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Opinion | The ordinary people of the Raj

Most British colonisers came to India for reasons other than conquest, historian David Gilmour argues in a new book

Painter Johann Zoffany’s ‘Group Potrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey’. Photo: Alamy
Painter Johann Zoffany’s ‘Group Potrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey’. Photo: Alamy

At the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, there hangs, in a collection featuring everyone from Caravaggio to Picasso, a striking painting that depicts British life in colonial India. Centred on Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of the East India Company’s supreme court in Kolkata, it portrays his family enjoying a musical performance by an Indian troupe. There is an ayah holding one of the Impey children, while a second son watches from behind Lady Impey’s shoulder. In the middle, meanwhile, is the oldest of the boys, dressed in Indian robes, dancing to “native" tunes. The scene all at once attempts to encapsulate imperial domesticity in the Orient, while also presenting a gloss of exoticism—that special ingredient that coloured, for generations, Western impressions of the remote and (allegedly) unfathomable East.

The man who painted this canvas in the 1780s was Johan Zoffany. An artist of German origin, he had sailed to India after his fortunes, like his artistic reputation, took a plunge in Britain. He was not unusual in seeking to resurrect his career in Company territories—a whole century later, there were still Western painters for whom failure in Europe’s capitals did not erase hopes of success with Indian patrons. Zoffany, in any case, stayed for about six years, promptly sailing home as soon as his bank balance had improved and his debts were paid. In the process he left behind a local mistress and an assortment of children and, following the wrecking of his ship, joined fellow survivors in eating human flesh. And so the painter of the Impeys went down, to quote William Dalrymple, as “the first and last Royal Academician to become a cannibal".

While we cannot be sure of how many more cannibals sought India’s embrace, Zoffany was merely one of countless others whose motivations were more complicated than black and white critiques of the Raj acknowledge. On the whole, of course, the British built a machine that extracted Indian resources to enrich their distant island, and the violence of colonial rule has had enduring repercussions not only on Indian society but also on the Indian mind. But the men and women who actually operated this rapacious apparatus often had other compulsions than blindly serving king and country in the name of British imperium. As David Gilmour argues in his new book, The British In India, much of the colonizers’ impact, “especially at a personal and popular level, was accidental." “Most British people," he notes, “did not go to India to conquer it, govern it, or amass a fortune there." They came for other, less ambitious reasons.

Who, then, were these people, and why did they sail East? Often, Gilmour shows, they might be criminals on the run from the law: it was easy to assume a new name and wipe the slate clean on the ship to Bengal. Or they could be royal bastards, such as the sons of William IV, one of whom rose to become a senior commander in the British Indian army. Commercially minded people too found hope in India—long before Union minister for communication and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad divined the idea, a Scotsman established a venture that “sold water from the Ganges to pilgrims who could not reach Benares." Great old declining families too sent son after son to earn salaries here, and more than one viceroy originally chose to serve the Raj to prevent his family from being swallowed by debt. Indeed, among the wider pool of Europeans interested in an Indian career was a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who as late as 1795, expressed a desire to become a “nabob", not so much for personal aggrandizement as much as to arrange respectable dowries for his sisters.

While the British state systematically crippled India—a point Gilmour does not quite address—the cogs in the machine were not always tuned into this larger imperial purpose. So where local princes might be awed by the Company’s military drills, soldiers on the British side were complaining about the pointlessness of their daily routines, choosing to drink themselves to death instead at the earliest available opportunity. Grand military titles concealed lifetimes spent without any real military action, and often the arrival of well- born ladies in India cloaked scandalous pasts that threatened their reputations at home. Then, of course, there were the usual bureaucratic rivalries: a civil servant, the product of a half-baked training system, with millions of brown people under his charge, might look down on a political officer stationed in a maharajah’s court. Work for the latter, it appeared, was a sequence of banquets and shikars, though occasionally a discreet British resident could be relied upon to help a maharani smuggle out her illegitimate offspring.

It is this human enterprise and experience behind the formal edifice of the Raj that interests Gilmour, and with characters even more memorable than our man-eating painter (who himself barely appears), this is a book that makes for fascinating reading. Gilmour presents a dazzling variety of stories and reminds us that besides villains and tyrants, British rule also featured men and women whose interests in India could range from a love of hunting to investments in the brothel business. “Some readers," he agrees, “may feel that I have given too much space to spearers of boar and pursuers of jackal, but pig-stickers, like prostitutes, are a part of history." It is a sensible remark and one can see his point, but while tremendously interesting in its own right, the question must still be asked whether viewing individual experiences without quite acknowledging the plunderous context that enabled these experiences in the first place is appropriate.

There can be no argument about the need to understand the role of ordinary Britons in the making of empire—in that sense, Gilmour’s is an enriching, encyclopedic offering. But in skirting the political and the unpleasant, what we have in the end is something like that Zoffany painting: an exceedingly attractive but ultimately incomplete picture of the British and their time in India.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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