The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj

The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj

by David Gilmour

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"[A] lavishly enjoyable book." —Tunku Varadarajan, The Wall Street Journal

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.

"[A] dense and impressive new book on the civil administrators of Victoria's Indian Empire . . . 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

"Mr. Gilmour is a stylish and engaging writer . . . [He] does make the case that the civilians, however tarnished their cause in modern eyes, deserve better than they get in A Passage to India." —William Grimes, The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374530808
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/12/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,156,806
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

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.


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 seems ridiculous. In 1901, when Queen Victoria died, the 'few hundred' numbered just over a thousand, of whom a fifth were at any time either sick or on leave. Yet they administered directly (in British India) or indirectly (in the princely states) a population of nearly 300 million people spread over the territory of modern India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh.

Stalin's grumble contained perhaps a touch of tacit admiration. More explicit praise came from earlier foreign leaders who, like him, had been in search of empires to rule. Bismarck thought Britain's work in India would be 'one of its lasting monuments', while Theodore Roosevelt told the British they had done 'such marvellous things in India' that they might 'gradually, as century succeeds century…transform the Indian population, not in blood, probably not in speech, but in government and culture, and thus leave [their] impress as Rome did hers on Western Europe'. 2

It is not difficult to find foreign eulogies of British civil servants in India, from the French Abbé Dubois, who in 1822 extolled their 'uprightness of character, education and ability', to the Austrian Baron Hübner who in 1886 ascribed the 'miracles' of British administration to 'the devotion, intelligence, the courage, the perseverance, and the skill combined with an integrity proof against all temptation, of a handful of officials and magistrates who govern and administer the Indian Empire'. 3 Similar tributes can also be found in unexpected places in Britain. Lloyd George, the Liberal leader, lauded the Service as 'the steel frame' that held everything together, while John Strachey, the Labour minister, judged it the 'least corruptible…ablest and…most respectable of all the great bureaucracies of the world'. 4

The same words recur again and again, even from Indian nationalists and their newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century: impartial, high--minded, conscientious, incorruptible. The ICS may have had its critics--even within its own ranks--but about its elevated standards there was no argument. N.B. Bonarjee, a member of the Service but also an Indian nationalist, praised 'its rectitude, its sense of justice, its tolerance, its sense of public duty', as well as 'its high administrative ability'. 5 After independence in 1947, the new nations of Pakistan and India each displayed pride in its traditions. While in Karachi a Government pamphlet proclaimed that the Pakistan Civil Service was the 'successor' of the ICS, 'the most distinguished Civil Service in the world', in Delhi the Home Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, used it as a model for the Indian Administrative Service, a body that played a crucial role in the integration and unification of the new state. Even at the beginning of the twenty--first century retired members of the IAS were recalling the exploits of their British predecessors with almost embarrassing effusiveness. 6

The high reputation of the ICS was never reflected in the literature of the country where most of its members were born. This was no doubt partly because civil servants do not make exciting characters in fiction, even when they do much of their work on horseback. During the existence of the Raj they sometimes appeared in the novels of largely forgotten authors such as Alexander Allardyce, Flora Annie Steel, W. W. Hunter, Edward Thompson and A. E. W. Mason. More recently they have featured in the fiction of three winners of the Booker Prize, although not in any leading role except in J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, a historical novel about the Indian Mutiny. In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust the civil servant is a hapless figure whose wife has an affair with the local nawab, while in Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown he is an uncomfortable liberal who disavows his predecessors and is limited to a brief appearance in a single volume of the Raj Quartet.

Scott's work, criticized both by Indian nationalists and by British conservatives, is a brilliant portrait of the Raj in its closing years. Yet it is limited not only in time but also in the range of its British characters, who (apart from some missionaries) are nearly all connected to the Army. Rudyard Kipling painted a fuller and richer picture of the Raj at its zenith, but this too is restricted in scope, mainly because he lived nearly all his time in the Punjab and left India at the age of 23. He also took most of his characters from the military (with a preference for NCOs and Other Ranks), and distributed his civilians in professions as diverse as forestry and engineering. Some of Kipling's few civil servants are strong men, dedicated paternalists obsessed with duty and the welfare of Indians. But others are pedantic or frivolous or impractical. In his story 'Tod's Amendment' he gave a 6--year--old boy more understanding of agricultural tenancies than the Legal Member of the Viceroy's Council.

Although Kipling was the principal chronicler of British India, the most enduring effigy of its administrators was carved by E. M. Forster in A Passage to India. The two writers approached the Subcontinent from angles that could hardly have been more different. Kipling was born in India and returned at the age of 16 to earn his living as a journalist in Lahore. Forster had already published most of his novels by the time he sailed for Bombay in search of India and Indian friendships. There was nothing in his background, character or outlook that predisposed him to look favourably on the Raj. Indeed several of his friends in the Bloomsbury Group had abandoned their traditional family links with imperial rule.[*] They even persuaded one of their members, Rex Partridge, the son and nephew of ICS officials, to change his name to the less regal--sounding Ralph. 8

A Passage to India is a subtle and in certain ways sensitive work, a well--crafted drama with an evocative sense of place and some plausible Indian characters. But its author's loathing of the British in India--a feeling he confessed to in private9--turned it into a tendentious political novel, at any rate for many of his contemporary readers. Kipling was fascinated by other men's professions and wrote numerous stories about work; so was Scott, who diligently carried out research into how the British had administered India. But Forster was seldom interested in writing about work; he preferred portraying people at their leisure or in their domesticity in Florence and the Home Counties. He did not see civil servants inspecting hospitals or canals but witnessed them relaxing at 'the Club', where he judged them philistine and stupid. Then he turned them into caricatures. His District Officer, Turton, is pompous and absurd and wants 'to flog every native' in sight as soon as there is a crisis; his memsahibs are even worse, crude stereotypes, compounds of nothing but snobbery and racial prejudice. Their actions are seldom more credible than their characters. Forster makes them react to an obscure incident in a cave as if it had been a minor massacre. They gather at the club and make semi--hysterical suggestions about calling out the Army, 'clearing the bazaars' and sending the women and children to the hills. There is almost nothing believable about the scene at the club or about the arrest and trial of Aziz, where Forster's ignorance of administration and judicial procedure let him down again. Yet these events, described in fiction and depicted in film, form one of the most abiding images of British India.

The principal historical portrait is a kinder one. Fifty years ago, a former civil servant, Philip Mason, published (under the pseudonym Philip Woodruff) his two volumes of The Men Who Ruled India, The Founders and The Guardians. They are the work of a wise man and a talented writer who wrote affectionately yet sometimes critically of a Service which had on the whole, he thought, justified its reputation for altruism and benevolent rule. Although regularly and unfairly denounced by post--colonial critics as hagiography, it is the work on the subject best known to non--academic readers.

Two historiograpical developments in the late 1970s changed academic attitudes towards the Service. The most important was the publication in 1978 of Edward Said's Orientalism, a hugely influential book that spawned legions of disciples, in India and elsewhere, who took it for granted that colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives were invariably bad. The other was a sudden interest shown by a number of North American historians in demolishing the reputation of the ICS. In 1976 Bradford Spangenberg published a thesis claiming that the Service was obsessed with status and promotion and declaring that, as a result of his 'scrutiny of the characteristics and motivations of British officials', he had destroyed the 'myths' of its efficiency and 'self--sacrificial esprit de corps'. Although his 'scrutiny' generally and curiously eschewed the examination of civil servants' private papers, it was welcomed by other historians equally eager to demonstrate the self--interest and lack of altruism in the Service. It soon became normal to read American studies of British India without finding a decent motive ascribed to officials who had spent a good part of their careers digging canals, fighting crime and organizing famine relief. Even the officers of the Indian Medical Service, men working (with a certain success) to combat malaria, plague and cholera, were accused of carrying out research 'driven by narrowly professional motives' and of trying 'to advance their careers at home by contributing to the advance of a universal medical science'. 10 How contributions to the advance of medical science can be regarded as inherently sinful is something of a mystery. Even odder is the implication that trying to advance one's career is an activity unknown to American historians.

The most significant contributions to the subject since Woodruff are The District Officer by Roland Hunt and John Harrison, which is outside my period, and Clive Dewey's Anglo--Indian Attitudes, which just touches the end of it. Dewey's study concentrates on two very different figures in the ICS, Malcolm Darling, a friend of Forster who also befriended Indians, and Frank Lugard Brayne, an Evangelical who attempted to transform his district by enforcing sanitary and agricultural improvements. The author took the two men to represent the Cult of Friendship and the Gospel of Uplift, two contrasting outlooks which, he argued, alternated as the dominant British attitude to India between the governorship of Clive and the viceroyalty of Mountbatten. 11

Paul Scott became so interested in the mechanics of the Raj that he even contemplated writing a non--fictional account of its working routines. He wished that the last British generation in India would stop reminiscing about tigers and elephants and the smell of dung fires, and tell him how their curious administration had functioned. 'How did it work?' There was 'nothing more maddening', he told a retired civil servant, 'than the lack of printed evidence of how men like you actually spent their day. From chota bazri to sundown. Minute by minute, hour by hour.' 12

This book does not pretend to explain how the administration worked. That would require a study not only of Stalin's 'few hundred' but of the hundreds of thousands of Indian subordinates who were employed in the various different services. But it does aim to show what the senior men did, how they worked and how they lived from chota bazri to sundown, from apprenticeship to the Collector's bungalow and, in some cases, to Simla and Government House. It takes them from background and recruitment through their careers to their retirement; it describes their work and their ambitions, their thoughts and their beliefs, their leisure time and their domestic existences. I have attempted to explain why they went to India, what they did when they got there, and what they thought about it all. While mindful of recent post--colonial scholarship, I have tried to be unprejudiced in assessing their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. If I have been incapable of doing so without irony, I hope at least that I have been fair.

My approach has been an individual's on individuals, coming to the institution through its members, not the other way round. That is why some sections deal exclusively with a single official, notably Alfred Lyall, whose life is chronicled from training to retirement. I began doing research on the ICS fifteen years ago, while working on a biography of Lord Curzon, and since then I have come across hundreds of people writing or being written about in private papers. The experience has led me to appreciate the diversity within the structure. Despite my admiration for Dewey's work, I find that few of the people I have investigated fit comfortably into one or other of his categories: most of them have bits of both Darling and Brayne.

No doubt this view places me in Dewey's categories of 'unreconstructed liberal' or empiricist who denies the importance of ideologies and the Zeitgeist. Of course I am aware that there was a civil service ethos imbibed at Haileybury or Oxford and later reinforced in the provincial capitals of Bombay, Lahore and elsewhere. Similar ideas percolated in the clubs and in the secretariats. But always there was the diversity encouraged by diverse circumstances. The experience of Madras was very different from that of the Punjab; men in obscure districts did not see things in the same way as their colleagues in Calcutta. Ultimately officials in India had to live on their own resources, their lives determined by individual temperaments, environment and experience--and by the eternal problems of human relationships.


1. Hyde, Stalin, p. 397.
2. Moorhouse, India Britannica, p. 264; Morison (ed.), The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. 2, p. 1052.
3. O'Malley, The Indian Civil Service, pp. 49, 173; Hübner, Through the British Empire, Vol. 2, p. 252.
4. Symonds, The British and Their Successors, p. 40; Strachey, The End of Empire, pp. 54, 57.
5. Bonarjee, Under Two Masters, pp. 122--3.
6. Kirk--Greene, Britain's Imperial Administrators, p. 87; Symonds, The British and Their Successors, p. 25; conversations with author.
7. Caine, Bombay to Bloomsbury, pp. 4--6.
8. Information from Partridge family.
9. Furbank, E. M. Forster, Vol. 2, p. 126.
10. Spangenberg, British Bureaucracy in India, pp. x, 336; Crane and Barrier, British Imperial Policy in India and Sri Lanka, pp. 56, 180--1; Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj, p. 175.
11. Dewey, Anglo--Indian Attitudes, pp. 12--16.
12. Moore, Paul Scott's Raj, pp. 136, 198; Spurling, Paul Scott, pp. 362--3.

[*] Virginia Woolf's uncle, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, had been on the Viceroy's Council, and her husband Leonard had been in the Ceylon Civil Service. Lytton Strachey was the son of a General in the Indian Army, the nephew of a Lieutenant-Governor and the godson of a Viceroy. Although his two eldest brothers spent their careers in India, and although he himself wrote a dissertation on Warren Hastings at Cambridge, Strachey rejected any idea of an imperial role for himself and even wrote a family memoir without mentioning the Subcontinent.7

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