by David Gilmour
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006), 381 pp., $27
In early March President Bush traveled to India and Pakistan, making a surprise detour to Kabul on his way to New Delhi. His agenda was broadly geopolitical and, one might say, imperial: improved U.S.-India relations; the shoring up of a valuable but blemished ally in Islamabad; and a show of support for an Afghan leader who rules through American military power.
South Asian realities at the beginning of the 21st century are simply incomprehensible without knowledge of the greatest and most successful colonial adventure in history: the British Raj. Had it not been for Britain’s achievements, there would be no Indian state and no Pakistan as they exist today. And had it not been for the British presence in South Asia during the 19th century, Russian might now be the lingua franca in Afghanistan as it is in Central Asia.
Philip Mason’s The Men Who Ruled India, published in two volumes in 1953-54, exalted the imperial rulers of the Raj from 1600 to independence in 1947. David Gilmour, though lacking Mason’s valuable experience as an administrator in India, has now expanded the research and narrowed the focus to the Victorian era. Using a biographical approach similar to Mason’s, Gilmour concentrates on the lives, thoughts, personalities and eccentricities of the Civilians of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). An Edinburgh native who has written lives of George Curzon and Rudyard Kipling, Gilmour has mastered this fascinating material as few others have, following the Indian ruling caste from recruitment and training to illness and uneasy retirement. Using dramatic moments and bizarre anecdotes to illustrate his points, he offers a lively, stylish and amusing portrait of their daily life and work, their leisure activities and domestic duties.
Though not as hagiographical as Mason, Gilmour convincingly shows that the ICS was “impartial, high-minded, conscientious and incorruptible,” and brought to India the Western ideas of justice, law and humanity. Along the way, he demolishes Edward Said’s tendentious and absurdly fashionable Orientalism, which took for granted, without actually demonstrating, that “colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives were invariably bad.” But other opportunities are missed. Gilmour notes in passing that E. M. Forster was ignorant about Indian judicial procedure and that the arrest and trial of Aziz in A Passage to India lacked credibility. It would have been interesting to know where Forster, so perceptive about the political background, went wrong about the Indian Penal Code, the Law of Evidence and the Code of Criminal Procedure. And it would also have been useful had Gilmour compared British colonial administration with that of less enlightened French and Portuguese rulers in the enclaves of Pondicherry and Goa.
At the beginning of the 20th century the British Empire, 400 million people spread over 11.5 million square miles, was five times larger than the Roman Empire. India, with nearly 300 million people, was governed by only 800 Civilians and guarded by only 66,000 British soldiers. British rule was constantly threatened by what Rudyard Kipling called the Great Game with Russia, “which had been expanding for four centuries at the rate of 20,000 square miles a year” and inexorably absorbing the khanates of Central Asia. By 1876 the Russians, only a thousand miles from the Indian frontier, threatened to invade the subcontinent. In the 1880s the major issues, Gilmour tells us, were the wars in Afghanistan and Burma, “cotton tariffs, income tax, questions of plague and famine, problems of military indiscipline.”
Thoroughly trained in Indian languages, religion, history and law, and inspired by the “muscular ethos of courage, endurance, loyalty and self-control”, the young Civilians were drawn to the open-air life. There was plenty of hunting and shooting—called shikar—as well as the spicy smells and bright colors of the bazaar, and the “medieval world of castles, courts, minstrels and dancing girls” in the Native Feudatory States that were administered indirectly by the British. The most desirable posts were the mountainous North-Western Provinces and the Punjab; the least popular were the insufferably hot and humid Madras and Bombay.
In A Passage to India, when Aziz is accused of molesting Adela, an outraged English officer vehemently expresses his hatred of educated Indians and attraction to the martial hill tribes: “Give me the sporting type of native, give me Ghurkas, give me Rajputs, give me Jats, give me the Punjabi, give me Sikhs, give me Marathas, Bhils, Afridis and Pathans.” Fiction reflects the facts. Gilmour notes that the most effective British rulers
made friends with the tribes, dealt with them through their chiefs, paid tribesmen to patrol their communications, adhered to tribal custom and settled disputes by jirgas [tribal councils] and not through law courts. They tried to solve all problems peacefully but kept an effective military force ready and visible; and from time to time extended control by the construction of roads and forts.
The Muslims, “though often turbulent and troublesome, were regarded as more spirited and straightforward than Hindus.” Babus, Brahmins, Bunnias (merchants) and Bengalis were considered to be less sympathetic.
Young Civilians in their early twenties, put in charge of 4,000 square miles and more than a million people, were granted astonishing independence and authority. The “Heaven-born”—as Indians reverently called the British—also vaulted from scholastic obscurity to instant wealth and social position, with a comfortable house, a swarm of servants and a string of polo ponies. Though superior to the other Anglo-Indians, they were sensitive to Indian feelings and did not treat them as conquered people. Firmly but tactfully, they tried to curb the most egregious abuses and extinguish the most intolerable customs: murders, especially in the hot season, for revenge or to speed succession in royal families; the sacrifice of widows on funeral pyres; female infanticide; and religious genocide. When the Maharaja of Idar expressed a desire to exterminate the Muslim population of India, an English official gently reminded him that they shared many Muslim friends. “Yes”, Sir Pratap replied, “I liking them too, but very much liking them dead.”
District Officers spent isolated years touring their remote outposts, punctuated by a month in the hills during the hottest time of the year and by spells in the secretariat of a provincial capital. Most of them enjoyed camping out in remote tribal regions and one insouciantly described his life as “a kind of prolonged solitary picnic with a certain amount of official correspondence to fill up the hot midday hours.” Another Civilian, his dual roles as Magistrate and Collector of revenue leaving him no need to correspond, first accused himself of neglect and delay and then fired back some trenchant replies to himself. Magistrates were plagued by malicious or easily bribed witnesses who hoped to slander and ruin their enemies in court. But judges were expected to get a high percentage of convictions for extortion, robbery, torture and murder, and personally to attend executions, which George Orwell realistically described in “A Hanging.”
The Civilians worked under considerable pressure. In the bush they often had cow-dung on the floor and a cobra at the door. They endured long, lonely separations from family, wives and children, who had to be sent to England or suffer the cholera and typhus that rampaged through the Civil Lines. The climate was mostly harsh and unhealthy. One Civilian, posted to a notoriously insalubrious place, was hailed as “Lazarus” when he turned up for Christmas in Madras. “Everything is sudden in India”, an official exclaimed, “the sudden twilights, the sudden death. A man can be talking to you at breakfast and be dead in the afternoon.”
Since training in England was expensive and life in India was arduous, “toleration extended to all but the most serious cases of alcoholism, insolvency, lunacy, incompetence, insubordination and sexual misbehaviour.” Gilmour provides vivid examples of each. Many men had love affairs with Anglo-Indian ladies and adulterous liaisons in hill stations, where women were on the loose and the cool weather aroused sexual passions. Others kept delightful Burmese mistresses, who were freed from the social and religious restraints of Indian women. A somewhat envious superior once reported that one notorious rake had “run away with two women, had been separated from his own wife, and during one Poona season lived with two actresses whom he imported from America.” Another unblushing seducer, who could neither speak without affectation nor forswear pomade, was roughly compared to a “fine neighing stallion that wants castrating and regular breaking in to harness before you can get any solid steady work out of him.”
Predatory women sometimes seduced the men. Gilmour tells the tale of a colonel’s widowed sister who ensnared the judge of Poona by pruning the creepers on his bungalow while wearing scandalous bloomers. Another risked outdoor sex in the company of venomous snakes, which in 1878 killed more than 10,000 people in Bengal. Russel’s viper, too sluggish to move out of the way, bit anyone who stepped on it. A carnivorous alligator, dispatched by a hunter, revealed in his belly the bangles of an unfortunate victim.
Retired Civilians, reduced in status and suddenly unimportant, gathered in English enclaves at the seaside or in suburbs (Bayswater was known as “Asia Minor”), and had a hard time adjusting to ordinary life in a cold climate. Most of them, says Gilmour, were well known as “Philistine, curry-eating, self-important and antiquated” bores. Orwell, writing after five depressing years as a policeman in Burma and at the fag-end of imperialism, satirized his own family’s suburban villa, where they tried to recreate, with Oriental diction and décor, the ambience of India in the 1880s:
You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes of tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ’87.
What, if anything, can Americans learn from David Gilmour’s account of the British experience in India? We might start with a comparison of time and effort. For all their economic exploitation, the British laid the permanent foundations of medicine, education, justice, administration, transport and industry in all the countries they ruled. They kept the peace, protected minorities and helped prevent disease and famine. Civilian colonial rulers brought feudal societies into the modern world and maintained a standard of honesty that has almost completely disappeared from the thoroughly corrupt tropical countries of the old British Empire. So it is manifestly untrue that Westerners cannot operate both effectively and benevolently in non-Western settings.
British achievements in India were more remarkable still because Britain actually created India as a unified state. India is by far the most impressive example of Western nation-building in the non-Western world. But it took the British roughly two hundred years to do it. Those engaged in the American “nation-building” effort in Iraq could learn a great deal from Gilmour, as could the pioneers of the new State Department Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, which may be as close to a Colonial Office as anything the United States is ever likely to have.
A second lesson concerns human capital. It took very few Brits to control India, but from the outset of the war there were not enough American soldiers and civilian administrators in Iraq. The great difference is in the attitudes and abilities of those Americans. Unlike Victorian imperialists, who were thoroughly trained, expert linguists, knowledgeable about the culture, absolutely incorruptible and devoted to duty, the Americans in charge of Iraq lacked devotional stamina and had very little understanding of that country—so little, it seems, that they didn’t even know what they did not know. Thanks to Gilmour, we can see more clearly why America has failed in its imperial mission.