THE BRITISH IN INDIA
A Social Historical past of the Raj
By David Gilmour
Illustrated. 618 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
The UK’s still-roiling Brexit controversy, with the referendum’s most fervent supporters boasting of an unleashed Britain recapturing imperial-era glory, has tended to go away the messier, bloodier particulars of colonialism unexamined. From this distance, and with rose-tinted glasses, the British Empire — particularly because it prolonged to India — may be seen for example of a selfless dedication to civilizing the world whereas standing atop it. And but, as David Gilmour writes of the British mind-set through the imperial heyday, “It was as if the British, at virtually each stage of society, have been proud to have India as their jewel however didn’t need to spend a lot time admiring the article: It was simply good to know that it was within the financial institution and to have the ability to boast about it.” Even a few centuries in the past, making use of a microscope to British rule in India — not to mention studying about Indians themselves — was inevitably a extra complicated, and fraught, endeavor than most Britons had any want to have interaction in.
With “The British in India: A Social Historical past of the Raj,” Gilmour, metaphorical microscope in hand, has written a broad-ranging however exact and intimate examination of the British women and men 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, in addition to a prolific essayist, he’s ideally suited to the duty. However this isn’t a e book in regards to the evils of colonialism; the satan isn’t in these particulars. What pursuits him, on this e book no less than, will not be the bigger questions of politics, or economics, or the worldwide place of Britain — all of them elements that helped decide the nation’s imperial stance — however as an alternative the usually gritty, colorfully distinct tales that constituted the person British expertise. He’s additionally fascinated by the social relations amongst and inside lessons, and the way mores modified over an unlimited period that ended with independence, partition and the start of Pakistan in 1947. It’s a finely wrought historical past of the British in India that doesn’t actually study what the British did to India — or to Indians.
“The British in India” truly begins within the interval earlier than the formation of the British Raj in 1858, which was a direct response to the Indian riot of the earlier 12 months in opposition to the East India Firm. That entity, created in 1600, actually solely got here into nice prominence in the midst of the 18th century. (The British version’s subtitle, “Three Centuries of Ambition and Expertise,” is each higher and extra correct than “A Social Historical past of the Raj.”) Over these years, the “psychological journey” of the British, as one author quoted by Gilmour characterised it, may very well be charted as “Greed, Scorn, Worry and Indifference,” in exactly that order. Gilmour’s narrative doesn’t actually unfold on this chronological trend, however a constant theme is how a comparatively few Britons dominated an unlimited territory, and the way lonely and remoted their experiences may very well be. They have been a cross-section of individuals, troopers and civil servants, usually the black sheep of their households, generally criminals in search of a clear slate and, particularly at first, males merely out to make a fast buck. “India’s chief attract for Europeans of the 18th century,” Gilmour writes, “was its wealth and the possibility of getting their palms on a few of it.” Gilmour is especially good on the Indian Civil Service — a topic he has beforehand written about — which presided over India through the 90 years of formal Raj rule. It did so with a seriousness of function — and with an growing variety of Indians in its ranks — that was missing in earlier durations.