Far from home … and mail at the pace of a snail

In November of 1897, Lieutenant Sidney Veale Byland shipped out from London to India where he spent the last year of his short life. Without telephone service, emails, text messages, etc., he communicated with his father, a physician in England, by frequently writing letters which included extremely candid descriptions of the world around him and which grew increasingly cranky, as time went on. The letters are quite fun to read today–but I wonder what it must have been like for his father to read while living some 4,000 miles away, knowing that his son was struggling and that he was essentially unreachable.

At the beginning of his time away, Byland’s unique style is evident: he describes an acquaintance as “puffed with pride being the son of his father and the most standoffish haw haw of a little owl that I have ever had the misfortune to meet,” (February 2, 1898). He describes his work and the difficulties of working with accounts that have been mismanaged, but for the most part, he is good humored, even while acknowledging that his work is “hopeless,” (April 30, 1898). In one of his letters, he mentions to his father that “as you know, I have always been of a slap-dash, happy-go-luck disposition” (December 12, 1898).

By August 13, 1898, however, he seems to have been thoroughly disillusioned, stating: “I dislike the work here and I hate Bombay and its inhabitants both European and native. The former are for the most part bounders. The Bounder from our land becomes subdued somewhat in foreign countries but he is as rampant as ever here and strange to say the German seems to imitate, others follow suit and even the native is beginning to walk about in the real bounder style.The office work lasts from 10 to 4 and I find it most irksome. I have to sign hundreds of papers of which I know absolutely nothing. I am quite unable to grasp the system, but as far as I can see … each generation of clerks seem to have piled up a row of passages and galleries only known to themselves and successors and I am just as puzzled as a foreigner might be if plunked down in the midst of London and told to conduct the traffic everywhere.”

The tone of a September 10 letter is a further decline from the tone of the letters written by the slap-dash happy-go-lucky fellow. He writes,”I wish I could get some exercise beyond swimming. The abominable climate here makes walking impossible in the cursed costume which it is the fashion to rig yourself up in here. We are the biggest fools, we English, in the whole of creation. Here with a perspiring heat instead of wearing duck trowsers and a light alpaccca coat, one has to sweat through the day in thick flannels and in the evening serge or tweeds or dark coloured flannel suits with waistcoats and boiled shirts, etc. etc. All this because the rational suit of white duck, etc. has become the monopoly of the shopman and our servants.”

It seems that his health was declining–he goes into a bit a detail regarding boils, heat, and mosquitoes in a June 23 letter; he mentions seeing a doctor who was a “conceited little ass,” in a November 17 letter; and complains frequently of indigestion. It is unclear from the letters exactly what is wrong with him, but he seems to have had fevers. With the prevalence of malaria, one can only imagine that his physician dad was concerned. The last letter in the collection is dated December 29, 1898 in which he mentioned that he was “just recovering from another little bout of fever which knocked [him] endways for a bit.” He died in Poona on February 6, 1899. We can only wonder if, during January, there was any communication to his father–or was he too sick? How did hid father receive the awful news that his son was dead, and how long did it take for that information to reach him? In these days of instant news, updates every minute, and quick plane trips, it is hard to imagine a world of snail mail and traveling by ship (a 7 to 10 day trip depending on weather from the UK to India in the 1890s).



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