Calcutta in the Cotswolds

David Gilmour

  • Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India by Elizabeth Buettner
    Oxford, 324 pp, £25.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 19 924907 5

‘Certain families,’ Kipling wrote in his story ‘The Tomb of His Ancestors’, ‘serve India generation after generation as dolphins follow in line across the open sea.’ It was common indeed for three generations of the same family to spend their careers in India; often it was four, sometimes five, occasionally six. A number of Britons (or Anglo-Indians as they were called) could boast that both sides of their family had been in India for more than a hundred years. For the Scottish Wedderburns, the Indian Civil Service had become ‘a sort of hereditary calling’ in the 19th century, replacing the hereditary calling of the previous century, which had been to fight for the Jacobites and be executed for treason. Not that the ICS was a much safer choice: William Wedderburn joined it in 1860 shortly after his brother and sister-in-law and their child had been killed in the Mutiny. Later in his career he responded to another Scottish ‘calling’, joining the band of radical civil servants who supported Indian nationalism and serving two terms after retirement as President of the Indian National Congress.

Another civil servant who became President of Congress was Sir Henry Cotton, whose family followed Indian careers for six consecutive generations in a direct male line. His great-grandfather was a director of the East India Company, his grandfather, father and son were in the Madras Civil Service, he himself served in Bengal, and his grandson joined the Political Service.

There was nothing cosy, sentimental or particularly rewarding about sons following fathers in India; it wasn’t like inheriting an estate or entering the family firm, where they could be groomed by their parent. An Indian career meant that sons hardly saw their fathers once they were no longer infants. As Elizabeth Buettner observes in Empire Families, Sir Adelbert Talbot, the Resident in Kashmir, retired in the same month that his son Addy came out to start his own career in the ICS. Henry Cotton’s grandfather served in Madras from 1801 to 1830, retiring the year before his son went out to the same province, where he remained from 1831 to 1862. The few years when two generations of Cottons were in India at the same time, they were living at opposite ends of the subcontinent, Henry in Assam and his son in Madras. The family epitomised ‘The Exiles’ Line’, the poem in which Kipling portrayed ‘the soul of our sad East’ as it was carried back and forth between Britain and India on P&O ships:

Bound on the wheel of Empire, one by one,
The chain-gangs of the East from sire to son,
The Exiles’ Line takes out the exiles’ line
And ships them homeward when their work is done.

Families did not operate only across generations. Siblings were often working in India at the same time in a variety of services. One brother might be in the ICS, another in the army, a third in the Indian Medical Service, and their sisters might be married to missionaries, planters or boxwallahs. Five Dennys brothers were in the Indian army, a sixth in the Indian police and a seventh in the Public Works Department, while their sister married two civil servants in succession. John Lawrence, the future viceroy, was one of five brothers working simultaneously in India; John Nicholson, the hero of the siege of Delhi, was one of four brothers who died there.

No family, however, sent as many members to India as the Lochs of Drylaw, whose contribution to the Jacobite cause had forced them to sell their estate outside Edinburgh. Thirty male Lochs over five generations went out, working as civil servants, doctors, tea planters, indigo planters, cavalrymen, artillerymen, Gurkha officers, political officers, sappers and engineers. Only a handful of family mavericks refused to follow suit. One left the Royal Navy to become a Benedictine monk, while another, inspired by seeing Aida performed in Egypt, studied under Leoncavallo and became a music teacher. Another Loch maverick, whose father took his mother’s name, is Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House of Commons and indefatigable critic of British foreign policy. But he was only 14 at the time of Indian independence.

The roll-call of families might give the impression that a vast British population was settled over a region that now comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. In fact, in 1901 it numbered only 154,691, fewer than the inhabitants of Hull or Nottingham and about a fifth of the population of Glasgow. Roughly half of them were soldiers and their dependants; half the rest lived in Calcutta and the provincial capitals. Outside the cities and the cantonments, some 40,000 Britons were scattered over an area the size of Europe.

Apart from a small number of planters and businessmen, the British were not settlers. Very few had been born in India; even fewer planned to die there. Most of them went to guard it, govern it or make money from it. For nearly all, it formed the working period of their lives, sandwiched between an upbringing and a retirement in Britain, and the structure of these lives – and the bicontinental existence of their families – is the subject of Buettner’s perceptive study.

She begins with the British children, who frequently recalled their early childhood as the happiest time of their lives. They lived in large houses with pets and ponies, and servants who pampered them. Yet their stay in paradise was brief. Between the ages of five and seven they were uprooted and sent ‘home’ to school and cold weather, and a variety of unknown relations, usually aunts, who took it in turns to look after them. In their ancestral country they were expected to become sturdy and sporty and to think British.

Kipling, who was sent to a boarding-house and allowed to see his aunts only at Christmas, wrote the most harrowing account of such an exile in his story ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’. But many others, Richard Rhodes James for example, have recorded their experiences as ‘orphans of the Raj, paying the price of empire by a separation from parents’. Parents, too, of course had to pay the price, especially mothers, who were forced to choose between living for years either without their children or without their husband. Buettner notes one rare case of a wife, Annette Beveridge, who found the choice so unbearable that she brought her children back to India. But even that solution had its drawbacks: her husband worked in so insalubrious a district of Bengal that the children had to live for most of the year in Darjeeling.

The chief focus of Buettner’s interest is the arrangements families needed to make in order to organise an imperial career while retaining a British anchor. She is especially illuminating on schools and retirement, the choice of locations and the economics of education, though she fails to discuss how the fall of the rupee from the 1870s hit families whose salaries were paid in the Indian currency but whose school fees had to be settled in sterling. She also has interesting things to say about the expatriate ‘enclaves’ in Britain, of the attractions of Bayswater (known as ‘Asia Minor’), Cheltenham (‘Calcutta in the Cotswolds’), and Eastbourne and the South Coast, where the ‘bracing sea air’ was thought beneficial for schoolchildren and pensioners.

Empire Families is well written and well researched. It shares, however, some of the faults of contemporary postcolonial writing, especially its conclusion, which is an attack on ‘imperial nostalgia’. Here, Buettner alters her tone, changes the subject and discards her objectivity.

Richard Cobb once wrote that a lot of French history could be walked, seen and above all heard in cafés and buses, and on park benches in Paris or Lyon. But few British, American or even Indian academics today write as if they have ever sat in a Delhi rickshaw or a café in Calcutta. They spend too much time agreeing with each other in seminar rooms and genuflecting to each other in print, a process often accompanied by much mockery of dead historians. Thus, writing of the British in India in her introduction, Buettner says: ‘Clearly, however, their activities in the subcontinent were anything but altruistic, as Benita Parry and Janaki Nair both emphasise. Arguments that British men, women, and children paid the “price of empire”, Nair stresses, consistently “trivialised the price paid by the colony”.’

But how and why did those arguments trivialise it? What indeed was the connection between poor Mrs Kipling pining for Rudyard and his sister Trix and whatever price millions of Indian women were supposed to be paying for British rule? Perhaps there was no connection. Perhaps, though this can’t be said in the seminar room, some Indian women, forced to marry as children and shut up in the zenana thereafter, might have thought the price worth paying? Take the life of a female member of a Rajput clan in the North-Western (later United) Provinces in the 19th century. Since her father could not marry her into a lower caste, and often could not afford the dowry required to marry her into his own caste, the usual solution was to strangle her at birth. Indeed, among some Rajput septs in the middle of the century there were no girls at all. By the 1890s, however, British efforts had almost eradicated female infanticide in the culprit areas.

Part of the ‘price’ paid by tens of thousands of women was thus survival for more than an hour or two after birth. Another part was that, after the raising of the age of consent (in 1891), a child bride aged ten was no longer forced to have sexual intercourse with her elderly Brahmin husband. And then, having escaped being murdered as an infant and the dangers of child sex, the same Rajput woman could enjoy another benefit of British rule: thanks to the abolition of sati in 1829 she was no longer obliged, once widowed, to jump onto her husband’s funeral pyre. Her future remained bleak, it’s true, because the dead man’s family would not look after her and Hindu custom prevented her from remarrying. Such women often had to choose between beggary and prostitution. In 1856, however, the British passed the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act, a reform which (like the others) was passionately denounced by Hindu conservatives (though supported by a small number of Indian reformers such as G. Subramaniam Iyer, the founder of the Hindu newspaper). If an NGO were able to achieve such results today – to eradicate female circumcision in Mali, for example – we would be praising it to the skies, but since the achievement was that of an imperial government, no applause is in order.

Parry and Nair have successfully demonstrated that British activities were not ‘altruistic’ – or so Buettner seems to feel. But have they? Turn to the pages cited here from Parry’s Delusions and Discoveries (1972), and you find that she has not done any research into the motives of officials in India beyond reading a few published memoirs of ICS officers. She has not gone to the archives to read private diaries and letters that might have given her a richer insight into the matter. Nor has she gone to the unpublished official correspondence, from which she would have learned how policy was made and legislation prepared.

Men joined the ICS for a number of reasons. Their private papers, at least from the middle of the 19th century, reveal how many of them were sustained by the potential of their work, by the realisation of the great powers for good they could exercise for the benefit of large numbers of people. Why else did Donald Macnabb, a district officer in the Punjab, build an irrigation canal with his own money? Why else did officials work in the famine and plague camps, burying corpses after the sweepers had fled, losing their health and sometimes their lives in an attempt to save people in their charge? Why did Annette Beveridge come out before she was married to start a school for Hindu girls?

A century ago, Indian nationalists and their newspapers acclaimed the ICS for its integrity, impartiality and devotion to duty. As one paper observed, the ‘entire civil service’ was ‘a model of probity, incorruptibleness and conscientiousness’. Individual members might be haughty and unfeeling and contemptuous of Indians, but the view of the civil service as generally benevolent and incorruptible survived for most of the 20th century. It was endorsed at least implicitly by the first government of an independent India. If the civil service had been second-rate, why did Vallabhbhai Patel deliberately model its successor, the Indian Administrative Service, so closely on it? If it had been inefficient, how was its heir able to play such a crucial role in the integrating of the new India?

In 1976, however, an American postgraduate, Bradford Spangenberg, published a thesis declaring that the ICS was obsessed with status and promotion and that its historiography was ‘permeated by an aura of romantic mythology’. Claiming to have moved ‘from the confusion of inherited fables to the level of historical reality, as disclosed in documentary sources’, he announced that his ‘scrutiny of the characteristics and motivations of British officials’ had destroyed the ‘myths’ of the efficiency and ‘self-sacrificial esprit de corps’ of the ICS.

The main problem with Spangenberg’s ‘scrutiny’ is that it ignored almost all the private papers of ICS officers that he could easily have studied. Yet the limitations of the thesis did not deter a bevy of historians from joining in the assault on the ‘self-interest’ and inefficiency of the ICS – ‘that bureaucratic miasma of cliques’ – or from patting its originator on the back: ‘… as the work of Bradford Spangenberg has so thoroughly demonstrated’.

Soon there were American studies of British India that could not find a single decent motive to attribute to officials who had spent a good part of their careers digging canals, building roads and organising famine relief. Even the officers of the Indian Medical Service, men doing research (and with a certain success) to combat malaria, plague and cholera, were denigrated for their ambition. ‘As Douglas Haynes has shown,’ wrote Thomas Metcalf of Berkeley, ‘much of this research was driven by narrowly professional motives.’ The IMS officers had apparently committed the crime of trying ‘to advance their careers at home by contributing to the advance of a universal medical science’.

What are we meant to make of this? That it was a despicable way to behave? Buettner, herself a young American historian, ends her book with an appeal for Britain’s imperial status to become ‘a subject for analysis and debate’ in this country – rather patronising advice for a nation which has been analysing and debating it at least since A Passage to India and Burmese Days.