The British Empire Library

The British in India: Three centuries of Ambition and Experience

by David Gilmour

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
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.

British Empire Book
David Gilmour
First Published
Allen Lane
Review Originally Published
Spring 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe