13 March 2010

The Tragical History of Sullivan Hyder

Three years ago in the British Library, I came across a remarkable set of letters scattered across the East India Company records having to do with the Company's training policies. The dozen or so letters that piqued my interest deal with Sullivan Hyder, a mixed-race boy born in England in 1811 who became a printer's apprentice and eventually had to leave England because there was no prospect of his finding work there.

I wanted to write an academic article about the status of Indian language teachers in the early nineteenth-century using the documents concerning his family, but unfortunately Professor Michael Fisher beat me to it in his Counterflows to Colonialism. Since Professor Fisher had followed the documentary evidence as far as it would go, I put the story of Sullivan Hyder away. Recently though, as I started planning a historical novel that I am nowhere near ready to write, it occurred to me that Sullivan could be a faithful friend to me if he were the main character in a short story. With Sullivan's help, I can find the right voice for my novel before I start it.

Sullivan was the son of Ghulam Hyder, a Persian professor at the East India Company's Haileybury College in Hertford (just north of London), and Rose Hyder (née Slocomb), the daughter of a Hertford schoolmaster. When his father died in 1823, Sullivan was twelve years old and his mother was penniless. By 1831, two of his three siblings were dead and his mother was grievously ill. The letters detail her pleas for assistance, Sullivan's apparent moral failings and his eventual decision to go to Calcutta.

There is a subtext to the correspondence that can only be explored through fiction because while the historical record is rich and suggestive, it stops short of giving us full characters and full narratives. Historical records can't tell us what the characters were thinking at any given moment, or whether certain events actually happened. I will end the story, for example, with Sullivan's meeting his father's first wife in Calcutta, but we actually know nothing about her except that she existed. The meeting is a pure invention of mine, albeit a plausible one.

There are also clarifying facts missing in the letters. For example, I strongly suspect that Sullivan's name in Urdu is Sulaiman, but this is not recorded anywhere. This artistic license helps establish the two facets of Sullivan/Sulaiman's identity, and whether historically true or not, helps us picture him. We do not know the names of his siblings but I suspect that if we did they would show the same double quality.

Lastly, there is the question of what is intentionally left out of the historical record. The letters are written by and to White people, so of course they make no unambiguous reference to the difficulty of being mixed-race in England, which almost certainly drove Sullivan to India. One of the school officials, Alec Keene, writes of Sullivan that "I am apprehensive that he has formed connections and fallen into habits in London, which are infavourable to his morals & [unreadable] & may involve him in ruin." It is obvious that an outcast would naturally gravitate to other outcasts so Keene was merely concerned that Sullivan befriending other people like himself. It is up to me to decide what these "connections" may be.

I've never tried writing historical fiction as an adult so I'm very excited to introduce you to Sullivan Hyder soon.

The British Library manuscripts dealing with the Hyder family are India Office Records J/1/26 f. 367, J/1/38 ff. 325-33, and J/2/10 ff. 80-4.

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