Updated: December 25, 2018 8:58:55 am
In the late 16th century a group of Londoners gathered together to start up an enterprise that would venture into the East Indies. Once they acquired permission from the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, they set out on a voyage that would eventually transform the destiny of several countries across the globe. The two centuries that the East India Company and then the British Crown ruled over the Indian subcontinent, a number of inhabitants of the Isles made the country their home. Some came as industrialists, some as soldiers, some as civil servants and some as wives and daughters of the men who were posted here. Some came by choice, and some by chance. But each one of them had an experience of their own, making the colonial encounter a rather diverse affair. Seventy years since the British left India, historian David Gilmour has come out with a book that digs deep into the lives of those who travelled all the way across the Atlantic ocean to a strange country with its stranger ways.
Gilmour’s book, ‘The British in India’, was launched at the British council last week. Carrying accounts from diaries, memoirs, letters and official documents, Gilmour has lucidly pieced together a mirror into the lives of the British in India spanning across two centuries. “The hallmark of David’s work is a combination of deep research, deep reflection and elegant writing,” says historian Ramachandra Guha at the book launch. Gilmour has previously written on Italy and the Middle East, a biography of Lord Curzon and that of Rudyard Kipling.
Who were the British in India?
The book is a social history of the British in India. It is not a political account of the empire and does not in any way claim to appreciate or criticise it. Rather it is an account of the thousands who were caught up often by accident, often unintentionally in the long British involvement in the Indian subcontinent. “People often think that every Britain who came here, did so to conquer it, govern it or exploit it financially. Of course many did but most often they did not. They were there more or less by chance,” says Gilmour adding that “It was true for the children for sure, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, William Makepeace Thackeray. It was true for the large number of soldiers as well who were in India more by chance than anything else. They might very well have gone to Dublin, Canada or the West Indies. “In 1900, the entire British population in India were 1,55,000 people. That is the same as the population of a medium sized town in England like Nottingham or one-fifth of the size of the population of Glassglow,” explains Gilmours.
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Why did the British come to India?
Before 1869 when the Suez canal opened up, the British had to spend close to six months in the sea, cooped up in a boat, threatened daily by the fear of shipwreck, piracy, disease and capture by enemy vessels. Further, when they did arrive there was also the fear of diseases like cholera, malaria, typhoid and dysentery. Why would any Englishman want to make this tedious shift?
Gilmour reflects upon this question in his book. “More than half of the 1,55,000 were not in India as volunteers and many others who were here out of choice were only residents during their professional careers. The ones who planned to settle here with their families were a few hundred planters, mainly of tea and indigo and maybe a few more businessmen and industrialists in places like Kanpur. Most people who went to India did not intend to retire or die here, but of course many did,” he explains.
Most British came to India to make a quick fortune. Gilmour narrates the story of a painter who had offended his patron, the King of Britain by painting a very rude picture. He was desperately in need of a new patron and found that in the Nawab of Lucknow. Sometimes people just wanted to escape the families and conditions at home. “There was a great comic actor of the 1950s called Norman Wisdon. He joined the army since his father beat him everyday. Later, he got away from the army and was playing the cornet and the trumpet in Lucknow,” says Gilmour.
The 19th century saw a greater diversity among the Britons in India, but an important feature of the period was that of altruism, or the desire to work for the benefit of the inhabitants of the country. One strand of this was composed of Evangelical Englishmen. “While Evangelicals were prominent in their campaigns against Sati and female infanticide the early missionaries spent their lives attacking Hinduism and trying to almost complete lack of success, to convert caste followers,” says Gilmour. The other strand comprised of the Indian Civil Servants. There were administrators who worked not just for the British and the Empire, but as a moral obligation for Indians.
There were others who came to India just for fun. Gilmour narrates the story of a youth who in 1938 joined the Indian cavalry regiment not because he was attracted to soldiery, but because he wanted to spend time playing Polo, shooting and hunting and have a jolly time.
What about the British women in India?
“In fact, for two centuries, women might come here for no other purpose other than to be wives, brides, mothers, sisters,” says Gilmour. He explained further that it was a traumatic experience and when they got to India the feeling of loneliness was awful. The feeling of loneliness was further exacerbated when their children were taken away from them for their education.
“British women were often criticised for being aloof and not mixing with Indians. Many were indeed snobbish and racist as were British men. But in my research I have come across numerous women who traveled and learnt Indian languages and longed to mix with Indians. But for them the main problem was the purdah system, which stopped British married couples from socialising with Indian married couples,” explains Gilmour.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century though, there were several British women who came to India to pursue their careers. Take for instance the case of Kay Nixon who in England earned her living by illustrating Enid Blyton’s childrens books. When her marriage collapsed she came to India in 1927 and began a new career as a painter of animals for inter-state railways.
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What happened to the British in India after 1947?
Gilmour explains that since the 18th centuries British men were staying in India after the regiments were turned home. Very often they would retire to a place with a good climate like Bangalore, usually with an Indian wife and their half Indian children and a new job. But in 1947 the subcontinent experienced a major political change. “Many Britons, businessmen, planters, doctors, they carried on their lives here much the same way as before and they did this throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s,” says Gilmour adding that “in some professions such as journalism and teaching, life became easier because they were no longer embarassed with their connection with the imperial power”.
After Independence some 2000 British officers of the Indian army remained in their post to restore order along the new borders. The same can be said about the administerial staff as well. “Pakistan’s leader Jinnah appointed British ICS officers to three of the country’s four provinces. In India, C A Rajagopalachari, pleaded with several to stay insisting that the country needed them,” says Gilmour.
Further there were those who returned to England only to realise that they found the place unbearable. Gilmour tells the story of one such gentleman who was a forest administrator who spent most of his spare time collecting butterflies. After retiring, he went to the natural history museum in London where he was assigned the job of cataloguing the butterflies. But he could not tolerate it. Soon after he fled back to India and died peacefully with his butterflies.
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