Asia Life

India: The Dying Home of Hume

Recent Features

Asia Life

India: The Dying Home of Hume

The house of the founder of the oldest party in India is slowly turning into ruins.

India: The Dying Home of Hume
Credit: Krzysztof Iwanek

A chanced upon local man clearly wanted to become my license-less guide, despite the fact that this was my second visit to Shimla. Yet, upon hearing what I was looking for, he politely admitted ignorance instead of pretending to know and taking me elsewhere, as many fake guides would do. The explanation that I am looking for the former residence of one the founders of India’s oldest party – the Indian National Congress, an organization which the man surely knew – did not help. Yet, the building was not so difficult to find, as it is perched on a hill somewhat aside and above the town but on the way to Shimla’s most famous Hindu shrine, usually called the Jakhu temple. The people encountered further on my way were obviously much familiar with that temple than with the decrepit residence I was seeking. I was the only person at that time to stop by the colonial building rather than continue the journey uphill towards the temple.

The house was abandoned. The name-plate on the gate – half-open and rusting – suggests that the current owner is an Indian. All that I was able to establish is that at present the owner lives in Delhi (this information, obtained from one of the people living nearby, is seemingly confirmed by one of articles in the Indian press that described the same man as a “Shimla-born businessman who stays in Delhi”). At any rate, there is surely nobody residing inside, as plants are slowly taking over the stone steps, the wooden panels are rutting, and the furniture seen behind the windows was covered in dust. The colonial residence, once full of bird specimens and Indian politics, is now engulfed in silence. This would be especially surprising if not for the fact that I was in a building that had belonged to a co-founder of a political party that has ruled India for most of the last 70 years (and a man who was a consummate ornithologist to boot).

While one of the pillars of the gate bears a name-plate with the current owner’s name, the other gives the original name of the house: Rothney Castle. That name reportedly comes from the original resident, a British colonel who had the residence built at some point in the 19th century. The building was later purchased by Allan Octavian Hume, a member of the British administration of colonial India (and not to be confused with David Hume, the philosopher). At that time Shimla was the summer capital of British India, the white officials’ hideaway from the scorching heat. Thus, every important policymaker would have his second residence in Shimla and Hume was for a time one of them. (In later history, Shimla became the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh.)

The building was interesting for me precisely because it was the former home of Hume. Allan Octavian Hume started his career as an East India Company clerk and by the age of 20 was already working in India, beginning his career in the district of Etawah (then in United Province of Agra and Oudh, now in Uttar Pradesh).

Having worked in India for most of his adult life and having witnessed the atrocities and bloodlust of the Sepoy Mutiny – a large-scale uprising against British rule that erupted in 1857 – Hume came to the conclusion that the colonial government which he was himself representing was partially to blame for India’s maladies and anti-government sentiment. Hume felt that to prevent the next such rebellion the colonial power should cooperate with the Indians and engage with them more effectively by mobilizing them politically, an opinion shared by few of his peers. Hume eventually climbed his way up the colonial career ladder to become the secretary of the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce in the viceroy’s cabinet in 1871. Although he was a bold critic of the government and was eventually demoted in 1879, his views apparently did find some support within the colonial establishment. Hume retired from the civil service in 1882, yet remained in India for the next 10 years.

Thereupon, he began a work that was to become his best-known and lasting legacy: the establishment of the first political party of India. In the early 1880s, Hume began to build a network of people ready to join a new political organization. At least part of this work was surely done from Rothney Castle in Shimla. Eventually it was under Hume’s guidance that the first Indian National Congress was held in Bombay in 1885. At first, the Congress was exactly what the name implied – an annual congress of concerned citizens, albeit in reality limited to the upper-class citizens who were mostly concerned with their privileges and career options for them and their children. This was the initial agenda of the Indian National Congress.

Yet the Congress evolved from an annual meeting of elite individuals to the first regular political party in India, and one that in time began to call for India’s autonomy and independence, acquiring a mass following. Hume’s strategy of engaging Indians politically succeeded – but ironically it succeeded beyond expectations and with a rather unforeseen final effect. From the 1920s until the 1940s the Congress was the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and was at the forefront of the independence movement. The Congress would also retain its position as the most popular political body in independent India and ruled the country through most of its recent history following the departure of the British in 1947 (although it was trounced in the last elections and is now in opposition).

Some party founders and leaders in India boast regal residences. And the memory of past leaders and founders is usually well kept, with many public places named after them and their statues and busts visible across the country. Yet, to my knowledge, no public location is dedicated to Hume and his residence is facing oblivion.

On the one hand, this is hardly surprising. It does not suit the image of the Grand Old Party of India – and once the flag-bearer of the independence movement – to remind the people that it was established partially thanks to the efforts of an Englishman. Moreover, Hume had a role only in the initial phase and it is debatable how much credit is his due. He only remained the secretary of the annual congresses for a few years and was quickly sidelined by the Indian leaders. In 1892, seven years after the first congress, Hume went back to England to settle there permanently. One could also imagine an alternative history: Without Hume, wouldn’t Indians have established their own party sooner or later anyway (especially given then some of those who joined the first congress had already sought to establish associations that might be considered political)?

Some claim that the Indian National Congress was a clandestine design of the colonial establishment – an organization formed to channel the activities of Indians into political dialogue to lessen the chances of another armed uprising. It is true that Hume remained in touch with the viceroy while he was arranging the first congress. In that case, it would be even less desirable to commemorate his achievements. Yet, having consulted such sources as the viceroy’s papers, historians such as Sumit Sarkar point out that there is no proof that Hume was fulfilling a secret political mission entrusted to him by the high command. A more widely accepted version nowadays is the one already mentioned before: that Hume acted largely on his own according to his beliefs. It is interesting to note, however, that he somehow stayed in India for 10 years after his official retirement and it is in that period that he devoted part of his time to arranging the congress. But Hume also used this time for his life-long passion, which we consider below.

From another point of view, however, Hume helped to build an organization that was historically important and that should be remembered, irrespective of his nationality. I am leaving aside another issue: Shouldn’t historical buildings be preserved anyway, whatever their purpose and the sentiments linked to them, for their sheer value as art and architecture? While many colonial buildings in India have crumbled away, the most important ones are well-maintained and indeed are often still in use. The Viceroy’s palace in Delhi became the residence of the president of India, and the other government buildings in New Delhi were also taken over by the government of free India; the viceroy’s residence in Shimla became a research center. This is despite the fact that the memories linked to these buildings are often bitter. Just outside the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata one can still find the statue of viceroy Curzon, even though he was often reviled by Indians, including by the Indian National Congress members. In that case, shouldn’t the heritage of Hume – a progressive by the standards of civil servants of the British Raj – be preserved as well?

And it is not that Hume and his Rothney Castle are not commemorated at all. Hume has his due place in the history textbooks. A special cover stamp came out in 2013 in India featuring an image of Rothney Castle. In 1985, the centennial of the Indian National Congress (which held government in India at the time) it was suggested that the government might over the residence and turn it into a heritage site. This never happened. According to at least one article in the media, the present owner demanded a price to high for the government to accept (printing a stamp is obviously much cheaper). Maybe, therefore, the neglect can be explained at least in part not by the party trying to forget an uncomfortable past but also simple negligence and a lack of resources. For instance, another journey took me to the forested ridges and grazing grounds above another hill-station of northern India: Mussoorie. There one can find the former residence of George Everest which – despite the fact that his legacy is rather neutral politically – is in a state of much more advanced ruin than Hume’s former home in Shimla. Meanwhile, some Indian historians have been calling on the Indian government and Congress to take control of Hume’s home. There was also talk that the site may be converted into a heritage hotel, but once again nothing has come of it.


Source: Krzysztof Iwanek

Hume played another role in history, one you can see for yourself in the bird specimens at the Natural History Museum in London. Aside for his work as a civil servant, Hume had a deep passion for ornithology. Over his decades of life in India he amassed an astonishing collection of thousands of bird specimens and eggs. He also left behind published books and articles as well as unpublished diaries and papers, all about birds. Hume’s legacy also includes bird taxa descriptions and issues of Stray Feathers, an ornithological journal he founded. For many years of his life, Hume was working on his opus magnum on Indian birds, a work he was unable to finish after some of his notes were stolen. If not for this, he would have possibly considered this book and not the Indian National Congress as his greatest legacy.

Devastated, Hume abandoned the project and decided to give away his entire collection to the British Museum. Until that time, the collection was kept in Rothney Castle. Although initial negotiations with the museum fell through, eventually the whole collection was shipped to London in 1885 (the year in which the first Indian National Congress was held). It is described as the “largest single collection of birds ever received by the Museum” and it includes, among other things, “more than 60,000 bird skins and nearly 20,000 eggs from the Indian sub-continent.” You can now view the collection in the Natural History Museum, which was much later spun off from the British Museum. The museum also holds nine of Hume’s diaries “covering small segments of the period from 1859 to 1881” and while one of these has been published, work is in progress to get the others transcribed and published as well.

If the Indian government were ever to take an interest in Rothney Castle, the author offers this suggestion: If the building’s political history is considered too risky, why not convert at least part of the residence (apart from the necessary biographical section) into a bird museum? If Hume’s ghost is still out there, wandering around the forest of Jakhu hill and watching birds, I am sure this is what he is whispering to the ears of his few visitors.