Wide-ranging study of the handful of British civil servants who ruled the 300 million people of 19th-century South Asia, and who left “their impress as Rome did hers on Western Europe.”
In the late-19th century, following a couple hundred years of crown rule, the British population of India was a fifth that of Glasgow, made up mostly of soldiers and administrators. They were a motley lot, writes historian Gilmour (Curzon, 2003, etc.). Some were intellectuals who longed to be posted to remote hill stations so that there, away from it all, they could finally find time to read all the books they ever dreamed of reading; some were hunters who wanted the same postings so that they “could disappear into the jungle” and shoot whatever they saw. Intellectual or jock, it helped in those settings to know how to play whist, an essential survival skill, and to be cheery in the face of whatever circumstance, cheeriness being “a quality much prized by Anglo-Indians.” Some could be paternalistic, writes Gilmour, content to leave the people—“the most craven, irritating and mendacious beings in the world”—mostly to their own devices as long as they didn’t upset the colonial routine of scrambled eggs and afternoon brandy. Yet, Gilmour observes, most of the career servants of empire were surprisingly free of prejudice, believing themselves to belong “not to a superior race but to a more advanced civilization” that it was their duty to extend to the Indians. The smartest of the Anglo-Indians recognized that their days as rulers were numbered and that their kind were “people dancing under the shadow of a volcanic mountain,” and even the least of them, Gilmour writes, lost little time in making miniature Indias in their English homes once they finally returned to the mother country.
A solid complement to Niall Ferguson’s Empire (2003), Charles Allen’s Soldier Sahibs (2001) and other recent work on British India.