The Road to Chandrapore

Eric Stokes

  • Race, Sex and Class under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and their Critics by Kenneth Ballhatchet
    Weidenfeld, 199 pp, £9.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 297 77646 0
  • Queen Victoria’s Maharajah: Duleep Singh 1838-1898 by Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand
    Weidenfeld, 326 pp, £9.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 297 77656 8

It is a commonplace assumption among modern historians that minority rule has always had to rely on devices to preserve social distance. These have usually consisted of distinctions of dress, comportment and speech, and of restrictions on commensality and connubium. In Western societies they have operated within the cultural framework of class. Kenneth Ballhatchet takes the equally familiar notion that in colonial societies alien minority rule translated class distinctions into those of race. In India he sees the social aloofness of the ruling white minority as being reinforced during the 19th century by a growing taboo against sexual intercourse across the colour line. Half a century ago, Percival Spear, in his delightful book The Nabobs, traced the transformation from the 18th-century ménage of the European merchant, with his harem and upper-class Indian habits, to the 19th-century world of the civil lines, in which the monogamous British official and his marble-white family led a wholly segregated existence. Spear put the change down to the psychological needs of the conquering élite to distance itself from its subjects, to the arrival of a large number of European women, and to the ascendancy of Evangelical attitudes of contempt and superiority towards Indian culture. The great merit of Ballhatchet’s book is to have brought the subject back under serious academic scrutiny, while the freedom now permissible because of changes in public taste has enabled him to pry into the seamier details.

Although alert to the danger that social psychology in the hands of the historian renders him peculiarly vulnerable to artificial stereotypes, Ballhatchet has not escaped unscathed. His treatment displays a remarkable mixture of precise scholarship and sweeping generalisation. His leitmotiv that racialism marched hand in hand with sexual taboos leads him to argue that racial feeling among Europeans attained it apogee during Curzon’s viceroyalty (1898-1905). This is odd, for nothing could exceed the mood of racial savagery that overtook British and even American opinion during the Mutiny outbreak of 1857. But this was seen as the crude and brutal assertion of superiority by ‘civilisation’ over ‘barbarism’ – or what Macaulay liked to call the strength of civilisation without its mercy. By racialism Ballhatchet means, in fact, something different. At the end of the century much of the so-called Western ‘civilisation’ or the modern way of life had come to be shared by many Indians, and the pattern of racial sensibilities had altered in consequence. There was now an enlarged European community that felt much less secure psychologically and materially. Drawn in part from the British lower-middle classes, it found itself thrust into positions of unaccustomed authority and affluence, and yet compelled to live in conditions of legal equality and growing competition with an often highly-educated Indian élite. The assertion of European superiority had steadily to renounce the rough hand (or boot) of the master-servant relationship and resort to the quieter and deadlier psychological warfare of preventing social mixing by excluding Indians from clubs and inflicting other such snubs. E.M. Forster’s Chandrapore was just around the corner. In these circumstances, alien rule which before the Mutiny had consorted perfectly readily with Europeans keeping Indian mistresses, like Sir Charles Metcalfe, or Indian wives, like General Wheeler of Cawnpore fame, had now to bow before the dictates of sexual apartheid. It was a sign of the power stucture under threat and in the first stages of decline. Even so, there were remarkable lacunae. Ballhatchet omits to notice Kipling’s engaging tale ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’, set in the Lahore of the 1880s. In Burma, however, the practice of officals taking concubines continued to be so prevalent that in 1894 the vermilion pen of the Chief Commissioner was still indicting a confidential circular of reproof to his subordinates. What worried Curzon was the number of officials who were marrying Burmese women. Men who surrendered to the East in this way would in time be prepared to surrender power into popular hands. It was the institutionalisation of racial mixing in marriage that appeared to aim a blow at the heart of the Raj.

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