A Close-Up Look at the British Men and Women Who Ruled India


A Social History of the Raj
By David Gilmour
Illustrated. 618 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.

The United Kingdom’s still-roiling Brexit controversy, with the referendum’s most fervent supporters boasting of an unleashed Britain recapturing imperial-era glory, has tended to leave the messier, bloodier details of colonialism unexamined. From this distance, and with rose-tinted glasses, the British Empire — especially as it extended to India — can be viewed as an example of a selfless commitment to civilizing the world while standing atop it. And yet, as David Gilmour writes of the British mind-set during the imperial heyday, “It was as if the British, at almost every level of society, were proud to have India as their jewel but did not want to spend much time admiring the object: It was just nice to know that it was in the bank and to be able to boast about it.” Even a couple of centuries ago, applying a microscope to British rule in India — let alone learning about Indians themselves — was inevitably a more complex, and fraught, undertaking than most Britons had any wish to engage in.

With “The British in India: A Social History of the Raj,” Gilmour, metaphorical microscope in hand, has written a broad-ranging but precise and intimate examination of the British men and women who served and lived on the subcontinent. A historian of Italy and Britain, a biographer of Kipling and the onetime viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, as well as a prolific essayist, he is ideally suited to the task. But this is not a book about the evils of colonialism; the devil is not in these details. What interests him, in this book at least, are not the larger questions of politics, or economics, or the global position of Britain — all of them factors that helped determine the country’s imperial stance — but instead the often gritty, colorfully distinct stories that constituted the individual British experience. He is also fascinated by the social relations among and within classes, and how mores changed over a vast era that ended with independence, partition and the birth of Pakistan in 1947. It is a finely wrought history of the British in India that does not really examine what the British did to India — or to Indians.


“The British in India” actually begins in the period before the formation of the British Raj in 1858, which was a direct response to the Indian rebellion of the previous year against the East India Company. That entity, created in 1600, really only came into great prominence in the middle of the 18th century. (The British edition’s subtitle, “Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience,” is both better and more accurate than “A Social History of the Raj.”) Over these years, the “mental journey” of the British, as one writer quoted by Gilmour characterized it, could be charted as “Greed, Scorn, Fear and Indifference,” in precisely that order. Gilmour’s narrative doesn’t really unfold in this chronological fashion, but a consistent theme is how a relatively few Britons ruled a vast territory, and how lonely and isolated their experiences could be. They were a cross-section of people, soldiers and civil servants, often the black sheep of their families, sometimes criminals seeking a clean slate and, especially at first, men simply out to make a quick buck. “India’s chief allure for Europeans of the 18th century,” Gilmour writes, “was its wealth and the chance of getting their hands on some of it.” Gilmour is particularly good on the Indian Civil Service — a subject he has previously written about — which presided over India during the 90 years of formal Raj rule. It did so with a seriousness of purpose — and with an increasing number of Indians in its ranks — that was lacking in earlier periods.


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