top of page

What did the British achieve in a century in India? | Financial Times

Seventy-one years on since the union flag came down on the Indian sub-continent, the debate about whether the Raj only pillaged and plundered India or also left some lasting good can be an emotive one, softened only because the parting of ways between India and Britain has been friendlier than could have been imagined. A warm cultural and social connection, rather than angry bickering, has been the dominant theme: Britain’s universities, cricket arenas and mushrooming Indian restaurants are witness to that.

David Gilmour, in his highly readable social history The British in India, conveniently skirts that historical debate, finessing it with an a-bit-of-good-a-bit-of-bad conclusion, focusing instead on the human aspects of British life in India over three centuries. He takes apart diaries, memoirs and piles of ribbon-bound letters and creates a fluid narrative detailing how the civilians and soldiers, memsahibs and missionaries, planters and box-wallahs, “pig-stickers” and prostitutes lived, loved and died in a strange, faraway and at times hostile land. He thus gives a voice to the distant denizens of imposing government houses, mysterious bungalows, out-of-bounds cantonments and whites-only clubs. In an uncertain post-Brexit world, this nostalgic dive into life during the Raj could provide timely comfort and a sense of a powerful, sepia-tinted past.

The India-wallahs, Gilmour tells us, who braved long voyages, loneliness and disease, followed different stars. Debt-ridden profligates sought to recover a fortune and returned as East India Company nabobs, vulgar with wealth; self-exiles went east to cure a broken heart or build new lives; those possessed with evangelical zeal — not necessarily missionaries — went to save the souls of the heathens living in poverty, ignorance and darkness. Some families had India in their blood and yearned for its sudden twilights and the scent of frangipani. Others simply followed a civilian or military career that promised a better life and a comfortable retirement. Shiploads went to service the Raj as tailors, hatters, piano-tuners and undertakers. Many “went native”; others stayed on and built lives as indigo or tea planters or oil, jute and railway men; a thousand cemeteries strewn over India mark those who never returned.

Gilmour’s subtext is that it took all sorts to run an empire. Images arise of civilians on horseback in pith helmets, administering the land, dispensing justice to peasants under a tree, building canals, fighting dacoits and tigers. Some preferred district life, with its sporting possibilities; others the stability of the secretariat or the glamour of diplomatic office in princely courts. But there was no dearth of mavericks, poets, scholars, reformers and drunken drop-outs among them. Or among the army men who spent their days in parades and drills, quaffing beer and brandy-pawnee and waiting for action, less frequent after the 1857 mutiny. A young lieutenant named Winston Churchill complained that his short stay in a cavalry regiment was a “useless and unprofitable exile”, but he did manage to play a lot of polo and write books. (The Bangalore club still displays an unpaid bill of 13 rupees against Churchill — a delicious detail that Gilmour sadly misses.)

But the narrative is studded with other nuggets that illuminate the relations between Britain and the sub-continent, particularly in the literary and artistic fields. The writers Thackeray and Kipling were born in India. So too was the comedian Spike Milligan, whose mother reached the hospital in a bullock cart to deliver him — an early sign, perhaps, of more unorthodox behaviour to come. Eric Blair was born in Motihari, Hector Monro in Burma — both were in the Burma police before becoming writers, as George Orwell and Saki respectively. Vivien Leigh was also India-born — her mother seems to have been partly Parsi — while Tom Stoppard, Felicity Kendal and Norman Wisdom all spent formative time there.

Mixed marriages made for better race relations and were widely prevalent in the early years when few Englishwomen travelled out to India. Company officers smoked hookahs, spoke local languages and commonly lived with one or more Indian women, or bibis, who often became life-long companions and useful conduits into local society. David Ochterlony, the resident of Delhi — the top Company representative — in the early 19th century had 13 bibis who accompanied him on separate elephants for his evening ride. The institution died out with changing moral mores, more frequent voyages home through the Suez Canal and the arrival of more Englishwomen, including the “fishing fleet” — shiploads of young women who sailed east to catch a well-to-do husband. The loss cut deeper than sexual gratification: British society distanced itself from the people it ruled, a fact that came home during the mutiny.

Still, the overtly prim Victorian society had its share of adulteries, crimes of passion, suicides and scandals. Life in the summer capital of Simla was particularly exciting. There, in the northern hills, young bachelors romanced the grass widows of men still toiling in the plains. While Kipling wrote that British India was “not entirely inhabited by men and women playing tennis and breaking the Seventh Commandment”, his writings, and Gilmour’s research, show that was indeed happening in considerable measure. What attracted censure was homosexuality — though probably less than in Britain: a frustrated EM Forster, while working as secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas in 1921, was supplied the palace barber and a disused suite.

A frustrated EM Forster, while working as secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas in 1921, was supplied the palace barber and a disused suite

Gilmour’s narrative, however charming, cannot airbrush the ugly realities of colonial rule: the duplicity, greed and smug self-justification that fuelled British political and racial domination of India or indeed the economic looting of a once wealthy civilisation. Political tensions were brewing even as British wives fretted about growing petunias in Simla. Tens of millions were dying in famines even as viceroys organised glittering imperial durbars.

Christopher Lee’s Viceroys provides the political backdrop to this conflict and to India’s evolving freedom struggle. The historian also chooses the individual lens: the 20 men who represented the monarch in India as viceroys, from Lord Canning (1856-62) to Mountbatten, who rolled up the union flag in 1947 before turning his broad back on a bleeding and partitioned sub-continent. Unlike Gilmour’s soldiers, civilians and planters, the viceroys were landed gentry, though only occasionally from the top shelf, and were well connected at court and Westminster. India was often a way out of a languishing political career and a step to a bigger job.

Exceptional men they may have been, but only a few, such as Curzon and Mountbatten, are easily recalled, and Lee makes a sympathetic attempt to rescue the others from the gathering oblivion. Canning worked himself to death and buried his wife in India; Elgin was himself buried in Dharamsala; Mayo was assassinated; Chelmsford was far more sympathetic to self-government for India than he is given credit for; Hardinge made the new capital of Delhi his project and was almost killed for his pains, and so on. Lee recounts how the eight of them who dealt with Gandhi, the frail man in the homespun loincloth who stood against the regalia of empire, never understood him. His power over the masses and his unusual methods of protest mystified the keepers of the empire, even as some of them recognised the inevitability of the end. (In fact so obsessed is Lee with Gandhi’s supposed deviousness that he repeats part of a paragraph on this from page 316 on page 392.)

Repetitions and errors of fact or interpretation occur far too often to ignore. It was Dalhousie who engineered the annexation of Punjab in 1849, and not Hardinge, as the loose phrasing might leave some readers to believe; the Sikhs are not a “caste” but followers of a religion; several facts regarding the Amritsar massacre in 1919 are wrong. For one, General Dyer, who ordered the massacre, did not issue the infamous crawling order — under which those crossing the lane where a European lady missionary had been assaulted had to crawl on their belly — before the massacre but six days later. It was Pathan tribesmen, equipped by Pakistan, who crossed over into Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 and not “Afghan tribesmen, armed by the Soviet Union”. This laxity, and some unnecessarily oblique writing, makes Viceroys at best an imperfect companion to David Gilmour’s magisterial work.


bottom of page