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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The British in India

A Social History of the Raj

David Gilmour




A few years ago the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly was surprised to learn that he had Indian ancestors. Appearing on the BBC television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, he was hoping to find out which country his great-grandmother Florence had been born in, Ireland or Scotland. In fact, as he soon discovered, she was born in India, in Bangalore, the daughter of Daniel Doyle, a labourer from County Wicklow who had enlisted in the British Army as a youth and was sent to India in 1856. For a few years in the south her father’s career had prospered. From a rifle regiment he was transferred to the Royal Horse Artillery, a more prestigious unit, where he received three ‘good conduct’ medals and was promoted from gunner to corporal. Yet that, alas, was the high point of his career. To the amusement of his irreverent great-great-grandson, Daniel’s name was soon appearing repeatedly in the Regimental Defaulters Book; his misdemeanours were unspecified but seem to have consisted chiefly of violence and drunkenness. Eventually he was court-martialled and reduced to the ranks, and in 1866 he was admitted to hospital in Bangalore suffering from diarrhoea, dysentery, alcoholism and syphilis.

Salvation for Doyle came three years later with his marriage, after which his army report rated him as ‘regular, good and temperate’. The agent of this remarkable transformation was his wife, Margaret, the daughter of John O’Brien, another Irish soldier in India, a private in the Madras Fusiliers whose regiment had been sent north to help counter the Rebellion of 1857.* O’Brien was part of the relief force that arrived too late to save the British in Kanpur (Cawnpore) although it did manage to reach the besieged city of Lucknow. Badly wounded in the shoulder during the conflict, O’Brien decided to retire on his pension to Bangalore. Although the subsequent Doyle-O’Brien marriage might have seemed a purely Irish union taking place in a tropical ambience, this was not in fact the case. As the registry records demonstrate, John’s wife, Matilda, was an Indian girl who at the age of thirteen converted to Christianity a month before her marriage. Billy Connolly’s reaction to the news that he thus had Indian forebears and probably – given that Matilda had several siblings – a large number of Indian cousins, was both charming and bemused. Although the comedian still felt he was a ‘Glaswegian, Scottish person’ – large, white and hairy – he was ‘very proud and happy to be part Indian’ as well.1

As Connolly’s story suggests, much of Britain’s relationship with India, especially at a personal and popular level, has very quickly been forgotten. One cannot help wondering why his maternal grandmother, to whom he was very close, never told him that her own grandparents had lived in India and that her mother had been born in Bangalore; if she had been ashamed to admit her Indian ancestry, she could have left that bit out. The story also indicates how much of the British-Indian relationship, again at a personal level, was accidental. Most British people did not go to India to conquer it, govern it or amass a large fortune there. When Daniel Doyle enlisted in the 3rd Battalion of the 60th Rifles, he did not know that he would be sent to India and spend half his active life there as a soldier who would never be called upon to fight a battle. Like private soldiers, many British women and children lived in India by accident, without having chosen to do so; chance or unexpected circumstances had brought them there. If we look merely at Connolly’s own profession, the theatrical, we find a good number of future actors living fortuitously on the Subcontinent: a list of those who were born in India, or went to school or spent parts of their youth there, would include Vivien Leigh, Merle Oberon, Norman Wisdom, Lindsay Anderson, Spike Milligan, Tom Stoppard, Felicity Kendal and Joanna Lumley, many of whom will appear later in this book. If we examine an even smaller profession, that of writers, we find that Thackeray, Kipling, Saki, Orwell (and Orwell’s second wife, Sonya) were all born in India.

The British in this book lived in India from shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth I until well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a span of some three hundred and fifty years. Life for them was very different – and was led very differently – in diverse ages, just as it was in Britain. For nearly three-quarters of that time British settlements – and later possessions – were administered by the East India Company (EIC); for the last ninety years of the Indian Empire (1858–1947) they were under the direct rule of the British government. All divisions by ‘period’ are artificial and prone to generalization, but perhaps one can divide Britain’s time in India roughly into thirds. The first (and largest) had its share of war and violence, especially on the west coast, but was mainly a matter of small enclaves concentrating on trade. The second, stretching from the 1740s to the 1850s, was a period of conquest and expansion during which the East India Company, one of several rival European entities, emerged to become the paramount power in India. The third (and shortest), ending in 1947, was an era of consolidation and subsequent withdrawal. Yet even these divisions would need to be divided into contrasting subdivisions. As at home, the behaviour of the British in India was very different in the Regency period from what it was in the more earnest years of the early Victorians.

The different eras can of course be divided in other ways, culturally and sociologically as well as politically and militarily. Some British historians have periodized the empire in terms of British attitudes to India and the Indians. Roderick Matthews, for example, has marked his compatriots’ ‘mental journey’ with ‘milestones marked Greed, Scorn, Fear and Indifference’, a division that sounds harsher than his work subsequently suggests.2 An older historian, Clive Dewey, has divided the centuries of British rule into ‘five oscillations’, the attitude of ‘friendship’ (working with Indian agents and institutions) alternating with the ‘Gospel of Uplift’ or exhortation to ‘improve’ (telling Indians what was good for them and then trying to enforce it).3

I would not dispute that these and other divisions are useful. Most eras have a zeitgeist and sometimes seem to have more than one. Yet human beings remain individuals under whatever pressure they are subjected to and whatever wider forces they are caught up by. At Oxford in the early 1970s I was lucky enough to be taught by Richard Cobb, a great historian of Revolutionary France who claimed that he had ‘never understood history other than in terms of human relationships’.4 I might not go as far as that but I do believe that British behaviour in India owed as much to individual characters, ambitions, scruples (or lack of) and personalities as it did to any zeitgeist or contemporary framework of imperialism. Thirty years ago, while doing research into the life of George Curzon, I came across British members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and soon realized that they were not the monolithic bunch depicted in fiction and film, obdurate, unimaginative men with brick-red faces and moustaches. They were above all individuals trying – as Cobb would have recognized – to deal with the eternal problems of human behaviour and relationships.

This work is primarily a book about individuals. It deals with large groups of people – with soldiers, with foresters, with missionaries, with numerous others – but the emphasis is on how the individual reacted to his or her Indian experience. Cobb’s tendency to write about people on the margins of the Revolution used to annoy French colleagues and provoked one of them to complain testily at a conference, ‘Prostitutes do not make history.’ Prostitutes may indeed not change the fates of nations, but they belong to history and therefore deserve the attention of historians. In this book I have of course written about viceroys and governors, bishops and commanders, but I have also given space to men and women at different levels of society, even if they didn’t ‘make history’. Like Cobb, I believe that they deserve at least to be recorded and to be given human proportions.

This, then, is not a book about the politics of the British Empire, still less a discussion of whether that empire was good or bad; inevitably it was both, in a myriad of different ways. I am not seeking to make judgements or to contribute to any debate about the virtues and failings of imperialism. I am chiefly interested in the motives and identities of British individuals in the Indian territories of the empire,* in who these people were and why they went to India, in what they did and how they lived when they got there, and in what they thought and felt about their lives on the Subcontintent. I believe that writers of social history should attempt to write impartially about customs and behaviour even when we find them abhorrent; we should look at them in the context of their time and not from the vantage point of a usually smug present. From childhood I managed to resist the exhortations of uncles and grandfathers to go hunting and shooting, but I have tried to write about ‘blood sports’ in India without prejudice against them. Some readers may feel that I have given too much space to spearers of boar and pursuers of jackal, but pig-stickers, like prostitutes, are a part of history.

As British people continued to live in India long after Independence in 1947, I have had to decide at what point to end this book. I have chosen the mid-1960s, when most of the ‘stayers-on’ had left or died and before the hippy ‘invasion’ had really begun. Perhaps I was influenced by my own very limited experience of hippiedom. In my ‘gap year’ in 1971 I went to India with a couple of friends, three eighteen-year-olds travelling overland and camping in the open without apparent danger in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kabul was a sort of junction for the new invaders. The real hippies stayed there a month, until their visas ran out, strumming guitars and smoking hashish before deciding whether to go south to the beaches of Goa or east across the Gangetic Plain and then up to Nepal. As it was mid-April and the heat was mounting, we set off for Kathmandu.

On our return from Nepal to India we stayed at Dehra Dun, in the foothills of the Himalaya, where I had an introduction to a remarkable woman, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who invited us to stay at her home for a few days. The sister of India’s first and greatest prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs Pandit had been ambassador to the Soviet Union and the United States as well as high commissioner to London; she had also been a politician and president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Although she was now in her seventies and had retired from political and diplomatic life, she remained passionately interested in those subjects and did not conceal her disapproval of the current prime minister, her niece Indira Gandhi. I fear that my friends and I were not good company for her. Suffering from a mild form of dysentery, we were rather tired after six months ‘on the road’, and our formidable hostess was clearly not impressed by the sight of fledgling hippies lounging around her drawing room, ineptly fingering a guitar or patting a Nepalese tom-tom. One day she strode impatiently into the room, gestured dramatically at the view through the window and exclaimed, ‘The Englishmen I used to know would have climbed that mountain before breakfast.’ I appreciate her point now rather more than I did at the time; such men doubtless were a different breed. Remembering Mrs Pandit with gratitude, I have decided to end this book with Britons who climbed the Himalaya before breakfast.

Oxfordshire, January 2018

Copyright © 2018 by David Gilmour