The British in India offers a rich and nuanced social history of empire

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Historian David Gilmour is interested in the motives and identities of individuals.

In the 18th century, a Sikh from the Punjab had very little in common with a Muslim from Bengal, no more than they had with the red-faced Englishman who had braved the five-month journey to India in search of work or to escape gambling debts or scandal. Indian ruling dynasties had often been foreigners and the inhabitants of the subcontinent were estranged from each other by language, custom and religion. The British were indeed strange figures in India, but not that strange.

This impressive book from David Gilmour, an old hand at Raj history, describes this tribe of British conquerors, administrators and merchants who lived in India from shortly after the death of Elizabeth I until well into the reign of Elizabeth II, a period of some 350 years. For nearly three quarters of the time India was administered by the East India Company, and only for the last 90 years (1858-1947) directly ruled by Britain.

Gilmour writes about the viceroys and governors, but also about men and women at lower levels, those living in bungalows with “many insects and little sanitation” and a daily risk of being savaged by pets that had ventured out and contracted rabies. Their days at home were punctuated with three breaks for “pegs” of whisky, while outside they were the spearers of boar and pursuers of jackal who would greet the dawn with: “It’s a fine day, let’s go and kill something.”

Gilmour is interested in the motives and identities of British individuals, not in the virtues and failings of empire. It is impossible to avoid mentioning, however, that the governance of India was often in the hands of dim peers. Lord Sandhurst, governor of Bombay from 1895 to 1900, was “incurably dense” and almost illiterate, though he had the saving grace of being the brother-in-law of a cabinet member. Lord Lamington, another governor of Bombay, from 1903 to 1907, was so irresolute he never knew which train to travel on and did not know which girl to propose to until Lord Curzon made the choice for him (it fell on Mary Haughton Hozier). The contribution of Eton was considerable: two thirds of the viceroys between 1884 and 1943 went there, as did half the governors of Bombay. Some could, and did, receive imperial preferment for having been the secretary of state’s fag.

The introduction of a meritocracy under civil service rules led to the emergence of “competition wallahs”, professional bureaucrats who “neither ride, nor shoot, nor dance, nor play cricket, and prefer the companionship of their books”, as one superior complained. No governor wanted a man who was “of no assistance at a dinner party”.

British rule benefited from its similarity to the Hindu caste system, with the Indian Civil Service functioning as the Brahmin, a warrior caste of army officers coming next and, a stage down, a caste of merchants, planters and people “in trade”. The fastidiousness of the British with their formality as to dress, social class and inflections of language was immediately understandable in India. Even within professions, distinctions were taken to an absurd degree. One stationmaster’s wife felt she should go in to be seated at dinner before another woman because her rival’s husband, though doing the same job, was “not on the main line”.

Indian life added yet further distinctions to be piled on an already crippling class system. “Countrybred” was the disparaging description of those who had always lived in India. They were looked down on by expatriates born in Britain while “the countrybred families scorned those of mixed blood; and those of mixed blood seemed to think that, by disparaging themselves of everything Indian, they were somehow purging themselves of an impurity”.

This is a rich and nuanced social history that does not treat every British footstep on the subcontinent as if it were a step on the way to the Amritsar massacre. That does not make it an imperial whitewash. Gilmour throws an interesting light on the massacre of 379 unarmed Indians in 1919, which punched a hole in the claim of British rule to moral authority. It was a punitive action following rioting that brought about the deaths of several Europeans. The shooting was commanded by General Reginald Dyer, who was denigrated as a countrybred Irishman; his superior Sir Michael O’Dwyer was also Irish. “Had we had Englishmen in their places, the trouble would not have arisen,” said Sir Spencer Harcourt Butler, lieutenant governor of the neighbouring United Provinces. Gilmour records this as a fact of British life and attitudes in India; he feels his role is to report, not to comment.

The only people allowed to elide class divisions were those who were female, pretty and good at tennis. India suffered from a shortage of British women, particularly before the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 made the passage safer and shorter. Girls of the “fishing fleet” who arrived looking for husbands in earlier years complained that potential spouses preferred to keep their Indian mistresses rather than take English wives. A member of the ruling council was as likely to have a “Bibi” or native mistress as was a tradesman.

In 1800 Bibis were ubiquitous but 50 years later the moral tide had not only removed them but when biographies were written of famous men, the facts of their Indian wives and half-Indian children were expunged. When Sir Charles Metcalfe, former Resident at Delhi, was celebrated after his death, his obituary failed to mention his Indian wife and three sons – one of them a distinguished soldier. Propriety said they should not have existed, so they did not exist.

The only occupations on the subcontinent in which the British were outnumbered by rivals from other parts of Europe and from the US were those of missionary and prostitute. These time-honoured occupations came together in the 1890s when members of the Bombay Midnight Mission began patrolling the red-light district by knocking on doors, singing hymns outside brothels and accosting gentlemen, threatening to put their names in a journal that would be sent to the men’s clubs.

Nationalist Indians fomented unrest with stories of the British wishing to convert the nation or suppress native religions. In fact, missionaries were widely despised as bringing nothing but trouble to the subcontinent. It was not only the reprobates who found such endeavours irritating; Queen Victoria said she “wished the Mohammedans could be let alone by missionaries”.

Gilmour names two missionaries who perfected local dialects and spent decades as itinerant preachers in bazaars – endeavours that led to literally no converts. Theirs was a personal devotion resembling that of Hindu fakirs with their repetitive acts of self-mortification, taking place in the same marketplaces.

In the 1880s, the Anglican bishops of India and Ceylon denounced the registration of brothels and compulsory medical treatment of prostitutes on the basis that the suppression of vice was more important than the diminution of suffering caused by that vice. The “lock hospitals” that specialised in treating syphilis and cantonment military brothels were closed, with an inevitable surge in venereal disease. Soon almost half the British troops were being treated, with an even higher proportion in parts of Bombay. The viceroy Lord Elgin lamented the moves which had led to “even more deplorable evils”, by which he meant an increase in homosexuality. The brothels were discreetly reopened.

Another path was followed by the missionary poet Verrier Elwin, who arrived at a mission at Poona in 1927. He encountered Gandhi, whom he found “sublime and Christ-like”, and became a convert, leaving the church and setting up an ashram along Gandhi’s principles. He lived with the tribal Gonds of central India but the Gandhian dream quickly turned sour – what was the relevance to tribal people of the cotton spinning, abstinence from alcohol and celibacy that Gandhi insisted upon? Elwin took another path, becoming sexually promiscuous, but also promoting a trenchant defence of the lifestyle of India’s 25 million aboriginals. By his death in 1964 Elwin was revered in the now independent India as among the best of the liberal-minded Englishmen who made the country their home.

Jad Adams is the author of “Gandhi: Naked Ambition” (Quercus)

The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience
David Gilmour
Allen Lane, 618pp, £30

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