After the 1857 Mutiny, the government in London uncertainly assumed the task of taming the savage passions revealed by the revolt. Few in London relished the task. The job fell to the Anglo-Indian administrators who were to be determined on successful, peaceful and prosperous rule. They performed miracles of construction that laid the foundations of modern India; but as they did so they created for themselves an enclosed world consciously designed to separate the rulers and the ruled.
After the shock of the Indian Mutiny, the British who deeply resented what they believed to have been a betrayal of trust, withdrew more and more into a world of their own. Never again would an Indian -Hindu or Muslim - really be trusted, for the Indians loyalty had been taken so much for granted that their British officers had faith in it until the moment when they were shot down by their own men.
The armed forces were completely reorganised so that the fire power was controlled by the white troops. In the Civil Service, even the most highly Westernised Indians were barred from the upper levels - despite Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 which stated all her subjects should be
“ impartially admitted to Offices in our Service”.
Most of the British in post-Mutiny India accepted such discrimination without question. For the first time in the history of their rule, all the British administrators, soldiers, businessmen and planters felt an overwhelming sense of racial solidarity, of belonging to a caste, which was (it went without saying) the highest one of all. Throughout the rest of the 19th Century, this was an attitude that was to increase in strength. The high-minded self-righteousness of India’s hard working official guardians, the blatant prejudices of the business community, the continual need (felt especially by the memsahibs) to escape from the India of inefficient servants and depressing heat, the small, introverted social world that evolved as a result - all this was to create a widening gap between the ruler and the ruled.
Government administrators, especially, were imbued by a sense of caste, but one tempered by a rare dedication to duty. After the Mutiny, it was decided that the British had been caught by surprise because British officials had been out of touch with the people. The reaction was to create a more personal and direct system of administration.
Now there was to be a British official in every district, with responsibility for the maintenance of peace. Gone was the pre-Mutiny belief that the British civilisation should be the model for India. The great reforms, the militant Christianity of the first half of the century had led only to revolt. The administrators, though as high-minded as ever, saw their Christian duty in a new light. Their aim was now to keep the peace, maintain law and order, bring India some of the material blessings of Europe, and not to worry about the Indians; family life or private morals.
The Crown, now ruling India directly, reversed the East India Co. Policy and encouraged Europeans to live and work in India. The larger the European population, it was thought, the safer the regime would be. In the 1860‘s a flood of Englishmen arrived in India - to plant coffee and tea, to build railways and cotton mills - and they brought with them attitudes that had been influenced by the wave of anti-Indian feelings that passed over Britain at the time of the Mutiny.
Outside the towns and military cantonments, the European did not penetrate the countryside, and the District Officer was almost on his own in an Indian world. For him there was always the problem of interruptions. The area around his bungalow would at all times be full of men hoping for employment, carrying complaints, offering petitions. Access to the official was controlled by a chuprassy, a kind of office messenger who was frequently also “the mother-in-law of liars” and the ‘receiver-general of bribes’. Even in the countryside where the British official was nearer to the people than anywhere else in India, there always had to be an intermediary between them. However paternal a civil servant might be, he had to remain aloof and therefore to a large extent dependent on his Indian subordinates.
During the cool season, the District Officer would take his tents and tour his domain. After “examining schools, and inspecting infirmaries, and quarrelling about the site of bridges with the superintending engineer in the Public Works Department ” he would ride out with a gun to get a bird for the pot, while his servants moved the tents to the next camping-place.
If such a life sounds idyllic, at times it was. But there was always tensions of one kind or another even in a quieter district. In areas that had suffered during the Mutiny, memories of its horror died slowly. In districts where a number of Europeans lived, the men were almost certainly members of a force of volunteer cavalry, for there was little faith in the governments security measures.
The British government believed that the best method of preserving the peace was too ensure a contented native population. The Mutiny had taught them that a rebellion fed on discontent. It was not enough however, simply to stop interfering in religious matters. A contented peasantry was the best safeguard, and there was no better way to ensure this than by bringing material benefits to as many people as possible.
At first it was thought sufficient to build bridges, keep irrigation ditches in good order, and the roads in a reasonable state. This was about all the Indian finances, shattered after the Mutiny, could safely stand. But the Vice regal government was also inhibited from doing more by the Victorian belief in self-help. If too much was done for the populace by the government , ran the thought, the people would lose the ambition to do things for themselves.
POSH Passengers take advantage of a cooling breeze. Down below Bengalis stoke the furnaces.
The opening of the Suez canal revolutionised travel to the Eastern Empire. Gone was the tedious four month voyage via Cape Town.; now for the same £100 fare administrators and merchants could be in India in under 3 weeks, and travel 1st class into the bargain. The most affluent, reserved north facing cabins on both legs of the journey - port out, starboard home - to avoid the equatorial sun. The well -to-do ordered meals from lavish menus, drank free wines and spirits, entertained each other with concerts and devised shipboard games galore. But as the image opposite shows, even “posh” travellers could not expect complete privacy on board.
The Mecca of Anglo-Indian society was the administrative capital, Calcutta. In spite of the discomforts of the Indian climate, and the presence of deadly diseases - for which at that time there were neither prevention or cure - the British resident in Calcutta generally enjoyed a far better standard of living than he could have done in Britain. Wealthy men lived in the great houses that had been built at the end of the 18th Century - Palladian mansions requiring an army of servants. Others, not so well of lived in bungalows, while the bachelors usually shared a house and servants. The men, lawyers, bankers and merchants in the main spent busy days at their offices, but there was always plenty of time for that social round which is the cement that binds a small expatriate community together.
It was still the custom for the British to take the air in the evening in Calcutta’s Eden Gardens, to listen to the music of a regimental band, perhaps, but mainly to see and be seen. In the cold weather when the Viceroy was in residence and the Calcutta season in full swing, there were balls and dances almost every night. Such official and semi-official occasions were rarely meetings together of equals, for the British in India had their class divisions. Indeed, the government published a “warrant of precedence”, with the Viceroy at the top and the Sub Deputy Opium Agent at the bottom.
During the hot season, the Viceroy and the high government made their way to the hill-station of Simla. Only the most important of the business and trading community followed the Viceroy to the summer capital of the Raj. The commercial or professional Englishman preferred the company of his own kind at other hill stations, when he was able to leave the plains. But regardless of where they went, as many British as possible tried to get away, and in doing so emphasised the remoteness of that elite that ruled India.
Dangerous curve on the rail track to Hill-Station 7000 feet up the Himalayas
Not only was the climate clean and bracing after the muggy heat of the plains, but in the hills the British could pretend not to be in India but in a kind of simulated “Home”. Simla, it was said, looked like parts of Surrey with touches of Tibet - the latter an unavoidable but un-oppressive aspect of this most important of hill stations. In the hills the British could, and did, live very differently from the way they did in the plains. They could forget they were ‘imperialists’ and enjoy themselves. Simla had a reputation for being ‘fast’ and this was partly well deserved, though most of the juicer stories were originated by people who were not members of Simla ‘society’. Undeniably most of the women at Simla were as chaste as any heroine of a Victorian novel, but a number were certainly not.
After the Mutiny, the English in India increasingly lost touch with the land they administered. Shocked by the violence that had resulted from the East India Company’s reforms in the first half of the century, India’s administrators saw it as their duty not to change native society but to govern well from above.
The capable administrators of the Indian Civil Service and enthusiastic young army officers were zealous in preserving the peace, and reforming the public services, but they remained aloof. Their games, fashions and hobbies were so emphatically British that only the exotic Indian setting betrayed their true location. Preserved in the gilt-embossed albums of thousands of British families, faded photographs like this one evoke a picture of how Anglo-Indians saw themselves.
The coming of Crown rule opened new horizons of power, wealth and status to career-minded young men. The ambitious young district Officer could in time become a commissioner, an under-secretary, perhaps even a statesman. The junior army officer could hope for rapid promotion defending the frontiers of the Indian Empire. To the seasoned East India Co. veterans, the newcomers were no more than idealistic schoolboys. But this idealism created a uniquely dedicated breed of administrators who energetically set about the practicalities of administering the law, planning famine relief, organising public works and imposing peace on border areas.
Sport played a great part in a social life often lacking in variety. For men, sport had a wider significance: it developed the steady nerve and grit a man needed in his work. Pig-sticking, in particular demanded the horsemanship, judgment and determination needed in times of crisis. Polo too, was popular, especially in the Army, but it could add ruinously to the expenses of social life.
Every station had its racecourse, perhaps only a dingy ring of beaten earth with a few wooden stands for the loyal women spectators. The ladies joined the men for tennis, and for everyone there was the hunt, often in small stations a motley pack of different breeds;.
“Duty and red tape, picnics and adultery”, this was how one cynical writer summed up the social world of the British in India. There was certainly a feeling in some remote districts that the feverish social life in the larger Anglo-Indian centres, especially in hill stations like Poona and Simla, was less proper than it looked. There, away from the cares of day-to-day work, the usual Society pastimes multiplied. Balls and picnics, badminton and croquet, amateurish art exhibitions and the Dramatic Club - especially the Dramatic Club - were all fertile soil for scandal.
Affairs there may have been, but for most people life was more prosaic. One civil servant wrote - perhaps with a tinge of regret - that Simla ladies were “most of them pretty and all of them good ”.
The memsahib (lady of the house), soon learned from experienced friends and from books specially written to advise her that the trouble with servants was that “laziness, dishonesty, falsehood”, with a host of other vices, seemed to be inherent in them.
There was the almost insuperable difficulty of finding out just how bad a servant was before employing him. It was all right if a personal recommendation could be obtained, but to rely on a written certificate of character was to court disaster, for if it had not been written by a ”class of persons who earned their bread by writing characters for any applicant who will give them a few annas, it had probably been written for a father who “having died in the odour of sanctity, left his certificates to be divided among his children”.
Should the memsahib be lucky, and acquire tolerably honest and hard working servants, she must still exercise constant surveillance and above all, impose discipline. Those who did not keep strict control over their household could expect nothing but bad service and dirt in the kitchen. Dirt in the kitchen meant, in a world in which disease was rampant and effective medicine at its most primitive, an increase in the already high risk of an early and unpleasant death. Some women, tartly remarked the authors of the “Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook”, never went into their kitchen for the simple reason that they might have their appetite for breakfast marred by seeing a servant “using his toes as an efficient toast rack or their desire for dinner weakened by seeing the soup strained through a greasy turban.
Throughout the hot season the whole decision making apparatus was concentrated on a ridge in the Himalayas after having travelled a thousand miles from Calcutta to get there. Simla was cut off from the plains by 58 miles of indifferent roads. Other hill stations were even more isolated. Indeed this remoteness was an important element in the attraction of such places.
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