India was perfectly suited to the British public school mentality. It was a great adventure, an exotic mix of jewels, spices, pig-sticking and polo. David Gilmour gives us a sumptuous social history of those colonialists who, over four centuries, imposed themselves on the sub-continent. For them India was infinite possibility. This book shies away from overt judgment, but still provides enough evidence for readers to judge if they want to. A controversial history, if only because the author refuses to wallow in guilt.
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With “The British in India: A Social History of the Raj,” Gilmour, metaphorical microscope in hand, has written a broad-ranging but precise and intimate examination of the British men and women who served and lived on the subcontinent. A historian of Italy and Britain, a biographer of Kipling and the onetime viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, as well as a prolific essayist, he is ideally suited to the task. But this is not a book about the evils of colonialism; the devil is not in these details. What interests him, in this book at least, are not the larger questions of politics, or economics, or the global position of Britain — all of them factors that helped determine the country’s imperial stance — but instead the often gritty, colorfully distinct stories that constituted the individual British experience.
David Gilmour, author of Curzon (1994) and The Ruling Caste (2005), has tackled this rich history in The British in India, from the granting of the East India Company’s charter in 1600 to the mid-1960s, when the hippy invasion began. Although the chronology is never in doubt, his treatment is grouped by topic – intimacies, formalities, voyages, working life, and so on. The result is somewhat like a tapestry. He makes it plain that his subject is not the morality of ruling great swathes of land that belonged to others. “I am not going to attempt… to produce a balance sheet, to weigh indigo planters who tyrannised Indian peasants against doctors who saved Indian lives, or to balance the undoubted violence of British soldiers against the deeds of a famine worker or a builder of canals.” Instead, he gives us just about everything one has ever heard of, or would wish to know, about the British in India... Superbly researched, The British in India is authoritative and comprehensive. Gilmour captures this peculiar existence in elegant prose and superbly evocative photographs.
A section on ‘Singularities’ describes some of those who did not conform to the social codes; and the sheer number and variety of witnesses that Gilmour provides throughout the book challenges the sweeping generalisations often made about the Raj. Covering almost every aspect of the British in India — from pets to pederasty, with a great deal in between — this is the best kind of history: meticulously researched, elegantly and entertainingly written, and as wide in its sympathies as it is long in its reach.
Having written admiring biographies of Kipling and Curzon, the historian David Gilmour was already due for a long stretch in an Isle of Man re-education camp. But his richly panoramic new exploration of the British experience of India from the heyday of the East India Company to the last days of the Raj, will probably doom him forever. Hugely researched and elegantly written, sensitive to the ironies of the past and brimming with colourful details, his book has no time for academic jargon or pretentious theorising. What is worse, he sets out to write about the British in India “in the context of their time and not from the vantage point of a usually smug present”. With those wise words he has surely sealed his fate.
Gilmour organises his material thematically, into chapters spanning three centuries, taking in topics such as motivations for living in India and working lives. The result is a picture that is much more nuanced than the stereotype of greedy 18th-century nabobs succeeded by Victorian evangelical racists, who in turn gave way in the late 19th century to imperial zealots. What is remarkable is how little life in India changed over time, and how little the British were concerned with imperialism... At over six hundred pages, the book is very long and dense, and repays a second reading. It will surely be definitive. Gilmour claims that his aim is to allow the men and women to speak for themselves. The micro-histories of these individual lives suggest, as he cautiously concludes, that ‘British imperialism in India was not quite so bad as its detractors (especially the home-grown ones) have claimed’. With this marvellous, magisterial history, he proves his point triumphantly.