The Ruling Caste Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj

David Gilmour

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

0374530807

9780374530808

Trade Paperback

416 Pages

$19.00

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Between 1837 and 1901, fewer than one thousand Britons at any one time managed an empire of 300 million people spread over the vast area that now includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma. How was this possible, and what were these people like? The British administration in India took pride in its efficiency and broad-mindedness, its devotion to duty and its sense of imperial grandeur, but it has become fashionable to deprecate it for its arrogance and ignorance. In The Ruling Caste, a balanced, witty, and multi-faceted history, David Gilmour goes far to explain the paradoxes of the "Anglo-Indians," showing us what they hoped to achieve and what sort of society they thought they were helping to build.

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Praise for The Ruling Caste

"Engaging . . . Gilmour's judicious study contains vivid individual histories, some amusing and many poignant, that allows us to see real people beyond the caricature of starched pukka sahibs dressing nightly for dinner in remote up-country bungalows. Their collective story of effort, self-sacrifice and courage is moving, and lends weight to Gilmour's conclusion that the Indian Civil Service 'represented the British Empire at its best and at its most altruistic.'"—A.J. Sherman, The New York Times Book Review
 
"The Ruling Caste paints an arresting and richly detailed portrait of how the British ruled 19th-century India—with unshakeable self-confidence buttressed by protocol, alcohol, and a lot of gall . . . [This book] is the most thorough study imaginable of the careers of the 'Civilians,' from recruitment to retirement. Gilmour describes the social backgrounds of the young men chosen to govern Britain's far-flung empire and takes us through their examinations, training, postings, social lives, professional duties, extracurricular (and extramarital) activities, until their retirements in English suburbs that became known as 'Asia Minor' or 'the Anglo-Indian Quarter' . . . Gilmour, also a biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon, has delved deep into private papers and unpublished correspondence. His account is thus enriched by an intimacy that humanizes the Civilians he depicts, particularly Alfred Lyall, whose long ICS career is featured in every chapter of the book . . . As his capacious bibliography and multitude of footnotes attest, Gilmour is a serious historian. He writes accessibly and even wittily, with a wealth of anecdotage and an eye for the telling story."—Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post Book World
 
"This book is a wonderful example of how a historian can bring to life the atmosphere and culture of the past by describing in rich detail the motivations and calculations of those who set the tone of a world that once was. Gilmour captures the spirit of life in the sharply defined spheres of Queen Victoria's court and the government in London, the viceroy's circle in South Asia, and the district offices where British civil servants met Indian subjects on a daily basis. He skillfully depicts the peculiar mixture of proper manners and gentlemanly practices and the legal and bureaucratic standards of one of the world's great civil services. The mass of details that Gilmour has collected suggests that British and Indian cultures were a natural fit, as though they were destined to share a common history. The title of the book succinctly captures his idea that the British colonizers operated as though they were a part of the Indian caste system—thus garnering the mystique of authority without having to rely unduly on force."—Foreign Affairs
 
“The much-praised biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon, Gilmour is uninterested in postcolonial theory; but in his account of ‘The Ruling Caste’ he makes constant and extensive use of unpublished primary manuscript sources and know intimately both the public and the private correspondence of the Victorian administrators he is writing about. His prose is fluent, elegant, and witty . . . Indeed The Ruling Caste is a joy to read, and probably the best-written and most thoroughly researched social history of the Victorian British in India.”—William Dalrymple, The New York Review of Books
 
“A stylish and engaging writer . . . Gilmour concedes that the British ruled by force, not consent. At the same time, the civilians, as members of the Indian Civil Service were known, took a high-minded view of their mission. The duty of the British was, they believed, to rule firmly but fairly, to improve living conditions wherever they were posted and to maintain high standards of integrity.”—William Grimes, The New York Times 
 
The Ruling Caste is a most rewarding read. It is authoritative, based on over 150 manuscripts and 500 books and articles, many of them primary sources. It is also entertaining; full of anecdotes, vignettes and eye-opening facts.”—Hugh Purcell, History Today
 
“Biographer of Lord Curzon and Rudyard Kipling, Gilmour deepens his study of British imperialists with this tour of lives and careers in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the bureaucratic bulwark of British rule of India. Within the chronological brackets of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Gilmour tours topics such as recruitment into the ICS, the experience of adjusting to India, and advancement up the ICS ladder. An intriguing theme is the way a civil servant was both an exile from England and a benevolent despot in India. The career of one Alfred Lyall, who arrived in 1855 and retired to England 32 years later, illustrates every topic Gilmour takes up, whether social life, methods of rule (Lyall topped out as a lieutenant governor, one tier beneath viceroy), or attitudes about the propriety of empire. Administrative history aside, social history readers have more to savor here, as Gilmour richly recovers the workaday aspects of an imperial career, from finding a wife to managing servants to seeking distractions in lonely postings.”—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
 
"British historian and biographer Gilmour, who has written other works dealing with 19th-century India, here examines British imperial activities during the reign of Queen Victoria in the area that now includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma. Between 1837 and 1901, the small Indian Civil Service (ICS) administered this region of 300 million people. Gilmour explains how a mere 1000 officers were able to accomplish this task. He gives a brief overview of the period, touching on the various political and social issues related to the area, and talks about how members of the ICS were recruited and trained and what their daily family life was like. The majority of this book, which includes 20 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography, reviews the various sections of the service and addresses how the officers achieved their goals. One chapter, for example, is devoted to the administration of law, while another discusses the role of the district officer. Gilmour very successfully elucidates this period in history. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries."—Joel W. Tscherne, formerly with Cleveland Public Library, Library Journal
 
"You don't have to go very far into David Gilmour's absorbing study of the civilian branch of the 19th century British Raj before you get a sense of the kind of writer you're dealing with. You know this isn't going to be one of those books as dry and dusty as its setting, the plains of India . . . Indeed, the very title of the book demonstrates the author's wit, for it is an indubitable fact that in the caste-ridden society which was 19th-century India, it was the British who ruled the roost . . . The author of a penetrating biography of perhaps the grandest of all the British grandees of the Raj, Lord Curzon, Mr. Gilmour brings a lot of knowledge and understanding of Victorian India to this latest project."—Martin Rubin, The Washington Times
 
"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. 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 other recent work on British India."—Kirkus Reviews
 
"How much do we really know about the lives of the British in imperial India? Gilmour's deftly organized, encyclopedic account of the day-to-day existence of the members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) upends the view of the British rulers as tyrannical, racist philistines, an image born out of such works as E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and advanced strenuously since postcolonial studies emerged in the 1970s. Gilmour, author of highly regarded biographies of Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon, assembles a wealth of light, amusing anecdotes on an astounding range of topics concerning the members of the ICS, including their college days, bad habits, job duties, gripes about the weather and courtship practices . . . the sympathetic general portrait gives a good insider's view of how these men fared in an unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous region. A firm understanding of the British mindset and playful characterizations of its idiosyncrasies provide entertainment and insight . . . the breadth and care of the scholarship merit esteem."—Publishers Weekly
 
"Biographer of Lord Curzon and Rudyard Kipling, Gilmour deepens his study of British imperialists with this tour of lives and careers in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the bureaucratic bulwark of British rule of India. Within the chronological brackets of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Gilmour tours topics such as recruitment into the ICS, the experience of adjusting to India, and advancement up the ICS ladder. An intriguing theme is the way a civil servant was both an exile from England and a benevolent despot in India. The career of one Alfred Lyall, who arrived in 1855 and retired to England 32 years later, illustrates every topic Gilmour takes up, whether social life, methods of rule (Lyall topped out as a lieutenant governor, one tier beneath viceroy), or attitudes about the propriety of empire. Administrative history aside, social history readers have more to savor here, as Gilmour richly recovers the workaday aspects of an imperial career, from finding a wife to managing servants to seeking distractions in lonely postings."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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Excerpted from The Ruling Caste by David Gilmour. Copyright © 2005 by David Gilmour. Published February 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Preface

During their brief momentous period of collaboration, Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop agreed that it was absurd that so much of the world should be ruled by Great Britain. In particular, the Russian leader told the Nazi Foreign Minister, it was 'ridiculous…that a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India'.1 He was referring to the men of the Indian Civil Service (ICS).

The statistic alone
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • David Gilmour

  • David Gilmour is the author of many works of literary and political history, including Curzon: Imperial Statesman (FSG, 2003) and The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (FSG, 2002). He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and four children.
  • David Gilmour Copyright Laura Gilmour
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