The British Empire Library

India in Edinburgh: 1750s to the Present

Edited by Roger Jeffrey

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
For enthusiasts of all matters Indian in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this book is an absolute delight. It delves into great detail that will be new to many and its 260 pages of densely-packed information is often quite fascinating. There are ten contributors, including BACSA members Anne Buddie, Henry Noltie, and Avril Powell. It is skilfully edited by the knowledgeable Roger Jeffery, professor of Sociology of South Asia at the Edinburgh India Institute. The big names of British Indian history like Robert Clive get just two passing mentions and the British military heroes receive only two pages, but the East India Company features often as a contributor to so much of the material. The imbalance of the normal narrative of the India-returned’ featuring the fabulously wealthy in fact only really happened in the decades between 1780 to 1830, and the periods both before and afterwards get proper and detailed treatment here.

There are two standout contributions: Anne Buddie describes the remarkable holdings of the National Galleries of Scotland in her chapter ‘From Tipu to the Trenches and Simla to Surrealism’ and Henry Noltie provides a masterly account of the roller-coaster 350 years story of the Royal Edinburgh Botanic Garden’s collections of living plants, herbarium specimens and printed botanical items. ‘The Skull Room: Craniological past of Edinburgh and India’ by Jeffery and Ian Harper attempts to explain to a modern readership the bizarre science of skull collection. In 1899 Professor Sir William Turner (1832-1916) published the first in a series of four articles in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, charting the craniological characteristics of the ‘People of the Empire of India’. Turner was a distinguished anatomist and scientist, and for 36 years the professor of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh. He wrote in his first article ‘For a number of years I have been collecting specimens and conducting an investigation into the craniological characters of the native inhabitants of our great Indian Empire, and several hundred skulls have now been under examination, and almost all have been measured.’ Modern anthropology does well to escape some of its strange past!

Edinburgh’s schools have many connections with India and the great expansion of secondary education in the nineteenth century explains the contribution made by Scots to modernising India. The University of Edinburgh in particular features often in this book and its long rivalry with the University of Aberdeen is almost comical. There are stories of traders, merchants, planters, foresters, doctors, policemen, engineers, civil servants. Judges, lawyers, local officers, and of course missionaries - that bane of the ICS (Indian Civil Service) known as ‘the heaven-born’. The wealth brought from India to Edinburgh explains the imperial architectural style of Scotland’s capital. The Afterword to the book is a fitting conclusion - a thoughtful and elegant contribution by Bashabi Fraser, poet, writer and academic who has lived in Edinburgh for over 20 years. Recommended.

British Empire Book
Roger Jeffrey
First Published
Social Science Press New Delhi
Review Originally Published
Spring 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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