To read David Gilmour's latest book on India is a little like visiting a
stately home. The first response is to admire the architecture, the
placing of windows, doors, and turrets. Then the interior reveals the
attention to detail, the placing of the furniture and the arrangement of
portraits, large and small, on the walls. In this book all the elements fit
together perfectly, and the result is a masterpiece. Read it!
Gilmour states his objectives early in his work, 'I am interested in the
motives and identities of British individuals .... in who these people
were, and why they went to India, in what they did and how they lived
when they got there, and in what they thought and felt about their lives
on the subcontinent.' He does this by examining a vast range of
sources, organised in three sections. Aspirations, Endeavours, and
Experiences, and many subsections. Almost every page is littered with
examples, too many to be quoted here. Gilmour stresses that the
numbers of people who went to India were extremely small, and
outside the cities could lead solitary lives in isolated outposts. The
motivation to lead this kind of life was the lure of riches, but the risk of
death was extremely high in the eighteenth century, due to tropical
diseases; the Bombay saying that 'two monsoons was the life of a man'
was near the truth. Nevertheless many young men took the risk. Cadets
aged sixteen went to join the East India Company's armies, because it
was possible for an officer to live on his pay, which was not possible in
a British regiment. Poverty induced numerous Irishmen to enlist.
Family tradition led others, the 'dolphin families' like the Cottons,
Stracheys and Rivett-Camacs to go, as their relatives already in India
could further their careers. Nor must one forget the many businessmen,
the 'boxwallahs' and planters, many of them Scots.
There was little training for the East India Company's civil servants,
the 'writers' and the army cadets until the establishment in the early
nineteenth century of Haileybury for the civilians, and Addiscombe for
artillery and engineering officers. Some army engineers spent much of
their service in India building canals or designing buildings; for
instance Sir Richard Strachey's sole military experience was in the first
Sikh War (1845-6), and the remainder of his service involved
overseeing the development of canals, and Captain Charles Wyatt,
Bengal Engineers, who designed Government House Calcutta (now
Raj Bhavan) based on Kedleston Hall, the home of Lord Curzon.
After the introduction in 1853 of competition for the India Civil
Service, the successful candidates usually spent two years in a
university before going to India. This was a policy advocated by
Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, possibly because
two of his brothers had died in India; the principle of basic training m
Britain continued until halted by war in 1939, and friendships formed
there lasted throughout their service and beyond.
Gilmour's next section, 'Endeavours' is divided into 'insiders' and 'the
open air'. Careers in India often involved both aspects, as ICS officers
began as District Officers with office duties as magistrates and
collectors of revenue, inspectors of prisons and many more obligations;
in the cold weather they toured their districts. Some relished the
opportunity to settle disputes on the ground, and see village life at first
hand, while others could not wait to get a post in the Secretariat, or a
transfer to the Political Service, which handled relations with the Indian
States, and the tribes on the North West Frontier. Sir Harcourt Butler
distinguished the two types as lean and keen men on the Frontier, and
fat and good-natured men in the States. Life as a Resident in a State
was easy but rather formal if the State was well-administered, but
required diplomatic skills, particularly if the Ruler was a minor.
On the Frontier the Political Officer had to know the tribes, and to
judge when it was appropriate to hold a jirga, or council of elders, to
settle disputes. Acknowledged experts, like Robert Sandeman (died
1892) and later George Roos-Keppel spent years pacifying the tribes
with great success. Recreations from official duties ranged from the
social atmosphere of the numerous clubs, graded according the ranks of
the members, to the more active pursuits of hunting birds and
dangerous animals, like pig-sticking. Ladies found the clubs a welcome
relief from the boredom and isolation of daily life, and enjoyed hunting
and (surprisingly) pig-sticking with shorter spears. There were some
who scorned these pastimes and yearned for more cultural pursuits, like
Bill and Mildred Archer who developed interests in Indian tribal life,
and Indian painting which lasted all their lives.
The final chapters deal with those who 'stayed on' after Independence,
either in the civil services and armies of Pakistan and India, or
branched out into second careers in many fields in Britain, such as the
civil service, foreign services or many business firms. All harboured
nostalgia for their previous lives in India. A few became notable
teachers, the last of whom was probably Geoffrey Langlands who has
just died in Lahore, aged 101.
Readers will appreciate Gilmour's remarks and analysis of
deaths in India. The numerous cemeteries are mute reminders of the toll
exacted by India.