The British Empire Library

The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905

by Ferdinand Mount

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Ferdinand Mount comes from one of those large sprawling families who used to be known as Anglo-Indians, not because they were of mixed blood, but because they lived and worked and sometimes died in India. They were not, generally speaking, from the aristocracy, but from families who had either got lucky during the heady days of unregulated fortunes made by East India Company staff or who sought an adventurous life abroad as a soldier. The Company's Army offered a route into lucrative offices as a Political Agent or even Resident, which is why many of these powerful men had military titles while carrying out civilian roles. A disproportionate number seemed to come from Scotland, like General Sir John Low and his son General Sir Robert Low, round whom this story is loosely based. Between them they covered the hundred years that started with the Vellore Mutiny and ended with the partition of Bengal in 1905.

The author is descended from Sir John and is thus connected to many of the 'Anglo-Indians' including the Metcalfes (Sir Thomas et al), the Shakespears (the dashing Richmond) and the Thackerays (Company writer and grandfather of the novelist William Makepeace). David Cameron, the Prime Minister, somehow comes into it too, because his mother is Mount's first cousin. It was a great aunt, Ursula Low 'a classic maiden aunt' who first sparked the author's interest in India when he rediscovered her book Fifty Years with John Company: from the letters of General Sir John Low of Clatto, Fife, 1822-1858, published in 1936 and thereafter sternly ignored by her very extended family. There is a wealth of material to draw on, not only family letters and papers in archival collections like the India Office Library, but from numerous published books, including the reviewer's.

The period between 1805 and 1905 is one of the most exciting in Indian history, and one of the best documented too - meticulous recording by the East India Company and later the Government of India, and of course a rich mine for historians (though I fancy we may nearing the end of some seams shortly). Mount cannot resist an engaging gallop through events where John Low was not present, like the siege of Delhi in 1857, but luckily other people were like Theophilus Metcalfe, Magistrate, whose beloved family home, Metcalfe House, was destroyed during fighting. Theo erected a gallows in the garden, made from fire-blackened timbers and 'strung up any Indian he suspected of having taken part in the Mutiny'.

He shot 21 villagers who had betrayed one of his servants to the rebels and complained that the King of Delhi, Bahadxir Shah Zafar was still alive. It took Sir John Lawrence, later Governor General, to stop individual civil officers from 'hanging at their own pleasure'. Moimt makes no apologies for men like Metcalfe and he does his best to draw fair pictures of the numerous princely rulers who were displaced in the Company's expansion - the hapless Peshwa Baji Rao, Lakshmi Bai the Rani of Jhansi and Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh. There are a few errors - Begum Hazrat Mahal was not the King's first wife and this reviewer's name is consistently mis-spelt. The term 'White Mutiny' usually refers to the officer-led revolt of 1766, not the events at Vellore nearly forty years later. But readers will enjoy this blockbuster of a book with 76 pages of footnotes and illustrations. The melancholy photograph of General Sir Robert Low, the hero of Chitral, at the end of his long career, shows the price that many of the 'Anglo-Indian' families paid.

British Empire Book
Ferdinand Mount
First Published
Simon & Schuster UK
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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