Keeping up appearances and impressing the natives: listening to military bands in the British Empire

In an overlap between two research projects, I’ve been gathering together some material on listening to 19th-century British military bands. Some of the most interesting episodes come from Britain’s imperial project. Here’s Mrs M. H. Ouvry, the young wife of an officer of the 9th Lancers, writing her diary in April 1857 – amid the first stirrings of the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’:

"It was reported . . . that an attempt had been made to burn a hut of the 5th N[ative]. I[nfantry]. Some gunpowder tied up in a bit of rag was found in the thatch, but the smoke was perceived, and the ball removed before it had taken effect. . . . I drove Mrs. Bell-Martin to hear the band."

On the surface, it doesn’t say much about listening, but in another sense it’s charged with meaning about the role of the regimental band in the attempt to maintain a sense of business as usual. Regular Saturday and Tuesday band performances continued against a backdrop of more or less daily acts of arson and reports of mutiny among the sepoys. Military bands in India were central to the idea of British cultural security and superiority, and Mrs Ouvry’s diary testifies to a fundamental component of the soundscape of the British Raj.

Military bands were listened to in a variety of contexts that significantly affected what the music meant to the listeners – it was not necessarily a jingoistic experience. In fact, there were many different and often co-existing experiences – pure enjoyment and entertainment, education and improvement, morale- and solidarity-boosting, the imposition of authority and the attempt to allay the suspicion and hostility of local people – as here, during peace negotiations with the Zulus:

"Presently the general … ordered the band to play ‘God Save the Queen’ and the men to give a cheer. As we did this, the Zulus half rose in an almost threatening way, but their head men remaining seated, they squatted down again. There seemed to be some hitch in the negotiations, for the chiefs remained very grave and quiet. At last an order came for the bandmaster to strike up something lively, and he, being an Irishman, treated them to ‘Patrick’s day in the Morning’.
Never have I seen any tune produce such a magical effect as this one did. First a few Zulus rose, then a few more, and then the whole lot, as if the Pied Piper of Hamelin was after them, and they could not help themselves. In less than five minutes the whole of that dusky host were swaying and dancing to the music…. Above all things, they admired the big drummer, who could sit on his horse, and whack out such a fine tune. In the end the negotiations were successfully completed, and the Zulu army escorted us during the first day of our return march, and then left us with every token of amity."

A rather salutary counterbalance occurs during the Anglo-Ashanti (Asante) wars. In 1824 the Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Charles Macarthy, was overly trusting of intelligence he had received that most of the Ashanti army simply needed a sign to prompt them to desert and come over to the British. The sign he chose was a musical one:

"Solemnly, he gave orders for the band of the Royal African Corps to strike up ‘God Save the King’. Side by side, Sir Charles and his suite stood stiffly to attention in the jungle. As the stately anthem died with a roll and a flourish, a bird screeched in the distance, and then there was a short silence. Now, from the Ashanti musicians, came a lively reply. Macarthy waited for it to subside before ordering the British anthem again, to which the Ashantis responded in their turn. This weird musical context was repeated several times… It was not long before the Ashanti soldiers came, though not in the manner he had optimistically expected. The explosion of musketry as they opened fire from the trees across the river shattered his illusions forever."

Poor old Macarthy lost not only his illusions, but also, literally, his head.

The belief that music could have a pacifying and civilising effect on native people otherwise regarded as ‘savages’, and that military bands could be used to put this into practice, is corroborated in other sources too – as in this newspaper report from 1832 of the displacement of a group of aborigines:

"On Saturday, Mr Robinson…made his triumphant entry into town with his party of blacks, amounting in all to 40…Soon after their arrival they walked up to Government House, and were introduced to His Excellency…They are delighted at the idea of proceeding to Great Island, where they will enjoy peace and plenty uninterrupted. The great susceptibility which they all evinced of the influence of music when the band struck up, which Colonel Logan had purposely ordered down, clearly shewed the numerous spectators the power which we have all-along pointed out of this agent of communication even in the savage breast."

It makes uncomfortable reading today, though the cultural bias was presumably apparent to few in the 1830s, and certainly not to the British colonists at whom the newspaper was targeted.

M. H. Ouvry, A Lady's Diary Before and During the Indian Mutiny (Lymington, 1892), p. 70
E. Mole, A King's Hussar, quoted in T. H. McGuffie (comp.), Rank and File (London: Hutchinson, 1964), pp. 242-3
Alan Lloyd, The Drums of Kumasi: The Story of the Ashanti Wars (London, 1964), pp. 44-5
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (28 January 1832)