A tea party in Calcutta, 1890

British Library Board/Bridgeman

A tea party in Calcutta, 1890

In The Lion and the Eagle (2018), Kathleen Burk’s recent book comparing the British and US imperial experiences, she notes that few American public servants chose to make their lives in their nation’s overseas possessions or client states. Most preferred to serve out their appointed terms in faraway places, then return thankfully home. Their British counterparts, by contrast, often remained for decades or even lifetimes in the colonies, and above all in India, “the jewel in the crown.”

In 1971 I made a film for BBC TV in Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, about a cluster of elderly English ladies who had “stayed on.” Their houses were full of chintz armchairs and faded sepia images of a long-vanished Albion, together with reverential portraits of our dear Queen. Yet they knew that their mustily remembered pasts and illusions would face shipwreck if they encountered the reality of late-twentieth-century Britain. Thus they lingered in the Himalayan foothills until death did them part.

The grandest of them, Mrs. Hermione Montague, who lived with an English companion and twenty-three dogs, spurned social contact with two sisters who occupied a modest house less than a mile away. Their father had been in trade, owning a store at the foot of the hills. He was thus classed, in Raj vernacular, as a “boxwallah”; he was not a “pukka sahib,” a proper gentleman.

Encounters with such people in various corners of the world imbued me with pity for the melancholy of the circumstances of many imperialists abroad, rather than envy of the grandeur that permitted William Hickey, for instance, an early-nineteenth-century lawyer in India, to boast a household of sixty-three servants, including eight men who waited at table, eight who worked in the stables, a coachman, three mowers, and four grooms. To us of the twenty-first century, there is a preposterousness about the manner in which a few tens of thousands of British soldiers and civilians lorded for three centuries over an ever-expanding mass of the subcontinent and its inhabitants.

In The British in India, David Gilmour seems of the same opinion as he examines the processes and processions of our forefathers and their families in India through the eras of the East India Company and the high Victorian Raj, followed by slow descent toward the messy mid-twentieth-century departure. Gilmour is the author of distinguished books that include a biography of Lord Curzon, a controversial viceroy, and The Ruling Caste, a study of India’s administrators during the Raj. The British in India is a companion volume of sorts, an exhaustive social history of the daily lives, manners, and mores of the men, women, and children who lived under the union flag in what we might characterize as Kipling country. He has studied their marriages, servants, eating and drinking habits, education, adulteries, recreations, houses, and gardens. He assembles a fascinating record that includes some happiness, much that was stoically endured, and more than a few wretched experiences and relationships.

Horace Walpole wrote in 1783, “No man ever went to the East Indies with good intentions.” Many of Walpole’s contemporaries sailed to the far shores, in Gilmour’s words, “with the intention of either making a fortune or retrieving one they had squandered or lost in some other way. ‘Shaking the pagoda tree’ was a phrase much used—a pagoda in this sense denoting a gold or silver coin.” If a man escaped premature death by violence or disease, which felled so many, wealth seemed extraordinarily easy to attain. Thackeray’s imbecilic Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair flourished mightily in the post of collector of Boggley Wollah.

The 1760s were deemed the most corrupt decade in the history of British India, when even the East India Company’s army officers on meager salaries enriched themselves by exploiting campaign subsistence allowances. Many dreamed not of rising to field commands but of securing a paymastership, both a literal and figurative key to a treasure chest. Prize money was pretty good, too. Arthur Wellesley was granted £4,000 for his 1799 capture of Seringapatam. Lord Combermere was a military bungler who nonetheless earned £60,000 for the 1826 siege of Bharatpur. Such numbers indicate the scale of plunder swilling around India in those days, to be scooped up by greedy white hands.

Lord Cornwallis, governor-general and commander in chief from 1786 to 1793, adopted two policies with radical consequences, one malign and one benign: he decreed the exclusion of Indians from eligibility for all senior military and civil posts, thus institutionalizing a racial divide. And he insisted that officials should live on their salaries, forswearing private trading, which eventually gave the members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) an extraordinary reputation for probity. To this was added high competence when, in 1855, entry into the ICS by competitive examination was substituted for the earlier system of patronage. For most of the last century of empire, only officials of the Sudan Political Service commanded greater prestige than those of the ICS.


Young men who went east were variously motivated. Henry White King joined the Indian Medical Service in the 1850s to escape a “harsh stepmother.” Some of his contemporaries forged dynasties. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Certain families serve India generation after generation as dolphins follow in line across the open sea.” When Alexander Wynch became governor of Madras in 1773, all his five sons joined the local civil service or the Madras Army. Others sought adventure, not least through the pursuit of exotic animals. Charles Kincaid joined the ICS in 1891, fired by his father’s tales of hunting orangutans in Borneo and aspiring to match his sporting exploits.

Educational and professional qualifications for appointments were arbitrary and perverse: a persistent legend held that in the midst of a 1758 voyage, a butcher aboard an East India Company ship was summarily promoted to ship’s surgeon. As late as 1913 a knowledge of Latin was mandatory for entrants to the Imperial School of Forestry. The most important qualifications for success were physical and emotional hardiness and a capacity for sustained hard work, together with indifference to the plight of the subject Indian peoples and the filth and poverty of their country, conspicuous everywhere save in the palaces of maharajahs and residences of superior Britons.

In 1901 there were just 155,000 British soldiers and civilians of all ages and both sexes in India. Many were stationed in areas so remote that they struggled to muster four for bridge or tennis.

Consider the plight of an Englishwoman who met a district officer on home leave who was desperate to secure a wife before his return, to assuage the loneliness of his existence in some remote station. Acceptance of a hasty proposal of marriage meant almost instant separation from family and friends, then a brief honeymoon followed by a long sea voyage. The traveling continued by stifling train and perhaps bumping bullock carts. Eventually a “memsahib” started a new life, in Gilmour’s words, in “a barely furnished bungalow with many insects and little sanitation, a place where she would have found life very limited and boring had she not been shortly to give birth to her first child in extremely primitive conditions.”

He describes the shortcomings of hearth and home in most parts of India. Beds, tables, and wardrobes fared best if their legs were wrapped in strips of cloth that had been wrung out in paraffin and then set in old tins containing an inch of water, to fend off ants. Gallant attempts to create English lookalike gardens usually foundered in the heat. The coziness of interiors was not enhanced by many husbands’ insistence on adorning the walls of the family bungalow with the heads of animals they had slaughtered.

It was a struggle to keep a legion of servants up to the mark, especially the “punkah wallah,” who was supposed to pull a string all night to move the punkah—a strip of cloth on a wooden frame suspended from the ceiling—and sustain a breeze over the sahib’s bed. H.M. Kisch wrote testily home in the 1860s:

You can have no idea of the irritation caused in a tropical climate by a sleepy punkah wallah at night…you become food for mosquitoes on your face and sandflies on your feet, while the heat of the climate and wrath at the punkah wallah irritate you beyond endurance.

Yet if some servants failed to satisfy their masters and mistresses, others became beloved members of the family, the ayah, or children’s nanny, being often foremost among these. In Kipling’s boyhood, after an outing his ayah had to remind him to resume speaking English back at home. In countless families in which emotional deprivation was etched into the experience of the young, Gilmour notes, many in adulthood remembered their ayah “as a second mother, perhaps more loveable than their real mother, an always reassuring figure who had represented warmth and security.”

He describes the diet on which officials subsisted, a parody of that back home, with horrid little eggs from scrawny chickens and bacon that bore scant resemblance to any side cut from a Black Berkshire. Most sahibs persisted in training Indian cooks to produce the nearest they could contrive to the daily bill of fare in Bournemouth or Billericay, in places where the mercury passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Having myself eaten stodgy bread-and-butter pudding at Clarke’s Hotel in Simla, I can testify to the sublime inappropriateness of such dishes, yet the British clung to them as doggedly as to the passes of the North-West Frontier.

Social life was grimly formal, guided by rules of precedence and a conviction that not to dress for dinner was to commit that worst of crimes: lower British prestige in the eyes of the Indians. In a philistine society lacking access to art galleries, opera, or ballet, and enjoying only amateur theater, relatively few people read books. Dinner parties were dominated by “diary conversation”—what we did yesterday; what we would do tomorrow; prospects for promotion. Herbert Gee, a newcomer to India—a “griffin,” as such men were known—lamented, “We almost entirely lose sight of the aesthetic and fine arts side of existence.” Boredom and the chronic weariness brought on by hard work in a merciless climate caused tempers to run short.


“The club,” such as almost every “station” boasted, was the focus of social life, with its whist, “burra pegs”—large drinks—and occasional dances. British India was overwhelmingly administered by members of the middle class, with aristocrats venturing east only to fill the highest offices, yet snobberies were sustained with morbid punctiliousness. Many women from modest suburban backgrounds at home “put on airs,” treating perceived British inferiors almost as ungenerously as the large domestic staff to which they were ill-accustomed. A political officer resigned from his club when he heard that it proposed to admit such low lifes as engineers and forest officers. A member of the Bengal Pilot Service was blackballed for undisclosed reasons following his marriage: it was assumed that his new wife had been categorized as either Anglo-Indian—“country-bred”—or merely common.

For India-born children, England—though always spoken of as “home”—was a dim, mysterious place until they saw it for the first time, perhaps aged six or seven. Then there was a culture shock. The actor Spike Milligan’s first impression of a British dock on a winter morning was of “terrible noise, and everything so cold and grey”: he yearned to return to Rangoon, even though his family life there had been relatively humble. Most children for years retained a stronger sense of belonging to India than to England, where the only merit of multistorey houses—in contrast to India’s bungalow culture—was that they could slide down the bannisters.

Many of Gilmour’s pages are dedicated to the love and sex lives of his subjects, partly because these loomed so large in their enthusiasms and frustrations, and also because the anecdotage makes irresistible reading. Richard Wellesley, brother of the future Duke of Wellington and in 1798 governor-general in Calcutta, wrote despairing letters to his wife, Hyacinthe, describing his unfulfilled needs, to which even tiger-hunting and pig-sticking did not seem adequate alternatives: “This climate excites one sexually most terribly.” She, who declined to join him, responded by figuratively urging him to take a cold bath and restrain his beastly urges. Each round of their unhappy correspondence took ten months to sail to England and back, and before many exchanges had taken place Wellesley resorted to the inevitable local mistress.

Merle Oberon, circa 1940

Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Indian-­born actress Merle Oberon, circa 1940

More than a few women who accepted marriage to British officials lived to regret it. Edyth Gubbins loved Mughal architecture and the music of Wagner but found herself living with an army captain who regarded the Taj Mahal with contempt and cared only for massacring wildlife. Alexandra Campbell, daughter of an army officer, had five children by a railway engineer whom she had married in 1890, before tiring of his enthusiasm for trains. She abandoned him without notice or explanation, retiring to live with her parents in Darjeeling until he drank himself to death and she was free to remarry.

John Hewett was long separated from his wife, but when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of the North-Western Provinces in 1907, she abruptly returned to enjoy the glories of being hailed as “her ladyship.” The couple occupied separate wings of Government House in Nainital, a town in the Himalayan foothills, and seldom addressed each other.

Especially at the lower end of the social scale, wives whose husbands died young frequently remarried as swiftly as opportunity occurred, to secure a means of subsistence. When a gunner died of fever in the 1830s, an officer’s wife recorded that the widow was importuned by three suitors before the body was cold and remarried within a week, a process subsequently repeated twice more.

Perhaps the most exotic record of multiple alliances was set by Frances Croke, born in India in 1728. The daughter of a civil servant, she first married at fifteen, then did so again at twenty following her husband’s death. This bridegroom survived the wedding only by twelve days, freeing her to return to England with William Watts, by whom she had four children. When he expired in 1764 she returned to India and married a chaplain sixteen years younger than her, of whom she swiftly tired. He was persuaded to sail for England by the award of a generous pension, conditional on his absence. Thereafter she lived as a popular Calcutta hostess until her death in 1812, the year that her grandson Lord Liverpool became Britain’s prime minister.

Many British settlers married or cohabited with Indian women, defying the disapproval of the memsahibs. In 1937 a visitor to the Himalayan foothills found that most of the area’s white planters had wed local women. The manager of a Darjeeling tea garden tied the knot with Jeti, one of his pickers, though she was forbidden to set foot in the local planters’ club. The anthropologist Verrier Elwin was said to have “married his fieldwork,” wedding successively two tribal women and becoming recognized as an academic expert on the region’s sexual habits.

Priapic British men grumbled that the lack of privacy imposed by the constant presence of servants was an impediment to adultery. The rules of the Raj and indeed of the entire Empire sustained an obsession with keeping up appearances in front of “the natives,” so that when Miles Smeeton in 1936 fell in love with the wife of his commanding officer, he was obliged to leave the regiment. The woman in the case was “an adventurous lady called Beryl, who had once walked across China to Burma,” dismissing warnings of the threat of rape and bandits: “Oh, I shan’t worry about that. I’d far prefer dishonour to death.”

Amid the desperation of the junior ranks of the ruling caste for sexual relationships, in the first eighteen years of the nineteenth century 380 girls from a Calcutta orphan school, mostly Eurasian (Anglo-Indian), married British men. The offspring of such alliances were much mocked for their supposed “chee-chee” accents and dusky hue, causing many to seek to disguise their mixed heritage. The Gurkha officer John Masters, a splendid mid-twentieth-century author of many novels about India, discovered only late in life that he had an Indian forebear—a family concubine.

Teenage classmates refused to dance with the pretty Anglo-Indian girl “Queenie” Thompson, whose professions of Tasmanian origins fooled no one. Especially bitchy contemporaries asserted that she “used to whitewash herself from the waist up.” All this ceased to matter, however, when she emerged into a new life across the world with the name Merle Oberon. So did another Eurasian, Vivien Hartley, whose mother was said to be partly Parsi. She too enjoyed triumphant reinvention as Vivien Leigh, belle of the big-screen Confederacy.

In Gilmour’s concluding chapter, he asserts his view of his own role as a chronicler in the spirit of Christopher Isherwood exploring 1930s Berlin: “a camera with its shutter open.” He declines to offer “a balance sheet to weigh indigo planters who tyrannized Indian peasants against doctors who saved Indian lives,” or famine workers and canal builders against brutal soldiery. He acknowledges that imperialism

usually means the conquest and exploitation of one people by another, involves deaths and injustices, but that does not mean that it did nothing positive during its 3,000 year history. Nor does it mean that all imperialists were bad people…. Complexity of motive is a theme permeating this book.

Gilmour has been traveling and researching in India for decades. He offers an observation about its people that often impresses modern British visitors: most educated Indians are astonishingly indulgent toward the imperial heritage, acknowledging the rule of law, the professional civil service, the universities, and an impartial judiciary as contributions to be set in the balance against the Raj’s indisputable racism, cultural condescension, exploitation, and dreadful periodic cruelties.

It is refreshing to see Gilmour reassert truths that should be obvious, but are no longer held to be so, about the mixed legacy of empire in general and the Raj in particular. If British officials in India were often insensitive to local customs and susceptibilities, as well as contemptuous of local religions, he asks, “was it really wrong of them to aspire to change some of those customs—to campaign against female infanticide, to abolish the burning alive of widows, to prevent Naga tribesmen from scalping the women and children of other tribes?”

Gilmour’s three important works on India make manifest his deep affection for, as well as knowledge of, the subcontinent. If his latest book has any flaw, it is that it paints so grisly a portrait of the social lives of servants of the Raj that it perhaps underplays the romance many discovered during long careers in India—the grip that that stupendous country exercised upon them. On the whole, it probably suited men better than women, because their work enabled them to engage and commit, as few wives could, though until recent times the same might be said of women’s lives in Britain. But everyone who has read British memoirs of India composed between the eighteenth and late twentieth centuries knows how many are dominated by passionate memories of their writers’ experiences there.

Most people’s lives in most places and at most periods of history are damnably dull. This is especially true for the provincial middle class, who provided a large majority of the people who ran the Raj. In India, unless their marriages were loveless or their professional circumstances unusually sterile, the British ruling caste encountered people and places a thousand times more memorable than their counterparts at home, who spent lifetimes commuting from terraced villas to dreary offices.