INDIA - NORTHWEST FRONTIER. Series of over twenty autograph letters signed by James Lindsay Steven, Bengal Horse Artillery, from Peshawar and Umballa, 1852-1855
Lot 48
Sold for £ 6,875 (US$ 9,246) inc. premium

Lot Details
Series of over twenty autograph letters signed by James Lindsay Steven, Gunner subsequently Corporal and Sergeant of 1st Troop 1st Brigade, Bengal Horse Artillery, the majority to his brother in Edinburgh, couple to his mother, the first half written from Peshawar, the second from Umballa, describing both day-to-day life in the army and the adventures that befell him; with envelopes, postmarked and franked by officers, some 80 pages, some dust-staining etc to envelopes but overall in fine condition, folio, 4to and 8vo, Peshawar and Umballa, most 1852-1855


  • A REMARKABLY VIVID, AT TIMES KIPLINGESQUE, ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE OF A BRITISH SOLDIER ON THE NORTH WEST FRONTIER IN THE YEARS LEADING UP TO THE MUTINY, their author being killed on 11 September 1857 during the retaking of Delhi. Quotation from one letter will suffice to give some idea of this series, the extraordinary frankness of which is no doubt owing to the fact it is almost entirely addressed to a brother, rather than wife, sister or mother or even father (more normal recipients of such letters). This representative letter is dated from Peshawar, 27 June 1852, and opens with an account of enemy action: "We had a great deal of sharp skirmishing, and killed a great deal of the Hill tribes, fighting principally on the hills our guns doing very little damage, except among the villages which swept them clean numbering about thirty or forty. The infantry got all the fun. A great many of the black soldiers on our side killed and wounded. The swathies fight well single-handed, but as soon as ever they see the guns they run away as fast as if the devil was after them... I happened to be a spare man, and was sitting on my horse looking about me when my eye happened to catch sight of a shot bounding through the air, in the direction where a mob was collecting on the top of the hill, but it fell about three yards short of its mark, when one of the mob ran down the hill after the ball and caught it in his hand, and brought it up safe and sound to the rest of them, when they all examined it, wondering at such a small thing like that killing so many at once. A shell happened to light in among them the next time, and I suppose they thought it was another ball, but they soon found out their mistake, for the next moment the shell burst and they were all blown to Purgatory".

    What follows does indeed bring to mind the Raj of Gunga Din: "oh! it was horrible standing to your guns the whole day, nothing on you but a pair of white cotton trousers and a thin shirt, the thermometer about 130o the wet running off you in bucket-fulls, and sometimes not a drop of water to cool your tongue, and the best of it get nothing or it but thanks from the Commander-in-Chief – for our readiness in taking the field, which is all very well, but ten or twenty Rupees would be better than fifty thousand thanks, but it is all in our line of business".

    But the bulk of the letter – the quotation here being severely truncated – is devoted to some of the author's recent amorous adventures: "An elopement took place the other day which astonished the whole lines. The bride belonged to parents in the 53rd Regiment, and had been the cause of great anxiety to a great many Sergeants and Corporals, all getting encouragement from her parents... one of our Troopers went down to see this far-famed wench (an ugly squinting eyed thing), and treated the old couple for three nights, when he told me he was determined to marry her... I spoke to the girl and proposed for her to make an elopement... the two got married, and I had a splendid night of it, they tell me I swore eternal love to a widow who had buried her sixth husband and she accepted me, putting a splendid gold ring on my hand. The day was fixed, and the old woman of sixty, with her hair as grey as a rat, actually thought I was going to marry her... I was thunder struck and when I assured her it was all gammon, and never had the least intention of anything of the sort, she got into a horrible passion, calling me everything that was uppermost, swearing she would take my life at the first opportunity. Of course I responded and called her all the ugly old bitches I could think of, and told her she was not going to kill me the same as she had done her last three husbands. That put her in a worse passion, she curst and swore and threw tables, chairs, bottles, glasses, and every thing she could get her hands at, so you may guess and calculate as the Americans say. I had to run for my life. I was laughing over it when I got to the barracks, when I happened to look out at the door, when there was my poor woman, along with a file of the guard going to the guard-room... as I happened to pass he I asked her how she was getting on, and put my finger to my nose. She made one bounce at me, but I was too wide awake, I sprang to a side, and she fell all her length on her face, smashed her smeller that the claret run out and send two of her teeth... down her throat. I had for to run again for my life, for she got up and got to a heap of stones, and began peppering me as hard as she was able".

    Included in the lot is a letter by fellow soldier describing the action in which Steven met his death, memorial notices and his Indian Mutiny Medal, with Delhi clasp. Also included is Steven's Bible, issued in 1856 (with a note added recording his death and mentioning sums due to his estate, and the medal), together with his baptism certificate dated 22 February 1830, his father being James Steven, a bookseller of 51 Hope Park End, his mother, Helen Murray.
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  1. Luke Batterham
    Specialist - Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 20 7393 3828
    FaxFax: +44 20 7393 3879
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