The Bri­tish in In­dia: Three Cen­turies of Am­bi­tion and Ex­pe­ri­ence by David Gil­mour Jaspreet Singh Boparai


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The Bri­tish in In­dia: Three Cen­turies of Am­bi­tion and Ex­pe­ri­ence By David Gil­mour Allen Lane £30 Oldie price £26.70 inc p&p

David Gil­mour learned his craft at the feet of the Ox­ford his­to­rian Richard Cobb (1917-1996), who had a rare tal­ent for en­liven­ing his ac­counts of the larger forces of his­tory with vivid and idio­syn­cratic de­tail. He was also in­vari­ably en­ter­tain­ing, and Gil­mour is a wor­thy suc­ces­sor.

Al­ready the bi­og­ra­pher of Lord Cur­zon and Rud­yard Ki­pling, as well as the au­thor of The Rul­ing Caste: Im­pe­rial Lives in the Vic­to­rian Raj (2005), he knows the ma­te­rial back­wards and mar­shals it with style, el­e­gance and wit.

The Bri­tish in In­dia re­vis­its some as­pects of the ear­lier works but is vastly more com­pre­hen­sive and am­bi­tious, sur­vey­ing the full range of Bri­tish lives in In­dia from the early days of the East In­dia Com­pany through to In­dian in­de­pen­dence in 1947.

The Bri­tish pres­ence in In­dia was never over­whelm­ingly large. At the height of the Raj, there were only 155,000 Bri­tish sub­jects in the en­tire In­dian Em­pire, which (ac­cord­ing to the 1901 cen­sus) had a pop­u­la­tion of around 330 mil­lion. In Bom­bay and Cal­cutta, there were around 11,000 Bri­tish apiece, among 800,000 Mum­baikars and 850,000 Cal­cut­tans. Out­side big cities and army bar­racks, sahibs were sparsely dis­trib­uted through­out In­dia. The wives of Bri­tish of­fi­cials of­ten found them­selves with no­body to talk to in English ex­cept their hus­bands and dogs.

Gil­mour is par­tic­u­larly in­for­ma­tive about why English­men and Scots­men (as op­posed to rare Ir­ish­men and, even rarer, Welsh­men) de­cided to make their ca­reers in In­dia. Dur­ing the 18th cen­tury, the mo­ti­va­tion was usu­ally money: in the 1760s es­pe­cially, the East In­dia Com­pany could be spec­tac­u­larly cor­rupt. Af­ter Lord Corn­wal­lis’s term as gov­er­nor­gen­eral (1786-1793), the civil ser­vice, at least, re­formed.

A no­tably high num­ber of cler­gy­men’s sons ended up in the In­dian Civil Ser­vice. Yet their mis­sion­ary spirit was never strong; some were sim­ply black sheep, like the fre­quently dis­graced young sahib who ended up earn­ing a liv­ing as a bi­cy­cle thief in Cal­cutta.

From the 1890s, read­ers of Rud­yard Ki­pling, at­tracted to vi­sions of ‘the colour­ful glam­our of the East’, joined the Raj in in­creas­ing num­bers. As one In­dian Army re­cruit put it, ‘I joined the mil­i­tary so I could play polo, go pig-stick­ing, shoot­ing, hunt­ing and have a jolly time with a lot of jolly fel­lows.’

From the 17th to the early 19th cen­turies, the East In­dia Com­pany both­ered lit­tle about train­ing its em­ploy­ees, even as it evolved from a trad­ing com­pany into the most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal force on the sub­con­ti­nent.

Be­tween 1806 and 1858, its ad­min­is­tra­tors were trained at the East In­dia Col­lege at Hai­ley­bury which, ac­cord­ing to some ac­counts, com­bined the de­fects of both school and uni­ver­sity. If John Beames’s Mem­oirs of a Ben­gal Civil­ian is trust­wor­thy, the drink­ing started shortly af­ter 8am chapel. Of course, Beames was there not long be­fore the whole im­pe­rial sys­tem in In­dia was re­or­gan­ised in the wake of the Great Re­bel­lion (or ‘In­dian Mutiny’). Up to that point, it had been con­sid­ered bad form at Hai­ley­bury to talk too much about In­dia. Plenty of time for that when you ac­tu­ally got there.

There is at least one quotable line on ev­ery page of The Bri­tish in In­dia, ex­cept where Gil­mour pro­vides an en­tire story worth lift­ing. The best in­volve day-to-day do­mes­tic chal­lenges:

‘Ethel Grim­wood, wife of the po­lit­i­cal agent at Ma­nipur in the 1890s, might have wished for Hindu gar­den­ers, clad in dho­tis, but she had to put up with Naga tribes­men, who did their gar­den­ing in the nude. When she gave them bathing-draw­ers in an at­tempt to in­cul­cate de­cency, they pre­ferred to use the gar­ments as tur­bans.’

Skilled bar­bers in the Pun­jab could shave a soldier in bed be­fore reveille with­out wak­ing him up. On the other hand, the food in the In­dian Army sounds grue­some. Bar­racks life

was mo­not­o­nous; so was the In­dian Civil Ser­vice, which took mind­less bu­reau­cracy to un­prece­dented heights. Bri­tish In­dia sounds at once sti­flingly for­mal and brutishly philis­tine.

Yet the Raj’s elab­o­rate so­cial pro­to­cols might not have been en­tirely ab­surd: a soli­tary ad­min­is­tra­tor in the jun­gle dress­ing for din­ner was giv­ing him­self an ex­cuse to change out of sweaty clothes. Also, the reg­u­lar rit­ual might have kept him from slit­ting his own throat.

Not hav­ing ex­am­ined ei­ther vol­ume of the Bri­tish mis­sion­ary Ce­cil Tyn­daleBis­coe’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, this re­viewer was un­aware that there was such a thing as the Sri­na­gar Sodomy Club in Kash­mir; whereas Gil­mour has read ev­ery­thing and missed noth­ing and pro­vides an ex­em­plary bib­li­og­ra­phy for fur­ther re­search. From now on, The Bri­tish in In­dia should be the first book that any­body con­sults on the East In­dia Com­pany or the Raj.

‘How long have you sus­pected you’re be­ing fol­lowed?’

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