issued his first formal statement. Time was supposed to heal all wounds, he wrote, but that was B.S. when it came to something like this. Keseberg had sent his wife and a child on ahead, and said, “For their sakes, I must live. … I can not describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted that first mouthful of flesh. … This food was never otherwise than loathsome, insipid, and disgusting.”
He spent two months in the cabin, surrounded by the bodies of his dead friends, with wolves scratching to get to the meat inside. Tamsen Donner left her dead husband and joined him only a short time before she died, too. He swore he only ate and never killed, writing, “A man, before he judges me, should be placed in a similar situation.”
The National Park Service calls the Oregon Trail “this nation’s longest graveyard.” They estimate one in ten travellers didn’t survive, and the National Oregon/California Trail Center says the 2,000-mile trail averaged 10 deaths per mile. There was just as much dysentery and cholera as your MS-DOS family faced, but there was another huge problem, too — a lack of gun safety classes. Did you always pick the banker because you’d start with the most money? Good in theory, but how many bankers knew which way to hold a gun?
That’s not a joke. Roadtrippers says Blue Mound, Kansas, was the site of the first accidental gun death on the trail, and it happened to the ill-named John Shotwell. He was pulling a gun from the back of his wagon — muzzle first — when it discharged and shot him in the chest. It took him an hour to die, “in full possession of his senses.” Sure, there are a lot of ways to go on the trail, but no one wants to be remembered like that (and he definitely wasn’t the only one).
THE MORMON HANDCART TRAGEDIES
Hindsight is 20/20, so let’s see if you can guess what went wrong with Brigham Young’s plan to bring Mormon converts to their new paradise on Earth. The Denver Post reports the plan was simple: British and Scandinavian converts who were too poor to buy wagons would load all their worldly possessions onto a handcart, push them across the U.S., and make the journey in only 60 days. Sounds great, right? You’d totally sign up for that … until you hear the list of problems.
There were no supply stations, carts broke down better than they rolled, Salt Lake City officials had no idea who was coming, and travellers weren’t prepared for doing the work of hunters, pioneers, and oxen all at the same time. Between 1856 and 1860, 10 handcart companies travelled the trail and two — the Martin and Willie companies — suffered heartbreaking tragedies. There were 1,100 people in those two companies alone (via WyoHistory), and they didn’t set out until August. Again, hindsight — they were buried under feet of snow, hundreds died, and those who survived lost arms and legs to frostbite.
That’s horrible, but there’s a fascinating footnote that comes out of all this. Two survivors were 10-year-old Ann Campbell Giles and 12-year-old Maximilian Parker. They lived, met, married, and had a son you probably know of: Butch Cassidy. No wonder he was so badass, just look what his parents went through.
THE MILK SICKNESS
It’s an undeniable fact: the cycle of life doesn’t stop for anyone or anything, and there were a surprising number of newborn babies travelling the trail. With so many people dying, that meant a lot of orphans, and babies would typically be passed into the care of, ideally, another nursing mother. It didn’t always end well.
Brian Altonen, medical science and public health expert, took a look at the diseases running rampant through wagon trains and found the heartbreaking case of Susannah, a little girl who died just a month after her mother. Her disease wasn’t contagious — no one else caught it from her — but the pioneers didn’t know this at the time.
Susannah was passed into the care of a new mother breastfeeding her own child, and Altonen says in order to keep that woman’s child away from any possible infection the orphan might be carrying, the caregiver opted to give the baby cow’s milk instead of breastfeeding. Unfortunately, the cattle were grazing on plants like poison ivy and white snakeroot, creating deadly and bitter milk. Susannah succumbed to “milk sickness,” and while we don’t know how many babies died from it, we do know livestock were forced to forage some seriously overgrazed land. They ate all kinds of nasty plants and passed the problems on in their milk. Road to hell and all.
QUACK DOCTORS AND GRANNY MEDICINE
According to Brian Altonen, the settlers carried were standard medicines like castor oil, rum, peppermint essence, opium, and whiskey, because if you’re dying, at least you wouldn’t know it. Granny medicine, essentially home remedies passed down from mother to daughter, was common, according to Historic Oregon City. Some things — like using peppermint essence to calm an upset stomach — actually worked (via Fort Morgan Times), but the problem was that it was only the women who knew these remedies. When they died or got sick, the men were left to make things up — like the husband of a Mrs Knapp. When she came down with cholera, he just gave her a cup of camphor, because that’s what you do, right? According to a fellow traveller, it worked.
Plenty of people had the misfortune to listen to one of the quack doctors who hit the trail, too. Edwin Bryant told the tale of a boy who had his leg crushed by a wagon wheel, and it was treated by a quack who tied some linen and a few planks around it. Nine days later, the boy “called to his mother that he could feel worms crawling in his leg,” and yes, those were maggots. The boy died as they hacked off the leg with a butcher knife and a handsaw, and it wasn’t a happy ending. “The child was dead — his miseries were over!” Bryant wrote. Nice work, doc.
CHOLERA ON AN EPIDEMIC SCALE
Cholera is one of those old-timey diseases you definitely don’t want, and it was a huge problem for a very gross reason, especially in the floodplain around the Platte River crossing. Let’s talk about why, in the least gross way possible.
The river crossing was massively dangerous, and according to history, it was made safer but more expensive by the Mormon ferries that were set up in 1847. Even as they started ferrying wagons across, they found they couldn’t keep up — dozens of wagons were lined up waiting for their turn to cross. Those who didn’t wait tended to drown in full view of others. Talk about incentive. By 1850, the area was swimming with cholera.
There were a few reasons for it, and Brian Altonen says part of the problem was the saline-alkaline waters of the Platte were the perfect breeding ground for cholera left behind in settlers’ waste products. Historian Aaron Smith (via Deseret News) notes that the later settlers left, the more susceptible to cholera they would be, mostly because you were following in the footsteps of people who were essentially pooping out cholera as they went. Leave late, and you’d be waiting on the shores of a river where people and animals had been doing their business for months and months, and yes, you were drinking that water, too. You had no idea the decision to ferry or ford the river was so gross, did you?
JOHN GRATTAN STARTS A WAR
Early contact between settlers and Native Americans was relatively peaceful, according to history. Tensions continued to mount as more and more people headed West, though, and on August 19, 1854, one hotheaded idiot kick-started a 22-year war.
His name was John Lawrence Grattan, and he was a second lieutenant in the Army stationed at Fort Laramie. At the time, local Sioux were starting to demand more and more in the way of tolls, which makes sense considering the number of people tromping across their land. There were a handful of skirmishes, but the last straw came when a sick cow from a wagon train wandered into a Sioux camp. The people in the camp were being starved by a combination of the holdup of promised rations and suddenly needing to share their resources with thousands of extra mouths. They killed and ate the cow, and the officer in charge was actually pretty diplomatic about the whole thing. He offered restitution to both parties, but he sent Grattan to negotiate. Grattan took several howitzers, which is not how you start a peaceful negotiation when tensions are already high.
You can imagine how that went. The Sioux came out on top during that skirmish, and Grattan’s body was recovered riddled with arrows. The village head, Conquering Bear, also died, and it only escalated from there.
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