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The British in India: a social history of 350 years of colonisation – book review

Author David Gilmour skilfully charts the changing lives of Britons, from the early East India Company era to the Raj period, but his decision not to engage in debate on the merits of empire is frustrating

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 2:30pm

The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience

by David Gilmour

Allen Lane

3 stars

On September 24, 1599, while William Shakespeare was mulling over a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe theatre in Southwark, south London, a few kilometres to the north a motley group of Londoners were gathering in a half-timbered Tudor hall. The men had come together to petition the ageing Queen Elizabeth I, then a bewigged and painted sexagenarian, to start up a company “to venter in a voiage to ye Est Indies”.

The East India Company quickly grew into the world’s first and most powerful multinational corporation, and the one that, more than any other in history, would transform not just patterns of global trade but the globe itself. Before long a mere handful of businessmen from a distant island on the rim of Europe had made themselves masters of a subcontinent whose inhabitants numbered 50 to 60 million.

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Over the course of three-and-a-half centuries, a whole British colonial world was founded to exploit and administer these conquests, a world with its own peculiar argot, institutions, idiosyncratic snobberies and social hierarchies, educational establishments, and career paths – an empire within an empire. When the British finally left India in 1947, nearly 350 years after the founding of the East India Company, that world dissolved overnight.

Perhaps it is only possible now, more than 70 years later, in an age when the imperial British feel almost as distant a part of history as the imperial Romans, for this expatriate society to receive the particular attention that its idiosyncrasy deserves.

It is no easy task that David Gilmour’s magisterial The British in India has taken on. The world of the high Victorian Raj period – the British Crown rule of India from 1858 to 1947 – was hugely different from that of the early East India Company, and almost anything said about one is untrue of the other, making generalisations highly suspect.

The early military adventurers, for example, were often dissolute ne’er-do-wells like George Thomas, “the Rajah from Tipperary”, a poor Irish mercenary who in the 1760s was press-ganged into the British navy and jumped ship in Madras. He eventually carved out his own state in the badlands west of Delhi, built himself a palace, minted his own coins and collected a harem, but in the process forgot how to speak English; when asked at the end of his career to dictate his autobiography, he said he would be happy to do so as long as he could speak in Persian as “from constant use it was become more familiar than his native tongue”.

In contrast, the military recruits of the early 20th-century Raj were clubbable public school types such as Hilary Hook, who said that he “joined the military so I could play polo, go pigsticking, shooting and hunting and have a jolly time with a lot of jolly fellows”.

In between these two poles, the flagrant and wanton corruption of the East India Company gave way to the famously incorruptible Indian Civil Service, while the selling of merchandise – the entire raison d’être of the company – came to be regarded as socially gauche. The modest institution that 100 years after founding still had only 35 permanent staff grew into the Raj, which was in many respects Britain’s most prestigious organisation, and without which, Lord Curzon (the Edwardian viceroy) believed, a post-imperial Britain would descend into little more than “a glorified Belgium”.

Gilmour, author of biographies of Rudyard Kipling and Curzon, draws on more than 30 years of research for this book, and presents an astonishing harvest from diaries, memoirs, letters and official documents of the era, many previously unused. All British colonial life in India is here presented in elegant prose: 350 years of battles and durbars, maharajahs’ balls, viceregal tiger shoots and shenanigans telescoped down into telling anecdotes and witty, skilfully sketched vignettes. The only problem is what the book fails to address.

Gilmour has chosen to write about the extremely diverse lives of British colonials in India. It is emphatically a social history, not an economic or political one and, as he writes, he “has not tried to … make a particular argument”. The decision not to engage in the current debate on empire is frustrating, and it is a book that contains far fewer Indians and far fewer Indian perspectives than it should.

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The British in India has been published only one year after Shashi Tharoor’s wonderfully accessible Inglorious Empire popularised three decades of postcolonial criticism of empire, making a compelling argument that the whole enterprise of the Raj was a vast British-run exercise in loot and plunder that reduced a previously great and wealthy nation to beggary and despair.

Gilmour does not refer to Tharoor’s book, nor does he directly answer its charges; indeed it is notably absent in Gilmour’s extensive bibliography. But the fact remains that Tharoor, a politician and former diplomat, has completely reframed the popular perception of the Raj. Despite all the charm and scholarship of this book, Tharoor stands accusingly as the ghost that lingers at the end of Gilmour’s feast, giving a bitter aftertaste to this magnificent spread of Raj nostalgia.