The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience by David Gilmour Jaspreet Singh Boparai
JASPREET SINGH BOPARAI
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?’