Roots and Rituals

Ronald Hutton describes the origins of his historical quest for self-discovery.

When I discovered the family photograph album, I must have been about five or six years old – in that intermediate period when individual memories are sharp and lasting, yet before a child has acquired any real sense of the sequence of events, so that one year melts into another.

The album was a large, imposing, leather-bound volume, somewhat tattered by time and travel; the faded and yellowing quality of many of the black and white prints lending it an additional air of age and authority. The real power of the contents, however, consisted of their subject matter. Most of the more recent photos portrayed scenes in the India of the British Raj, with a backdrop of forested mountains, towering temples, and the neat lawns and villas of colonial grandees. My mother appeared as a girl, playing with a pet leopard, as a young woman arrayed in ball gowns and jewels with patient turbaned servants in attendance, and as a new wife, watching an elephant going about its work of clearing timber on the estate. My father featured less frequently, but was none the less imposing, a lean young man in the kilted uniform of the Argyle And Sutherland Highlanders, and then fishing in Himalayan lakes, sailing upon the Arabian sea, and (repeatedly) dancing the night away in white tie, beneath the chandeliers of vice-regal society.

Tucked into another part of the volume were older photographs from my mother’s side of the family, displaying proud and confident people in the dress uniforms and white lace gowns of Tsarist Russia.

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