- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj

By David Gilmour

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 381 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

You don’t have to govery 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, when you are brought up short by being told a story about that unlikely pair of totalitarian totems who were briefly allied at the beginning of the World War II:

“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.’ He was referring to the men of the Indian Civil Service (ICS).”

Stalin’s number is something of an exaggeration, but not by much. Gilmour tells us there were usually only about 800 active members of a civil service that ruled over the lives of many millions across a vast subcontinent; and, it goes without saying, he thinks their low number a sign of their efficiency and success rather than of absurdity. The civil services of both post-independence India and Pakistan, the author informs us, boasted of being the successor to the model administrators who had governed them in the name of the British sovereign.

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. And what a lot it took to produce that system which governed with such economy and yet with such attention to detail. Of course, the ICS could not have done its work had it not been backed up by the will of the government and people of the United Kingdom and also by the Indian Army, which consisted of more than 50 times the number of British “civilians,” as these civil servants were known.

But it took a lot of doing for so few to serve so many so well, and Mr. Gilmour shows that it was not done haphazardly or cheaply or lackadaisically. He tells you just how complex the selection process was for these servants of empire, how demanding their exams, how devoted they had to be to forsake home and family — and often later on, children and/or wives, when education and health concerns drove their dependents back to the British Isles.

There can be no doubt that these young men, griffins they were called when they started out, assumed an enormous amount of both personal sacrifice and responsibility when they took on the burden of empire. Heat, floods, earthquakes, snakes, disease — of both the debilitating and the fatal varieties — all these had to be faced and, if possible, survived.

Then there were the more mundane drawbacks of homesickness, isolation, separation from nearest and dearest. But hardest of all could be the awesome responsibility that fell on the shoulders of these young men. No one who has read George Orwell’s searing account of having to supervise the hanging of a criminal when he was serving in the Burmese police is likely to forget the contradictory mix of feelings that welled up in him. Mr. Gilmour portrays the servants of the raj as bringers of justice and eradicators of rebarbative customs such as child prostitution and ritual murder, but he notes that it was always easier for these Englishmen to sentence a wrong-doer to hang than to actually supervise the hanging of another human being, no matter how evil his deed.

The British instinct to temper justice with mercy could run up against odd forces on the Indian subcontinent. For instance, for some Hindus, it was a worse fate to travel over the seas away from the to them holy land of India than to be executed, with the result that they fiercely resisted the commutation of their death sentences to transportation to an overseas penal colony.

The British rightly took the view that the miscreant had no right to choose his punishment, but sometimes the instinct towards mercy could have tragic consequences. One such transported fanatic actually murdered the Viceroy of his day when the hapless man was on an inspection tour of a penal colony in the Andaman Isles in the Bay of Bengal.

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. Yet he is never a narrow writer: everything is put into its worldwide context.

Who would have thought that the fall of the rupee vis a vis the pound sterling, which so devastated the financial security of those in the ICS in the last quarter of the 19th century, was precipitated by the Franco-Prussian War of all things? But Mr. Gilmour informs us that Germany’s abandonment of silver in favor of gold as backing for the Mark in the wake of its unification following the victory of 1870-71 drove down the price of silver considerably.

Suddenly, there were serious consequences from the anomaly of those in the ICS earning their salaries in the form of the silver-backed rupee, when so many of their expense, from home-leave to school fees and housing for wives and children in Britain, had to be paid in gold-backed sterling.

Civilians’ pensions, however, were paid in sterling, since almost none of them spent their retirement in India: now for some it was more profitable to retire than to continue to work. One of the great virtue’s of Gilmour’s book is that he can make even economics fun to read about. Everything is made concrete and colorful; and by the time he quotes the hilarious references to the fall of the rupee in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” you may at last understand why they were even more piquant to 19th-century audiences.

When you have finished “The Ruling Caste,” you will have learned an astonishing amount about so many aspects of the lives led by the members of the ICS, from the lonely officer isolated in his vast, potentially hostile district to the at times stultifying splendor of Viceregal life at the apogee of British Indian society.

Mr. Gilmour never makes the mistake of forgetting the individual in favor of types, even archetypes. We hear a lot about the differing attitudes of various viceroys and secretaries of state for India and of Queen Victoria’s almost excessive respect for indigenous customs in the country she never saw but which she indeed thought of as the jewel in her imperial crown.(No wonder she was mourned there even more than in her other realms and territories throughout her empire.)

We are introduced to certain families whose predilection for service in India made them true pillars of the Raj. To convey a very real sense of what it was actually like to lead such a life, Mr. Gilmour has chosen to concentrate on one figure, Alfred Lyall, from his days as a griffin in the India shaken by the Mutiny in the 1850s through his departure from India more than 30 years later as a governor full of honors. There is all manner of information about his public and private life, much of it fascinating as well as revealing about the man in his time and place. It is touches like this that make Mr. Gilmour’s book a delight to read.

Although he is alive to criticisms of the British imperial role on the Indian subcontinent, Mr. Gilmour is on the whole positive about its accomplishments and views it as an honorable enterprise, as may be seen from the words with which he chooses to end his book:

“Yet although the ICS passed into history, its motives increasingly denigrated, its policies post-colonially mocked, revisionism has not destroyed the idea that it represented the British Empire at its best and at its most altruistic. Eleven years after its demise Queen Elizabeth unveiled a memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey that does not say quite enough:







What doth the Lord require of thee

but to do justly and to love mercy

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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