The British in India by David Gilmour review – three centuries of ambition and experience | Books


On 24 September 1599, while William Shakespeare was mulling over a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe in Southwark, a mile 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 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. They succeeded the mighty Mughal empire where even minor provincial nawabs and governors ruled over vast areas, larger in both size and population than the biggest countries of Europe, so reversing the balance of trade that from Roman times on had drained western bullion eastwards.

Over the course of three and half centuries, a whole British colonial world was founded to exploit and administer these conquests, a world with its own peculiar argot, its own institutions, its idiosyncratic snobberies and social hierarchies, its own 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 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.

View of Calcutta from the Esplanade, c1860.

View of Calcutta from the Esplanade, c1860. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

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 pig-sticking, 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 or ICS, while the selling of merchandise – the entire raison d’etre of the company – came to be regarded as socially gauche: “boxwallahs” were automatically excluded from the better clubs and the top tier of Raj society. The modest institution that 100 years after founding still had only 35 permanent staff grew into the Raj – in many respect’s 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, in this book draws on more than 30 years of research in the archives, and presents an astonishing harvest from diaries, memoirs, letters and official documents of the era, many previously unused: punkah wallahs and sex workers, pagoda hunters and viceregal palaces. All British colonial life in India is here presented in elegant prose, 350 years of battles and durbars, maharajahs’ balls, viceregal tiger shoots and Shimla 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”. I found the decision not to engage in the current debate on empire frustrating, and it is a book that contains far fewer Indians and far fewer Indian perspectives than it should.

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 compelling the 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. This debate has now bounced back to the ivory towers of our universities, where passions are running high over the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and over often uncritical teaching of British imperialism.

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.

The Gateway of India, Mumbai.

The Gateway of India, Mumbai. Photograph: Ed Smallwood

In many ways the two books are polar opposites of each other. Gilmour’s draws on his decades in the archives; Tharoor’s was written in 12 days, involved no personal archive research and contains some serious factual errors. But Tharoor’s is unquestionably the more hard-hitting, and its case is persuasive. One wishes that Gilmour, who clearly disagrees fundamentally with the Tharoor line, had made the counter case, but he seems to decline the challenge. These are simply individual lives, he writes; they are the stuff of history and deserve to be recorded and chronicled as such.

This may well be so; but it raises questions that hang heavily over Gilmour’s text. We are introduced, for example, to one of the hard-working and idealistic Edwardian ICS officers “running a subdivision consisting of a million people in 2,000 square miles”, operating “not for himself but for the good of large numbers of subjects to his administration”. Though Gilmour writes about such men admiringly, we are left wondering whether these lives, even if led with moral probity, were in fact guilty of slowly ruining India.

You do not have to be a paid-up Tharoorian or radical anti-Rajist to make this case: the economist Tirthankar Roy, for example, who has argued convincingly against Tharoor on questions of economics, still believes that the British were guilty of massive negligence in rural development. That one brilliant officer surrounded by a million Indians never had the resources to irrigate or develop peninsular India south of the Punjab, which is why it was possible for the governments after independence to quickly double India’s agricultural production and so bring an immediate end to the famines that swept away millions of lives right up until 1947.

Within 20 years of the end of the Raj almost all major indices of human development – lifespan, sanitation, literacy and child mortality, access to clean water and education – had all immeasurably improved; indeed average lifespans had increased by as much as a decade. This is vital context for Gilmour’s chronicle of colonial British lives, and however remarkable his achievement within the limits he sets himself, you still end up wishing, in the words of EM Forster, perhaps the best of all British novelists on India, that he would “only connect”.

The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £25.80 (RRP £30) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


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