David Gilmour’s The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj and Lawrence James’ Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India

51J+X1cx9hL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_When I was a kid, I really enjoyed reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books and Just So Stories. Decades later, I can still recite large parts of “The Law of the Jungle” from memory. Over the last few years, I’ve read Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, not to mention the first four novels in Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series (see my review), all of which take place in India. So I was primed to read and review David Gilmour’s The Ruling Caste when it arrived. Then I happened to notice a copy of the massive Raj on the library shelf, and thought I might as well give a look at both books for this review.

Although these are both serious and well-researched history books, they are readily accessible to the general reader (and readily available in both hardcover and paperback formats from the usual on-line sources). Both authors are Brits who now reside in Scotland. Both have written other books about aspects of the British Empire. What little biographical information I was able to find on David Gilmour (he has the misfortune of sharing names with both the Pink Floyd guitarist/vocalist and a Canadian novelist) suggests that he has made his living writing political and literary history for most of his career, whereas Lawrence James spent the early years of his career teaching history at a boarding school in Cumbria before deciding to write full-time.

Obviously, both books are concerned with aspects of the Raj, the British rule over large parts of the Indian subcontinent that began with the government’s gradual assumption of administrative responsibilities from the East India Company in the late eighteenth century and ended in 1947 with the partitioning and independence of India and Pakistan. They differ considerably in terms of their organization and scope.

raj-coverThe Ruling Caste is specifically focused on the Indian Civil Service, the agency that recruited, trained and placed civil administrators in the Indian districts under British rule. After a brief introduction that explains and justifies the Raj, Gilmour has organized his narrative into thematic units, built largely out of the different types of civil servants who chose to become Anglo-Indians and selected aspects of their experiences. He doesn’t offer a detailed accounting of how the British managed to govern their holdings, given the small number of ICS members in country at any given time, but it becomes evident as one reads his text that this was accomplished largely because the local populations offered no resistance — indeed, most of the time they appeared docile and cooperative.

I had some difficulty following Gilmour’s narrative because of his tendency to double back on the same time periods over and over again as he moved through his thematic chapters. I also found his writing style a bit dry for my taste. Nonetheless, I found quite a lot of interest in The Ruling Caste, particularly as it relates to the experiences of the ICS families, one might even call them dynasties. For example, I read about the Scottish Macnabb family, which sent five generations of men to India (first serving in the East India Company, later in the ICS), and the Lyalls, also well-represented in the East India Company and the ICS, as well as in the British Navy and the Anglican Church. Sir Alfred Lyall, who arrived in India as a young man just couple of years before the Sepoy Mutiny, served as Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces from 1882-1887.

In addition, I learned much more than I already knew about the organization of a typical Anglo-Indian household, the practice of sending the children back to England for school, the very real fear of tropical diseases and the sense of isolation from familiar cultural artifacts and practices. I gained a richer understanding of the forms of recreation the Anglo-Indians pursued and ways they adapted their clothes and diets to the climate and the available foods. I began to place Rudyard Kipling in historical context, to consider the way his life experiences shaped his writing and to become aware of the many pieces of non-fiction he wrote about India. (One of these days, I must revisit some of his work!)

The Ruling Caste includes a very handy, two-page glossary of common Anglo-Indian words, a fascinating organizational chart of positions in the executive branch of the Anglo-Indian government (necessary for making sense of the various titles mentioned throughout the book), and two maps, which together illustrate the British holdings on the Indian Subcontinent (plus Burma and Ceylon) as of 1900. There are two inserts of black and white photographs; my notes indicate that these are described, but not actually referenced, in the text. Gilmour makes use of an occasional footnote, as well as brief, but numerous endnotes in very small type. The bibliography, likewise in very small type, includes an impressive number of primary and secondary sources, all of which appear to be in English.

Raj is considerably more ambitious, more sweeping in scope than The Ruling Caste. At a whopping 722 pages, it’s nearly twice the length of The Ruling Caste, and indeed the smaller book could fit quite nicely inside the larger with room to spare. James is looking at a much longer historical period, starting in the early eighteenth century when the rather opportunistic representatives of the East India Company were taking advantage of the decline of the great Mughal Empire (a Muslim dynasty that began with the heirs of Timur the Lame in the early sixteenth century). Further, his cast of characters is not limited to members of the ICS, but includes the East India Company representatives (who could be called entrepreneurs, businessmen or robber barons, depending on your point of view), the British and French (and occasionally Russian and Afghan) armed forces who clashed over parts of the subcontinent, the Indians who served alongside and sometimes in opposition to the British forces, the Indian rulers from the last Mughals to the maharajahs, and members of Parliament and common folk back in England, whose changing attitudes toward their relationship with India form a significant subtext of this book.

Among my favorite characters in Raj was Robert Clive, who arrived in India in 1744 at age nineteen, a lowly clerk in the East India Company. In part by luck, in part by lying, cheating, stealing and conniving, Clive made his fortune while in India. By 1767, he and several of his fellow nabobs (a derogatory name given to the men who came back from India with ill-gotten wealth) had returned to England and bought their way into Parliament. Clive took his own life in 1774, and in the following century and more became a sore point for British historians bent on justifying their country’s presence in India by reference to more altruistic purposes.

Another fascinating character was Nana Sahib, a Maratha nobleman who played a key role in the Sepoy Mutiny (also known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857), a series of violent demonstrations intended to convince the British to release their hold on India. Right around the time I was reading this part of Raj, I ran across a novel titled The Devil’s Wind, written by an Indian named Manohar Malgonkar, taking Nana Sahib’s viewpoint about the rebellion. I’ve added this book, and another about the rebellion (The Siege of Krishnapurby J.G. Farrell) to my reading list.

Although I can’t say I read every page of Raj, I read many more chapters than I intended to when I picked it up. I experienced Lawrence’s writing style as fluid and lively, qualities I seldom encounter in historical non-fiction. To be sure, his cast of characters is far more colorful and entertaining than the ICS bureaucrats who populate The Ruling Caste. I appreciated his careful attention to chronological order, which made the narrative much easier for me to follow. I also found his extended discussion of the ways that the British public came to regard India, based primarily on news media accounts and artistic renderings (plays, novels, poems) to be very thought-provoking. In one chapter (“This Wonderful Land”), Lawrence describes some of the events held in England to celebrate British India, such as the Empire of India Exhibition held in London in 1895-96. It comes across sounding like a theme park-and just about as authentic!

Like The Ruling Caste, Raj offers photo inserts (three sections nicely arranged in chronological order), an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources in English (in very small type, of course), and brief endnotes that provide references to information presented in the text. Despite its size, Raj does not include a glossary, and there’s no guide to the placement of the maps, so they are hard to find unless you happen to come across one. (Hell, nobody’s perfect!)

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)
(St. Martin’s Press, 1997)

About Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.