Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Fighting Begbies

The Begbie military tradition in our family line starts with Peter Begbie's son Peter James (1804-1864). He lived the greater part of his life in India. After completing his training at the military academy at Addiscombe, he arrived in India in 1823, at the age of 19, as a lieutenant in the Madras Artilery. Three years later he married Charlotte Morphett. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a captain in 1833 and a major in 1846. He was employed with the Jaulnah light field force in the southern Mahratta country during the siege of Kittor (1824-25) and was a participant in the East India Company's wars against Burma in 1824-26 and against Naning, in Malaya, in 1831-32. Peter's handwritten journal describes a sea voyage from the Malacca Straits to Madras - "A succession of squalls from 4pm with much rain till 8pm; passed Malacca between 7 & 8pm..." He was stationed in the Malay Peninsula from 1836-8, but spent his remaining years in India.

The Major General.......putting down uprisings seems to have been a family occupation

Peter used his pen to write about several military campaigns and his sketchbook to capture scenes in India and Malaya. His book, The Malayan Peninsula, contains, among other things, an account of the Dutch administration in Malacca, a general view of the British rights to Naning (and their war against that district, in which he took part) and the story of the foundation of Singapore - as well as a broad survey of the history and customs of the Malays. This scholarly work, printed in 1834, reflects the attitudes of early British writers on colonial subjects and it was reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1967.

He was multi-lingual and was sufficiently acquainted with Hebrew to be able to read the Old Testament in the original. He received the Burma Medal. He died suddenly at the age of 60, leaving a large family, including several sons who served in India, Burma, Abyssinia and elsewhere with great distinction. He is buried in the UK.

His son Francis Richard, for example, had a military record straight out of the Boys Own Annual, filled with tales of derring-do - the Jowaki Flying Expedition 1877; Jowaki Expedition 1877-78 (India Medal with Jowaki Clasp); Afghan War 1878-79 - Capture of Ali Musjid; Afghan Medal with Clasp; Mahsud-Waziri Expedition 1881; twice Mentioned in Despatches; Lushai Expedition 1888-89 - Clasp, Chin-Lushai Expedition 1889-90 - Mentioned in Despatches; Chitral Relief Force - Movable Column 1895; and Tirah Expeditionary Force 1897-98;
1895 India Medal with three Clasps.

His son Elphinstone's military record was similarly impressive. He was awarded a DSO and also made Commander of the Bath. He was also an inventor, experimenting with a fixed-mirror system which saw the first operational use of sun-flash signal communication on a military expedition in 1874 (he obtained a US patent on this equipment). Elphinstone was, moreover, a diligent letter-writer. From India, in 1899, to his brother Alfred in Australia, he talks of life and the cost of living: "You get off wonderfully with 17 shillings a week for wages. Our servants come to 10 pounds and 10 shillings exactly a month, although we do not keep a trap. It is a fallacy to suppose that India is cheap. The climate in the hills is delightful and we live comfortably, but not economically. The rates and taxes in Ootacamund come to 18% of the annual rental." Oootacamund was a hill station near Madras, and was known as "Snooty Ooty" during the Raj. Elphinstone was directly responsible for much of the family history contained on these pages. The Begbie family around the world is much in his debt.

Elphinstone Begbie CB D.S.O.

Peter James had several brothers - one, Alfred William Begbie, became a High Court judge and another, Mars Hamilton Begbie entered the Church. Mars' son Harold became controversially involved in World War I thanks to a poem glorifying war.

Peter James' son (and my great-grandfather) Alfred Daniel Campbell Begbie was not a military man. As a young man, he was in the merchant marine, ultimately journeying to the new colony of New South Wales, leaving the Raj and life on the high seas behind him. Here he married and settled on the Manning River in northern NSW (see Maria's story).