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Racist Raj?

Thursday, June 1, 2006

David Gilmour.
The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $26.00

Richard Holmes.
Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750–1914.
HarperCollins. 572 pages. £20.00

Throughout her reign, Queen Victoria — whose job description included Empress of India — was worshipped as a near-goddess on the subcontinent; an absentee goddess, admittedly, as she had never ventured east of Berlin, but she was very fond of her Indian subjects, and her remoteness only added to her mystery. In 1901 she died, and the time came to mark the coronation of her successor Edward viiin suitable fashion.

Though Edward could not be persuaded to visit India in person, it was decided that a proclamation durbar — a durbar being the Indian word for a public audience held by a native prince or by a British governor or viceroy of India — should be staged in Delhi. The viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, a man with a highly developed sense of ceremony, took it upon himself to organize the festivities. He put on a magnificent production in Delhi, beginning on December 29, 1902, and lasting two weeks, involving some 150,000 people. On the first day, the Curzons entered the area of festivities, together with the maharajahs, riding on elephants, some with huge gilt candelabras stuck on their tusks, “a most absurd sight,” according to a participant. The durbar ceremony itself fell on New Year’s day and was followed by days of polo and other sports, dinners, balls, military reviews, bands, and exhibitions.

Curzon — who spent a lifetime followed around by a doggerel that began: “George Nathaniel Curzon/ is a very superior person” — knew he would be criticized at home for extravagance and for self-glorification. But he also knew that this kind of pageantry was extremely useful in the Orient and humorously referred to himself as “a magnificent state Barnum, an imperial Buffalo Bill.”

The Curzon Durbar marked the high noon of the British empire. Unfortunately, though he had been invited over, Rudyard Kipling, the unofficial laureate of the empire, could not be there to record it, being in South Africa at the time. In many ways, Curzon was the embodiment of Kipling’s notions of the British empire, its values and goals.

For a long time, everything connected with the empire has been suspect, including Kipling, who is seen as a peddler of naughty imperialist pornography. As the historian David Gilmour notes, what became instead the accepted view of the British in India was E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, which portrays British officials as confused and frightened bumblers, insular and racist caricatures. This is relatively mild compared to the work of Marxist academics like Mike Davis, whose title, Late Victorian Holocausts, says it all.

Of course, the effete Bloomsbury crowd’s view of the world is perhaps not the most reliable guide to the past, nor is that of easily excitable left-wingers. Lately, however, serious historians have been taking a second and more dispassionate look, most notably David Gilmour in his new book The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, the best study available of how the British civilian administrators thought and felt about their mission. Gilmour is a former fellow at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, whose previous books include a stellar biography of Lord Curzon, from which the above details are taken, and an equally enjoyable biography of Kipling.

The military side of things is covered in Richard Holmes’s Sahib: The British Soldier in India, 1750–1914. Holmes is a military historian who has written on the Redcoats, the Duke of Wellington, and the British soldier on the Western Front. Together these two books give a vivid picture of the British in India who, in their attempts to impose order, faced many of the problems the West faces today in Third World “failed states.”


The question has always been how on earth they managed to control such a vast territory with so few men. Joseph Stalin paid a grudging compliment to the men of the Indian Civil Service when he remarked to German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, “It is ridiculous . . . that a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.”

The British presence in India had begun when the Honorable East India Company established trading posts on the coasts in the early 1600s and expanded over the next century as the Company’s interests moved inland and it became heavily involved in local power struggles. Soon, troops were needed to guard its commercial interests, and Col. Adlercron’s 39th Foot arrived in 1754. When Victoria became queen in 1837, there were some 41,000 Europeans in India, of whom 37,000 were soldiers while 1,000 were members of the Indian Civil Service. Until the Mutiny of 1857, when the Bengal army rebelled and gave British commanders plenty to attend to, things were run by the East India Company. In 1858 the responsibility was taken over by the Crown.

India was seen as a hardship post, no doubt about that. The climate was brutal, and diseases — particularly cholera, typhoid, and malaria — were rampant. For the civilian administrators, the job involved moving about constantly, with decades-long separations from family and children, and it aged them prematurely. In photographs, Gilmour notes, lieutenant governors, who are in fact all retired by the age of 58, look like men in their 70s and 80s. But with a population of 300 million, India also represented an enormous challenge: It was government on a grand scale, exercised directly in British India, indirectly in the princely states. Its attraction was spelled out by Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general from 1848 to 1856: “While a member of the civil service in England is a clerk, a member of the civil service in India may be a proconsul.”

Though the army was, in the words of John Lawrence, who became viceroy in 1863, “infinitely inferior in every respect” to the civil service in status and reward, there were compensations. Living in India was cheap, and there were plenty of servants. Even the high mortality rate — 58 of 1,000 soldiers died of disease — had an upside, which was the prospect of early promotion. A common toast among junior officers was “to a bloody campaign and a pestilential season.”

The reaction of a young lieutenant, Walter Campbell, to being posted to India in 1830 is probably typical. “It fell like a thunderbolt on many. India was to them a land of hopeless banishment — a living grave — a blank in their existence — a land from whence, if they escaped an early death, they were to return with sallow cheeks peevish tempers and ruined constitutions. And such, alas, was the fate of many. But to my romantic imagination it appeared a land of promise — a land of sunshine and perfume — a land of princes pageants and perfume.”


As to the nature of the mission, fundamentally there were two views, according to Gilmour. Conservatives saw the British presence in India as permanent and advocated a kind of “benevolent and efficient autocracy.” In their view, democracy and Christian principles of tolerance could not be transplanted to places where no such traditions existed. A British withdrawal would only result in chaos and civil war. It would be, as they saw it, like opening the cages of the zoo, with the tiger ending up as ruler.

Victorian Liberals, for their part, adopted a more ambiguous stance. Gladstone put it like this: “My own desires are chiefly these, that nothing may bring about a sudden, violent or discreditable severance, that we may labour steadily to promote the political training of our native fellow subjects, and that when we go, if we are ever to go, we may leave a good name and a clean bill of health behind us.” Thus, the Liberals espoused the notion of an “imperial trusteeship,” but, as one gathers from Gladstone’s comment, there was certainly no hurry about the hand-over.

To prepare India’s future administrators for the task, the East India College had been established in 1806 in Hertford Castle and soon after got its headquarters in Haileybury. Here candidates were offered two years of training in mathematics, law, economics, and history, as well as Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic. Nepotism was rampant, and academic standards were not very high, but a certain team spirit was built. Haileybury was closed in 1857 and its function taken over by a more rigorous two-year stint at university, with admission based on competition. At Cambridge, probationers sported purple blazers with badges bearing a tiger’s head with a smoking cap on. A thorough physical examination came at the end of the studies. If candidates failed, they had just wasted two years.

Physical stamina was imperative. The ideal settlement officer was a man who was constantly on the move “till the monsoon brings his tent away, and he swims into headquarters holding an umbrella over his records.” Gilbert tells of loners like William Henry Horsley, whose specialty was making maps of woods in the Bombay province. Preferring creeping “about the jungle, all eyes and ears, to ambling blandly at a ballroom,” Horsley for a long time turned down promotions and described his life in the saddle as “a kind of prolonged solitary picnic with a certain amount of official correspondence to fill up the hot midday hours.”

India was divided into 250 districts, averaging about one million people in each. The key administrative figure in British India was the district officer. Acting as chief magistrate and revenue officer, he also oversaw the roads, schools, hospitals, forests, and agriculture irrigation projects and initiated some medical and sanitation programs. Not only did he have to be able to look after others when doing his rounds; he also had to be able to look out for himself. When dispensing justice one district officer kept a revolver in his hand to prevent misunderstandings.

The dedication and self-discipline of these officers, who saw themselves as much servants as rulers, is well evoked, as is their isolation, in the description of them dressing for dinner in the middle of the jungle. As Gilmour notes, this might strike the modern reader as absurd, but it reminded men of where they came from and what they represented. In a Kipling short story, mentioned in Gilmour’s Kipling biography, an official engages in this kind of ritual every night to prevent himself “from going to seed,” as indeed Kipling did himself. “One knew if one broke the ritual of dressing for the last meal one was parting with a sheet anchor,” Kipling wrote.

With time, what Gilmour calls the “rough and ready ways of young men dispensing justice in their shirtsleeves” during the first half of the nineteenth century gave way to more institutionalized methods of conducting business.   Inevitably, a growing bureaucracy emerged, with the clerks of the different offices of the district officer engaging in  furious fights among themselves. One district officer cited in the book “used to find drafts of letters from myself as Magistrate to myself as Collector accusing myself of neglect and delay, and some very trenchant replies placed before me for signature.”


The environment in which these men had to function was “an alien and potentially hostile one” where normal Western standards of right and wrong did not apply. According to a district officer quoted in the book, in Bengali the word “straight” also meant “stupid.” In other words, “a straight man” was a man who was too dumb to be devious. Witnesses could be hired outside the courthouse to bear testimony to whatever the customer wanted, and the local police were notoriously corrupt.

To this one can add the political/religious passions they had to contend with, perhaps best illustrated by Sir Pratap Singh, the maharaja of Idar, whose most fervent wish was to annihilate the Muslims. When a British official gently reminded him that they had Muslim friends in common, he answered, “Yes, I liking them too, but very much liking them dead.”

Their jobs were further complicated by local superstition and rumors. In one case villagers, learning that the British encouraged emigration to Burma, refused famine relief because they thought it was part of a scheme to fatten them up before shipping them off; the inhabitants of Burma, they believed, were “cannibals with enormous mouths.” And there were instances of officials being prevented from introducing sanitary measures on the grounds that disease was a result of sin and should be allowed to run its course. The pilgrim festivals were especially great spreaders of disease, and British officials were often powerless to interfere.

The rule was not to interfere with local customs and practices, provided “no one steals too flagrantly or murders too openly.” As Gilmour notes in his Kipling book, “The Man Who Would Be King” can be read as an allegory of British imperialism and the disastrous consequences of such interference. But there were limits to British tolerance of local “cultural” peculiarities. The three don’ts, as summed up by Viceroy Sir John Lawrence, were: “Do not burn widows / Do not kill daughters / Do not bury lepers alive.”

The task of the men serving as residents in the princely states was not much easier. As Kipling put it, “God Created the Maharajas to offer Mankind a Spectacle.” And, it might be added, to give the British resident a headache. The job of the resident involved discreetly “pulling the strings, but reserving all the outward semblance of authority to the Native government,” according to Richard Temple, one of the most astute practitioners of the art of indirect rule. Diplomatic skills were essential. “We want lean and keen men on the frontier,” stated Lieutenant Governor Sir Harcourt Butler, “and fat and good natured men in the states.”

Good natured only to a degree, though, as they needed to rein in the worst impulses of their hosts. A nasty example was Jay Singh, the maharaja of Alwar, notorious for indulging in every vice known to mankind, including a fondness for fancy cars and little boys. This was tolerated, but the Brits drew the line in 1933, when he poured kerosene over his pony after it had ditched him in a polo match, and lit a match. Not nice. Mr. Singh was out of a job.

Often when a maharaja died, the resident had to serve as adviser and tutor for his offspring, which could bring conflicts with the mother and the rest of the family. Further education also represented a problem. The solution of sending Indian princes to British elite universities was not ideal, as the combination of Brahmin and Brit privilege only tended to reinforce the worst in one another. According to one resident, the outcome of British university education “so far was sodomites 2, idiots 1, sots 1 and a gentleman prevented by chronic gonorrhoea from paying his respects on the Queen’s birthday.” Curzon, for one, strongly disapproved of the practice of sending a young prince abroad, where he “learned to despise his people, their ways and their ignorance.” Accordingly, local colleges were established, but the Brits never quite succeeded in producing a leadership elite they were prepared to count on.

Despite their devotion to duty, very few civilian administrators stayed on as settlers in India, as they often did in Australia or the African colonies. “We all feel that we are mere sojourners in the land, only camping and on the march,” wrote Lord Minto, another viceroy. When they had done their duty, they returned to Britain. Many became scholars, the authors of works with titles like Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and their Successors and Seven Grammars of the Dialects and Subdialects of the Bihari Language. In a lighter vein, two translated the Kama Sutra. According to Gilbert, many of these were viewed by a later age as the work of “agents of colonialism” and hence not genuine scholarship. Thus, Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, asserts that “all academic study of Britain . . . is somehow violated by the gross political fact of British dominion.” Of course a knowledge and understanding of the ruled was useful to the rulers, notes Gilbert, but much of it was driven by simple intellectual curiosity, not an imperial agenda.


Ultimately, as Richard Holmes demonstrates in Sahib, British rule in India depended on the military. Among the remarkable military men who served there was Robert Clive, who had come out as a lowly clerk for the East India Company in 1743 and felt so depressed that he’d held a gun to his head. When it misfired he joined the military arm of the company and after a brief spell in England returned with the rank of colonel in 1755. Two years later, he fought the battle of Plassey, where the nawab of Bengal fielded a force of 35,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry against Clive’s 3,000 men — only a third of whom were British — and 50 guns.

A British soldier at Plassey describes the sight facing him: “What with the number of elephants covered in scarlet cloth and embroidery, their horse with their drawn swords glittering in the sun; their heavy cannon drawn by vast trains of oxen; and their standards flying, they made a most pompous and formidable appearance.” Native Indian armies may have looked impressive, but they were no match for a small and well-led force, and the nawab’s men quickly scattered. The battle marked the beginning of British dominion of India, and Clive ended up a hugely rich man — the prototype of a new class of so-called nabobs whom William Pitt the Elder would later warn were forcing themselves into Parliament “bringing not only Asiatic luxury, but I fear Asiatic principles of government.”

Of the Company’s Victorian commanders, Charles Napier stands out: A political radical given to “strange alterations of self-exaltation and self abasement,” he is described in mid-battle, riding so close to the front lines that he is singed by powder while “pouring out torrents of blasphemous exhortation”: “His appearance was so strange that the Baluchis might well have mistaken him for a demon. Beneath a huge helmet of his own contrivance there issued a fringe of long hair at the back, and in front a pair of round spectacles, an immense hooked nose and a mane of moustache and whisker reaching to the waist.”

During the Sikh wars of the 1840s, Napier conquered Scind in 1843. Before the action he said of Scind’s ruling amirs: “They are tyrants, and so are we, but the poor will have fairer play under our sceptre than under theirs . . . we have no right to seize Scind, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality it will be.” His military philosophy was simple: “The great receipt for quieting a country is a good thrashing first and kindness afterwards. The wildest chaps are thus tamed.”

As noted above, the official policy of the East India Company was nonintervention in religious affairs, but when it came to the practice of widow burning, Napier put his foot down. When, in an incident not mentioned in the book, local priests protested, Napier gave them a choice: “The burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us act according to our national customs.” This was clearly not some conflicted E.M. Forster character.

Nor was the legendary Lieutenant Colonel Bill Nicholson, known as the Lion of the Punjab, one of the heroes of the Mutiny. Early in his career he had found the mutilated corpse of his brother — with his genitals stuffed into his mouth — in the Khyber pass, which did not overly endear the region to him. But his Indian servants were devoted to him. Once, when an assassin rushed toward his tent yelling his name, Nicholson’s servant replied “all our names are Nikal Seyn here” and blocked his way, giving Nicholson time to find his pistol and dispatch the madman. So strong was his personality that the local brotherhood of fakirs in Hazaza made him into a deity. He would have none of this nonsense, naturally, and had the rascals whipped and thrown in jail, but the fakirs carried on their worship. Coming to the rescue of Delhi during the Mutiny, the newly minted Brigadier General Nicholson was mortally wounded while storming the city. On his deathbed, when he was disturbed by some noisy troopers outside his tent, he fired his pistol though the canvas. The man wanted quiet.

Due to complacency and intelligence failure, the Mutiny came as a nasty shock to the British. The so-called Doctrine of Lapse, according to which the British would annex a princely state if there was no male heir to the throne, had long been a source of discontent, and the practice was subsequently abandoned. The immediate causes were disgruntlement over pay and the brushfire rumor that grease made from animal fat was used for the new 1853 Enfield rifle’s cartridges, which the native troops had to bite off. Muslims were told by the agitators that pig fat had been used, while Hindus were told it came from cows.

After the Mutiny had been quelled, many Indian rebels were hanged as a warning. Others were “blown from guns,” which involved tying the rebel to the mouth of a cannon and blasting his body to bits. This grisly ritual exploited local superstition — making it hard for the gods to fit the pieces together again. Before the Mutiny, according to Holmes, there had been some 45,000 British soldiers to about 232,000 Indian troops, a ratio of about one to five. A royal commission recommended a safety ratio of one to two, the fulfillment of which the British came closest to in the 1880s with figures of 62,000 Brits to 135,000 Indians. Other precautions included equipping British troops with the newest rifles while the Indian army got the castoffs and keeping the artillery in British hands.

Otherwise, throughout the nineteenth century the greatest concern of the British was the northern border, where they played what they called the “Great Game” with the Russians, with Afghanistan as the centerpiece. There were two views on Afghanistan. The “Forward School” advocated the stationing of British garrisons in that country to block a Russian advance as far away from India as possible. This had met with disastrous consequences in 1838, when a British army under Major General William Elphinstone was all but wiped out by the Afghans with only one officer, Dr. William Bryden, making it back to the British garrison in Jelalabad.

The other approach was what they called a policy of “masterly inactivity,” which saw Afghanistan as a natural obstacle and held that there would not be much left of a Russian army once it arrived in India. Conservatives normally took the first view — Disraeli being an exception — while Liberals took the second. When the British resident in Kabul, Sir Louis Cavagnary, was killed in 1878, the British sent off a successful punitory expedition under General Sir Frederic Roberts. Still, the British realized that Afghanistan would be impossible to hold. Having installed a neutral regime in Kabul, they withdrew their troops and satisfied themselves with some buffer zone arrangements along the border. Fortunately, the Russians never made it to India.


The big question remains: Were the British racist? As far as the men of the Indian Civil Service were concerned, Gilmour says, the answer is no, not in the sense that they believed one race to be innately cleverer than any other or that the advantage of the white man was permanent. Great powers waxed and waned. They did see themselves as belonging to a more advanced civilization with a more sophisticated type of government and a higher form of morals, a feeling that could not but be reinforced when they were confronted with savagery like widow burning. From this they derived the notion of their legitimacy to rule.

Racial separation had been accelerated by the Mutiny, notes Gilmour. Their close call had caused the British increasingly to isolate themselves and behave more as rulers. The importation of British women also played a part. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was not unusual for British officials to have Indian wives and mistresses. Later, as more British women began to come out, this kind of thing was frowned upon.

But racial barriers were also erected by the Indians themselves. India’s caste system prevented women from taking part in the social life and made ordinary interaction exceedingly difficult — with Brahmin guests requiring a bowl in which they could immediately purify their hands after a handshake, for example. As Gilmour notes, “the British were not in India to be treated like Untouchables.”

As for the army’s attitude toward the natives, it was of course less sophisticated than that of the smoother civilians. Again, the Brits had been more tolerant in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thus, Colonel Skinner of Skinner’s Horse, a famous cavalry regiment, reportedly had 14 wives and fourscore children. Here, too, the arrival of British women had much to do with the hardening of attitudes. “Every youth who is able to maintain a wife marries. The conjugal pair become a bundle of English prejudices and hates the country, the natives and everything belonging to them,” Holmes quotes one officer as saying.

Acts of senseless brutality were inevitable, to the disgust of the civilian administrators. When the 9th Lancers failed to identify and punish two cavalrymen for beating a cook to death, Curzon punished the regiment by cancelling their leave for six months. That did not make him popular with the military. During the durbar, the spectators cheered as the regiment rode by. On the other hand, there were officers serving with the native army who were utterly devoted to Indian troops, though this lies mostly outside the purview of the Holmes book. (For an account of the native regiments, see Byron Farwell’s excellent Armies of the Raj.)


Early Japanese victories during World War ii brought British vulnerabilities very much to light, proving that the Brits were not gods. In addition, when the war was over, they could no longer afford their empire, and a hurried withdrawal from India was decided on. Predictably, religious hatreds that had long been simmering boiled over, with Muslims and Hindus slaughtering one another, reaching a crescendo at the time of independence in August 1947 and the announcement of the borders of a separate Muslim Pakistan; millions were forced to flee to join their respective sides.

Curzon wrote in an early book on Persia that “the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans.” But even nationalists like Nehru — who before the war had argued that the Japanese could not be worse than the British — admitted that British civilians could not be bribed, and, as Gilmour concludes, both the Indians and the Pakistanis, in a truly great compliment to the Brits, constructed their civil services on the British model. Similarly, in both the Pakistani and Indian armies, British echoes still linger.