The Road to Chandrapore
- 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.
Vol. 2 No. 10 · 22 May 1980
SIR: In his sympathetic but misleading review of my book Eric Stokes (LRB, 17 April) claims that I should have shown that English attitudes to race derived from English attitudes to class. One of my points was, in fact, that Imperialism caused them to converge, but that the dominating consideration was to preserve structures of power and authority. Stokes prefers to think that the English were moved merely by a pardonable regard for respectability, unsullied by sordid considerations of power or vested interests. He says that I have to acknowledge ‘the incongruousness of the situation in the 1890s, when the authorities were clamping down on the peccadilloes of white officials while putting up a last-ditch fight to preserve the redcoats’ social comforts’. But far from acknowledging an inconvenient incongruity in the 1890s, I argue that there was a continuing contradiction between opposition to intermarriage, on the one hand, and the provision of Indian women as soldiers’ prostitutes, on the other: this contradiction I explain by reference to the determination of the ruling élite to safeguard British power and prestige. Power depended on satisfied soldiers, but prestige depended on the remoteness of the ruling élite: therefore prostitutes were provided for the soldiers, but officials were discouraged from having Indian wives or mistresses.
Then why, asks Professor Stokes, did not the French and Dutch follow the British example, if racial segregation is necessary to authority? The British often find it difficult to understand why other people do not behave as they do. My point was not that the preservation of social distance is necessary to the maintenance of authority but that the British thought it was. Indeed, many still do think so, even today. In the John Lewis empire of retail stores, where all members of staff are termed ‘partners’, there are separate dining rooms for managers, who are termed ‘senior partners’, and for workers, who are termed ‘rank-and-file partners’.
Stokes’s other contribution to the discussion is to suggest that the decline in VD among British troops in the 20th century can be explained in terms of English social class. In his own phrase, a ‘much higher class of man’ enlisted for the Boer War and remained in the Army afterwards. It is intriguing to see that the Establishment view of the unhealthy sexual habits of the lower classes is still cherished by the Smuts Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth in Cambridge, England.
Eric Stokes writes: In my review of Kenneth Ballhatchet’s interesting book I suggested that the working of race and sex attitudes was more subtle and complex than he seemed ready to admit, and that he had allowed himself to be governed too rigidly by unexamined stereotypes. He now acknowledges that racial segregation of the sexes was not a sine qua non of the maintenance of alien rule in other European colonial dependencies, but asserts that in India the British thought it was. I remain sceptical of this argument for British exceptionalism. Ballhatchet says: ‘Stokes prefers to think that the English were moved merely by a pardonable regard for respectability, unsullied by sordid considerations of power or vested interests.’ I nowhere say this. What I did write was: ‘The history of European social mores in India is the history at one remove of social mores in Britain and not the product of some special psychological adjustment to the conditions of a conquering élite … It was the closer and more frequent contact with middle-class England through the steamer and furlough that progressively raised the sex barrier, not some mysterious mystique of empire.’ A European community that was oriented towards frequent return to Britain and not towards settling as a colon class felt the need of ready acceptability. A foreign wife or mistress, particularly one who was foreign in skin colour or culture, threatened this acceptability because the achievement of social fit in mobile, urbanised societies like that of later 19th-century Britain required an exacting degree of outward conformity and homogeneity, prompting J.S. Mill to make his celebrated protest that it was in danger of crushing out all individuality and variety. By way of meeting Kenneth Ballhatchet’s viewpoint, I tried to suggest that the heightened sense of racial exclusiveness which marked the end of the 19th century took on a cutting edge in India as a result of the onset of competition with the indigenous modern élite, and that greater sexual exclusiveness was perhaps a natural corollary. But I remain convinced that the palmary influence on European attitudes to sexual mores was the force of opinion in this country. Kenneth Ballhatchet’s parting quip, which implies that my Chair in Commonwealth History connects me somehow with an Establishment view, is, alas, an amusing instance of his dangerous habit of thinking in stereotypes.