Over 120 years ago, an intrepid British woman lived in the hills of north east India, where her husband was a British officer. Connie Shakespear kept a detailed diary of her time in the Naga hills, which has just been published by Highlander Press, giving us a fascinating insight into the Naga way of life over a century ago.

As the foreword to her diary says:

“Reading the private thoughts of an unsuspecting person makes one feel somewhat guilty, despite knowing that the person in question is long deceased…” and what is remarkable about this diary is the freshness and enthusiasm that shine through so much of her writing, even after all this time.

Initially the reader will be discomfited by Connie’s occasional use of the word “savage” to describe the Naga tribal people she met. Yet she writes with evident admiration and often affection for the Nagas, such that we can eventually manage to overlook her language, and accept it as being a by-product of her times and her upbringing. Despite the use of what is now uncomfortably jarring language, Connie seems remarkably unfazed by the tribals’ scant clothing, which must surely have been shocking for the corset-ed, gown-wearing Victorian that she was.

Connie was certainly no shy retiring wife, nor was she a memsahib whose only focus was her fellow British colleagues. Though she dutifully lists her dinners and tennis matches with her fellow Brits, her diary entries only really come alive when she is off on her travels, marching up and down the Naga hills with her husband. Then we are privy to a woman who is a keen, enthusiastic observer of the people, their villages, as well as the flowers and the wildlife they encounter.

Luckily for history, Connie & her husband were extremely keen photographers, and there are numerous references in her diary to taking photos, to developing photos in the evening, and her worries that the light might not be good enough. She even describes how they rigged up a stand for a time exposure, using “my coat as a cushion on which to place the camera case“.

She also sketched the sights she saw, and it is the combination of her writing, her sketches and her photographs that allow us this exceptional look at tribal life in 1900, as well as late Victorian British attitudes. Some of her photographs are stunning, especially the portraits of warriors in their finery.

Connie is a keen botanist, enthusiastically detailing the plants and flowers she sees during her marches up and down the Naga hills. In her long dress, her hat and doubtless stout boots, Connie walks miles, sometimes carried in a “topper”, sometimes riding a hill pony, but much of the time on foot:

“11 miles. A much pleasanter march, very hot, but all ascending, and the air consequently improving as we went until with some steep zig-zags in the last miles we arrived at this glorious position at the top of a spur…”

A week later:

15 miles. A long march necessitating breakfast on the way which we had very comfortably in a shady corner in the forest…”

The next day:

13 miles. Made an early start getting up at 5am and again taking our breakfast to eat on the way. We did a lot of butterfly catching on the way, getting some good specimens…”

Connie and her husband make an indefatigable team. They tramp up and down the hills, they keenly photograph the scenery and the villages and the people, and take in their stride the curious crowds that gather to watch them eat, as well as the sometimes rickety accommodation:

“At the village of course we were surrounded at once by crowds and we ate our breakfast, spread for us on a wide seat in front of one of their houses, in front of a crowd some 6 deep, all ranging themselves in tiers, the front row, children sitting, the next kneeling and so on, so that no one need miss “the show”!”

The Shakespears had domestic staff, and cooks, and porters, and people to carry the “topper” in which the ladies sometimes travelled. Connie mentions the staff and the sepoys under her husband’s command, but without ever questioning the whys or wherefores of servants. In that way she is a typical product of her Victorian upbringing (I think today we would call her ‘entitled’) but she is fond of her staff and sees the funny side of some of her encounters with the Nagas:

“The road was unusually rough and stony, and I was often very glad of my basket chair. My two men were very funny over it; they said I was very heavy, and grunted deeply and one of them, when it came to his turn to walk behind while the other carried me, made use of my legs as a sort of reins by which to guide and assist the progress of his friend who was carrying me…”

The Naga people are the real stars of this book, bursting out of the pages with smiles and laughter and kindness and curiosity. People give the Shakespears eggs as gifts, they sing for them, they happily put on their battle finery and pose for photos. The Nagas are frankly curious of the outsiders, especially Connie, but it is clear that she never felt threatened or afraid. The village women touch her gloves, marvel at her pale skin, and are fascinated by her watch. People are universally kind to them.

Connie is enthusiastic and full of praise for the landscapes through which they march, bringing to life the endless vistas of the Naga hills, as well as the cold, windy days when the smoke from the slash and burn agriculture stings their eyes. The tall grass, the forests, the steep hills are all described in affectionate detail.

She seems to have been a good, nice woman, understandably sad about her son being away at school in England, weeping over the death of her pet Hoolok gibbon. She loves her dogs and is always solicitous of the horses that she rides in the hills. She collects plants for her garden, and takes lots of photographs for her diary. From giving away the prizes at official events to visiting the wives of the men under her husband’s command, Connie is dutiful and punctilious. Uncomplaining, and always curious about the people and places she encounters, she doesn’t talk about herself. This is more of a travel diary than a personal insight into her private life.

I do so wish that more of her diaries and exceptional photographs had survived.

This is an intriguing look into a vanished world.

Heartily recommended.

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