David Gilmour’s book ‘The British in India’ is subtitled “three centuries of ambition and experience.” It is an entertaining journey through a vast array of social aspects of the British presence in India up to the end of the empire. Its style, letting the British speak for themselves means that the book does not stop and stand back to see what it means – it is far too complex for that.
His research is astonishing – scouring archives for diaries and letters from a vast array of workers covering over 300 years of history. His coverage is focuses on the military and civil service. But he chooses to leave alone how the military and civil service were set up.
The stories are clearly portrayed and intimate at times. There is a healthy coverage of life in India for the wives as much as the men. And also those men who had an Indian mistress – a “bibi” until later on when travel improved and their wives came with them.
The social life is clearly different from domesticity in the UK, not least with the rotation element, the wide geographical coverage of posts, and the sheer distance away from the UK. At times it feels lonely yet towards the end of the book it is clear those returning to the UK missed the life.
Gilmour documents the impact it has on their life, not least the repetitious nature of the work and the limited social life possible with other Brits at the local club. Higher up, the middle class sought to hold on to the customs and etiquette. Where the middle classes could replicate their English life they made every attempt.
Another impact on their life was their diseases and heat in India. The heat, in particular, was a huge factor in terms of what to eat and wear, with many heading for the hills when they could.
The purpose of the book is clear in its non-judgemental approach. Gilmour makes it clear in his own note ‘envoi’ he is a “camera with the shutter open” to allow the men and women to “speak their lines and walk about the stage without too much direction from me.”
Each section is devoted to direct information from the sources. So his approach relies on one quote after another to explain the picture before us. At times I skipped the numerous quotes but at other times the quotes spoke so clearly about the subject.
His narrative style is deliberately not political, nor judgemental. But he cannot avoid having some position which is to state that many British went with good intentions and that imperialism itself did each something positive. But what he chooses not to examine what the British did to India — or to Indians. Nor does he cover major issues such as the economic impact of the East India Company, rebellions and the end of empire. His exclusion of Indians and the impact of the British India has annoyed some, particularly those who take a woke – anti-imperialist – view of the British Empire.
He refuses to judge the past from the “zetigiest and morality of the present. Nonetheless he acknowledges the cultural superiority and insensitivity of some of their behaviour. But this is not what this book is about. That may well be the sequal to this book – what the British “bequeathed.” But it is a controversial position to take: part of Britain’s presence in the country was clearly to enrich Britain at the expense of India. In this sense the “open camera” has blinkers on it.
This is an entertaining historical survey of social mores of the British in India – its narrow focus can at times leave gaps in our understanding of its subjects. But also a lack of context of what the British were doing, politically and economically. Its depth of research meant that at times I skipped the numerous quotes, but found them witty, interesting and insightful.