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The Shaping of Colonial Civility in E. M. Forster’s “The Life to Come”
For conquering Clive, or Wellesley’s mightier name,
The wide world echoes to the trump of fame,
Yet have there been, who loftier praise have won,
Undaunted Schwarz, and saintly Middleton
England hath many such; she little knows
What to their secret championship she owes;
Their prayers, with night and day to Heaven aspire,
Bulwark her empire with a wall of fire,
And arm the happy earth that gave them birth
With power to build the throne of Christ on earth.
—Harriet Warner Ellis, Toils and Triumphs; or,
Missionary Work in the World’s Dark Places
In a letter to E. M. Forster, dated 30 April 1924, T. E. Lawrence conveys his reactions to a story Forster had sent him: “It’s abrupt, beyond grace [End Page 229] and art: but at my second reading what came out of it strongest was a feeling of pity for the African man. You cogged the whole of life against him . . . and he was no good to wait all that while. None the less his illness was overdone, or his sudden spasm of the strength at the end of it. It was too unexpected. Couldn’t you have led up to it by some careful hints of force & sinew in the last pages?”1 The story was “The Life to Come,” and “the African man” in question was no African but an aboriginal tribal man belonging to one of the many indigenous forest-dwelling communities of central India. Between the years 1921 and 1922, Forster had served as private assistant to the local Hindu ruler of the State of Dewas, a province located on the northern boundaries of this tribal area. Generally known by names such as Gonds, Bhils, and Khonds, these aboriginal tribes were scattered over a vast area in central India, which, in the nineteenth century, lay on the geographical edges of the semiautonomous princely states and the territories officially called “British India.” Described in Walter Hamilton’s The East India Gazetteer (1815) as a “jungle people, and in a state of great barbarity,” the Bhils were commonly perceived as marauding plunderers.2 Known to periodically sweep down the hills to raid communities under its protection, they posed a constant threat to British authority. In order to curtail their threat, the British entered into different agreements with Bhil tribal chieftains, guaranteeing them customary payments in return for the security of the provinces. However, the policy of appeasement failed to provide the expected results, as Bhil resistance to British authority continued unabated. Between the 1820s and 1830s, after a series of military operations conducted to subdue them and annex their lands, the region called Khandesh, mainly populated by the Bhils, was incorporated into British India. Almost simultaneously, the Bhils were actively recruited into the newly formed Khandesh Bhil Corps, which was established to contain the power of Bhil chieftains and to fill the ranks in the colonial army with fighting men. Members of the Bhil Corps proved to be exemplary soldiers in the numerous battles Britain fought on the frontiers [End Page 230] of its Indian Empire during the nineteenth century.3 The Khonds, who dwelt in the eastern frontiers during the century, were similarly “pacified” through campaigns for the suppression of the human sacrifice some members of the tribe allegedly practiced, and through the subsequent establishment of native councils meant to secure the cooperation of local chiefs in extending British civil rule to the region.
Although Lawrence’s misnaming of the tribal man is quite consistent with an imperialist propensity for disregarding the specificity of cultural identities of colonized subjects, Forster’s story insists on being read as location specific. Written in 1922, “The Life to Come” is set in the tribal regions of central India.4 Its subject matter—same-sex interracial relations between an Englishman and a tribal chief—compelled Forster to withhold its publication during his lifetime...