Past Realities: Building Five Lives

Dr Sylvia Shorto’s new book brings the history of the East India Company into fresh perspective with the micro stories of five men of the ruling class in Delhi, examining their lives through their house-building activities in the first half of the 19th century as a way to understand more about the subliminal mechanisms that enabled the British to control this great Mughal city. As such it reveals the often-contradictory attitudes these men held towards India. Here Dr Shorto explains how her work was carefully constructed from many diverse sources.


I imagine I’m in the company of a lot of writers in wondering why it can take so long to finish a book. In my case, I never wanted the process to end!

Research for British Houses in Late Mughal Delhi (Boydell Press, 2018) was begun in the mid-1990s when I made my first trip to Delhi. The book started life as an exploration of power dynamics through analysis of a group of re-used and newly-built houses in Delhi, a city that provides a well-defined case study for exploring through material culture the transformations in British mentalities that took place over a fifty-year period after the city was conquered in 1803. It ended up being structured around the inter-related micro-histories of five men employed in the military and civil service of the East India Company who lived in these houses. These very different men – David Ochterlony, Charles Metcalfe, Robert Smith, William Fraser and Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe – are linked through their building activities, and through their professional and personal imprint on the historical urban landscape of Mughal Delhi.

British Houses in Late Mughal Delhi
by Sylvia Shorto
9781783272082 / 9781787443044

But settling on a workable structure was not a straightforward path, and neither was defining the discipline of the book. Was this to be an architectural history or a group biography? Was it about public lives or private places? Was it a hybrid, like the houses themselves?

When I began the book, I intended to document Delhi in the first half of the 19th century from the objective reality of an architectural historian. But I soon started to understand more about the realities of these five individual lives. Because so many records of pre-1857 Delhi are lost to us, there were missing parts of their stories that needed to be accounted for. I even began to visualize the project as writing a Swiss cheese, with holes that could not (should not?) be filled in. What was needed was a structure that could accommodate the voids in my material. Contemporary literature that mixes historic and fictional narrative was often in my mind as I struggled to achieve this. Yet this remained history-writing and not fiction.

To try and stitch together both building histories and personal stories, I drew on a wide variety of resources, some of which took me a long way away from Delhi. While the houses themselves and their location in Delhi’s fast-changing urban landscape were important primary texts, I also sought information from a catholic mixture of other sources that included both official and private papers, travellers’ accounts, the laments of Urdu poets, and (a particularly interesting and under-explored resource) Persian lists of historical monuments organised by the rank and wealth of their builders. Working with private papers can give us glimpses into the experience of home life, and they often document otherwise unrecorded discourses and beliefs. The invaluable Fraser of Reelig papers, not previously used in interpreting the Delhi’s early 19th century buildings, gave valuable glimpses of the domestic lives of men. Wills were a useful resource as well, and I also added genealogical research to the mix to trace the origins and descendants of my subjects. But this, it turned out, was still not enough. Documentary research had to be cross-referenced against different types of visual representation – paintings, drawings, maps and photographs made for a variety of patrons – to try to fill gaps in our knowledge of Delhi.

Whether a true historical reality exists, and whose reality is being written, are questions I still grapple with. Any historian trying to understand a past through the lens of the present is by definition an outsider, and I often felt that way. But in the end, both the fragments of this history and a discontinuous understanding of the past gave a narrative structure to my book. It did end up being as much about the builders as the built, but I included some of the true and as much of the real as I could uncover. I hope it will engender new ideas in scholars in the future.


This guest post was written by Sylvia Shorto, an independent scholar, and former Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut until the end of 2017. She writes on architecture as material culture in colonial contexts, crossing scales from urban environments to individual objects contained in domestic settings.

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