Eleanor takes last of Raj memories with her
May 4, 2007 - 10:25:26 AM
London, May 4 - Eleanor Hopkinson, wife of the last British political officer and resident in Sikkim, who was one of the very few western women to have travelled extensively in the old Tibet, has died at the age of 101.
In 1947, her 20th year in India, Eleanor and her husband A.J. Hopkinson undertook a month-long tour of the Tibetan administrative centres of Shigatse, Gyantse and Sakya to tell them that the British were gone and thenceforth they would be dealing with an independent India.
She once recalled that in 1926, her future father-in-law sent his son, Arthur, who was on leave from India, to call on her parents who were known to have two eligible daughters. On Arthur's next leave two years later they were married.
In 1928, aged 22, she joined her husband in India, first in Kathiawar and later in the North West Frontier Province, according to her obituary in The Times.
She found herself in 'part of Kipling's India'. She recalled: 'In winter tribesmen came down from Afghanistan with their womenfolk and camels, going as far as Bengal. They were moneylenders who extracted their interest with 'the big stick' - literally. The men were tall, burly and much bigger than the small farmers; if they couldn't pay, they beat them with a pole eight-feet-long, as thick as my arm, bound with four brass rings.'
After the war, she travelled from the railhead at Siliguri up the Teesta Valley to Gangtok, and was impressed by what she saw. Her husband was supposed to be in charge of the trade route to Tibet but, as she wrote in her diary, 'that was a bit of a pretence because really it was to control the high border passes and to check that law and order was kept.
'The British Indian Government regarded Tibet as an autonomous buffer between the great powers of Russia, China and India.'
According to the obituary, in Gangtok she found that the residency, supposedly a private house, was always full of visitors; her husband and his predecessor had been posted there alone, so they liked plenty of people around.
While breaking the news about India's independence, the Hopkinsons went via north Sikkim - where very few Europeans, and no British woman, had ever travelled - rather than on the regular route over the Nathu La pass.
By the end of their posting, Sikkim was regarded as an outpost on the fringe of the empire and received no recognition. Eleanor recalled that friends in England thought they had been making a fortune and living very well, 'which was far from the case. We were simply doing our duty'.
On Sep 1, 1948, Arthur Hopkinson handed over his post to his Indian successor. Eleanor's entry in her diary for that day reads like an epitaph for the British Raj: 'Today we are no longer masters of the residency.'
Arthur Hopkinson became an Anglican clergyman in Whitby and died in 1953. His photographs from his visits to Tibet in 1926 and from 1945 to 1948 are now held by the British Museum as the Hopkinson Archive.
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